Monday, December 26, 2011

Reading Year in Review and Top Ten Books of 2011.

My blog is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary next month.  I wrote my first post on January 6th, 2007, partly to slow down and think about what I was reading again and partly in an effort to get more comfortable with sharing my writing in a "public" space (I would like to thank my 4 loyal readers at this time: Mom, Dad, Alison Covey, Kendra Bloom).  Every year when I'm home for Christmas I read every post I wrote over the year and choose the top ten best books I've read.

Usually, it takes me many hours to reread my blog posts for the year. As I read, I take notes and end up with a list at least 20 contenders for the coveted top ten.  I have to do some serious thinking and rereading of posts to decide which books had the biggest impact on my thought life--and then spend some serious time laughing about the nerdy ways I spend my time.  This year was not so difficult.  Sadly, I don't think I can attribute that to any increased coolness to my life, but I do think I have a few answers/self justifications for the reasons why this year I had only 23 posts (2008 holds the all-time high of 97):
  • The spring was filled with YA books that enriched my teaching life and a side project I'm working on, but weren't necessarily significant enough for me to subject my loyal readers (see above) to. 
  •  The summer, normally the two months that I read the highest number of books, was filled with Infinite Jest, a book that I felt I needed to finish before I posted anything about it.  (Then, the fall happened and I still have 5 additional posts about Infinite Jest sitting in my drafts.) 
  • This fall, I got caught up reading books for and with my students. Many of my Saturday mornings, normally my drink-a-hot-beverage-and-write-about-my-reading time, were filled with training for my half marathon.  Also, my book club choice was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, which is not a read-before-you-fall-asleep kind of book: I would make it literally 3 pages and fall asleep. I'm finally about to finish it, which I owe to traveling 3 out of the last 5 weekends on U.S. Airways, who does not offer in-flight television.  
All that to say, it is interesting to look back on a year through the lens of reading. I am nerdily excited for what 2012 will bring in my reading life...and the reflections that accompany good books.  As for the Top Ten, I have to credit Margaret, who is the sole other member of my book club, because six of our choices made the top ten list this year. So, in no particular order:

The Hours by Michael Cunningham/Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (rereads)
These books have to be paired together and were two of the most thought provoking reads of the year.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
This book received an insane amount of press when it was published last year.  Overall, especially because my book club read read The Corrections first, I throughly enjoyed getting inside the mind of Franzen.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteygart
Not especially well written, but it definitely was the instigator of many great conversations and some science-fiction/technology induced nightmares.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
I think this was the most historically significant, jarring book that I read this year, and combined with its lyrical prose, it left me speechless.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Short. Beautiful. Inspiring.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
The most enjoyable book of the year.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Harder than my book club's run with the Russians a few years ago and encompassing almost all of my summer, this book was well worth it.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years  by Donald Miller (reread)
This book was a non-fiction, good reminder of all things I love about story and life.

The Summer Book by Tove Janssen(reread)
This book has become one of my yearly rereads and I've written about it a few times.  I spend the quiet, early summer mornings I have at my parents' house on their screened in porch reading just a chapter or two a day so that I can savor and soak in it during my entire visit.  This year it was my respite from Infinite Jest, to make sure that reading was not only speaking into the my academically-minded side of my brain, but also my soul.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I read the first book of this series as soon as it came out, on recommendation of our Teachers College professional developer.  I never finished the series because I felt like I knew enough to talk about it with kids and had so many other books to read.  However, after the Epic-Literary-Reread book club on Harry Potter with my students last year, I thought that it would be cool to do the same thing with The Hunger Games this year.  I read these books in about a week and was amazed to see all of the entry points for young readers to have uber literary conversations. I have also been amazed at how many of my adult friends have been reading the series and are eager to discuss. A post-movie discussion party is in the works.

Cheers to reading and a 2012 filled with more writing about it!

Friday, November 11, 2011

you have probably read this by now.

One of the best things in my life is that I have so many friends who consider Liz Lemon a kindred spirit.  Tina Fey has been one of my favorite people to watch over the past few years and her brand of feminism and brains is incredibly refreshing.  I can't believe that I never wrote about Bossypants after I read it in May (though I counted and I have over 15  unpublished drafts on my blog).  Rather than write too much about it, I just wanted to say read it.  Everyone.  

Below is one of my favorite passages.  

"But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—BeyoncĂ© brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes." 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Forever/Pete Hamill

My book club recently finished Forever by Pete Hamill.  I was completely taken by the opening parts of the book where the main character, Cormac, is a boy in Ireland in the early 1700s and finds that his family has been pretending to Protestant, and that his mother is Jewish and that his father is Irish--as in following the religion of the Celtic past.  The mythology and magic of him discovering this reminded me of how much I love reading of magical lore and suspending my disbelief.

The story took a turn after his mother is accidentally killed and his father outright murdered by the same man, and according to the Celtic law, he must pursue the killer and end his line.  This brings him to New York City, where he meets another mystical character who grants him immortality as long as he doesn't leave the island of Manhattan.  His adventures then take the reader through the history of New York, and though I found myself not loving the plot from this point on, reading about how New York has evolved never gets old to me.  Its history is far from the picturesque village and it never ceases to amaze me that such a dirty city with so many functionality problems has become what it is today.

Despite my lack of plot excitement, one part that got me thinking was when Cormac is describing how he dealt with the gift and burden of having all the time in the world.  As mortals with a life span of under 100 years, there is a spirit within us calling us to cherish the time we have.  Life choices can be heart-wrenching because we merely don't have the time to pursue everything we want to do, and there always seems to be a sense of urgency.  Cormac, though, described a mental state of "sludge made up of age, memory, repetition and banality" that his brain had to deal with, precisely because he did have the time to pursue everything.

"Then while trying to learn Goethe, he discovered something about himself. When he entered another language, when he tried to absorb its rules, its nounds and verbs, and above all, its rhythms, the sludge in his brain began breaking up...his mind became swifter, his visions more glittering...Learning to paint was learning to live.  The same was true of the piano..." (393-393).

Even though we often live with a sense of urgency, the urgency often feels misplaced.  Rushing through tasks that should be done with more care, rushing through dinner or coffee with the person we are across from so that we can get to the next meeting, only to come home and crash.  This is my equivalent of brain sludge.  I live in the tension of needing to crash because my days feel so packed--and watching television or a movie seems like the best way to check out of the harried mental state I carry most of the time.  This, though, feels like a false rest--I don't feel fulfilled.  (But let's be honest, sometimes watching four episodes of Friday Night Lights is life giving.)

True rest would be a soul and mind filled.  True rest is not seeing the pursuit of my passions as a task, as I often do at the end of a work day.  Learning better Spanish and writing and cooking and having people over seem like better ways to live well.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Some words. Not mine.

It's all I have to bring to-day
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.

Emily Dickinson, C. 1858

Beyond the books: reading my city and the long runs; the blinking cursor and the old testament.

 on a San Diego Porch. also awaiting baby Reed's arrival. 
Some thoughts that have been swirling. They may or may not form a coherent thread of thought to anyone else but me, so maybe read each paragraph as a singular thought?

One of the best parts of my summer was sitting in a San Diego coffee shop with two of my best friends and letting our focus stray from the laptops in front of us.  Often we talk about stories that move us and inspire us--this particular trip seemed to focus on the beauty that is Friday Night Lights.  Conversation strayed and Sarah mentioned that she was currently loving unsatisfying things, and that she was feeling violent toward stories that portrayed a neatly packaged ending.  This was a hilarious comment, because Sarah appears to be cool and collected on the outside.  But those at the table know and love that she has a fiery spirit beneath the surface and a wisdom that spouts from it.  So, I wasn't surprised that those words have been sitting with me ever since.

On the way home, I wondered out loud why we didn't all live in San Diego.  It really is a city of summer in the day and fall at night--in other words, perfection.  Then Katy, a fellow winter-hater and  former New Yorker, began to to sing praises of coming-of-adult-age in the dark-at-five, hunched shoulders of New York City from January to March and the days when you miss every train and forget your umbrella for the wintry mix with an armful of groceries (and a laptop in your bag). Perfection is a maker of complacency.  There is no atmospheric struggle in San Diego--and that, she says, makes for a city without the raw passion and blunt emotions.  Obviously this is a metaphor.

I threw away my half-marathon training calendar yesterday and counted that I ran 200 miles to prepare for a 13 mile race.  And the race was amazing.  In my mind all summer I kept picturing it being a 13 mile physical and mental struggle--something to simply be endured in order to cross the finish line.  But the course was mostly running on a two lane road through the back streets of East Hampton, through woods and past fields and the bay.  The entire course was beautiful and reminded me of running at my favorite park in Ohio.  The running (with the exception of the last mile) was surprisingly enjoyable.  

And so I want to set off to face the writing on the wall.  Literally.  I made a visual of my writing project on the wall of my apartment to wrap my brain around it and also to motivate me to finish it.  I've found that when there is something I need to say in writing, I'm not settled until it has been typed.  I want to lean into the unsatisfaction, as Sarah would say and the struggle, as Katy would say.  I want to write in the moments when it would be easier to not.  I don't want to live in a season of complacency.  I want to remember that putting time into the struggle yields enjoyment.

And, also.  I want this to sink into my spiritual life.  A friend came and shared with my (Christian) small group last night about the significance of Rosh Hashanah and also talked about the tradition of Tashlikh, where people throw bread crumbs or stones into moving water as a symbolic casting off of sin and struggle and becoming renewed.  This is beautifully symbolic. The struggle is not forever.

Infinite Jest and Advertising. Or, real goods are intangible.

Infinite Jest is the kind of book that has to be read slowly because not only are there sweeping themes and ideas to keep track of, but there are short passages and lines that speak volumes into American culture.  While I was reading, it was easy to gloss over those small details without considering them in a significant way.  I want to slow down with a few.  Here is one.

"V&V's NoCoat campaign was a case study in the eschatology of emotional appeals...It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relieveable by purchase.  It just did it way more well than wisely," (414).

It comes in a section where Hal, one of the main characters and a junior at the Tennis Academy, is "sinking emotionally into a kind of distracted funk."  In what appears to be almost a complete aside with the connection only being that Hal once wrote a paper on the American ad industry, the narrator explains the atmosphere of advertising (as the book is set in the near-ish future).  This particular ad was from a company that created a nation-wide need for tongue scrapers: "when the nation became obsessed with the state of its tongue, when people would no sooner leave home without a tongue scraper and an emergency back-up tongue scraper than they'd fail to wash and brush and spray."

A. This is hilarious,
B. but DFW's sense of humor is not what I want to write about, though maybe over coffee some time?

His tone and manner of addressing the absurdity of such aspects and culture is so nonchalant and un-ironic (and reminds me of his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again)--as though he is pointing out the obvious.  Yet, it is obvious only in the subconscious that we hardly ever bring out to play, because life is easier when we don't listen to it.

How did it happen that we know our next purchase will not satisfy anything within us and yet we continue to believe and act on the hope that it will?  Why is it easier to believe and act on the promises in advertising than it is in the life truths we claim to profess?  What is going on in our brains when we feel great after buying something new? Why is retail therapy a thing? That people joke about?

We are ridiculous.

I want to drink from a well of Life.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Infinite Jest: a very general response to a very specific novel.

I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace from June 1st-August 8th this summer, with just a 3 day break to read My Name is Asher Lev and a chapter each morning on the porch of The Summer Book while I was in Kentucky. I reread Anne of Avonlea right after to let my brain recover/not commit to anything super literary while trying to unpack this brick of a book (that I am thankful to never have to carry in my purse ever again).  All that to say, my summer reading looked very different from my usual devouring of books.  It was as if I were in a committed dating relationship with Infinite Jest.  I was talking with a colleague before school ended whose boyfriend had read the book and when he was half way through said: "Oh, I get it.  The infinite jest is that I am still reading this book."  There were many times I felt the same way.

The main conclusion that I came to after finishing its 981 pages of tiny type narrative and 96 pages of even smaller type footnotes is that it is the kind of book that needs to be read twice.  (Crap.) Though I'm sure there are geniuses out there who could keep track of all the characters connections (see poster below by Sam Potts) and narrative threads (see digram below by in their minds while reading, but I was not one of them.  I've probably spent 5 or 6 hours so far researching the book and reading essays and taking notes with post it flags and feel like my understanding is still shallow at best.  I can retell the basic plot lines, but the craft that went into this book is like nothing I have ever seen and there is a part of me that is itching to start over and read it with a much deeper understanding.  Chances of that happening in the near future, though, are slim to none.  I wish I could take a graduate school course on this book with a brilliant but not condescending instructor.
created by Sam Potts 

created by

What I loved about this book is exactly what makes it so difficult to read: its intricacy and its depth--it is an artistic, critical work that forces the reader to be active: to ask questions, to do the mental gymnastics it requires, to step up and work hard to figure out what on earth is going on even when there will not be a definitive answer.  He address things from the nature of entertainment to the consumerist nature of the United States to depression to personal drive to personal recovery.  There is no way that I could address the book as a whole in a single blog post.  The retell alone would be absurd--and it is almost as if each piece of the puzzle that is Infinite Jest needs to be singularly treated and then juxtaposed with every other piece.  I start back at work tomorrow, so obviously that's not going to happen.  What I've decided to do is respond to a few pieces of the book that I think are relevant to everyone, without giving a lot of context.  The book is filled with fleeting conversations and observations that the reader could ruminate on and discuss for hours--which is overwhelming in such an enormous book. But taken in very small chunks could be fodder for your next cocktail party conversation. People have those, right?

Friday, September 2, 2011

My Name is Asher Lev. To wrestle and become .
My Name is Asher Lev opens with these lines from the adult voice of the title's namesake whom the reader meets as a child and watches grow up: I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all--in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflictor of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.  Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things. Reading these words over again after finishing the book was a powerful testament on the process of not only becoming oneself, but the complexity and pain that can accompany the journey.  

This book by Chaim Potok is the story of a boy, Asher, who is an observant Jew and an artist and his struggle to identify as each--as the story progresses, so does the tension between art/religion and tradition/individualism.  What I thought about the most while reading is that these hard questions of identity--and the confidence that one can embrace--come through struggle and leaning into, instead of running away from, tension.  Because there was so much to consider in this book (and I couldn't bring myself to edit it down to a specific one), I ultimately decided to name some of the tensions that Asher had to face in his coming of age and identity formation, which I think are relevant and challenging to almost everyone. After all, I think coming of age is more like a lifelong coil shape rather than a plateau that one reaches. 

Being educated before taking action.
Asher's mentor, Jacob Kahn, trains him in the history of art and tells him "Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it," (213).  His mentor is speaking about art, but this can also be interpreted for Asher through his religion. Because he has been schooled in his religious culture, as he comes of age he both adds to it and rebels against it.  Modern culture is one of instant knowledge and a desire of instant acquisition.  Slowing down to understand and develop is worth it.   

The fear in being completely honest with those around you.  
Kahn believes that Asher must show a representative of all of his work at his first show.  Asher struggles with this because he knows that people of his culture will not understand the inclusion (let alone creation) of some of his work:  "We will show the two nudes, Asher Lev. They are important to your development. We are not playing games. You will enter in truth or you will not enter at all," (287).  Especially in the age of social media it is easy to craft, curate and control the way others view your life.  The art show becomes symbolic of opening up one's life for public viewing, which can be painful but freeing. 

Deciding whether you share or squelch what you long to say.
"Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way," (212).  Asher could have remained a boy who had a sketchpad or drew nice little pictures for decoration.  But he felt too much.  It would have been easy to go to school, do his homework, his chores and create a life that was too preoccupied for his art.  But.  He chose to let the scream out.

It is always easier to stay comfortable and safe.
"It is my intention to frighten him out of his wits. I want him to go back to Brooklyn and remain a nice Jewish boy. What does he need this for, Anna?" he said (213).  For those who have ambitions of any kind, and like I wrote about a few weeks ago, there will always be other things to do to keep busy and keep you away from the work required to share your voice.

Wrestle with the truth.
"I do not sculpt and paint to make the world sacred. I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world really art cowardice and indecision can be seen in every stroke of the brush...paint the truth or you will paint green rot," (226).  Kahn didn't live a life of complete darkness. There are some scenes where he is beautifully alive.  What I love about him, though, is that he let himself feel and share and question.  Watching Asher wrestle through what he believes to be real and true is refreshing to me.

Maintain a sense of self.
"It pleases me that you have chosen not to abandon things that are meaningful to you. I do not have many things that are meaningful to me. Except my doubt and my fears. And my art." (260)  This is one of my favorite parts from Kahn.  It takes courage to to pursue an art and yet to maintain and individual sense of identity or conviction that most others in the field don't share.

To close, I love that this book is titled My Name is Asher Lev.  Asher repeats this throughout the story in a way that seems to function as a chorus of sorts--a reminder that he is an individual with an individual story and heart and identity.  Perhaps my heart melts over this because I teach middle school and watch so many students just want to fit in, or perhaps because I don't always get to see the outcome of the beginnings of the wrestling.  I suppose I just hope that they wrestle well and have courage and know that they can solidly land down the road.

Friday, August 19, 2011

We tipped over the half way point for august. I'm slowly turning my brain on again.

I have not written on my blog since June.  I have a list of six blog posts in note form that haven't been fleshed out yet.  Sometimes that is what summer needs to be--not the continual post its of to-do lists.   And now that I am looking at the tail end of August I find myself wanting to process through what this summer was and I'm starting to crave the structure of fall and the mental comfort of post its.  I thought it would be low key and in many respects it has been. But then I reread A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller and realized that my summer has been filled with challenge--in a good kind of way.  It kind of snuck up on me, though.

Miller's book came out of what he learned in the process when two guys wanted to turn his book Blue Like Jazz into a movie.  He studied what I call in my classroom the "mountain of action" of a story--exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution and came to the conclusion that people can write better stories for themselves--and the book chronicles his attempt at writing a better one for himself.
One of his insights that stuck out to me the most was when he said: "Part of me wonders if our stories aren't being stolen by the easy life," (186).  If the end goal of existence is comfort, then there hasn't been the tension and the challenge and the pain that make a good story worth reading.  I realized as I was reading that this was a lot of my thinking behind a lot of my pursuits this summer--I got scared that I was getting into patterns in my life that were too easy.

I think it started back in May when my book club decided we were going to read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, all 1079 pages of its tiny print.  We wanted something that would be difficult, something that would make us feel accomplished, something that we probably wouldn't be able to get through on our own.  I used post it notes to set small goals for every 70 pages, which was my weekly goal.  I usually read a book a week and this one took me from June 1st-August 8th.  My feeling of accomplishment waned a little bit when I closed the book and realized that I had a lot of rereading and research to do to make sense of it all.  But.  I'm also the kind of nerd who has been enjoying that process. 

Physically, I am half way through training for a half marathon in September.  Even though I've almost always been active, I've never been a strong athlete.  I realized that a large part of my life is doing what I want when I want it, and even though this is rather luxurious, I was pretty sure that wasn't the kind of life I wanted to pursue.  The discipline of getting up and out to run almost every morning and pushing through when I'd rather stop has kicked me in the ass all summer, but in a good way.  I wanted to seek out a big goal that would be difficult (which I have to repeat to myself while running up that cursed gradual hill in Prospect Park).   I'm hoping that this becomes a metaphor for other aspects of life, especially the part about the process, as I'm sure I will not be breaking any records with my race time.

Mentally, I'm trying to be committed to a larger writing project that I have been dreaming about for over a year.  I started it last summer and then put it away for the year.  Apparently, it's much easier to watch Netflix Instant for a few hours than it is to sit down, think and write.   I've had my fair share of days where my ideas seem too jumbled and I feel stuck. In fact, that's where I am now.  But.  I'm hoping that I won't give it up just because it is easier to sit on the couch with a book or my laptop or because it is more fun to make plans with friends every night.

Spiritually, I have been thinking about a life well lived.  I lost my grandma about a month ago.  As I shared that with people, the words that kept coming out of my mouth were that she lived a tremendous 95 years of life.  I love the ridiculous stories that my aunts and uncles and dad share about her from growing up. I love remembering how her stories commanded a room and my cousins and I would just be in awe listening to them.  I love thinking about the gallivanting she did well into her 80s with her sister.  I love that she watched The OC in her 90s and loved the villainous Julie Cooper just as much as my cousins and I did.  I also saw the sacrifices that many of my family members made for her at the end of her life to make sure that she was comfortable and surrounded by people who loved her. I can't help but think that though it was probably one of the most difficult things to do, it is also one of the most admirable. and that there is a huge connection between sacrifice out of love for others and a story well lived.

All that to say, I don't want to settle for an easier story. Miller also wrote: "Pain then, if one could have faith in something greater than himself, might be a path to experiencing a meaning beyond the false gratification of personal comfort," (196). 

The only addendum or way to close this conversation about the notion of challenge is that it is so much more bearable when walked with friends and family.  I have an ongoing conversation with two of my best friends about what the perfect place to live is.  The only place we keep coming back to is anywhere, as long as we're neighbors with good people.  The reading challenges get finished because I read them with a friend.  Running becomes bearable because I have friends reminding me I can do it.  Loss becomes lighter because there is a room full of people who loved the way you did.  

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby in one sitting a few weeks ago, as I was left sitting in the wake of my family leaving town.  After suffering a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, he could only blink his left eye.  He composed the book in his head and dictated it by blinking his eye, with the help of Claude Mendibil. Of course, much has been said in the history of words about taking goodness for granted, but the way that Bauby approached his memories without being able to do anything physical about them was astounding--and the very existence of this book--of producing a creative work in his condition is the ultimate story of triumph and the power of art. 

I'm struggling about responding to this book under the umbrella of not taking life for granted, for that feels so trite.  What saves me from this, I hope, is the depth of pain with which he wrote--this book is no "go get 'em, pursue your dreams, you can accomplish anything" story.  It distills the goodness of human existence while enduring physical impossibilities and deep existential struggle.  No matter how shallow my own wrestling seemed in comparison, this memoir made me want to live actively remembering what is real and good and true--a theme that keeps repeating itself to me in recent months.  

Here are three of my favorite excerpts from the book that underline the way that I want to live--and the kinds of things that keep popping up in every meaningful conversation I've had in the past month. 

Taking joy in and being thankful for small pleasures, rather than constantly looking forward to the next big item or trip that money can buy.
The delectable moment when I sink into the tub is quickly followed by nostalgia for the protracted immersions that were the joy of my previous life.  Armed with a cup of tea or Scotch, a good book or a pile of newspapers, I would soak for hours, maneuvering the taps with my toes.  Rarely do I feel my condition so cruelly as when I am recalling such pleasures.

Feeling deeply and not allowing busyness or struggle to make me feel numb.
I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much or too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.

Living life with good people.
Other letters simply relate the small events that punctuate the passage of time: roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep. Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, these small gusts of happiness, move me deeply than all the rest.  A couple of lines or eight pages, a Middle Eastern stamp or a suburban postmark...I hoard these letters like treasure.  One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Summer Reading: An Earlier-Than-Usual Start/A Relatively Un-planned Summer

Generally, I am a planner.  I remember dates.  I use a calendar (albeit, I did switch to a digital one, mostly to avoid unnecessary clutter).  For summer reading, I always have a plan.  Granted, summer reading isn't that unlike my usual reading life, as I always have a book on hand.  The only added bonus is more time, thanks to being employed by the NYC Department of Education.  Anyway.  My book club (read: me and my one friend) got ambitious and we are tackling Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace this summer.  This is an undertaking that I want to take seriously, therefore I am not making a list longer than the following:

Infinite Jest/DFW
Bossypants/Tina Fey

Of course I have other hopes for my summer.  Apparently Hamlet is a frequent allusion in Infinite Jest, so I may spend some time with Shakespeare.  Or wikipedia.  I'm also interested in A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  I am craving some rereads: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (yes I just read it in the fall. And? The last movie is in July and I intend to make the most of the end of this era), The Summer Book and Anne of Green Gables.  Other than that, I will see where the wind takes me.  I'm sure there are many of you who are laughing at my planned un-plan.  Sigh.  It's a start. And the best part is that I'm starting my summer reading plan a month before my official summer starts, so it's like a bonus month!

I am curious: what are your most recent reading loves? I have some time and there is nothing better than a book well-recommended by a friend.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On leaving. Or, books as escapism.

It is impossible for me to not sink into some kind of melancholia when I leave my family--or especially when they leave me--for I am left with empty spaces and without the distractive hassle of a car ride or air travel that the ability to separate one from emotion more quickly than it decamps the ones who stay in newfound quiet.

My television-less studio apartment was our cramped base camp for multiple nights, a way of life quite different to us who tend to migrate to our own spaces to read or watch a game. And yet it seemed to work.  For a weekend, anyway. My thoughts are now lingering on the meal that ended outside this time last night and my makeshift dinner of random leftovers this evening.  Without fail, while growing up we came together for family dinner every night from our separate places--work, dance, baseball practice, which have been replaced by Louisville, Cleveland and Brooklyn.

The cool air of evening is impossible to ignore right now as is the fact that dusk can say more with its springtime light and its breeze than I ever could in words--of what it means to long for something.  But what I'm longing for now doesn't have a name or a place because it is the memory of my dad calling to say he is on his way home and smell of dinner cooking each night and falling asleep in a full, safe house--the kind of memory that I was too young to be cognizant of while it was happening--combined with the permission to go and pursue and to dream. And I hate how those things--dreaming and being home--feel mutually exclusive right now.

So what else was I to do but sit down and get lost in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in its entirety tonight? Thoughts to follow.

Monday, May 23, 2011

To my students. With respect. This started as a mentor text on coming of age, but changed along the way. I'm not really sorry for that.

Today I made a new bulletin board in my classroom.  I realize it is the end of May and that a month from yesterday the students I love will have cleaned out their lockers, left 8th grade behind, looking only toward the season of freedom and their new high schools, which, whether you hated or loved it, is generally smiled upon more than middle school.  So.  I want the last month in room 116 to matter.

Our unit is called "Reading and Writing Through Coming of Age" and everyone has to read a coming of age novel.  Instead of doing book clubs, students can read a book of their choice and we are trying to notice patterns across the genre: what parts of coming of age are universal? What are personal? In the midst of sharing, I hope that students find something that resonates with what life feels like to them right now.

Today everyone had to bring in 2 quotes that spoke into their characters' coming of age experience in the first half of their book and I was blown away by what they found.  I've been reading young adult fiction incessantly for the past month (Girl in Translation, Sweet Dates in Basra, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter, A Northern Light) and though they are all engaging books,  I have not been inspired to write off of any of them, or the coming of age experience, which is also the reason behind my severe lack of posts recently.  Until today.

I took about 25 of the quotes from 10-15 books that my students are reading and wrote them with permanent black marker on sheets of white paper.  I hung them all across the bulletin board that stretches across the entire back wall of my room.  All of a sudden it was reverse personification--I saw all of my students somewhere in the paper mess (well, let's be honest, the quotes are hanging orderly, but still) of complicated emotion--and then it became post modern, because I could almost trace their jumps from one quote to another at different times throughout the year.  For instance:

"This was simply around the time my parents stopped understanding what I wanted and I stopped understanding what they wanted me to want." (Born Confused)

"Standing there, I loved and hated myself. It made me feel my glory and my shame at the same time." (The Secret Life of Bees)

"You still have a lot of time to make yourself into what you want." (The Outsiders)

"I told the waitress I'd been out all night 'looking for trouble.'" (Teen Angst...Nahh)

"I didn't answer him. I didn't feel like it." (Catcher in the Rye)

And I guess the reason that I wasn't connecting with any of the young adult books I was reading was because I wasn't picturing my students in them, because after listening to them read all their quotations and hearing their voices, I was tapped into their lives--albeit the slivers they allow to come out in English class, but it was as though the beauty of becoming and possibility was present.  I'm not sure if they noticed it. But I did. And I'm absolutely sure that they will make fun of me for my waxing poetic about a day in class. But.

This week we talked about the first half--the pain, the confusion, the struggle.  Next week we talk about the second half--the resolution, the growth, the wholeness, the strength.  I. Love. Story. And I love to think about the people that these favorites are going to become and the stories they are going to be able to tell when they make it to the other side of growing up.  But here are a few pictures of who they are right now. They are kind of endearing, right? You can read their writing at

My "Sold" bookclub with supplies they bought for Restore NYC's safehouse. 

Mustache Monday. Obviously. 

We take reading seriously. 

Like I said, seriously. 

My homeroom gets so excited to come back after lunch. Ha. 

Sometimes we play paper football. 

There aren't words for just how great this one is. Or how amazed I was to capture the single second that they weren't hysterically laughing after decorating my board so thoughtfully.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Pain of Beloved.

"Anything dead coming back to life hurts," (42).

"Can't nothing heal without pain, you know," (92).

These quotes stayed with me throughout reading Beloved by Toni Morrison because at its core, it is a book about existential hurt, impossible choices and living with their ghosts and yet, it is about moving forward--and the story itself feels like a way to let the hauntings go.

I finished the book weeks ago and am still  thinking about what a powerful, important, disturbing read it was.  The plot centers around a former slave named Sethe who escapes to Cincinnati where her children are already living, giving birth to her fourth child along the way.  Less than a year after her and her childrens' escape , she is in the backyard of the house she shares with her mother in law and sees a man from the plantation where she spent her life ready to call upon the Fugitive Slave Act.  Sethe chooses to gather her four children and attempts to kill them, rather than allowing them to be brought back into slavery.  Three of the four are spared.  The bulk of the story is set over a decade later when her house is haunted by the child's ghost.  Two people arrive: Paul D, a man who was also a slave on the plantation with Sethe, with whom she begins a relationship.  For a time, he is able to scare the ghost away, but then a girl arrives who Sethe and her daughter Denver believe to be the incarnated ghost, which completely rocks and changes Sethe, forcing her to face her past decisions. The book is about the spiral of Sethe wrestling with her demons and the definition of love, of finding and losing herself.

As a reader, I couldn't discern if the ghost-girl was literal or figurative--and at different moments I think could be either.  So I've been thinking about the questions Beloved poses in terms of healing: on both a personal and corporate level.  It is much too heavy of a story to simply say that it ends with hope--it is a beautiful mess of a narrative that left me a wreck while reading it.

Sethe's turmoil through Morrison's writing feels weighty enough to be corporate.  It is not just her story, it is the story of the psychological effects of slavery.  On this level, I felt as though I had no place to judge Sethe for her choices--and how she chose to define the love she had for her children.  Sethe writhes with her choice and it is impossible as a reader not to do so right along with her.  It feels an impossible situation, where I can't decide if the healing of an entire nation after such an abomination on humanity or the healing of a single heart engulfed it it feels more difficult.

This is when I come back to the quotes I cited at the beginning, that came in the first third of the story and were spoken to Paul D, but shaped what I began to see as the purpose of the whole book: that Sethe had to wrestle with the pain and had to feel it deeply.  There was no way to move forward without it.  Paul D says to Sethe toward at the end, when Sethe is still is the ashes of her life: "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody.  We need some kind of tomorrow."  This seems so simple and almost trite, but only out of context.  The poetry and pain of this story--individual pain of the characters and the pain of looking at our history of a nation-- echo for anyone who has felt the complicated brokenness of tragedy and the reluctance to even try to heal. What Morrison leaves the reader with is the idea that there is still life.  There is still life.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The length of an hour. Or, hope, and finding it even when it feels far away..

(A note:  Reading The Hours after Mrs. Dalloway was incredible.  The research and allusion that went into Cunningham's book is tremendous, though it is incredibly thought provoking on its own as well.)

The Hours haunted me for days after reading it--mainly two of the ideas that Cunningham explores.  First, each choice a person makes leaves a trail of missed opportunities behind him or her--lives that weren't lived.   Almost all of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway consider the decisions they made--and what Cunningham does in his book is give those alternate stories life.  It is through the alternate stories that the reader must face some inevitable truths.

For instance, in Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, feeling dissatisfied, daydreams about what life might have looked like if she had been able to choose her best friend Sally as a life partner instead of her husband Richard.  In The Hours, we see that desire played out as the character of Clarissa is a modern woman in her fifties in New York City living with her partner of 18 years, Sally. Cunningham creates other nuances that continue the conversation Woolf started 77 years before--but there is meaning behind this even to people who haven't read either book: even when the characters are given the cultural freedom to pursue what they want, no one feels completely satisfied.  In both novels, the characters tell themselves stories and imagine different lives for themselves to cope with the reality they are actually faced with.

It is easy to look back on missed opportunities poetically, imagining the happiness that might have been. But such is the illusion of fantasy: we are stuck in the real world with flawed people and to not address this is to not be honest with oneself. Such truth is burdensome to the reader throughout the entire book, whether it be in small, internal conflicts of the characters or tragic ends.

What seems to bridge that concept to any kind of hope at all, is Cunningham's address of hours themselves--not all hours carry the weight or are even the same symbolical length.

Richard, who is dying of AIDS, says: "But there are still the hours, aren't there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there's another. I'm so sick."  As Clarissa is processing Richard's illness, remembering their summer-long relationship, perfect in each of their memories, as well as her current anxiety, she finds:  "There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult.  Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more."

It is the small moments we wish we could have frozen in time that keep us moving forward--and become long as they are played over and over again in our minds, and the long monotonous hours that make us human...and I think, I think remind us that we are not made for a world with such brokenness because even if we make all the right choices, the longing remains.  And that is when we, when I, must run for my life to hear a pedal steel and a banjo, or chase an urban sunset for good measure and a good reminding that there is abundant life to be had.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Loneliness brings the best out of a reader."

I heard this wisdom today from a student.  You can read more from Audrey Bachman HERE.  You won't regret it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

... from The Hours by Michael Cunningham and suited for conversation, I think. I need to store them somewhere, though. and write about them someday, after I've talked to you. or, more reasons why story matters, because how else do you say it?

Clarissa wants, suddenly, to show her whole life to Louis. She wants to tumble it out onto the floor at Louis' feet, all the vivid, pointless moments that can't be told as stories. She wants to sit with Louis and sift through it. (page 132)

There is still that singular perfection, and it's perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other. (page 98)

Still, there is this sense of missed opportunity. Maybe there is nothing, ever, that can equal the recollection of having been young together.  Maybe it's as simple as that. (page 97)

She has not spoken on his behalf but on Leonard's, in much the way her own mother might have made light of a servant's blunder during dinner, declaring for the sake of her husband and all others present that the shattered tureen portended nothing; that the circle of love and forbearance could not be broken; that all were safe. (page 74)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"There is a gulf between people that one must respect."

My book club recently read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925 paired with The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which is based on both Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Both of these were rereads for me--I read Mrs. Dalloway for a British Literature class and later took a class on Virginia Woolf in college where we read 8 of her books in 8 weeks.  That being said, sometimes reading old notes in the margins can be painful.  My naive,  21 year old English-major self seems amateurish.  Rereading Mrs. Dalloway was a lesson in how reading experiences change with life experience--and how amazing rereading can be.

This time around, what stood out to me the most was the idea that misunderstanding often comes from drawing conclusions about someone without knowing their true inner life. The reader finds that each of the characters is unsatisfied with life and filled with a sense of both guilt for feeling that way and longing to create a different kind of life.

I read this book as a story of what we see in others and what they see in us--and the fact that most of the time--when we are living in our own heads and not honestly communicating, we get it all wrong.  Whether people become ideas as we either project onto them what we want to see or we fall into the danger of considering what other people want to see in us, thus presenting a false self to the world.  Obviously, relational chaos ensues.

For example, Peter, who depite all efforts, is still in love with Clarissa thinks: "And, after all, she had married Dalloway, and lived with him in perfect happiness all these years" (155) and yet she is haunted for much of the book that she made the wrong choice in marrying her husband.  Her presentation of self is confusing because she flirts with Peter because she doesn't know how not to, but spends her time remembering her mostly chaste relationship with her friend Sally and finds herself imagining what her life might have been if she chose differently.

Peter thinks he has it for a moment when of Clarissa he says: "So transparent in some ways, so inscrutable in others..." (77).  His idea is correct, but he completely misinterprets what he sees as transparent. Clarissa says of Peter: "He made her see herself; exaggerate. It was idiotic," (168).  Clarissa is aware of this dance of self presentation and yet cannot step away.  She says--and I think understands--that "there is a gulf between people that one must respect," (120)--that one can never truly understand another.   Peter understands it, too: "It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels...but he could not bring himself to say he loved her, not in so many words," (116, 118).

The bottom line is that this book made me think so much about relationships and honesty--no one in this story really knew what the other was actually thinking--and no one wanted to tell anyone what they were truly thinking about, which creates an atmosphere of superficial conversation and relationships.  Perhaps there is a certain safety in keeping such thoughts to oneself? I think the regret that the characters show reveal to the reader that it is better to live honestly in the present with themselves and others, but with exposure comes vulnerability. This is a trade off the characters weren't willing to accept.  It was more comfortable to live with the gulf than attempt to close it.  I'm left thinking about the kinds of gulfs that exist, what causes them and which ones are worth crossing.

My ideas don't fit into a single blog post.

All of this can lead to an existential downward spiral to a life in the what-might-have-been and filled with permanent discontent.  Each of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway told themselves stories to cope with the lives they chose not to live--which is interestingly exactly what Cunningham picked up on and addressed in The Hours, thoughts forthcoming.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story and Science Fiction Nightmares

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is written in the near-ish future--it has a bit of a 1984 feel, in that while reading, it is easy to become convinced that this could very well be the future.  Set in a New York City on the verge of political and military chaos, the smart phone has been replaced with an apparat--a device that people wear and use to scan one another and instantly not only receive data about each other, but to be ranked among whoever they are surrounded by.  The society is so driven by this technology that people no longer read, they scan.  Books are completely obsolete.  Some of the setting details are overly satiric, like the fact that people and children love porn stars instead of movie stars and that "onion skin" (or see through) jeans are the pants of choice; but other aspects completely jolted me as they seemed a bit too real.

Within the book there is a love story between two people who are able to look past the unlikelihood of their pairing, for a little while, anyway. But to me it is a love story about about a city and a lost time--which was interesting because there are so many things going wrong with our current society, but reading about this future one made me nostalgic for what is outside my window.  A completely data driven society is one of the most frightening things that an author can conjure up, and yet it's not that far from social networking sites that occupy us today (or, for you educators out there, the constant drive for children to be represented by numbers) or our ability to constantly be connected to the world via the phone we carry in our pockets. Here is an excerpt from one of the main characters, Lenny, who is a bit of an old soul in the age of technology:

"Also, I've spent an entire week without reading any books or talking about them too loudly.  I'm learning to worship my new apparat's screen, the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors."

Reading futuristic science fiction scares me: the kind where people have lost their sense of what it means to be human and where the ethical and moral issues are lost in the flurry of moving ahead.  It makes me think about what actually constitutes a good life, though that adjective is the most vague of them all, and would be defined differently by almost everyone.

Lenny works for a man named Joshie at the Post-Human Services office in a large corporation, whose job is to locate HNWI (high net worth individuals) who are interested in living forever and undergoing treatments to ensure that it happens.  While their work seems absurd, it seems like a logical progression for the capitalist's reaction to our culture's fear of aging.  Of course in the book, it also feels adolescent in the sense that people aren't considering the consequences of such steps in anti-aging.

"Joshie had always told Post-Human Services staff to keep a diary, to remember who we were, because every moment our brains and synapses are being rebuilt and rewired with maddening disregard for our personalities, so that each year, each month, each day we transform into a different person, an utterly unfaithful iteration of our original selves."

This is the part that gives me nightmares--longer life without a sense of self.  It is already hard for me to remember what life was like before cell phones and the internet--and there are days that I want to separate myself from them. But then I have to honestly admit that I'm not sure I know how to.

I feel like I've come to learn that life is knowing and understanding the human story.  Last night I was talking with friends and one of them said that our technological growth is exponential.  It makes me fear just how unhuman are we making ourselves? And if that growth is regulated, that is an even scarier political thriller of an existence.  See how I've gone and gotten all paranoid on you?

(I also blame watching the movie version of this book on Friday for this current state of mind.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"I put it down on paper and then the ghost doesn't ache so much."

About a million years ago, a good friend of mine mailed me a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and said it would probably change my life. He was right.  This book holds everything I love about literature inside of it--and really, a blog post isn't enough--you should read it and then we should meet for coffee to talk about it.

 It is a collection of snapshots that chronicles the coming of age of Esperanza (in English, hope), a girl growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.  Cisneros' use of vignettes instead of a standard narrative structure captures stolen moments and insights that together create a portrait not just of Esperanza, but of longing and small beauties, anger and angst.  Though short and incredibly readable, this story is complex.  Her poetic style brings the beautifully tragic peripheral characters of Mango Street to life, each desperately seeking freedom, each desperately breaking and inspiring my heart:

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life. 

Alicia, whose Mama died, is sorry there is no one older to rise and make the lunchbox tortillas. Alicia, who inherited her mama's rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university.  Two trains and a bus, because she doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin.

Cisneros gives Esperanza an eye for tiny details and a writer's heart that carries the weight of her neighborhood.  She writes a poem:

I want to be
like waves on the sea
like clouds in the wind
but I'm me.
One day I'll jump
out of my skin. 
I'll shake the sky
like a hundred violins. 

Esperanza, who is not beautiful, but is smart.  Esperanza who is "too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, a tiny thing against so many bricks, who looks at trees." I love picturing this girl gathering her strength and her pen and shaking the sky with all of her might.

Toward the end of the novel, her aunt almost prophesies over her:

You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free.

As a person who writes often, and especially as an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time wondering what exactly this means.  For Esperanza, it helps her to channel her emotions and her anger:

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.  

This is why I love writing--and introducing students to writing.  I have found that the times in my life that I feel most at peace--even if life is swirling in a thousand directions--is when I am writing.  Most of the time it is nothing important, and often words I may never reread.  But just like Esperanza, once I've thought through my life with pen and paper, whatever ghost was haunting me doesn't ache so much.

Esperanza reminds me of so many of my students--trying to figure out what it means to be a young adult, what it means to love, where to put anger, how to be themselves.  They all come from different places, and yet I think that there are vignettes of beauty inside each of them--and that somehow life would make more sense if they understood that.  I'm trying to remember if coming of age novels meant anything to me when I was their age or if I love them now in hindsight after surviving adolescence.

I realize it is naive to think that the world could be saved by writer's notebooks. But perhaps we'd all be a little more emotionally healthy? Free from the demons that eat at us, free from the insecurities that plague us, because we've written them away rather than having them wake us in the morning and whisper to us as we try to fall asleep.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Oskar Schell: tiny existentialist and breaker of of my heart. Or, there is no freedom from feeling.

First, a note. I read and wrote about this book in 2007, claimed it as one of my favorites but haven't read it since.  I've been thinking that I want to start rereading all the books I call my favorites this year. Also, as I mentioned in my last post, all of my recent reads are connected by the thread of freedom and I want to spend some time thinking that through.  So.

Nine year old Oskar Schell's family line includes grandparents who grew up in the same town in Germany and survived the bombing of Dresden during World War Two, but didn't get married until years later after running into each other in New York City.  Their stories are complex and sorrowful, and their marriage a union of two who completely understand loss, and yet the other's presence is a constant reminder of their pain.   The grandfather by this time has given up speaking altogether and communicates only though writing.  In an attempt to not be swallowed by the weight of their grief, they literally made rules for how their apartment and their lives would function: "We made safe places in the apartment where you could go and not exist." 

Interestingly, forty years later, Oskar made rules for his own life to manage his grief over losing his father on September 11th: he finds a key in his father's things and creates a quest to find what it opens: "...until I found it, I didn't love Dad enough."  He is seeking both a reason to exist and a closeness with his father.  I originally wrote about the idea of safety when I first read the book--which is ultimately what these characters are all looking for.  The more I thought about it, I realized how fleeting emotional safety actually is--and I think that Oskar somehow knew this .  Though Oskar shares the tendency toward an existential existence with his grandparents, the rules of his journey come with the hope that he will ultimately find catharsis--and that will free him from his current emotional paralysis and take him back to the safety he felt when he was with his father.  Oskar invents when he is upset, often of ways to keep people emotionally safe: 

"I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn't have to invent a thing."

"We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families and our friends, and even the people who aren't on our lists, people we've never met but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe." 

"In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots." 

"[S]o if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!" 

It is incredibly painful to read this happening to a nine year old boy.

 Emotional safety is fleeting--and that is a tragedy of human existence. The last scene of this book (which I won't tell you because you should really just go read it yourself) pulls my heart in a way that few books can.  And yet, freedom comes from allowing ourselves to hurt--and by that allowance we are not completely swallowed.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Defining Freedom, Part One.

Somehow I've fallen back into the habit of reading and thinking about multiple books at once.  This school year I've been a bit off with my writing about what I'm reading--I have posts planned in my mind that never make it to my laptop.  In the chaos that is now my reading life, though, some unexpected patterns have arisen and I thought it would be interesting to unpack them.  The first will be on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, by title and by topic.  Continuing thoughts will follow about the concept of freedom in my rereading of both Jonathan Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.  I am about to write about the resolution for one of the characters, and while I don't think it won't take away from the book, don't read ahead if you already have Freedom on your book list.  

Freedom is complex and multi-layered, so it is impossible to treat it as a whole in a single post.  The aspect I want to think about comes from the story of the main characters' son, Joey.  He has grown up spoiled by his mother, a disappointment to his father and in general pretty selfish in all of his life pursuits.  He has been in a relationship with the girl next door, two years his senior, since early adolescence.  Their connection and relationship has been a mainstay in his life, to the point where he moved next door as a 17 year old.  Her entire world revolves around him, but when he goes off to college he seeks out girls who would better fit in to his imagined future: sophisticated, wealthy and influential.  However, he remains incapable of severing himself from Connie.  They decide to get married on the spur of the moment, yet keep it secret and Joey is pursuing other girls.  And then.

The freedom that comes from understanding who you are. Joey's moment came when he accidently swallowed his wedding ring and it came back out while he was on a trip with the girl he'd been chasing after for a number of years--the girl who he thought was his fantasy.  But.

"He was the person who'd handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back.  This wasn't the person he thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he'd been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones." (432)

This is the kind of freedom that I'm not sure Joey's parents understood as they were raising him. They seemed to be tip toeing around parts of themselves and restraining opinions in fear and leaving life that needed to be discussed untouched and unexplored--leaving both of them ultimately uncomfortable in their own skin.  Seeing their son understand this before they did--especially when he was trying on so many different personas throughout his college experience--was incredibly surprising as a reader.  I thought that Joey would be the kind of person who is a serial leaver: always looking for the next person who might fit his idea of perfection, never realizing that perfection never exists up close.  That kind of living gives the mirage of freedom, but is actually quite the opposite.

This fall, maybe because I was turning 30 and intentionally thinking about it, I realized that somewhere along the line I became myself: the Ohio and the New York in me all seemed to sort out and settle where it needed to be--and this was incredibly freeing.  To live in a place where you know who you are what what you are seeking allows you to not have the burden of carrying what other people might be thinking.  And of course there is the part about the Truth I believe in--something about the story of grace and love--that leads me to freedom and reminds me of what matters.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

this is not about books, but. winter made me smile. a few times. and that doesn't happen often.

A small child with a bowl cut running around an uncrowded East Village restaurant in full body snow pants. Also, the yellow walls and good people I was talking to there.

Multiple, separate, grown men who ran their fingers through untouched snow on a ledge in Midtown.

Bowery almost completely quiet in a snowstorm.

Eating fistfulls (yes, plural) of snow as I made my way home 8th Avenue in Park Slope. Because it was coming down so fast and I trusted there were no pollutants.  And it reminded me of Ohio snow.  And I liked it.

Hearing my landlord shovel the sidewalk and remembering all of the 6 am wake up calls my brother and I had to clear our driveway, whether we had a snow day or not.  Then rolling over and being thankful I didn't have to shovel today.

Prospect Park+over a foot of new snow+children sledding everywhere+evening light (albeit at 5 pm).  LOVE.

And, my students' artwork in response to "Do Not Go Gentle" by Dylan Thomas. It makes my room so bright I can barely contain myself.