Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Short Recommendation.


I have no idea how I haven't posted about Sloane Crosley after reading her first book of essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake a few years ago. But since I made a hard cover purchase the day her second book was released (I can count all previous hard cover purchases on one hand...and I buy a lot of books), I realized it's high time that I publicly recommend her highly amusing essays to the 5 people who read this blog.  Crosley's essays resonate with me as she grew up in the suburbs, moved to New York and is about my age, but I remain convinced that they are pretty funny for almost anyone.

Anyway, nothing too deep, but if you are looking for an entertaining summer read, either of these two would work.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Look out.

My after school creative writing class this year was hands down one of my favorite parts of my teaching career.   These rock star middle school students each wrote a piece to be published in our anthology and I'm making the prediction here and now that this is only the beginning. I will be the one waving around short stories in the New Yorker and newly published novels claiming to everyone I know that once upon a time these fine writers were in my class.  These ones made my Thursdays, made my jaw drop with their creativity, made me laugh. I just adore them.  So, all I'm saying is that this anthology was one of my best reads of the year.

Childhood Favorites Post #3. On Distractions.

As a side note, I'm having a hard time deciding what to write about in response to everything I've been reading lately. Usually, I feel compelled to distill what I find to be the most meaningful aspect of a book and put it into the context of both the entire work as well as my current thought life.  But then there are the random sentences I underlined while reading that spark an idea.  I'm going to have to do a little bit of both throughout the Childhood Favorites series because inside these "juvenile" books there is just. so. much. Which, lucky for me, is the purpose of this unit in the fall.

One of the creatures set on preventing Milo, Tock and the Humbug in The Phantom Tollbooth from rescuing Rhyme and Reason is the Senses Taker, who collects an absurd list of information from each character before he can, literally, take their senses.  When Milo tells him that their destination is The Castle in the Air, he says he is sure they would rather see what he has to show them. Milo begins to see a circus on the horizon.  Tock the dog smells marvelous scents.  The vain (but loveable) Humbug hears a crowd applauding and cheering for him.   Their senses--literally and figuratively--have been taken from them.

Juster's description of what happened to them was so creepy:  "They all stood as if in a trance, looking, smelling, and listening to the very special things that the Senses Taker had provided for them, forgetting completely about where they were going and who, with evil intent, was coming up behind him...Milo was too engrossed in the circus to notice, and Tock had closed his eyes, the better to smell, and the bug, bowing and waving, stood with a look of sheer bliss on his face, interested only in the wild ovation."

I'll be the first to admit that sometimes, distractions are quite nice.  Piles of papers to grade? CSI, how I love you.  Stressed? Oh, Glee. Such joy. Of course, hikes and runs and laughing are more healthy distractions when life gets a bit overwhelming.

But other times, distractions take me on a path that veers so far away from where--and who--I want to be, that it does seem like there is an old, evil Senses Taker trying to prevent me from getting where I know I could be.  But he's tricky, because it's so easy to settle into the comfort of what is easier and more enjoyable, just like Miles, Tock and Humbug.

"And furthermore, I'll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion..." This is when the destruction sets in. I wonder how many dreamers have forgotten their initial ambitions and hopes by losing sight of what they were originally chasing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #2: The Phantom Tollbooth-An Overview and its General Brilliance.

I just read The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time and was floored by its utterly hilarious wit.  It made me wonder if it all would have gone over my head as a child. But then, children tend to get lost in the adventure of the story and it isn't until much later that we realize all the wisdom we ever needed to gain was in books we read in elementary school.  But, as an adult, all I could do was nod my head in agreement with his criticism of society, all the while laughing out loud at how clever and pun filled it all is (yes, I laugh at puns. I can't help it.).

The main frame of the story is that the main character Milo begins as an incredibly bored boy.  Then a tollbooth shows up in his bedroom and he goes on a crazy adventure in The Lands Beyond, where chaos seems to reign ever since King Azaz, ruler of the land of words and letters, and the Mathemagician, ruler of the land of numbers, have banished their sisters, the Princesses Rhyme and Reason (get it?). Every character he runs across builds Juster's criticism (and wit) while being incredibly creative and entertaining for the average ten year old reader just looking for adventure.  Here an example of one of kinds of characters that Milo encounters through the land of Ignorance that I thought was most clever:

The Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort and monster of habit.  In his own words, after he asked Milo and his friends to move a pile of sand using a tweezer, empty a well using a dropper and dig a hole through a cliff using a needle:

"Think of all the trouble it saves...if you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. you just won't have the time.  For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing."

I felt as though the Trivium had called me out personally on this one.

Once all the demons realize that Milo and his friends are trying to restore Rhyme and Reason, they all come out and it is said that they only had one thought in mind: "destroy the intruders and protect Ignorance."  

This sentence almost sounds like it came out of a Cold War science fiction story (it was published in 1961, so that would be an interesting thing to research): the government trying to keep people in the dark about what was really going on.  I can also link it to advertising, which tells us stories of things we need, so that we don't have to think for ourselves of what is truly valuable.  It is crazy to me just how many directions the reader can take this book in.

My favorite part, after finishing the book and looking over my notes actually came from the very beginning:

"What had started as make-believe was now very real," (page 16).  Let the adventure begin. And isn't that we always hoped for? 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Summer Reading: the final list.

Despite the fact that it has been flip flop weather for quite some time, the trees are full with leaves and I'm sure there are lightning bugs out there somewhere, summers for me as a New Yorker officially start in July. Our last day this year is MONDAY, June 28th. Monday? Seriously? But, we don't go back until Tuesday, September 7th and then have the 9th and 10 off (and the kids only come on the 8th).  Anyway. The end is finally near and I have narrowed down the summer reading choices (and yes, it's ok if you make fun of me because this is my third post about summer reading). I think the final list is pretty great. It will be interesting if I stray. Anyway:

1. Finish the Childhood Favorites. 5 more to go.

2. NYC book club summer picks:
  • Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
  •  Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky 
3. My mom and I decided to have a mini book club while I am in Kentucky in August. We are going to read a couple Pulitzer winners that we've missed in the past few years:
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout
  • March by Geraldine Brooks
4. Mysteries: 
  • The Girl Who Played With Fire by Steig Larrson
  • In the Woods by Tana French

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Things They Carried.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien has been on my nightstand's "unread" pile for years.  But after reading All the Broken Pieces to my students and realizing how little reading I've done on Vietnam, I was eager to learn more.   Published in 1990, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer.  When I closed the final pages, all I could think was that the book was absolutely. brilliant.

History has always come alive for me through literature. I have awful memories of of taking endless notes in my 10th grade Western Civilization class from my teacher's tiny, perfect cursive on an overhead projector.  I was able to memorize and get A's, but I was impassioned by nothing I learned.  My American Literature class, though, is what painted a broad scope for our country's history: seeing the different cultural beliefs, trends and events and then reading what was produced at that time was fascinating.  One of my regrets of college is that I didn't double major in History (but I guess since I changed my major 3 or 4 times, I should just be glad that I made it out in four years), but I feel like studying literature gave me a a desire to keep learning about it. My assignment to teach 7th and 8th grade Social Studies my first year (basically ALL of American history!) also served as a good crash course.

All that to say, what is the best way to learn about history, especially wars? Obviously it's a balance of understanding overarching timelines of events, cultural trends and changes, but those remain just facts on the page.  I think it has to come through a variety of lenses while studying the humanities: What music? Whose music? What art? Whose art? What literature?  Whose literature? I am so convinced that we need to be a people who studies and understands history--and the present.  One of the characters comes home from Vietnam to people who had no idea what was going on and no desire to attempt to understand, leaving him feeling utterly alone: "The town could not talk, and would not listen.  The place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt.  It was a brisk, polite town.  It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know (143)."

O'Brien's book is a work that makes the reader know.  It declared as a work of fiction, and yet it is filled with stories inspired by what he knows.  His narrative style is brilliant and elusive, one in which the reader never really knows what he actually witnessed and what he fictionalized--which is one of the most artistic craft moves I have ever read.  He explains: "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth...what stories can do is make things present (179-180)."

I've never read this kind of narrative structure and style before.  O'Brien unpacks the complexity of the soldier's experience in a war that they didn't necessarily understand themselves.  The title comes from the opening chapter in which O'Brien lists the literal and figurative items that each solider in the story carried with him.  There is something in one's personal effects that breaks my heart in their pure representation of an individual's humanity.  Basically, this book took my breath away and really, any further attempt to explain it would only take away from it's significance. Please go find a copy immediately.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #1: Nostalgia in Bridge to Terabithia

All summer, I will be making my way through seven "childhood favorites" that I'm reading in preparation for my first unit in the fall. Luckily, this is the kind of work that I am more than happy to do. Bear with me, wait for adult books in between, or be inspired to pick up one of your favorites.

Bridge to Terabithia is a story about a boy with 4 sisters, a boy who feels misunderstood, a boy who wishes he were brave.  It is a story about friendship and imagination.  But most, for me, Bridge to Terabithia is a book of nostalgia.

I can't put my finger on the moment that I couldn't pretend anymore, but I do remember bring sixteen, baby sitting, and realizing that the magic of imagination and pretend had slipped away years before and I hadn't even realized it.  It is a visceral realization of growing up.

As I read about Jess and Leslie creating their imaginary kingdom of Terabithia in the woods near their houses, I could think only about the worlds I created for myself in the woods across the street from my house, the places I made in our unfinished basement...and being able to physically will myself to believe it all for hours on end.  While I was reading, Jess and Leslie became kindred spirits.

They were moved by beauty, the feeling of fullness and wanting it to last forever: "They took turns swinging across the gully on the rope.  It was a glorious autumn day, and if you looked up as you swung, it gave you the feeling of floating. Jess leaned back and drank in the rich, clear color of the sky.  He was drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud back and forth across the blue."

When I was younger, summer nights were the greatest.  All of the kids in my neighborhood would be running through our adjoining backyards, soaking up every last shred of daylight and catching lightning bugs into the twilight. Even though I knew there would always be another summer evening with cool grass beneath my feet and the smell of trees and creek and corn in the air, my heart broke when night finally came and we all had to go inside.  I spent many evenings after bed time with my face pressed against the screen, trying to breathe in the evening air for as long as possible.

They felt the need to create sacred spaces: "This is not an an ordinary place," she whispered.  "Even the rulers of Terabithia come into it only at times of greatest sorrow or greatest joy.  We must strive to keep it sacred. It would not do to disturb the Spirits."

Once in college, a few friends of mine and I found ourselves in an enormous grove of pine trees that were planted a hundred years ago in straight lines spanning for hundreds of yards.  Without even thinking, my friend Erin and I started sprinting down the aisle of trees...running and jumping seemed the only proper response to such a scene: we were so utterly joyful that merely starring at it all wasn't enough.  My friend Matt took a picture of this pre-digital photography and caught us both in midair. It was in a frame for years and below it I pasted the quote: "Perhaps they could run over the hill and across the fields to the stream and swing themselves into Terabithia."

This happened again when I went to England with two kindred and we saw true English countryside for the first time.  We just couldn't believe that it existed in real life the same way we had pictured it in our minds in all our favorite books. I do have physical proof of our giddiness:

When the tragedy is revealed at the end and Jess' horrid sister tells him blatantly, it literally plunged my heart like a dagger, even though I knew all along what was coming.  Jess and Leslie are just too kindred for it to not hurt like crazy.  It is the moment that the magic makes the first break: where it's impossible to be completely immersed in imagination. But. It doesn't mean that it no longer exists.

Bits of the magic come back to me sometimes and remind me that the world is enchanted.  Most of the time it's when the eastern woodlands smell like Ohio.  Some of the time it's when the sun is setting and the light is perfectly orange and the shadows purple.  Sometimes I feel again athe essence of my heart aching because of all that is beautiful and good. And real.

Soundtrack for this book for me:
Pacific Street/Hem
Why Should I Cry for You/Sting
All At Sea/Jamie Cullum
Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own/U2

Saturday, June 12, 2010

reading. history. and reading historical fiction.

David Brooks is pretty solid.  One of his editorials this week was about the importance of liberal arts degrees in an economic time when it seems more smarter to study something that is more directly practical to a specific job. Reading (and looking at art/studying history/listening to music, etc.) makes us people more in touch with the complex depths of humanity that cannot be measured, quantified or simply named.

Last weekend, a student asked me to read Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosay. Though it will never be a book award winner, it was a relatively well written, powerful story about July 16, 1942, when the French government rounded up thousands of its own men, women and children to be delivered to to concentration camps.  Sadly, this event was not something that was taught in French history classes until recently--which is sadly too often the case for the darkest moments of any country's history.

The story follows a ten year old girl who was taken from her home and a modern American woman who moved to Paris after college and has lived there for 25 years stumbles up on her story and realizes her personal connection to it.  As she visits the lonely, rarely visited places of the roundup, the plaques read "remember and never forget," though she realizes that most people have intentionally chosen to forget, believing that it is a safer, less painful path.

In relation to historical fiction, without story, history often becomes memories of menial note taking and impersonal timelines.  We lose the deep, complex narrative of the human race.  I was appalled that I had no idea this happened in France. Similarly, I was appalled that I moved to New York with a college degree in hand, and had no idea about what happening in the Sudan.  I took two classes about African women writers. Curses.

The moment people begin to forget its own dark corners is the moment that they become closer to resurfacing.  And, on the opposite end, the second we begin to forget the bright moments is when we lose our grasp on what is real, good and true and therefore lose everything, collectively or as individuals.

On clouds. Sort of.

If I count my college friends and their current careers, I am not joking when I say that all of them (ten or more) are currently employed as teachers, counselors or youth workers. I do think this is something of an anomaly, but still, crazy.  It was amazing to live life with people whose passions overlapped so deeply with my own.  

Obviously the world opened up in a million different ways when I moved to New York seven years ago.  One of which is that I made friends in every field possible: finance, consulting in every capacity, fashion, art, real estate, non profits, law.  Being around all these different kinds of people only enhanced my nerd-like nature and made me want to be constantly learning more.  It has been through knowing such a group of diversified interests that has fueled my interest in uncovering the need the world has for a balance of macro thinkers (simply, how the world needs to change and operate on a large scale) and micro thinkers (how the world needs to change and operate on a small scale). 

I am a micro person.  My best skills are found in a single classroom of thousands in Brooklyn alone.  My best moments in my career typically occur while having a conference with a thirteen year old student about a book they read or a story they wrote.  But, my current theory is that micros need to be macro-ly aware and macros need to be micro-ly aware. 

So. Finally, my point. Literature lends itself to knowing more about both.  Therefore, everyone should read more books. 

I have been on a historical kick lately.  I'm currently reading two books about Vietnam: All the Broken Pieces (young adult) by Ann E. Burg and The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.  I am learning the broad strokes of the war, through the narratives themselves and the research they have both led me to: causes, complications, perspectives from both sides.  And then, obviously, there are the stories of the characters where the Vietnam war begins to have faces, reminding the reader that war is intensely personal and involves hearts and hopes, devastation and destruction.   A good friend of mine  recently posted a quotation on his blog, via Wired Magazine, that I haven't been able to get out of my mind for some time: 

"Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, once divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds."

I think, that if are to move forward as a people, be it in energy, poverty, healthcare or education, we have to remember that we are a universe of clouds: we cannot figure it all out in a theoretical equation, but without the theoretical equation we may not be able to progress.  I also think that if we all read more books, the world would be a better place. Just saying. 

Anyway. These are just thoughts. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Every time June rolls around, I think back to five years ago after my first year teaching when I had applications in at 10 different high schools in the great state of Ohio.  The plan was to go to New York for a year or two and then travel back to "normal" life in the midwest.  A handful of reasons were pulling me home, and yet I couldn't bring myself to make that decision final.  Then. I went to my first June planning meeting, where a team of teachers plans the next year's curriculum.  I realized then how lucky I am to have such inspired colleagues and a job that lets us re-envision what we're doing each year.

Last year the 8th grade team planned a new opening unit based around revisiting favorite books from childhood, with the intention of reigniting the kids' passion for reading by teaching how to dig deeply into books they long ago adored.  Today we re-imagined this unit and I walked away with a pretty sweet re-reading list and I am so antsy to start working on this pile and, like the nerd I am, annotating and writing about them in preparation:

Then my team took a walk to the bookstore and made a list of books to order for our classroom libraries...it was so fun thinking about what books my current rock-star 7th graders will want to read in the fall as 8th graders. And, let's be honest, I'm pumped to read them all, too.

And, let's be totally honest, I'm also counting down the days until June 28th.  Everyone needs a summer vacation to rest, relax and reinvigorate. Sigh. I love my job.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

let the great world spin.

"There is no end. There is grief and there is love and they spin together in this human body, which is, in itself, also a book."

I started this book a few Sundays ago.  Once every few months I monitor the door during my church's uptown service.  All I really have to do is be at a desk in the front for about 3 and a half hours.  I usually bring papers to grade, but last Sunday I got so wrapped up in the beginning of Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann on the subway ride up, that I never even took student work out of my bag.  A week and a day later, I swore I was going to grade papers.  But it was the end of a delightfully long weekend and so lovely outside that I, once again,  left the papers inside my bag and finished the book.  I just had to. And now, a week after closing its pages, it hasn't left my thoughts.

The story is set in New York in the seventies and framed around the day that Philippe Petit tightrope walked across the Twin Towers.  The story isn't about Petit, per se, but rather he provides not only a historical context, but a metaphor for the book's multiple story lines: that all sorts of people are carefully walking a high wire in their own lives.

There are a lot of things to say about this book and a number of characters that I could spend time analyzing, but the overriding theme that sticks out to me is the title itself: Let the Great World Spin.  It seems as though I forget the world's grandeur sometimes and get lost in the mundane or my lists of things to do.  Or sometimes, I feel so burdened or heartbroken I can hardly bear it. But, I can almost picture an old school carnival barker announcing all that humans have the capacity to know and feel by shouting this title out loud and inviting us to actually start watching.  The Great World, though, isn't made up only of the best parts of existence--it is coupled with the knowledge and experience of the great pain and sorrows that accompany it, which is what the different characters come to learn:

"The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth--the filth, the war, the poverty--was that life could be capable of small beauties."

"The simple things come back to us.  They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward."

"The only thing worth grieving over, she said, was that sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear."

And so. I will continue thinking about the characters who broke my heart in the best and worst of ways. And, I hope that I will not be drowned by the sorrows because there is so much intangible good.