Monday, June 25, 2012

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation

I don't usually use this blog as a venue for traditional "reviews" and recommendations, but this post will be just that. 

At the end of this year we ordered a lot of non fiction to be used in the classroom and I've been trying to make my way through some of it in preparation for book clubs in the fall.  I just finished Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon's graphic adaptation of the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which shared the commissioner's answers and recommendations in response to the 9/11 attacks.

As someone who would probably not ever read the full text version of the report, I found this book to be incredibly educational and thorough.  In its 133 pages, I was given a general comprehension of what led up to the attacks, how they happened, the government's response that day and moving forward and the recommendations for how our country can be better prepared for the future.  I highly recommend reading it. 

The most jarring point for me as a citizen was the lack of communication that existed between officials and departments on the city government level as well as the national level.  It is overwhelming to think about how better communication, just like in almost every area of life, might have been able to help prevent the attacks or better assist in the aftermath.

One of the most interesting recommendations that the commission mentioned was for the government to have a greater imagination when thinking through policy.  My question is always about where that starts.  If students aren't given the opportunity to think bigger and wider and deeper, how will they acquire the kinds of skill sets that are already in short supply in both the government and private sector today?

Hand them books.  Engage them in conversations.  Invite them into ideas bigger than themselves. Teach them history in an engaging way and connect it to the future. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

one year later or, more reasons why i love my job.

One of the post labels on this blog is "why 8th graders aren't jaded." So many people have negative conceptions of middle school age students and teenagers in general, but part of my job as a teacher and a person, I believe, is to counter that claim.  I love when former students stop by to tell me about their lives beyond 8th grade.  These two are no exception.  For both 7th and 8th grade, they amazed me with their writing pieces and reading lives and the life they brought into my classroom.  Somehow I was able to take this picture in between an afternoon of non-stop laughing on the last day of school last June, before they left my classroom after two years for different, impressive high schools in Manhattan.

They came to visit me yesterday and somehow we managed, albeit with some difficulty, to recreate the shot a year later.  It was incredible to hear about where life has taken them in the past year and the plans on their horizons--writing, traveling, reading, learning, playing sports and of course laughing.  These pictures crack me up because of their assumed seriousness is the opposite of their personalities.

All that to say, I am so proud of the people they--and my other visitors--are becoming.  It makes me love my job so much.

Weights and Glasses: Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

I have read some of Flannery O'Connor's short stories before and was anxious to read her first novel, Wise Blood, originally published in 1949.  It is a story of spiritual searching without lyricism.  Her style feels sparse, dark, sometimes comedic and deeply symbolic.  It follows Hazel Motes, who felt he was destined to be a preacher his entire life.   He returns from World War Two disillusioned and haunted by his faith, ultimately preaching on the street and founding The Church of God Without Christ.  Each of the characters he encounters are wrestling with their own demons, either pressing in to find answers like Enoch Emery who claims claims to have innate wise blood to lead him toward his destiny or a father/daughter pair of religious con artists, where the father pretends to be blind.  

O'Connor' s story left me reading an incredible amount of commentary and  I was amazed that every possible religious world view could have a different interpretation on the religious imagery and symbolism and the characters' fates.  This made it difficult to process through in a coherent manner, which I think is part of the point.   In her author's note, published with the second edition, she writes,  "Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen."  I tried to read this story through this lens, as freedom can be an incredibly nuanced word, especially when applied to one's personal journey.  

What has stuck with me the most in this vein of thought is the fact that ever since Hazel Motes left for the war, and even upon his return, he carried around an old bible and his deceased mother's old glasses.   Part of the beauty of these two objects is the wealth of things they can symbolize, and in turn how those symbols can cause a reader to think about his or her own life.  Does the bible represent a burden that he is carrying or where he can find freedom? Can it be both? How is that played out in one's life? Are the glasses representative of him looking at life through his family's past? Or just the fact that he is seeking something? Or is he blind to certain parts of life?   He returned from the war a different person--and it is interesting to think about how facing that particular reality colored his worldview and his ultimate fate.

Through the lens of seeking freedom, these objects magnify the complexity of it and whether it is possible to completely be free from one's past and the questions haunting one's mind and whether it is possible to rest and simply be when there are so many things  to process through around us.  What I'm appreciating more and more about this book is life's complexity that O'Connor, who was a practicing Catholic, didn't shy away from.  The pat answers I've encountered along the way feel weightless and empty--and perhaps it is the carrying of the weight while intentionally looking and seeking that brings answers and eventual peace. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

summer reading is almost here! or, an abundance of links and recommendations to help you craft your own summer reading list.

Officially summer starts June 20 though people have been in summer mode since Memorial Day, but mine starts June 28th.  Mt first day off school.  I love my job for a lot of reasons, but especially for the glorious time to get lost in a crazy amount of books for 8 weeks every year.  Last year my book club committed to a tiny type 1,000+ page book which was great, but consumed my summer reading life, so this year I'm looking forward to more freedom. The end of the school year is also always so hectic, so I am looking forward to thinking a bit more deeply in the coming months, which was an upside to last summer.  Here's the list so far, but I'm still soliciting recommendations and leaving some room for spontaneous decisions, obviously.

From my ongoing book list
{summer reading start}
I have been compiling a list on my phone of book titles I come across browsing in my favorite bookstores, in magazines and on blogs that sound compelling.  On Sunday I walked over to my favorite bookstore in Brooklyn, Greenlight, and went through the list and picked out the four that made me the most excited to get started with the reading plan:

1. A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert: this has been on my mental list for years and chronicles the story of five generations of women and studies the relationship of mothers and daughters.

2. Broken Colors by Michele Zackheim: from one of my favorite imprints, Europa (see The Elegance of the Hedgehog and A Novel Bookstore), this story is written up as lyrically beautiful and historically set, two of my favorite kinds of books.  It follows a woman's life through her artistic passions.

3. Stone's Fall by Iain Pears: a highly recommended mystery set in London, Paris and Venice, told backward in time from 1909 to 1867.

4. Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy:  three characters' paths cross one summer in Athens

Young Adult

{young adult non fiction}

Of course, I have a few titles I want to read for the youth.  This summer, I'm trying to focus on some of the new non fiction I have in my classroom that I'm hoping to use in book clubs in the fall.  These titles range from a graphic novel version of the 9/11 report to one about Charles Darwin and his wife.  Sometimes I get a little leery of reading too much young adult fiction in the summertime, but I'm excited for what these titles could do for kids as readers.  Initially I hoped to be done with all of them by the end of June, but I think that's a bit lofty of a goal. Ha.

Recommendations and Rereads

Geek Love and Ender's Game from Nikki
reread Danny, the Champion of the World from Jenna
I always reread The Summer Book  

So, I'll be writing along the way from Brooklyn, Louisville and the Hamptons this year, with an overview in September.  If you want to read along, let me know, because I am always up for book talks:) 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The inanimate protagonists among us.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is a novel in which each chapter focuses around a different protagonist, all of whom work for an English language newspaper in Rome.  In between each chapter is a short section in italics about the history of the paper.

The title made me think about who the imperfectionists are.  Each chapter's protagonist envelopes perfectionism in a different way, while simultaneously embracing--sometimes unknowingly--the imperfections in other areas of their lives.  It actually brought me back to my sophomore year English class discussing Stradlater, the secret slob in The Catcher in the Rye.  Since there are so many characters, each chapter really felt like I was peering through a window into the messy details of their lives that their newspaper coworkers had no idea existed. And, all the while, these imperfect beings--who still have incredible strengths--create a daily paper, which is the true protagonist of the story. It is no more perfect than those putting it together, but it breathes and ignites a certain passion, making it a most interesting character.

In response, I've been thinking about the inanimate protagonists of my own life--places and objects that could command their own story within mine and perhaps thousands or millions of others' lives, connecting us with some giant spool of thread.  Through time some are delegated to mere supporting characters in my past as others step up to help define my current era of life.

I loved thinking about all of the stories that the paper had witnessed throughout the years--and the way that people feel an attachment to it throughout.  I think about places like my high school's football stadium and the innumerable Friday nights I spent there from age 10 or so through high school, and then everyone else who has done the same, past and present.  Or walking through academic quad on Miami's campus in the fall.  Or making peace with the city on the Hudson River with tea in hand.

For better or worse, I know that I can kind of be a sentimentalist, but these are what create community across generations--the kinds of things that anchor people and make them feel at home.  And, as a lover of fiction, thinking of them provides me with endless fodder for imagining all the stories that have unfolded before them--and a little sad that most will not be written down.

And I think, just to flip this idea for just a second, that if we all stopped to think about what our mutual antagonists were--the visible or invisible forces that also connect us with spools of thread--if it would deepen the sense of community and understanding and empathy?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

to run or not to run.

The Marriage Plot is Jeffrey Eugenides' third novel (after The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex) which was released last fall. It follows the college and post graduation life and experiences of three characters: Leonard, with a brilliant mind for both science and philosophy, symptoms of manic depression and a heartbreaker reputation; Mitchell, who has been studying religion and mysticism and is the story's moral center of sorts; and Madeleine, an English major who has situated her life between these two men, most often romantically allying herself with Leonard.  The title refers not just to their own stories, but to the literary sub genre of the marriage plot, which Hanna studies in earnest.  The ending of the book reveals Eugenides' take on it, which I enjoyed, but I wasn't super engaged with the overall plot of the story.

What was interesting to me, though, was when Mitchell was traveling in India for part of the year following graduation.  While volunteering with Mother Theresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta, he comes across a man there who was a beekeeper from Arizona, with his wife he was still passionately in love with and their children.  "And out of this perfect life had come the need to break out of it, to bring it into real difficulty, even hardship, in order to relieve the suffering of others."  Mitchell was fascinated by this intentional choice and watched as the beekeeper and the other volunteers served the people of the home as a bit of an outsider.  He had an opportunity to step out of the relatively clean space he had carved out for himself in the home to help a man who needed a bed pan and attempted, but when the mess came and he wasn't sure how to handle it, he literally ran out of the home and left Calcutta.

Of course, Mitchell is 22 years old and yet to glean the kind of wisdom that the beekeeper had, so I can't despise him for his act of cowardice.  But it makes me think about how easy it is to talk a good game on the importance of alleviating suffering and walking with people through their pain, but following through is another story.  When it encroaches on one's freedom--time, thought life, expenses both literal and metaphorical--bolting feels like a valid option, especially if you can at least feel good about having tried.  I guess this is all to say that I'm trying to reconfigure my definition of what a good life actually entails--and not merely in word and thought, but in action--not leading a life that is guided solely by comfort and ease, but a willingness to have deeper roots, which will bring both deeper sorrows but also joys.