How Paris Became Paris: A Review

More often than not, I will come back from visiting a place and then read a random book that turns out to be chock full of information about the place I just got back from. This is typically followed by lamentations of “Why? Why? Why didn’t I read the book before I left for the trip?!” And then a reflection on life’s unfairness: “How was I supposed to know that a Teddy Roosevelt biography would tell me so much about New York?” Or “I was that close to the Jardins des Plantes?!”

Fortunately, the gods of Amazon took pity on my poor soul and deluged with my inbox with recommended reading about Paris, where I am headed today. That is how I ended up with a copy of Joan DeJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City. It was with great joie de vivre that I tore the book out of the box, ready to devour its contents. I flipped open the book and noticed the print was… small. Sigh. C’est la vie.

  The small type was compensated by lots of fascinating pictures and many big ideas. It is the perfect kind of book to read before visiting a city– especially Paris. When I think of how Paris became Paris, I think of Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III and the tearing down of old Paris and building the one we know and love today. But DeJean takes us out of the the 19th century and firmly places us at the dawn of the 17th century to show us how Paris went from a cramped, dirty hovel to being the City of Light that set the trend for how all cities should be. Baron Haussmann just improved on the design.

We take for granted everything that makes a city a city: public spaces with park benches, promenades along river fronts, places for people of all classes to mix, streetlights, distinct neighborhoods, the sense of style, shopping, and postal service. This mode of living is commonplace to us now, but four hundred years ago they were a part of a French revolution: a revolution on what it means to live in city. This was not a grassroots movement as it stemmed from forward thinking monarchs who realized that Paris itself could be a crown jewel and a reflection of their status as rulers.

The Pont Neuf bridge serves as a metaphor for the effects of all of the Parisian innovations. Built in 1604, it defied the typical bridge purposes by being made of stone instead if wood and not having any homes or stores built upon it. It was a connection between places, with nature, and ultimately, with people. Traversing the Seine through the the Ile-de-Cite, it was built to allow both carriages and people across. The stone construction allowed for heavier cargo and brought more trade through the city; to allow pedestrians safe passage, it included new raised paved walkways. This design was so new that there wasn’t a word for it. Today we call them sidewalks. The lack of buildings encouraged the public to stop during their walks and enjoy the view of their meandering river. Parisians flocked to this bridge; it became the epicenter of news, performances, commerce, and a place to just be. People from all walks life could meet together, to see and be seen.

Each innovation, in its own way, succeeded in this endeavor. The open spaces of the Tuilieres and Place Royale, the quais along the riverfront, expanded paved roads, mixed use buildings all brought people together. The use of streetlights enabled people to stay out after dark with less fear of crime; shops and cafes stayed open later. Since it took its counterparts in other countries almost a hundred years to fully implement lighting, it gained its moniker “City of Light”. As Paris became the fashion capital, newspapers and the advent of fashion magazines and fashion plates helped export Paris to the world. Plate glass windows, textiles, and a new level of commerce brought about boutique stores and a new hobby called shopping. Visitors from around Europe flocked to Paris to partake in its unique, cultured city life, and other cities worked hard to catch up to its modernity.

How Paris Became Paris is not just an enjoyable read for anyone heading to that city, but for anyone who is interested in how civilization turned the corner from Medieval life to the modern world. For this traveler, I look forward to enjoying the sidewalks, the boulevards, the bridges and parks, knowing how these simple daily pleasures helped transform the world we live in.

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Challenges of an Ordinary Life: A Book Review or Two

“Hey, Ms. L, are you going to see Pride and Prejudice with Zombies?” my student asked.  This  is a much asked question as all of my students, family, and friends know how much how much I LOVE Jane Austen’s P&P.  Not as well known is how much I do not like zombies. It is a trend that I wish would finally die already. Along with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and all the others.

“I just want stories of ordinary people dealing with ordinary life,” I replied at the end of our conversation.

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My wish was granted in Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, a coming-of-age story about Eilis Lacey, a young woman who leaves her small town in Ireland in the 1950’s to seek better opportunities in Brooklyn.  What it lacks in the brain-eating undead or the repartee of Elizabeth and Darcy, it makes up in quiet reflection as Eilis navigates her new life, customs, and people as she finds both love and herself. Like her ocean voyage from Ireland to the States, her path to adulthood is fraught with undercurrents that threaten to keep her off-balance.  Toibin centers the novel on the daily details of Eilis’s life and her weighing of each new experience for what it means and determining what kind of life she wishes to have.  She wrestles with her choices, their consequences and effects on others.

My Goodreads list reminded me that I have read other novels recently about ordinary people: Jojo Moyes’s  Me Before You and Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, and it made me wonder why Brooklyn resonated with me so much more.  Both novels connect to Toibin’s theme of life and how to live it.  Me Before You is an immensely readable novel about Lou Clark, a character similar to Eilis in that she is used to living a small life but is thrust into one greater as she begins working for Will Traynor, a quadriplegic.  Will makes Lou question what she want out of life as he himself has decided what he wants from his.  Of course, romance ensues.  Such stories can easily be made saccharine and sentimental, but Moyes keeps the reality centered in the daily routine of caring for a quadriplegic and the physical struggles quadriplegics face. Nothing comes easily for Lou as she makes many of the assumptions about quadriplegics the reader would make.

Nothing comes easily for the characters in Little Bee either.  The main character, Little Bee, escapes to England from the war in Nigeria and searches for the only people she knows there, a couple who she met on a beach years before.  Little Bee’s arrival changes the couple’s life forever, especially for Sarah whose purpose in life has gone astray by her previous choices and consequences.  Chris Cleave can write beautiful prose, but it seemed like he was trying very hard to be profound and show that the affects of war on children is an issue.  It may have also been the fact that I read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and had watched Beasts of No Nation, unflinching and immediate accounts of child soldiers in African wars, right before I read Little Bee.  The cards were stacked against him.

So what is it about Brooklyn that separates it from other novels about ordinary people?  It is, I figured, about ordinary events.  Eilis doesn’t have her life changed by a quadriplegic or by war; she immigrates to America.  While many of us have not moved from one country to another, many of us have moved to areas vastly different from where we’re from.  We have had to learn new ways of doing things, meet new people and determine them to be friend or foe, experience different weather patterns, figure out how to fit in in ways that are authentic to us, and suffer from homesickness.  If we return to the place we called home, we see it with new eyes and have to ask ourselves if it is really home anymore.  Does it reflect the kind of life we want to live?  Are its values our values?  At some point we have to come face to face with ourselves, that we are not the same person who moved away.  We had to stand on our own two feet and prove ourselves and come to terms with life and how to live it on our own. In the end we learn how to make our own lives a little less ordinary.

 

The WWI Book Club: The War That Ended Peace

A snippet from a recent conversation:
Guy: Downton Abbey is just a crap period drama.
Me, hackles up: It’s a very well-done “crap period drama” that prides itself on historical accuracy.
Guy: Ooohhh, what is it? Victorian England?
Me: It takes place between 1912 and 1924.
Guy, perplexed: What historically interesting happened in England then?
Me, choking: Uhh… WWI, dude!
WWI, dismissively: Why would they focus on WWI? England wasn’t affected by WWI.

Needless to say, he isn’t part of the WWI book club I belong to (although maybe he should be). When I relayed this to the club’s other member, her response mirrored mine: “WHAT?!? How can he say that?!?” followed by much sputtering.

So, yes. This “club” is only made up of the two of us. How many lines of people do you see who want to spend a year reading about WWI? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can imagine what you’re thinking, “Where’d you guys meet? A nerd convention?” She and I have been friends for several years and belong to another book club together (an art book club, to up the nerdiness ante). We had often talked about spending a year reading books all about one subject, but since we both have interests that reach far and wide, which subject to choose? We knew that we both had studied WWI before and decided that we could further our knowledge. It is also apropos as we are in the hundredth anniversary of that war.

How does one embark on such a feat? (Because maybe you’d like to start a book club of two…) Like the generals in the war, we needed a plan of attack. However, it couldn’t be like the Schlieffen Plan that didn’t allow for change or revision. It also had to fit into our daily lives that include other book clubs (and in my case, teaching). We have decided to read eight books: four works of history and four memoirs that represent different perspectives. Since the works of history tend to be longer (600+ pages), we will take two months to read to read them, while the shorter memoirs get a month. We meet once a month to discuss what we’ve read. The way I found some of the titles was by searching a book about WWI on Amazon and seeing what others purchased; I’d click on one from that list and it would lead me to another list and so on and so forth. Based on the descriptions, I’d add it my interest list. Goodreads also provided many recommendations.

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Our first book was Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. MacMillan’s premise is to understand why and how Europe, which seemed to be moving towards a society of peace and progress, all of the sudden blew up into total war. So imagine a 1900 map of Europe under a microscope through which MacMillan’s eye peers and studies the minute actions at play under the surface. Like a scientist she gathers the information to discover the under-lying symptoms of the disease of war. She provides in depth character studies not just of the leaders, but also of society in how the growing labor movements, the rise of public opinion, and the shifting roles of the aristocracy helped prime people for war.

Often times in history classes one hears generally about alliances, militarism, and nationalism, and then boom! one day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, some dude from the Austria-Hungarian Empire is killed by some anarchist in some city and all of Europe falls apart. It’s a tenuous reason for millions to die and the possible end to Western civilization at best, but MacMillan does an excellent job showing how these forces developed and reacted over time through different countries’ decisions and skirmishes in Morocco and the Balkans to finally end in war. She tries to weigh how much of the war was the fault of “great men”– those in power– and that of forces hurdling towards conflict. Between 1900-1914, European nations had consistently used bluff and brinkmanship in their skirmishes, and each time they got closer and closer to war, and while she proves that they always had choices to avoid war, was it ultimately inevitable?

What I found most interesting was how many people had the foresight to understand what a long, bloody battle this war would be. Unfortunately, none were in charge of the militaries or countries and their views were often discounted.

MacMillan’s style is clear and easy to read. Each paragraph has a clear point followed by interesting and relevant evidence. She has a knack for finding interesting and funny quotes and for connecting issues if the past to issues in our modern times. The first half of the book sets up her argument on the state of Europe and the second half proves it (for us, the first half was more interesting as the second half was more military talk and policy). I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how countries at peace can suddenly end up at war.

March memoir: e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room

Readers: What book (or novel) about WWI do you recommend and why?

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Being a nerd, I didn’t want to show up to book club with nothing to say…

The Homestead and The Orchard House: A Tale of Two Literary Tours

Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott are quite possibly America’s most beloved 19th century female authors. They share more in common by being daughters of men who were both pillars of their communities and who valued education; they were both fiercely independent; both suffered deep personal tragedies; both lived in Massachusetts and reacted against society’s strictures for women. However, both are very different.

Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson's home.
Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home.

Dickinson’s poetry resists static interpretation; her use of idiosyncratic punctuation, words and images that convey multiple levels of meaning, and closing lines that often turn a poem’s meaning on its head create very personal and individual responses in the reader. Some poems have a universally agreed meaning; others unfold with each rereading. To read her work is to embrace uncertainty. This is compounded by the many myths and images of the poet that have proliferated over the years as a result of the portrayals of her by her niece Mattie Dickinson Bianchi and Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s mistress whose motives were far from altruistic. Was Emily Dickinson a meek, retiring woman in white, broken-hearted over a lost young love? Or was she a fiery, passionate woman ahead of her time? In addition to the poems’ multiple meanings, there also persists the question of which Emily Dickinson wrote them.

Alcott, on the other hand, is most famous for her classic Little Women, the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. She presents the reader with a family that on some level, we’d all like to have as our own. And as a precursor to other narratives that have multiple female characters (ie. Sex and the City and Girls), readers can easily identify with one of the sisters (however, I most closely identify with two, Amy and Jo). Even though Alcott is read all over the world by disparate readers, the novel, and the movies, provide a shared experience.

These two different ways of “reading” and “knowing” the authors shape the tours of their homes. Granted, there are many factors that play into a tour. There is the quality of the artifacts in the home based on how many belonged to the original family to how well they represent the time period if they don’t. What is shared with the public is determined by what organization puts on the tours and how they wish to present the people who lived there. What is shared is also determined by the type of tour chosen, and last, but not least, the personality and knowledge of the tour guide.

Our tour guide obviously loved and admired Emily Dickinson, and it was apparent that she had a long history working at the Homestead. She also had some very definite ideas about the poet, but I do not know if her ideas are part of the museum’s party line or are a reflection of her own beliefs. She explained at the beginning that she would “dispel the myths” about Emily Dickinson, but she dispelled them with didactic statements such as, “Emily Dickinson was NOT a recluse. She went to many social gatherings.” When asked about whether or not ED suffered from epilepsy as posited in Lyndall Gordon’s book Lives Like Loaded Guns, she brushed it off with a wave of her hand, “Emily did NOT have epilepsy. Her nephew did, but Emily did NOT! An author wrote that in some book, but doctors have shown that what she describes as epilepsy is NOT epilepsy. She has apparently written two good biographies before, so I don’t know how she got so off the rails with THAT book.” Why it is so bad to suggest that she might have been epileptic, our guide did not explain. She did not go into why ED had so much freedom to write nor why she was never expected to get married (both went against standards for women at that time). She stated that ED’s father supported and encouraged her education, but did not mention his ambivalence as ED once said, “my father bought me books, but begs me not to read them.” She also glossed over Austin Dickinson’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that tore the Dickinson family apart, and instead said, “It’s a good thing we had Mabel, otherwise ED would not be known to the world.” While there is a lot of truth to that, Todd is one of the major reasons why we have myths about ED. Also disconcerting was that she told us that ED was not published much in her lifetime was because the male editors found her work to be too “wild” and preferred her simpler nature poems. Throughout the tour she recited some poems to us, but instead of giving us the more complex ones, she read those that most likely would be found on a card in a Hallmark shop. She perpetuated Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s expectations.

It felt like rather than dispelling the myth about ED, she was set on maintaining her view (or the museum’s). Ideas were presented in black and white, and there was no room for contemplation and wonderment. It was like reading an ED poem with all of the dashes taken out–no pauses for reflection about what it all means.

Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.
Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.

The Orchard House was a different tour entirely. It probably helps that Louisa May Alcott’s life is not shrouded in myth and mystery, and Little Women is universally loved and understood. It also helps that my own expectations of how a tour should be did not clash with the tour guide’s. Our guide also did not carry the task of having to promote a certain image of Alcott. If the guides at the Homestead loved ED, their love paled in comparison to the women who worked at the Orchard House. It was palpable. Our guide was warm and thoroughly knowledgable about the house and all of the artifacts in it– the majority of which had belonged to the Alcott’s. She was visibly saddened when she revealed that Laurie and Mr. Laurence were made up; she displayed obvious pride in May’s artwork that was featured throughout the house. The Alcott’s joys were her joys; their sorrows, hers too. She carefully delineated which events in the novel happened in the house and which ones did not. If she didn’t know the answer to a question, she said so, and made sure to get the answer before the end of our visit. Understanding our interest in the house, she went out of her way to point out the smaller details–like the picture of Bronson Alcott sitting at the desk we were standing near. It brought history to life.

Because of her and the rest of the staffs openness, our tour was a much more gratifying experience, and I left with a greater appreciation of the Alcott family and their role in Concord, education, art, and literature.

The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.
The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

Readers, what tours have you been on that have been especially enlightening?

A Year of Reading

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?

My Rack

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?

Clubbing: Reader Style

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?