End-of-Summer Reading

I read these books as the summer was winding down and the school was gearing up–not quite summer books, but ones that lingered with me during a busy time of year.

The Invisible Woman : How do you write a biography of someone who left behind no letters, documents, or traces of her existence? More importantly, how do you reveal much about the life of a person determined to keep her true identity a secret, even during her lifetime? Claire Tomalin does a fascinating job at answering both of these questions when she undertakes a biography of Nelly Ternan, who was the secret mistress of Charles Dickens’ during the last thirteen years of his life. Ternan herself is intriguing, an actress from a theatrical family at a time in England when such a career was deemed scandalous, a woman who entered a clandestine relationship with a beloved national figure who stood for family values as strongly (and hypocritically) as any Republican politican. Tomalin uses mountains of scholarly research from the past century to detail for the reader the world Dickens and Ternan lived in, their relationship, and its impact on both. Such an impressive and engaging feat; I really felt like Dickens and his Nelly both become three-dimensional and sympathetic figures, though Tomalin is not sentimental about either one, for sure!

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Author emily danforth grew up in Miles City, Montana, which is also the setting for her first novel, a portrait of what it means to grow up gay or lesbian in an environment that does not recognize your life as valid or acceptable. After her parents’ tragic death, Cameron lives with her aunt and her grandmother and slowly realizes just why she’s so fascinated with movies like Friend Green Tomatoes and girls on her athletic teams. Once her aunt finds out (through a disappointing but not unfeasible turn of events), Cameron is sent to a conversion therapy school and has to figure out how to find her true identity amidst many hurdles. The fate of LGBTQ teenagers in religious families can often be horrifying, but danforth does a deft and skillful job of letting Cameron be a fully dimensional character, one that young-adult readers can identify with regardless of sexual orientation or whether they’ve ever seen the Bucking Horse Sale. I loved this book and am glad to have it on hand to pass on to students.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: Quite simply, one of the most beautifully written, intricately structured, moving and intelligent novels I’ve read in many years. Marra sets his story in war-ravaged Chechnya, and the setting is vivid and inextricable from the plot and characters, but in many ways, the depiction of the effects of chaos and instability on the hearts and minds of a people could tell the story of the Kurdish population in Iraq or any displaced group. The decade he shows us covers so much devastation in the tiny village of Eldar, but also in Chechnya itself, a place so ravaged that one character is stunned to see a map in the hands of a soldier; he’s never seen a map of his own country before. There’s humor and imagination woven throughout the narrative, and I can’t wait to see what Marra will do next after such a stunning debut.

The Crazy Monkey Parade You Know

My friend WN has a wonderful mantra/motto for the upcoming school year: Not My Crazy Monkey Parade, and I love what she is encapsulating about drawing boundaries for yourself to try and control how much chaos, drama and tension we invite into our lives. I’ve been thinking along those lines a lot as I shift out of summer-teaching mode and back into my school-year mindset.

Despite tackling some new projects and responsibilities this year, I’m feeling calmer than I have ever have before, this close to the first day, and I think it’s because I spent six straight weeks this summer way outside my comfort zone, teaching unfamiliar material to new age groups in a new setting with new co-workers. There were so many challenges and interpersonal dynamics I had to adjust to, and quickly, since I shifted halfway through to a new class, age group, and setting, and it was certainly overwhelming. Now that I’m back on my campus, preparing my room and curriculum, it feels like slipping back into your favorite old sweater, or being back in your own bed after a long sojourn away. I have a new appreciation for how lucky I am to find a workplace where I do feel so at home, and a professional path that I feel excited and inspired to travel.

This year will bring its own surprises and hurdles, but I know how to march in this parade and (somewhat) wrangle these monkeys, and that’s a reassuring feeling to have.

My Summer Reading, Part Two

Summer reading, part two! 

We Were Liars: I ordered this for my daughter Sophie, who went through an Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew phase, and this is certainly a thriller with a complicated structure and surprising twist ending. There’s also a certain stylistic glossiness here, from the characters’ names (Cadence, Mirren) to the aura of wealth and privilege that pervades the setting and the dysfunctional family dynamics in the idyllic summer retreat off Cape Cod where the Sinclair family heads each year. Of course, nothing gold can stay, and while this is definitely aimed at a teen crowd, it was a great summer read for me too.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats: This was another recommendation from a friend, and another direct hit! There’s an element of mystery here, as a distinguished New York lawyer, father and husband suddenly vanishes, and his daughter sets out to explore Burma, his native country, in an effort to find where he went and ultimately, who he was. The exotic setting and unfolding love story are evocative and drawn with precision and restraint; you never feel overly flooded with detail or sentiment, but instead, entranced by the calm and charm of the different voices and perspectives. Great book club choice too.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Six years ago when it was released and won the Pulitzer Prize, this book was everywhere, and I’m sure I bought it once it appeared in paperback and somehow never quite finished it. I’m glad I waited, because I think I had a much richer reading experience with it after teaching my Latin American lit class a few times, and especially after teaching about the dictatorial Trujillo era, which is referenced repeatedly in Oscar Wao. Diaz cuts and mixes 20th century history and culture with ebullience, many footnotes, and a generous sense of the tragedy and illumination in the lives of his characters, spanning from the streets of Newark to the Dominican Republic and the shadows cast in each.  

The Signature of All Things: A Novel: What an amazing, feminist, vivid character Gilbert has created in Alma Whittaker, the intrepid, envious, brilliant botanist at the heart of this book. Alma is raised by a blustery and intimidating father and a stoic and intellectual mother on their enormous estate outside of Philadelphia. The Whittaker fortune is rooted in medicinal plants, sparking Alma’s botanical obsessions and providing opportunities to talk about great explorers/scientists from Captain Cook to Charles Darwin. While there are some indelible male characters in this book, the story belongs to Alma herself: her passions, her ambitions, her faults and her triumphs. Can’t wait to read more fiction from Gilbert.

My Summer Reading, Part One

As I slowly ease back into blogging after my summer hiatus, my one regret is that I haven’t been keeping track of what I’ve read this summer. That’s been a great habit for me in 2014, between this site and Goodreads, and I’m trying to get back into the swing of it now that I’m gearing back up for the new school year. As I look back, it’s reassuring to see that despite my hectic working pace this summer, I managed to squeeze in some wonderful reading.

And now, for some brief bulleted reviews of books I read this summer:

Fangirl: Rainbow Rowell does such a great job of writing for young adults and understanding what that means; this story of two sisters struggling to navigate the transition to college, establishing independent identities, and better understand their complicated relationships with each other and their parents, all such classic dilemmas of the young person learning what it means to be an adult. But Rowell resist the easy devices and makes her characters vivid, funny, modern and layered.My daughters and I enjoyed this one equally, and if you’ve ever read Harry Potter or fanfiction (especially if you’ve read both), I’d highly recommend this one.

Attachments: This is Rowell’s first novel, and it’s ultimately my favorite of hers to date–a novel that does a better job with romantic comedy than any movie I’ve seen recently, one so seemingly suited for the screen I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie already. Beth and Jennifer are best friends and office buddies who trade their chattiest updates and innermost thoughts via email during the workday, never suspecting that Lincoln sits a few floors below, lonely and slowly falling in love with what he reads. If you like romantic comedies that manage to be touching and sweet as well as funny, this is a great pick. Note: it’s billed as “adult” rather than “young adult,” but bot hof my 12-year-old girls read it and loved it–nothing inappropriate, in my opinion.

The End of Eve: A Memoir: I’ve read almost all of Ariel Gore’s books, and this newest memoir is a sterling example of why I love her writing much: her lyrical style and evocative imagery are captivating, but it’s her commitment to emotional honesty and self-reflection that keep me coming back. She manages to maintain her journalistic eye in the midst of traumatic personal situations, such as the period she spent caring for her abusive and terminally ill mother, which happened to coincide with Gore’s realization that her girlfriend and co-parent was falling back in love with an old flame. Read it, read it, read it.

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel: I read this after a colleague raved about it on Facebook, and I’m so glad I did! This novel is as intricate, beautiful, and carefully wrought as the scale model of a Paris neighborhood built by a father for his blind daughter, Marie-Laure, to help her navigate the outside world. World War Two is looming on the horizon, and the family eventually evacuates to a walled city on the southern coast of France, where Marie-Laure must learn a new geography amongst various forms of chaos and upheaval. While she is growing up, an orphaned boy named Werner is growing up in an orphanage in Germany, developing his fascination with radios and technology, which eventually lands him in the Nazi military, tracking the French resistance and bringing him directly into Marie-Laure’s path. Again, an immersive reading experience that lingered with me for days.

Things I Learned About Myself This Summer

  • Working six weeks straight during my summer vacation is flat-out exhausting, even if it is well-paid
  • Teaching 7-8 year olds does not play to my strengths. You need more patience, especially with being interrupted, and the desire to spend more time teaching manners and socialization than I prefer to do.
  • Related: elementary school teachers are heroes and heroines who deserve every ounce of our respect and admiration and more, preferably expressed in gold.
  • No matter the age group or subject, I am a creative teacher who can establish connections with each of my students in a positive way, a teacher who will always be thinking of ways to reshape or innovate in a particular lesson, a teacher who sets high standards for herself and strives to meet them.
  • When push comes to shove, I will let my yard go to unforeseen levels of jungly and disreputable.
  • I really miss my oven when it’s not working.
  • I can only survive a two-hour roundtrip commute if I have really good music on.
  • 7-8 year olds love Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, and anything to do with the Mongolian Empire.
  • I really love teaching gifted kids, with all their quirks and shenanigans.
  • If I have someone in my classroom for the majority of each day, for six weeks straight, I will get over some of my self-consciousness about having people watch me teach.
  • I’m at the stage in my career where I feel comfortable taking on more of a mentorship role than I ever have before.
  • Long sunny afternoons at the pool are just as crucial to my mental and emotional recharging as I suspected, and I desperately missed them.
  • Money can’t buy you happiness, but being able to say “yes” more often than “no” is really nice too.

Senses Working Overtime

Essay grading. Exam grading. Comment writing. Advisor letter writing. Curriculum mapping. Commencement. Week-long training workshop in another city. Starting a new summer job that will last for five weeks.

When just writing it out makes you start to feel panicked, you know you’ve got a case of the Overloads on your hands.

The end of the year is always a hectic time, of course, but this year I can’t look ahead to a stretch of time where I’ll get to decompress. Instead, I’ll be scrambling to make sure Lucy gets to all her ballet recital final rehearsals, and then halfway through her second show, I’ll be on a plane for some professional development. Once I return, I’ll be diving into my summer gig with the Center for Talented Youth, which will keep me busy Monday through Friday well into July. I had to forgo the Library of Congress workshop this year in order to take advantage of the closest possible CTY opening. As much as I hated to defer it, now that I think about the summer, I’m glad to only be shifting between two intense experiences, instead of three!

I’ve never given up this much of my summer before–yes, I hear all you office-bound professionals snickering–and I think knowing I won’t really be able to relax for about seven more weeks is contributing to me not dealing so well with my current stress levels. I’m not quite tearing my hair out, but I’m feeling much more anxious than I usually do in early June, and I know I’ve dropped a few balls lately as a result. I’ve missed the gym for the past few weeks after injuring my back, and I find my mind racing at bedtime, difficult to calm down. Throw in some tween moodiness and the usual dinner/laundry/housework cycle, and you’ve got quite a mess. Well, you might not, but I do.

I’m confronted once again with the fact that in times when we need self-care the most, it can often feel the most impossible to actually achieve. I’m headed back to the gym today, hoping for some afternoon pool time tomorrow, and step by step, moving forward into the sunlight.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Aside from creating one of the bestselling series of books, ever, that millions have enjoyed around the world, J.K. Rowling is also to be commended for her…..pluck? Gumption? Whatever you would call the quality that has led her to keep pumping out the novels she wants to write, even as the world clamors for more in the series she has vowed is finished.

Her first post-HP novel, The Casual Vacancy, was not a huge hit with the critics, or with her most diehard HP fans. Although I found a fair amount of value and substance in reading the book, it was definitely bleak–an entire novel set in the world of the Dursleys, with casually vacant denizens of the kind of town that gives towns/suburbs (people) a bad name. Definitely a bold career move for someone who made her mark in such a magical way.

Perhaps as a result of the backlash to her first effort, or just to escape some of the ridiculous effects of being who she is, Rowling published her next novel under a nom de plume, and The Cuckoo’s Calling received excellent reviews but did not garner many sales–until her mask was revealed, against her will, and booksellers raced to put a “written by J.K. Rowling” sticker on the cover.

Cuckoo is a detective novel, clearly the first in a series, about Cormoran Strike, an ex-military down-on-his-luck private investigator who stumbles into a mystery surrounding a glamorous fashion model’s controversial death. Aided by Robin, an extremely competent temporary secretary who clearly will be sticking around for the next book, Strike manages to solve the case, but not win back his volatile fiancee. Formulaic? Maybe, if you’re a connoisseur of the genre (which I am not). Beach book? I would say certainly so, entertaining and absorbing without being too bleak. Rowling-esque? Absolutely, if you consider the tightly knit intricate plotting of the Potter series, which also featured puzzles nested inside mysteries. I don’t think I would have picked it up without the Rowling name on it, but I’m glad I did, and look forward to the next book in the series–as long as Robin gets to develop into the wonderful investigator she obviously could be.

Proud of a Newly Published Poet

Right in the midst of exam-week frenzy, I’ve gotten a piece of exciting news that reminds me how fulfilling my job is, and how lucky I am to do what I do.

Back in April, my students participated in the Poet-to-Poet project from the Academy of American Poets, one of their many wonderful initiatives for National Poetry Month. The classes I spent on this project were fun and energizing, and I knew my students’ creative sides had been engaged by the task of writing their own poems inspired by what they heard and read. Having the poets recorded reading and discussing their own work is such a genius touch, and I thought it was a great addition to my regular poetry unit.

The Academy received over one thousand poems from students all over the country and have published a selection of them on their website. I’m thrilled and proud that one of those published student poems is a student of mine! Charlotte’s poem, Things That I Hide/Are Hidden, is beautiful, and I’m honored to have been a tiny part of its genesis.

On Losing Maya Angelou

Each year, I offer my students many gifts in the form of literature.

I offer them Holden Caulfield and his battered heart, his sense of confusion and loneliness in the world. I offer them the fierce lunacy of Lady Macbeth, a woman trapped by her society and broken by her own frustrated ambition. I offer them words to express their own dreams and rage, and I offer them the tools to make those words heard and understood by others.

Each spring, I slip Still I Rise into a packet of poems and ask one girl to read the poem aloud. The first time I did this, I chose a girl new to our school, a girl still deciding whether she would find a place in our community, a girl with inner treasures she had not yet discovered. Did she read that poem? She read that poem, her voice gathering power with each repeated line, instinctively hitting the words like piano keys and bringing forth her own melody from the music of the poem. When she finished, we all sat there, and then the students began clapping.

I’ve taught “Still I Rise” ever since, and each year, I see it unfold itself for the students, the lyrical quality woven through it like a golden thread, the frank and confident sexuality and power that this woman feels. Each year, girls are struck by the sense of actually understanding a poem, seeing the power in it and feeling their own powers enhanced by it. Each year, I watch them discover it, and I feel enriched all over again by what Maya Angelou has achieved in this beautiful piece.

Today we lost a great voice, a powerful member of the choir of African-America, one of the many writing a new history, truly reconstructing what it means to be American, to be a woman, to be the descendent of slaves. Today we cannot lose what she offered us, the value of her story, and the wisdom she embodied and espoused.