A Year of Reading

31 Dec

When I first started this blog, I predicted that I would abandon it for the power of the written word, or more specifically, words written by somebody other than myself. It is especially challenging to have a steady balance of reading and writing (at least it is for me). After writing quite a bit in 2012, 2013 began with not having too much to say. I started the year recovering from an illness, longing for sleep and solitude; words, stories, reflections went elsewhere. I had nothing to say, even after I recovered and became myself again. The prescription for good health depended on a steady stream of books, and really, why ruin a good thing?

So without further ado, here’s how I spent my time not blogging:
1. Darwin’s Ghosts: A Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott. When Darwin first published Origin of Species, a reader called him out for not crediting those whose ideas and studies paved the way for Darwin’s own revelations. Darwin’s compilation of his fore-fathers goes all the way back to Aristotle. Interesting, if somewhat dry at times.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Absolute delight! I received this as a “Crappy Day Present”, and it is THE antidote for a crappy day. It’s the saga of a magical circus– romance, competition, drama ensues!

3. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout. I don’t think this book has received the attention it deserves. Masterfully written double narrative of George and Ruth Mallory. George’s narrative spans several years as he is driven to reach the top of Mt. Everest; Ruth’s spans a single day as she reflects on her life with George.

4. Tiepolo Pink by Roberto Calasso. I read this for my art book club and take an exorbitant amount of pride in having finished it. It’s Calasso’s argument of why Tiepolo is an important artist and how Tiepolo used repeated images in his art to tell an over-arching story. I think. I mostly thought it was a load of BS, since Calasso didn’t really have a specific point to what he was saying– which is why I finished the book, to see if their was one. And, nope, not really. The benefit of having read this book is that I can now spot a Tiepolo in any museum, and distinguish it from a Fragonard (lucky me).

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Once you get past the fact that it is written in present tense and an interesting third person limited perspective (“he” always refers to the protagonist Thomas Cromwell), it’s a good book. Mantel brings to the reign of Henry VIII to life as she shows the wheeling and dealing that occurred to make his marriage to Ann Boleyn possible.

6. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. This was suggested for a book club choice by my friend who “says” she didn’t want to join. My question is: why suggest a great book if you don’t want to join??? Anyhoo, I got the best of both worlds: she joined and this book is amazing. It’s based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters who worked to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Not for the faint of heart.

7. Nothing Daunted:The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden. The title says it all: two bored society girls tired of teas and husband-hunting take jobs as teachers in a one-room Colorado school house at the turn of the twentieth century. Needless to say, their lives are changed forever. A reminder of how we need to eschew routine for grand adventures.

8. An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. Besides being a comedian and playing the banjo, Martin is quite the art connoisseur. This novel is about the schemings of the art world and those that get caught up in them. It was okay.

9. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that Way by Bill Bryson. Exploring the development of the English language the way only Bill Bryson can. Funny and informative.

10. Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of Peter Paul Rubens by Mark Lamster. Rubens, it turns out, was a jack of all trades at ease in the artist’s studio and the offices of various kings and queens. He used his role as an artist to influence and spy on his subjects as he helped reshape Europe. Rubens differs from the stereotypical flighty, scatterbrained artist as he had astute political and business acumen.

11. Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers. Romping around England solving crimes with the charming and urbane Sir Peter Wimsey. Need I say more?

12. The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow. YA fiction that also makes a good grown-up read. Coming of age story of Karl Stern, a Jewish boy who doesn’t consider himself as Jewish, growing up in 1930′s Berlin. He takes boxing lessons from Max Schmeling and learns what kind of person he wants to be as Hitler rises to power.

13. The Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach. Bell is indeed an interesting figure as she explored what is now modern day Iraq alone at the turn of the twentieth century. Her knowledge of the area and relationships developed with various warlords helped unite Iraq after WWI. However, Wallach is too enamored of her subject, and seems to feel every slight that Bell received in her lifetime while overlooking Bell’s horrendous treatment and betrayal of others. Not an even-handed biography.

14. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut. This was one of this year’s biggest surprises for me. The only Vonnegut I had ever read is “Harrison Bergeron” because I teach it to my sophomores (it’s on the pacing guide), and it never inspired me to read more of Vonnegut’s work. Then at a book club Bluebeard was suggested, and inwardly groaning, I agreed to it as a “good sport”. It combines a curmudgeonly protagonist, WWII, and Abstract Expressionism. What more could I ask for? But it’s Vonnegut’s insights about the modern world and how we tell our stories that resonated the most.

15. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Klein. Cute little tome about developing creativity.

16. The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan. Fun adventure with teenage demigods struggling to find their purpose in the world while fighting scary monsters in a race against the clock.

17. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Heartbreaking story of friendship, jealousy, and betrayal in China. Have your Kleenex ready.

18. After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey. Hainey’s memoir about investigating the night his father died, which was always explained to him as “after visiting friends”. He is tenacious in his investigation to solve that life-long mystery. This memoir resonates because I think we all have those moments in our lives where what actually happened is not as it was told to us and we know it. For me, I think it also brings up the question, how much, exactly, do we want to know?

19. To End All Wars: A Story of Rebellion and Loyalty by Adam Hochschild. Engaging history of the anti-war struggle in England during WWI. The war started so quickly and there was such propaganda for it that those who opposed it are often overlooked.

20. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows. Do not be put off by the cutesy title! (I was.) A wonderful epistolary novel set in post-WWII Guernsey, an island off the coast of Britain occupied by the Germans during the war. A testament to the power of books, friendship, and community while not shying away from the horrors of war.

21. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918 by GJ Meyer. A concise and compelling retelling of the war. I appreciated that it captured the human elements and casts an unbiased eye over all of the players. It does not get bogged down in the minutiae of battle maneuvers, but instead gives overviews of the battles. If you have to read one book about the Great War, let this be it.

22. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Probably THE civilian memoir that came out of WWI. Brittain recounts her life prior to the war and shows how the war transformed her values and beliefs. She brings the carnage and destruction of the war to a human level.

23. Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle. Wonderful art heist caper written in Mayle’s breezy style. Perfect summer reading or airplane book (even better if you’re flying to France!).

24. Regeneration by Pat Barker. Reading Pat Barker’s writing was a revelation– her style is spare, direct, and vivid. It’s hard to say this without sounding a bit sexist, but as I read I had to keep looking at her picture. The novel didn’t sound/read like it was written by a woman. Not to say it sounded like a man’s voice, but it was just the way she told the story. Regeneration focuses on Dr. William Rivers who treated shell-shocked soldiers in WWI such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to highlight the inhumane treatment of those who fought bravely on the front. It’s an anti war novel that reveals how many soldiers wished to decry the war, but could not leave their units behind.

25. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I didn’t want to read this one, but it was for a book club, and I hoped for a redeeming “Vonnegut effect”. None came. Bradbury explores what would happen if we colonized/invaded Mars. Lots of social commentary. Still not a fan.

26. The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker.
27. The Ghost Road by Pat Barker. These finish out the Regeneration trilogy. She continues following the life of Dr. Rivers and his patients. Highly recommend. A side note: I finished the trilogy right before I left for my trip to the UK. At this point I had read six books about WWI, and at the Edinburgh Castle there was a monument to the Scottish soldiers of that war. Inside, etched into the walls were the names of all of the battles: Ypres, Dardenelles, Verdun, the Somme; lining the walls were counters topped with thick books listing the names of the Scotsmen who died in the war (over 150,000) and how and where they died. Everything that I had learned was still fresh in my mind, and it felt very personal. It was quite overwhelming.

28. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. This was my first exposure to any of Somerset Maugham’s work, and his writing style places you squarely in the scene– you are there. This is a reimagining of Gauguin’s life in Charles Strickland, a middle class stockbroker and family man who shocks everyone by abandoning his comfortable life for art, poverty, and Tahiti. Ultimately forces us to ask ourselves, what is a life well-lived? What is art’s purpose and who is art for?

29. Love by Toni Morrison. Do not be fooled by the book’s small size (just over 200 pages). What it lacks in physical weight, it more than compensates for emotional weight. This is not an easy book to read, even by the typical Morrison standard. Set in an all-black resort town run by Bill Cosey, the novel explores the relationships of the women who loved Cosey, now deceased. No one is likable and the first 120 pages are the longest 120 pages ever (unless you’ve read Young Man Luther by Erik Erikson– it trumps this book), but it finally picks up and revelations are made, and before you know it, you feel for these characters and their shattered lives.

30. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Perkins Gilman is most known for writing “The Yellow Wallpaper”; there’s a reason for that. Steer clear of this “feminist utopia”. It might have been revolutionary in her day, but it has not aged well.

31. Garlic and Sapphires: The Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl. Fun, fun, fun. Reichl’s memoir about being the NYT’s restaurant critic, and given the competitive nature of the NY food scene, all of the restauranteurs had the low down on her. This forced her to visit eateries in disguise. As she goes about her work as somebody else, she learns how people are treated and about herself. She also gets herself into many funny–and hair-raising–scrapes. Her reflections are down to earth, and if I were took look to a mentor on how to write a memoir, Reichl is an excellent candidate.

32. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Here is a story that has aged well: a good man trying to do the right thing, but is screwed over by forces outside of his control. My AP kids and I had many debates over how much control he had over his destiny.

33. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. One of my favorite novels, and this year’s Academic Decathlon novel selection. Finally, after The Grapes of Wrath (snore), Heart of Darkness (snore), and Dr. Zhivago (less of a snore, but what the hell is going on?!), the powers that be threw us a bone. Again, it’s another novel that grapples with the question if what does it mean to live–especially after your life does it turn out how you intended? Even though it is centered around Jake Barnes, all of the characters struggle with this this question (except Pedro Romero who is young, unscathed by war, and is saved by the church of “aficion”).

34. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Good lord! Have some Prozac ready after this one. Miller’s timeless morality tale of the perils of false values and the American Dream. Dr. Phil would have a field day with the Loman family.

35. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. YA WWII fiction about female pilots and spies and unlikely friendships. This is an intricate plot chance, coincidence, and irony as one gets caught by the Nazis in a secret raid and the other seeks to set her free. Intense!

36. A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron. If you are an animal lover, go get this book! Told from the perspective of a dog, this story reveals the bond of a dog and his human. Cameron writes this tale with warmth and manages to not make this saccharine or corny. I guarantee, though, that you will cry a minimum of four times.

37. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman has a devoted following. I get it. However, after reading this fantasy of unleashed spirits that haunt a vulnerable little boy, I’m not part of that group. My response after reading this book was, “And? So?”. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but I just didn’t see the point. But I have friends who love it.

38. The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser. In 1990 Boston’s Gardner Museum was robbed– most notably of a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. The paintings were knifed out of their frames, rolled up, and carted out. After years of investigation, the leads ran cold, and Boser decided to pick up the loose ends. Long story short: he doesn’t find them either. His book details the social, cultural, and financial value of art; problems museums face with hubris, funding, and security; the mafia and the art world; and a whole cast of crazy characters who may or may not have seen the art. This is especially upsetting to me since my goal is to see all of the Vermeers– there are only 36 (now 35)– and I,and everyone else, will never see “The Concert”.

39. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. This book sat on my bookshelf for years before I read it; for some reason–don’t ask me how– I equated it with Milan Kundera’s Incredible Lightness of Being. Instead it is a Danish crime drama where snow is an important motif. Smilla is the proto-type for Lizbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: single-minded, determined, an outcast. Very technical and, well, cold. If you’re into all of the Scandinavian crime genres, then you should add it to your repertoire.

40. Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. This is a quiet and beautifully written novel based on Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother”. It spans the life of Mary Coin, based on the mother in the photograph, and Vera Dare, a fictionalized Lange. It shows how both women survive tImes of great hardship, determining who they are as mothers and women, and the choices they make for survival.

41. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower. Edgar Allan Poe was one bitter, combative, and manipulative little man! Gee whiz! When you buy a book with a sensationalist title, you hope for a sensationalist book. I think Stashower tried to do too much here by showing how the 1830′s press, the fickle public, and the uncooperative New Jersey and New York police forces bungled up the investigation of the murder of Mary Rogers, the beautiful cigar girl. In the meantime, this inspired the habitually broke and scheming Poe to write a story about it that purportedly solved the crime. The most interesting thing for me was reading about NY and how it was in that time and trying to imagine 66th Street as farm land, but otherwise much of this was repetitive.

42. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. This is one delight of a novel. Simonson weaves together the clashes of culture, generations, tradition, and the expectations of others and creates two endearing characters in Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Jasmina Ali in a comedy of manners. It’s also set in England. So get your tea and biscuits and cozy up to this novel.

43. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Where to begin? How about this? Italy, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Idaho, writing, acting, performing, building a tennis court on the side of a cliff, Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Cleopatra, taking chances, staring over, search for love, identity, redemption, and last but not least: Pasquale Tursi. Don’t know Pasquale? Read this novel and meet him.

44. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. A biting and satirical (doesn’t this describe all of his works?) novel about an American stationed to work with the Nazis now on trial for war crimes in Isreal. I read this on the plane back from NY; I was really tired and sensed I was missing much of the sarcasm. I want to reread this one to get the full experience.

45. Othello by William Shakespeare. “Oh monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world,/ to be direct and honest is not safe.” The levels of irony and betrayal in this line from Iago and its effect on Othello is one of the reasons I teach this tragedy. Except this year one of my (AP) students missed the point and thought Iago was quite the matchmaker and rooted for #teamCassio. SMH.

46. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. Reichl spent her youth guarding her parents’ guests from eating her mother’s “cooking” to prevent untimely deaths and other disasters. With such a dubious background, it’s remarkable that she embarked on such a successful career in food. In this memoir she explains how she got from here to there.

47. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Let’s be real here. How can you not like this novel? It’s got everything: a proud but misunderstood and shy man, a woman prejudiced by her own abilities, a secret feud, elopements, great fight scenes, a creeper, a player, lavish estates, an imperious old woman set to have her way, a quirky family, and unrequited love. Every year I have the great joy of exposing this novel to teenagers, and what makes me happy is the amount of boys who like it. This year one of my boys wrote me note thanking me for introducing him to P&P, one of his new favorite books.

48. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. If you need to escape from reality, let this book be your portal. Set in post WWII Barcelona, ten year old Daniel Sempere and his father visit the secret Cemetery of a Forgotten Books. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by the mysterious Julian Carax. This selection changes the course of his life and leads him to adventure, danger, and romance as he searches the past of the elusive author. Full of larger than life characters and plot twists galore.

49. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I didn’t want it to end, so I read it again.

50. Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. This is probably one of my favorite contemporary novels. This was my third time reading it. It’s about asthmatic Reuben Land whose father works miracles and whose brother is on the run from the law. He, his father, and younger sister go on a voyage looking for their outlaw. Together they grapple with what is legally right versus what is morally right. Enger’s other novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome is also worth a read.

51. October Sky by Homer Hickam, Jr. This was originally titled Rocket Boys, but they used the anagram for the movie. This is Hickam’s memoir of growing up in a coal mining town in West Virginia in the 1950′s. Inspired by Sputnik, he and his friends are determined to learn how to build rockets. The community rallies behind them as they create prototype after prototype. This is also a story about a boy trying to understand his father and his place in the world. It’s a bit dry in places, but overall a good read.

52. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. The great thing about teaching this novel is that it generates its own discussion. My kids came in everyday with some point they wanted to discuss. Janie Crawford resonated with my students; I wonder if it is because they, too, are going to be on their own journeys soon and will they find the bee to their blossom?

53. The Painted Veil by W . Somerset Maugham. Again, Somerset Maugham puts you right there in his books. This is the story of a Kitty Faine who enters a loveless marriage, gets caught in an affair, and is then taken to the cholera-plagued Mei-tan-fu region in a China where she can reflect on her actions. If you’re looking for “happy ever after”, move along. If you’re looking for a clear-sighted look at the confinement of women’s choices, this is your book. As I was surprised that Pat Barker could tell men’s stories so well, I was equally surprised how well Maugham could capture the thoughts and feelings of a woman.

54. Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman. America, being such a new country, lacked great art, and as it became a greater player in the world, it needed art and culture to prove it. This is the story of Henry Marquand, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Clay Frick, and other tycoons buying up art to display their status, rebuild their images, and leave a legacy of culture and learning to the American people.

55. The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones. One way to determine the type of book you’re looking at is seeing whose endorsements are on it. This particular book has one by Nicholas Sparks on the front. And on the back. AND inside. So is this romantic? Yes. Are there hardships? Yes. Are the lovers seperated? Yes. Does someone die? Yes. There we have it, folks! A novel Nicholas Sparks would like. Fortunately, the subject matter saves this book. It’s about a woman who becomes an art dealer alongside her Jewish husband in 1930′s Munich. They specialize in Modern art, or “degenerate art” by Hitler’s standards. She works to save what art she can before it is destroyed. How much art Hitler deprived the world of will never be known– my mind cannot wrap around how much death and destruction he caused.

This is my wrap up of 2013. On my shelves are more books yet to be read, so here’s to a new year full of reading , exploring, and learning. What book made an impact on you this year?

Bring It!

25 Jul

It’s happening again.  Yes.  Again.  As a matter of fact, it will happen this, of all days, Friday.  I will wake up before the dawn, reacquaint myself with near-forgotten rituals such as doing my hair and putting on my make-up, leave my house as the neighborhood sleeps, cruise through my commute, unlock my classroom, and welcome students.  Yes.  It’s the first day of school.  And I say, “Bring it.”

After a taxing, trying 2012-2013 school year during which I experienced a mystery illness that left me weak, sore, and anemic; burn-out; and a strong desire to sleep– so much so that I would pass out at my desk on my prep period only to come home and pass out again.  I trained a student in each class to call the school secretary just in case I had to run out of the room for an “emergency”, and one day I had to run out of a meeting because of an “emergency” (as one student said, “You drove all the way to work just to vomit?  That sucks.”)  My response to my very good students, who I was very lucky to have during this time, slowly deteriorated to, “Me-no care-oh” (translated: “I don’t care what you do, just turn it in.”).  Doctor’s appointments and going home sick impeded my ability to be a good advisor to my book club and my Academic Decathlon team.  The kids had to rearrange their schedules and find other teachers who could take over for the day.  Once again, the AcaDec materials weren’t ordered correctly (cough, cough, district office, cough, cough), and we didn’t get our materials until late October.  Competition is in January. I questioned myself.  I knew I was not the teacher or advisor I could be, but I couldn’t muster the energy to be that person.

My questioning deepened after I attended a Common Core Conference in Monterey and the keynote speaker, Kate Kinsella, chastised teachers who had pictures of the Eiffel Tower and posters of kittens dangling by a paw from a tree that say, “Hang in there!”.  There is no place in the classroom for these non-academic distractors!  My co-workers gasped, glancing my way.  In lieu of the Eiffel Tower, there is a big poster of Central Park over my desk, next to my Kandinsky poster, over my Warhol Marilyn Monroe -inspired rubber ducky picture.  There are no posters of kittens, but there is one of a silly-looking frog that says, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  This doesn’t take into account all of the rubber ducks that line my desk and cupboards, the student art, my travel postcards, and the cutouts of Toy Story characters that had been on a Kleenex box.  One of my TA’s cut them out once it was empty and made me a collage.  My room was clear, undeniable evidence that I was not A Serious Teacher.  Fortunately, Kinsella also alienated every other teacher in the room by telling us to do our “damn jobs” and implored Social Studies teachers to actually teach kids something.  However, once made, the wound was slow to heal.

It was a challenging year.  Too tired to be creative or care too much, I stopped blogging.  There was nothing really to say except express my own uncertainty.  I turned to my books and novels.  I read and read and read.  There just didn’t seem to be enough words that I could gobble up.  I did not want to write or create.  My book clubs with my friends were the  life lines that kept me afloat.  They forced me to not recede to wherever it was that I could possibly go.  My husband, stymied by the fact that I requested white bread, made me endless bowls of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.  During my two-week spring break, I broke tradition and stayed home.

Slowly, the universe shifted.  I learned that I would be teaching AP Literature the 2013-2014 school year.  The fact that I was chosen to teach it was a boost to my self-esteem as an educator, but I was still plagued with doubt.  I still smarted from Kinsella’s implication that I am not a Serious Teacher and considered ways to make my classroom more “academic”– befitting of an AP teacher.

The universe, it seemed, wasn’t done with me yet.  One day I sat reading my students’ personal statements, allowing me to glimpse into their real lives and thoughts.  One student wrote about her two inspiring teachers: her Spanish teacher and…. me.  She wrote about how much I encouraged her and challenged her, and blah, blah, blah.  “Is she trying to butter me up and get an “A”?” I asked myself.  The next line proved that she was not: “In Ms. L’s room she has a poster of Central Park over her desk.  I look at it everyday.  This inspires me to do well and be successful in life so I can go visit wonderful, magical places in the world like Central Park.”  With tears welled up in my eyes, I decided that Kate Kinsella could suck it.  My student, on the other hand, earned her “A”. And a hug.

As I was leaving on the last of school, I glanced in the mailroom.  There, on the floor, was a delivery from the US Academic Decathlon.  My materials for this upcoming year arrived– early.

After a positive end to the school year, gaining back my health and energy, much collaboration for cross-curricular teaching with a history teacher, much fun in Ireland, the UK, and Michigan, much learning at the AP training, and planning a curriculum that includes short stories, poetry, Like Water for Chocolate, Oedipus The King, Death of a Salesman, Othello, Pride and Prejudice, Their Eyes Were Watching God, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and John Trimble’s Writing With Style:A Conversation on the Art of Writing, I am ready for this school year.

If I Had A Garden…

3 Jul

… these are the plants and flowers that would be in it.

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These are a mere sampling of the beauty I saw on my trip through Ireland and Great Britain. The plaque is from St. Paul’s Cathedral, which like the Phoenix it bears, reminds us to rise above all things. This would be in my garden, too (granted they would let me have it).

What places inspire your garden?

My Rack

3 Jul

My blogging buddy Jilanne Hoffman has been demanding requesting that I bare it all. But before you get too excited at my big reveal (and if your mind is going where I think it might–don’t get your hopes up– there’s nothing to see here), I am going to expose one of the most personal parts of myself to you: my book shelves. These shelves contain my lifelong friends enclosed in pages and mementos from my childhood. Enjoy!

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Some things you might have noticed:

1. I like ducks.
2. I have busts of Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson (the only busts I’ve got).
3. Fiction is alphabetized by author; history in chronological order.
4. I have travel, poetry, and art sections.
5. My current area of study is WWI.
6. Reading is sexy.

So now that I’ve shown you mine, why don’t you show me yours?

Follow The Leader

2 Jul
Our destination for our morning hike in Wales.

Our destination for our morning hike in Wales.

You might be hard pressed to determine how an early morning hike up Welsh hills, dotted with wildflowers and contented sheep, to ancient castle ruins could inspire anger, but inspire anger it did. It was hardly the setting that made me angry– I was hiking in Wales!  To ruins!  Nor was it the exertion of charging up the hill; nor was it the early start.  The blue sky peeked through the gray clouds, and the sun hovered in the distance.  The company that surrounded me was charming and equally enthusiastic.  My anger was the anger of “what-might-have-been”.

You see, it was the fifth morning of a sixteen day tour through Ireland and Great Britain, and this hike was not on our itinerary.  Daniel, our tour director and outdoor enthusiast, saw opportunity to offer this trek, and offered to guide us up to the ruins.  He could have opted to sleep in, but why stay in the hotel when you’re in Wales?  The night before, unable to take us out and about Llangollen, he asked if I would lead a walk along the River Dee that coursed through the town.  I didn’t really lead, but I had the map and directions from the guy at the front desk and away we went.  Again, why stay in the hotel?  In Killarney, Daniel found us venues playing live music, and in Dublin, he took those of us that did not want to go back to the hotel just yet to Temple Bar.  We weren’t just going to tour Ireland and Great Britain, we were going to experience it.

Enjoying the ambience of Temple Bar in Dublin.

Enjoying the ambience of Temple Bar in Dublin.

Flashback to a year ago when I took four students to London and Paris, and this is where the anger sets in.  Our tour director for that adventure happened to have lived in both cities, but instead of giving him a wealth of knowledge of fun things to do and check out, he was befuddled, lost, and unenthusiastic. He was a slave to our itinerary, didn’t tell us any information about what we were seeing, and seemed out of his depth.  He got us lost, and when he finally opened up to talk to us, no one wanted to listen to him.  My group and I had a good time because of our own initiative and our enjoyment of each other’s company.  But as I walked up the Welsh hills, I reflected on this time and wondered, “What did we miss out on?”  What could have we seen or done had we had an enthusiastic leader with a “the world is your oyster” attitude?

This experience, like most experiences, reminded me of the classroom, our role as teachers, and our power to set the tone in our classrooms.  This isn’t rocket-science, but it was good reminder how our own enthusiasm , flexibility, and willingness to try new things pushes our students to adopt the same attitude.  Daniel wanted us to have meaningful experiences as a group and individually.  He offered us a hike from William Wordsworth’s home at Rydal Mount to the next town.  Seeing first-hand what Wordsworth saw and walked through everyday gave me a greater appreciation for the Romantic sensibility.  In Edinburgh, Daniel pointed the National Gallery out to me, because he knew I wanted to visit it during my free time.  As teachers, it is important to respect the class goals as a whole and those of individual students.  When we support everyone, everyone will rise.

Wouldn't you be a Romantic Poet if you lived here?  At Rydal Mount.

Wouldn’t you be a Romantic Poet if you lived here? At Rydal Mount.

This adventure was pretty amazing.  My mom joined me, and we had our first (and hopefully not last) overseas adventure together; one of my school’s counselors, Mary Jo, joined me, and we became good friends; Max, who went with me last year, accompanied me, and again we had more fun and laughs; and Maria, a quiet and reserved student, also came along, and it was wonderful to see her blossom, make jokes, and assert her independence.  Then all of the other group leaders and their groups were so much fun.  I now have friends in Florida, Houston, Tracy, and Colorado.  However, I doubt all of this would have been possible if we didn’t have such a good leader leading the way.

Fancy a row in Killarney National Park?

Fancy a row in Killarney National Park?

Looking across Lake Windermere, England's largest lake.

Looking across Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake.

Stewart and I with Vermeer's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary at Scotland's National Gallery.

Stewart and I with Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary at Scotland’s National Gallery.

Mary Jo, Daniel, me, and my mom enjoying our Rob Roy Specials (hot chocolate with brandy) on the Sir Walter Scott at Loch Katrine in the the Trossachs.

Mary Jo, Daniel, me, and my mom enjoying our Rob Roy Specials (hot chocolate with brandy) on the Sir Walter Scott at Loch Katrine in the the Trossachs.

Stewart, Jane, and I at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.

Stewart, Jane, and I at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.

My new friend, Angela, from Florida-- so much fun!

My new friend, Angela, from Florida– so much fun!

My new friend, Erika, with Stewart outside of the church where Shakespeare is buried.

My new friend, Erika, with Stewart outside of the church where Shakespeare is buried.

At the top of Calton Hill with Edinburgh in the background.

At the top of Calton Hill with Edinburgh in the background.

Haunting scene from Cashel Rock, Ireland.

Haunting scene from Cashel Rock, Ireland.

Mary Jo, Maria, Max, my mom, and I in front of Fort Ross (?) in Killarney National Park.

Mary Jo, Maria, Max, my mom, and I in front of Fort Ross/Ross Castle (?) in Killarney National Park.

Clubbing: Reader Style

11 May

It was our first meeting and we stared at each other anxiously.  We all loved the book, but who would start and what would we say?  Even though we all knew each other and were comfortable together, the discussion lurched in fits and starts as everyone cautiously shared their thoughts on the book.  Out of the five of us, I was the book club veteran, having been in different clubs in the past and am currently in four others (a logistical feat), and our unease confounded me.  At all of my other book clubs we just started talking about the book; it was an organic process, a grown-up Socratic Seminar where we built upon each other’s ideas.  There really weren’t any “rules”, I thought.  However, once you call something a “Club”, even if it’s just in name only, “rules” are implied, like “no boys allowed!”.  Our meeting lacked liveliness because I assumed we’d just start talking; the other members weren’t certain what to do.

Book clubs should be organic– they are a wonderful venue for discussing ideas, learning from others, and building bonds.  They are also like Christmas: each book a surprise that leads to new interests and perspectives (although some books are the equivalent of receiving scratchy underwear from your grandma).  But they are also made up of people– as varied as the books that are read– and for this reason, there are some “rules” to having a successful book club.

Logistics:  

1. Getting Started: It’s easy!  Invite a group of friends, select a book, set a date, determine a location, bring some food, and voilà!  You have a book club.  No applications, W-2s, or blood tests necessary.

2. How Many?: Anywhere between 5-7 members is good.  This way if a couple cannot show up, there are still enough members to have a discussion; if all show up, everyone will still have enough time to share. (Although, the summer the last Harry Potter novel was released, my friend Jessica and I had a book club of two as we reread all of the series and crying when it was all over.)

3. How Often?  Most meet once a month, but one of mine meets about every six weeks or so.  Make sure there’s ample time to get and read the book.

4. Setting A Date: There a couple of ways to do this. My art book club meets the first Thursday of each month and whoever can make it shows up.  Selecting a specific day each month may work for your group.  My other groups decide at the end of each meeting, so we can check our calendars.  One word of wisdom: once you set a date, keep it.  If someone can’t make it, they can’t make it.  If everybody can’t make it, then reschedule.

5. Where?: Anywhere!  Open up your home.  Meet at a coffee shop.  Have a picnic in the park.

6. Communication: Select someone to be the coordinator.  The coordinator is the one who sends out the email reminders to the rest of the group.  If you are not the coordinator, please respond to the coordinator’s emails or texts.  A terrific website for book clubs is Bookmovement.  It is a website that shows what other book clubs are reading, provides ideas and an “e-vite” reminder for all of your members.

7. To Theme or Not To Theme?: Some book clubs are based on themes or genres. I belong to an art book club and read all kinds genres about art.  One of my friends belongs to a club that only reads memoirs; another to one about politics and current events.  The benefit of a theme group is that it caters to a specific interest of which each member is knowledgable.  Together they increase their knowledge and can compare one author’s ideas to another’s.  My other clubs read anything and everything.  This is a lot of fun, because we don’t know what the next book will be. Our interests are so disparate, but we are connected through our love of reading and learning.

Discussions: 

1. Read the book (it helps!):  Remember this is a BOOK Club, not a Wine and Cheese Club (although wine and cheese are lovely accouterments).  Sometimes life gets in the way, and finishing the book is just an impossibility. It happens.  When this happens, still attend the meeting (because the other members still want to enjoy the pleasure of your company),but have something to say or ask.  Sometimes the book is a dud or something you want to use for target practice.  Read it anyway.  The cloying and saccharine Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the dense and convoluted Tiepolo Pink, and the second-person present-tense Wolf Hall were all struggles to read, but having finished them gave me much more to say.

2.  Determine how your discussions will be run:  Will the person who suggested the book be in charge of leading the discussion or will it be a free-for-all?  Out of the two, I favor the free-for-all.  Many of the members like to “nerd out” and research different topics about the book, and in the free-for-all format, everyone has an opportunity to share without it infringing on the “discussion leader’s” time or plans.  For the free-for-all, each member selects quotes, information, or fun facts that they want to discuss.

3. Be considerate and determine what you, yourself, want to say: This is a subjective “rule” based on a pet peeve of mine: those who hog the discussion. There is really nothing more annoying than taking the time to read a book, jotting down discussion notes, selecting an item to bring as a snack, and traveling to a meeting only to have someone blurt out every idea he/she had about the book, some being the ones you and others wanted to bring up.  You end up being like the kid in class with your hand raised only to have the teacher call on the “know-it-all” who has to share everything he/she knows, and when you’re finally called on, all you can say is, “He/she said what I was going to say.”  To avoid having a monopoly on ideas, choose a couple that you really want to discuss and allow others to share their own.  Most likely, they will bring up the other ideas you had and you’ll still be able to discuss them.

3.  Selecting your first book:  It is really important that the first book chosen is something that would appeal to a wide range of interests and have something juicy enough to talk about.  Some first books that I can remember are Chris Bohjalian’s Midwives, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, and Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends.

4. Selecting the next book: Bring a title that you would like everyone to read for the following meeting and share why it’s interesting to you. Sometimes selecting a new book is easy, everyone gravitates to a certain book. (If this book is something that you don’t want to read, suck it up, and read it anyway.  It may be your next favorite.)  Sometimes it’s hard; when it’s hard, write all the suggested titles on scraps of paper and draw one from a hat.  One time we had six books suggested, so we numbered them one through six, rolled a dice, and whichever number came up, that’s the book we read.

Reading alone is one of life’s great joys; sharing and learning from others is another joy.  Book clubs open up worlds and perspectives and provide connections and friendships.  If you’re not part of one, I encourage you start one.

Readers: Do you belong to a book club?  What advice do you have?  What are some of your favorite club memories?  What books elicited the most lively discussion?

Why I’m Jealous Of The Pencil Sharpener

20 Mar

Yesterday I wrote about a moment in my English class where a boy refused to be bested by my passive-aggressive pencil sharpener.  This event not only stuck in my mind because it was funny, but it gave me a feeling that I never thought I’d feel before: jealousy of my pencil sharpener.  I know this sounds like I’ve fallen to a new low, but let me explain.

Jerry, the subject of yesterday’s story, averages a low B in my class.  He could easily earn an A, but instead he spends class leaned back in his chair and complains to me about the work.  Half of the time he doesn’t look engaged, and the quality of his work leaves much to be desired.  The day he decided to tame my pencil sharpener he was motivated, focused, and engaged.  The sharpener gave him a challenge and frustrated him and put his pride at stake.  Jerry didn’t give up, nor did he give a half-hearted effort, and in the end, he succeeded. Granted, what he was doing wasn’t rocket science, but it is why he struggled so hard for the sharpener, but not for me, that gives me pangs of jealousy.

Building student motivation is a struggle for all teachers.  In a perfect world students would show up to our classrooms ready to learn– excited to learn rhetoric, analyze theme, practice using semi-colons, and write essays.  They would arrive with their homework completed, armed with thoughts to add to discussion, their textbooks, paper, and writing utensils.  For many students this is the reality. They work hard, learn the material, and really want to improve and do well.  For many others, they are content doing the very bare minimum and, some, nothing at all.  And it’s not like teachers are ignorant about what motivates students.  Every book about teaching will explain that motivation arises from building connections with students, stating lesson objectives, building lessons around their interests, showing how the information connects to what they have learned, will learn, and their life, providing timely and constructive feedback, being enthusiastic, and the list goes on.

All of these are great strategies and contribute to the overall ambience and expectations in the classroom.  But they’re not a panacea for motivating each and every student.  The tricky thing about motivation is that it’s personal and individual.  How was I to know that Jerry had a great motivation to work my pencil sharpener?  In reality, Jerry’s motivation is the least of my worries.  He does his work, asks questions, and we have a good rapport.  It’s the others I worry about.

One student of mine from a few years ago stands out.  I’ll call him Ford.  Ford was a lovable knucklehead who was failing all of his classes– including PE.  In my class he goofed off, wore his hat even though I asked him to take it off, never did his work.  His only motivation it seemed to me was to write rap lyrics and get me to call him by his “tag” name (his graffiti nom de plume).  In order to motivate him, I bantered with him, refocused his attention, stayed one step ahead of his antics and created lessons where he could write rap lyrics in connection to our readings.  We got along, but there was nothing on the production end although many of the other boys enjoyed writing and performing their rap songs.

One day there was meeting after school with his counselor, teachers, admin, and his father.  Since I had him in during the last period, I felt it was my responsibility to get him there.  He refused to go, told me his dad wasn’t going to show up, and worried that he would miss his ride home.  To convince me, he called his dad and had him tell me that he wouldn’t be there.  His father explained that something came up “last minute”, but he did tell me that Ford walked home everyday. Ford was shocked when I asked his dad if I could drive his son home after the meeting; he agreed.  With no out, Ford walked with me to the conference room.

The meeting was a revelation.  The only one who really seemed to be fighting for Ford to get back on track was the AP; everyone else seemed disengaged.  The AP spoke frankly to him about his behavior and the resources on campus to help him.  She peppered her talk with profanity, which he responded to.  She seemed to be the only one who had a modicum of his respect.  As he and I walked out of the meeting, I developed a plan of how he could be successful in my class.  He constantly “lost” his work, so I gave him a notebook to keep in class.  If his hat was near him, he would put it on; we agreed to keep in the cupboard during class.  We had a research project on American authors coming up, but I knew that he would be bored by them.  I agreed that he could research Tupac Shakur.

The result was astounding.  He started doing his work and following directions.  He proved that he had the skills to write and research.  He decided that he didn’t want to research Tupac, but Lil’ Wayne instead.  I told him that he had to build his case for Lil’ Wayne by showing me that he had info about him and a true desire to research him.  The next day he brought me a file folder of printed articles and song lyrics highlighted and organized.    Everyday as he walked into class he told me of new information and connections he discovered.  Even my over-achievers were impressed.

I wish I could finish this story with accolades of his finished product, but there was no finished product.  He was expelled.  You can imagine my level of disappointment.  I was disappointed in him for not transferring his good behavior to his other classes.  I was disappointed in his father who showed that his son was not a priority.  I was disappointed in his other teachers for not cultivating an area of success for him (this is pure assumption on my part, but I was disappointed all the same).  I was disappointed by the fact that for all of the motivation I could help bring about in him, it still competed with the negative influences outside of school.

So when I see my pencil sharpener, without exerting any effort on its part, motivate a student to succeed at doing something, I get a little bit jealous.

Jerry Versus The Pencil Sharpener

18 Mar
Public Enemy #1

Public Enemy #1

Jerry’s body language told me that he was bored.  Heck, I was bored.  Unlike him, who had his face planted on the top of his desk and was probably taking a nap, I was at the front of the class reviewing the syllabus and classroom procedures.  I wanted to take a nap, too.

“This is the in-box– turn your work in here.  This is the out-box– once your work is corrected, it’ll be here.  This is my desk.  Don’t touch it,” I explained as I made my way to the pencil sharpener, “And this is the pencil sharpener.  If you need your pencil sharpened, ask me to do it.  It doesn’t like students.”

Jerry lifted his head sharply, giving me a look that clearly said, “What the hell?!”.  Ah, he was paying attention.

The pencil sharpener is a run-of-the-mill shiny silver dial-a-hole, crank-handle model mounted to the side of a cupboard.  There’s nothing that separates it from the hordes of sharpeners the world over, except that the user has to earn its respect.  For the last six years it has taken fiendish delight breaking, eating, or just flat refusing to sharpen my students’ pencils.  It can turn a brand new Ticonderoga into a stub in no time flat.  Students, who have learned their lessons the hard way, just give me their pencils and watch in awe as I return it to them sharp and gleaming.

One day as we worked on imagery and figurative language posters, Jerry brought me an orange colored pencil and asked if I’d sharpen it.  He watched me closely as I inserted the pencil, cranked the handle, and returned it to him.  As far as he could tell, I used the sharpener the exact same way he was taught how to use it way back in kindergarten.  He looked at the sharpener.  He looked at me.

“I can do this.  I can use this sharpener!” he exclaimed.

“Oh really?,” I retorted, smiling at him, “You want to take on the pencil sharpener?”

He nodded his head, “Yeah.  There’s nothing special about this.”

“Go for it,” I challenged.

He marched back to his group and grabbed two more pencils and marched back.

“Now watch this,” he said as he thrust the first one in, cranked, and pulled it out.  The pencil emerged, its round wooden tip formed a cave around where the lead should have been. “What the…?!”

I grinned up at him as I took the pencil out of his hand and expertly returned it to him healthy and whole, “As I said.  It doesn’t like students.”

Jerry gave me a look meant to wither me.  This had escalated from a mild skirmish to an all out war.  Nothing was going to get the best of him– especially not his pipsqueak of an English teacher and her demonic pencil sharpener.  And especially not in front of the entire class whose attention was now directed at this heated battle.

“Move aside,” he commanded as he tested his abilities on his second pencil.  He again cranked the handle.  A hollow sound emanated from the sharpener’s belly. “What!  It’s broken now!  It’s not even sharpening!”  He cranked some more.  It was clear the grinders hadn’t caught the pencil.  The class tittered.

“It can’t be broken. I just used it,” I replied as I took over.  It worked and sharpened the pencil.

He was stunned and visibly frustrated as the class laughed.  “Look,” he said as he glared down at me, “you’re crazy.  Your pencil sharpener’s crazy.  This is crazy.”

He marched back to his seat, plopped down, and crossed his arms.  He shook his head at me as I grinned and pet the pencil sharpener.

A couple of minutes passed.  He grabbed a yellow pencil and made his way toward me.  One of his classmates alerted everyone, “Look!  He’s going back!”

He stared down at me, rolling the pencil in between his fingers. “I’m going to do it, Ms. L. I’m going to sharpen this pencil.”

“By all means, please do,” I responded.

Shaking out his shoulders, he squared up to the sharpener.  He gave me nod; the class looked on in anticipation.  He placed the pencil inside, grabbed the handle, focused, and cranked quickly.  As if waiting for a sign, he suddenly stopped.  He pulled it out and there it was: just the curl of a wood shaving dangling from the pointy yellow tip.

He brought the top of the pencil up to his mouth like a tip of a gun and blew off the shaving. He smiled at me as the class burst into applause.

The Sad State of the One Star Review

16 Mar

I have been warned many a time by many a friend that Amazon reader reviews should be taken with a grain of salt.  I suspect this is good advice.  These reviewers are unknown to me and their credentials suspect, even if their screen name is “Professorofeverything”, “books4life”, or “LiteraryWizard”.  Who knows who these people are, their backgrounds, beliefs, and everything else they bring to their readings of a text?  However, there is an industry of Joe Schmoes parcelling out advice for the Amazon Vine program– high-rated reviewers selected by Amazon and who receive benefits from said company– to the community who make up GoodReads.  Obviously, there are those who are taking this with more than a sprinkling of salt.

But like the explorers before me, I use the stars as my guide, and it is with some star snobbery on my part that books that garner only three and a half give me pause.  Are these books that I really want to read?  Those that couldn’t muster an average of a four-star review?  At this point I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and puff away at my pipe to determine if these reviews written by strangers to myself about a book I have yet to read are valid.  Some questions that I think about as I read are: how well does the reviewer know the subject or the author’s work?  How balanced is the reviewer’s tone?  What biases does the reviewer reveal?  Like Sherlock, I also look for the telling details such as the smudge of jelly on the reviewer’s tie that discredits everything he has previously said.  Jelly smudges in writing include words that are not capitalized, like “I”; or words that are in all-cap; or rampant misspellings; or the use of “gonna”, “wanna”, or “I seen”.  Poor use of grammar undermines the message, no matter how balanced it is.  The last thing I look for is the prevalence of the one-star review.

Finding a one-star review worth its salt is a particular (and peculiar) quest of mine.  Mostly it reveals that I need a new hobby.  It is easy to give a book a five-star review, but it takes a certain amount of bravura to award it with only one.  This means the reviewer better have solid evidence as to why the book is THAT bad, why it doesn’t even deserve a “mercy” two star rating.  Giving a book a one-star means that the book is not worth being read; the book is worthy of being ostracized. It draws a hard line.  While the five-star review is superlative, the one-star is dogmatic: “Do not read this!” it warns.

However, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what the one-star is for, and it seems that they should be peer-reviewed before they are instantly published to the web.  If a one-star review fell under any of the following categories, it would would be kicked back to the reviewer for revision:

1.  It’s a complaint about the Kindle edition.  If it didn’t download fast enough, cost more than the paperback, or was full of grammatical errors, learn the lesson, drop the technology, and move back to reading paper books.  The author who slaved over the writing of the book should not be punished for something outside of his or her realm.

2.  It’s a complaint about the UPS driver.  Contact UPS.

3.  Misuse of literary terms.  I have read reviews of non-fiction texts where the reviewers complained of there being too many facts, too many characters, a non-linear story line, and all of this makes the plot really hard to understand.

4.  You’re rooting for who?  Reviewers who complain that a book made Hitler or Trujillo “look bad” or that Abraham Lincoln “deserved to be shot” should have their reviews kicked back with a nice note suggesting “soul-searching”.

5. Inability to determine good writing.  One reviewer of Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain suggested that Stegner learn how to write.  He then posted an example of the passage he found difficult: “The train was rocking through the wide open country before Elsa was able to put off the misery of leaving and reach out for the freedom and release that were hers now.”  This is the first line of the novel.  It went downhill from there.

6. Inability to determine context of writing.  One review of Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure decried how Osa and her husband, Martin, treated animals in the wild; they didn’t use today’s standards.  The Johnson’s traveled the globe in the first part of the 20th century.  Today’s standards weren’t invented yet.

6a. Using evidence against a writer without first determining its validity.  This most recently came up when I read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.  There are 17 one-star reviews of that book– which surprised me because it’s Bill Bryson.  Who picks a fight with Bill Bryson?!  But when the topic is language, specifically, the English language, people can get a bit truculent.  It also doesn’t help that the book was published in 1990, and the information is more than 20 years old.  Some of what we know about language has changed or expanded since then.  But instead of reviewing all of Bryson’s work, which is cited, reviewers picked at his credibility through the use of small examples.  One criticized his etymology of the word “petroleum”, which he said that “petra” is a Latin root and “oleum” a Greek suffix.  The reader took offense and stated that it is in fact the reverse!  Therefore because of this and other mistakes like it , Bryson’s work should not be taken seriously, and definitely not as a work of scholarship at all. However, if one looks up the etymology in the dictionary (and the internet provides many dictionaries to choose from), one learns that “petra” is Latin, and so is “oleum” (a half point for the reviewer).  But upon further study, one finds that “ole” is a Greek root for oil. Bryson’s point was that words are created by making Latin and Greek hybrids.  Maybe he should have used the term “hypercorrection” as an example instead.

What I think bothers me the most about one-star reviews is how close to life they are.  We have all received such reviews in our lives, and they’re based on spurious reasons.  They’re unfair, and mostly (unless we’re major screw-ups) we earn them through no fault of our own.  It’s hard to deal with someone who misunderstands you, willfully or otherwise, and does not seek to understand.  Or one who could be corrected, but lets the rating still stand.  Or one judges us using different criteria (“Yes, she gave a knock-out presentation, but did you see the bags under her eyes?!”).  Like authors on Amazon, we cannot do much about what other people say about us.  Some reviews can be changed; our merits shine through and our reviewer sees the light.  But for those who dig in their heels, there’s no budging them.  It’s not necessarily the Amazon reviews that we should take with a grain of salt, but it’s the one-star reviews about ourselves.

“She took life by the throat and dealt with it.”

23 Feb

This post’s title is a quote from Dorothy Wickenden’s book Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, a biography of Dorothy Woodruff (the author’s grandmother) and Rosamond Underwood who in 1916 left their upper-class lives of teas and socials in New York to teach in a Colorado school for a year– far, far away from the comforts of home. Nothing impelled them to go; they were college educated, unmarried, and bored. The wilds of the still untamed West sounded like an adventure. And it was. Thrust into a world more foreign than the Grand Tour of Europe, the girls, with their charm, wit, and grace, embraced it all: the landscape, the people, their students. Their experience challenged them, and through the community, its children, and the wild terrain, they learned the true meanings of work, tenacity, and survival. Later they described their year in Colorado as being the best in their lives. It also prepared them for the challenges of life outside of their parents’ money and close knit community. Both experienced immense struggles and heartbreak later in their lives, but they “dealt with it”.

I read Nothing Daunted right after finishing Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel about the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic who fight against Trujillo in the 1950′s. Like Woodruff and Underwood, the sisters gave up their lives of comfort, but this time for a principle rather than boredom. Through the use of facts, documents, and interviews, Alvarez presents a fictionalized account of how Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa (Mate) each come to the realization that they must fight against Trujillo’s regime, one of the most bloody in Latin America, and their transformation into las Mariposas– the Butterflies. Dede, the fourth sister, whose domineering husband and own need to not “rock the boat” prevent her from joining up with her sisters, is left to tell their story. Each woman “took life by the throat and dealt with it”. Each understood the meaning of their commitment– destruction of possessions and property, prison, torture, death, and the fact that someone else would live to take care of their children. While they are single-minded in their battle against Trujillo, their journey into the revolution breaks down their pride– whether it be their pride of family, God, status, or marriage. Alvarez develops the theme of appearances and what is “buried” underneath– the outward revolution against the regime leads to inward revolutions as each questions what she knew of life before.

These women’s stories inspire me. Woodruff, Underwood, and I are much closer in spirit– I am always looking for the next adventure. But I wonder if I have the same tenacity of spirit and dedication to ideals as the Mirabal sisters. Could I put a principle above my life? Would I? Woodruff and Underwood had the luxury to make their choices– a warm bed and a cushy life would always be there to welcome them home. In Trujillo’s Dominican Republic the choice is not as cut and dry. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” To live life as the status quo may prevent one from getting into trouble, but it is not a guarantee for safety. It might leave one with a warm home, but a cold conscience. In a regime as cruel as Trujillo’s (or any regime for that matter), where people were killed or disappeared as a matter of routine, the sisters’ ambush and murder might seem in vain. By the time of their deaths they were revered national symbols of the revolution, and their deaths inspired Trujillo’s future assassins. In the end, they achieved their goal. I’d like to think that if I had to fight for what I believed in that I would do so with as much humanity and courage as they did. They knew the risks of their decisions; they knew what they were giving up; they “took life by the throat and dealt with it”.

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