Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nostalgia as strength.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was hailed by most critics last year and I'd been meaning to read it for a long time.  It is a novel that is book ended by two main characters, Sasha and Bennie--in their relative youth and in their more middle age.  In between is a series of chapters where these two characters are on the periphery somewhere and the chapter is focused on someone loosely connected to one of them.

As I was reading it, I found it a little kitschy and a a little hard to follow, feeling like I knew I'd have to reread it if I wanted to truly understand.  After I finished the book, I read a bunch of reviews and most people described the chapters as more like short stories.  Had I gone into the reading with that mindset, I think it would have been a different experience.

The part of the book that I loved, however, was when the narrator was Sasha's 11 year old daughter Alison, who told her story in a powerpoint journal.  The future sections of the book all showed technology gone incredibly annoying, but somehow this was a thought provoking blend of the visual and the written.  A few of the things she mentioned particularly struck a chord with me and I found a bit of a kindred spirit in both of these female characters.  This is, in part, a book about time, and these moments felt the least jaded and most hopeful to me.

The "What I'm Afraid Of" slide came after she had gone on the kind of long walk with her dad where the world seems incredibly far away.  This is what she is thinking as she walks back to their house.

page 299

My heart hurt in a way I can't describe when I read this.  I remember having moments like this when I was little, but not having a way to express it: feeling, as a child that I would long for the moment I was standing in later as an adult, and feeling despair for the fact that it was impossible to hold on to it.  Alison's voice as a character is different from the rest of the characters, possibly because she is youngest of all narrators, and possibly because what she imagines missing is so pure.  The other narrators, when they are older, miss the teenage and young adult years: the freedom and the hope of what it yet to come.  

"Mom's Art" slide is where Alison tries to explain the art that her mom, Sasha (who the reader meets at the beginning of the book as a 30 year old women in therapy for kleptomania):

"She uses found objects, they come from our house and our lives, she glues them onto boards and shellacs them, she says they're precious because they're casual and meaningless, but they tell the whole story if you really look."

This is an interesting fact to learn about Sasha: that she now "steals" objects that have no meaning to most people, but is able to find meaning in them, and that she seems able to create true meaning in her life.  As a reader, writer and sometimes poet, I love small details that feel meaningless to most people, but have a story underneath.  I think it's significant that Egan uses the word shellacs--it sounds a bit like a desperate push to save something, or, an artistic way to create and remember the details that get forgotten among louder, bolder ones.

I've found myself telling others recently that maybe New York has finally gotten to me because I have felt really cynical about a lot of things lately.  This is not how I would ordinarily describe myself, so it has been interesting to find this creeping in on my psyche and seeing it play out in my life.  Reading this section reminded me that I am both nostalgic and sentimental; and rather than seeing those characteristics as sappy or weak, I think that they allow me to look at the big picture of beauty in life--and that is just what this part-time, temporary cynic needs.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

in the company of those who struggle.

I came across Mary Karr's book Lit after I read an article in New York Magazine about her, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen.  I had read all of the authors except for her and sought out to get a copy of The Liars Club.  Then I found Lit, an incredibly written memoir based in Karr's alcohol abuse, the dissolution of her marriage and recovery, on a brownstone's stoop and decided that would work.   I later found out that a few friends of mine had recently read and loved it, so I moved it to the top of my "to read" stack.

{I've learned that sometimes I love to share the story of how I stumbled upon a story.  Thanks for indulging me.}

There are a few parts from Lit that I haven't stopped thinking about. One was that her recovery and redemption came in the company of those who struggled, too.  Karr found herself in AA with a mix of every kind of person imaginable, none of whom she would have sought out on her own.  The friends she made there were from across the social spectrum, people whose paths would have never crossed otherwise. And yet, they became a lifeline for one another because they deeply understood that struggle is best endured together. No one lives immune to hurt--and that means that each of us has something in common with every person we meet.  

I would not normally call myself a cynic, but in the winter it happens from time to time. For some reason that was the space my mind was inhabiting in the week I was reading this book: not in response to the book, but just in response to life.  I often get frustrated at the instagram-portrayed life.  Don't get me wrong, I think small moments of life's poetry are worth sharing, but sometimes it is easy to start thinking that everyone around has a perfectly curated life.  I know this theory is false.  Or, I start soaking in cynicism about the self promotion social media induces.   I've found that when I remember that I am always in (and a part of) the company of those who struggle, my heart seems to grow in compassion.  

I am always trying to teach my students that books make us better people because we learn to empathize with almost any character once we understand the ins and outs of his or her story.  Sometimes the teacher needs to remember this, too. 

 I also didn't realize just how much spirituality was a part of Karr's journey, and when added to a life rich in real community, a portrait of how beautiful--and simple--life can be rose before me. 

"Therapy rescued me in my twenties by taking me inward, leaching off pockets of poison in my head left over from the past.  But the spiritual lens--even just the nightly gratitude list and going over each day's actions--is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved," (304).

I really can't add much to her words, except that by allowing herself to consider, and ultimately accept, the way faith, not religious duty, could change a life, her life and mental landscape began to change.  Sometimes I forget this--and reading Karr's story became one of the brightest reminders of my winter--and my own cold weather induced cynicism and anger has begun to slip away.  


I'm fractured
In the fall
and I want to go home

from Two by Ryan Adams

The kind of literary spirit I love.

"Such a small, pure object a poem could be, made of nothing but air, a tiny string of letters, maybe small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  But it could blow someone's head off," (59).
from Lit by Mary Karr

Sunday, January 8, 2012

This year's winter.

First,  I have been in discussion with one of my best friends who also happens to be a teacher about how we always think of the "new year" starting in September. We realized that the main way we identify ourselves is through our job, which in many ways is great: teaching English combines so many of my passions.  It is generally hard for me to do a year reflection, because since I've never left the school calendar since infancy, January to me is the end of the first semester...the half way point.  It feels strange to think about 2011 because I had two different groups of students.  I had two different curriculum plans.  But. This is only if I look at my life solely through my profession.

Second, I caught myself spreading my winter blues this morning.  I've written before about my how my college roommate and I diagnosed me with Seasonal Affective Disorder online in 2001 and about how spring-forward is my favorite day of the year.  I've probably even written about how I blame the school calendars of my youth who had flowers decorating the month of March (obviously made by a southerner) for the way my heart starts to get prematurely hopeful for warmer weather.  However, my personal-not-job-related goal for 2012 (the first fourth of it, anyway) is to have a better attitude about the winter.  There. I said it. Please, if you see me, remind me of this.  

Another dear friend sent me an essay from a book called Let Your Life Speak many winters ago about living through the seasons as a polite way of telling me to get a better attitude.  I return to it every year.  It tells me: "Winter is a demanding season...and yet the rigors are accompanied by gifts: ...times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things...One gift of utter clarity as in winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque and see the trees clearly...Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being."  Another friend of mine moved to San Diego from New York and told me that perfection can breed complacency.  

So, I would like to live thankfully and intentionally this winter.  I realized the other day that I never posted about Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids (which would have definitely made it onto the Top Ten).  I reread my notes inside and what I found has a direct correlation with how I want to live in this cold season: 

" was the work in a hall devoted to Picasso...that pierced me the most.  His brutal confidence took my breath away." (11)  "I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself...Picasso didn't crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed.  He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people. When I had extra money I'd go to the Museum of Modern Art and sit before Guernica, spending long hours considering the fallen horse and the eye of the bulb shining over the sad spoils of war. Then I'd get back to work." (65)

"But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings could create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not." (11)

"He [Robert Maplethorpe] contained, even at an early age, a stirring and the desire to stir," (13)

I want to stare winter down.   If it makes me angry, I want to do let that anger inspire writing.  Or to fight against it with dinner parties.  Or crawling out of my hole and stepping outside for a run with my friends and then feel as though I have thoroughly kicked it in the rear.  I want it to inspire me to actually live rather than hunkering down with Netflix instant streaming. I want to sense a stirring and stir.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


So many people have recommended Unbroken, the life story of Louie Zamperini--Olympic runner and Air Force bomber and POW in the Pacific during World War Two, by Laura Hillenbrand to me over the past few months.  It worked out perfectly that my mom had recently read it, so I curled up for many hours of my visit home for Christmas in front of the fireplace with it .  I love history, but realized that my knowledge of the Pacific front of the war was incredibly small, which is sad to me because my grandfather was on the Underwater Demolition Team, the precursor to the Navy SEALS, in Japan. Hillenbrand's book provided a well researched overview of what went on and some of the facts I learned in the book shocked me.  The narrative arch in the book, though, took my breath away.

I wrote my last post about my struggle in thinking about the lost in war, and this one I realized is one about the survivors. It still leaves me thinking: at what cost will humans ever stop?  I cannot imagine surviving through what these men faced as prisoners.  It was impossible for me to read this story without feeling sick to my stomach about the complaints that arise about my own life circumstances.  What stood out to me the most in reading this book is the incredible fortitude of the human spirit. It saddens me that this phrase might sound cliched, because if I look at the hardships people have faced faced throughout history and the fact that they have survived--be it a global war or a personal one--is truly miraculous.  And in the case of surviving the war, making it home was only half of the battle:

"The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were a torn-down men.  They had an intimate understanding of man's vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it.  They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized.  Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn't understand...Coming home was an experience of profound, perilous aloneness.  For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness.  There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history.  Some succeeded.  For others, the war would never really end," (349).

In my city there are times that it feels like a superficial quest for outward beauty: to maintain the posture that every aspect of one's life is meticulously curated.  But, as most New Yorkers know, there is beauty in the broken and in the faces that no fashion magazine would ever run.  There is beauty to be found in the mess and in the trying.

In my last post, I wrote about how wars are often fought for freedom of some sort, and that for the opposing forces there seems nothing left to do but to obliterate the other side.  It seems to me as though this can stand for a metaphor for living--for those who can't escape the messiness of being human, anyway.  It feels as though my reading life is bleeding one book into the next, because I am about to finish Lit by Mary Karr, which is the story of her battle with alcoholism--finding freedom and everyday fighting against the blackness.  I can't help but think about how she needed to find her way to peace.  I just saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (one of my favorite books) and was broken watching Oskar, the 11 year old main character who lost his father on 9/11, struggle and fight through his pain, in a way different from everyone else around him.

My students often complain about why they have to learn something that they think they will never have to use.  I have set answers for every subject area, but my one for social studies is always that I think that the best president, and any kind of leader for that matter, will always be the one who not only looks anxiously into the future, but one who is able to look back into the past--understanding both the macro and micro horrors and hardships.  For it is understanding--and experiencing--struggle that enables us to live and lead in a just, compassionate way.  Louie Zamperini's story was a reminder to me of many things, but the most heavy one to me was to know the stories that make up our collective past: to learn what others have been through and to let that lead me into a life of greater compassion and understanding--as well as hope for the moments when I find myself fighting a battle that seems greater than myself.  The incredible part about it, to me, was that this was not a work of fiction--but rather, a demonstration of the patterns that great works of fiction try to portray.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

War and letters and stories.

I had a rough start with For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.  As his is typical style, it was written in a matter of fact, moment by moment description, in this case mostly from the voice of Robert Jordan, an American fighting with the revolutionary guerillas in the Spanish Civil War.  But, Hemingway accomplished his goal and while reading it I felt like I was there with him, moment by moment, which is probably also the reason why I never made it past 3-5 pages when reading it before bed and why it took multiple in-flight reading swathes of time and my break from school to finish.

About two thirds of the way through, Jordan spends time reading the letters found in the pockets of a dead opposing cavalryman, which spurs on one of the longest inner conversations that the reader hears in the story. The entire account is fascinating, and is Jordan thinking about who and why he has killed.  Here are a few excerpts:

"You never kill anyone you want to kill in a war, he said to himself," (302)...

"How many of those you have killed have been real fascists? Very few. But they are all the enemy to whose force we are opposing force," (304).

"Listen, he told himself. You better cut this out.  This is very bad for you and your work," (304).

I would argue, and actually don't think it's that controversial of a theory, that the reading of his dead enemy's letters were what brought on his mental struggle with the death that accompanies war.  What I find interesting about this, though, is that it comes back to the core of my own beliefs: once you know someone's personal story, even the bits of daily minutia detailed in letters Jordan read, it is near impossible to view them in the same way.

I struggle with war because whenever I read about it.  I am constantly thinking about the lives of the lost--on either side--and generally it is the daily minutia that destroys me.  The first time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it was the displays of the personal effects those sent to concentration camps gave up: the piles of brushes and razors, the pile of shoes.

This is what creates empathy in literature and I why I plead with people to read...and write.  To me, reading is the great metaphor for understanding humanity and a reminder for me to remember that everyone in front of me has a story--whether it's a student who is driving me crazy, the driver who is honking at me to walk faster through a crosswalk, a stranger I pass on a run.

The interesting part of this excerpt from the book, though, is that Jordan says that thinking in this vein is very bad for his work--which is true.  To fight for his cause in this context, personalizing the enemy would lead to failure.  He talks himself through the fact that he must do what he is doing to create a better world for the future: and yet, there are people fighting on the other side who believe the same thing, whether it is war on a national level or between two people.  And sometimes, looking back, there is a clear, right side.  Sometimes there isn't.

I wonder a lot about the fact that throughout history, it has come down to fighting to achieve freedom. I wonder a lot about what this says about us as people.  I wonder about what would create a world (or nation or state or city or home) without violence.  I don't think it's possible to live without conflict, but I wonder what it would take to teach us to handle it differently. Over the next week or so, I'm going to be writing about it as many of my recent reads have been about war, both fiction and non fiction, adult and young adult.   I have no answers and it only gets more complicated, but reading and writing is the only way for me to work through it all.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

so 2012 began in the best city in the world with a best friend, laughter and books. This is a good sign, I think.

front cover. 
I've worked in Brooklyn for over seven years and lived here for almost four.  I love this borough.  A lot. But, there are times when I miss living in Manhattan.  They usually happen when I'm leaving one of my best friend's apartments on the Upper West Side and I'm walking south on Central Park West with the park to my left and the lights of midtown ahead of me.  Said friend and I had what others (and who are we kidding, ourselves) might initially call a lame New Years, but laughing for hours is never lame.  And, lucky for me the laughing didn't end when I left her apartment at 1 am by myself.  Like I said, there is something about this city that makes me feel so grateful that I know it like the back of my hand.  Walking by myself on New Year's was almost poetic, observing the city silently with a smile, loving it and the great friends I have here. 

You might be wondering now why I'm writing about this on my blog about books.  Because when I rode the subway up to my friend's apartment I was reading Lit by Mary Karr, which I'm pretty excited about, but let's be honest.  It was New Year's Eve, and even though I was wearing a shiny shirt underneath my coat, I probably looked like a killjoy, incapable of smiling as I read a memoir about alcoholism (even though I had read 40 pages and felt accomplished, like my old reading self again, since it took me 5 weeks to read my last book).  

So, one of the shining moments of my New Year's Eve was when I walked into my friend's apartment and we exchanged books--I brought her my copy of Tina Fey's Bossypants and she handed me her copy of Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and we stood there silently reading the introductions, totally engrossed, and became conscious of how lame we probably looked.  Then we realized we didn't care and sat there and read all night.  Just kidding. We didn't do that.  We sat there and laughed all night.  And for this year, I can't imagine a better way to spend New Year's Eve.  
back cover. can't stop laughing. 
So, back to New York being poetic and riding the subway alone on the biggest party night in town.  I started Kaling's book and could not stop laughing all the way home.  It could have been a sad little moment, given that I was wearing jeans and flats while surrounded by glamorous, high heeled party-goers, but I was just too thankful for what I did have and for the laugh out loud humor and perspective of the book.  In a town where sometimes I feel like I'm a little too midwestern, it was so refreshing to read Kaling's not-typically-Hollywood perspective.  

Then I stayed up until 3 reading. Then I woke up and finished it this morning.  So all that to say, I had a great New Year's and you should immediately go out and buy this book.  No, seriously.