The Girls by Emma Cline or, Adolescence is the Worst?

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As an 8th grade teacher, I get a front row seat to what most people remember as their most awkward/hated/embarrassing stage of life. I do a lot of thinking about girls and self esteem (and gender expectations/identity in general for all adolescents).

When I think back to middle school, I remember feeling relieved to purchase the hunter green GAP sweatshirt that everyone else seemed to have, and feeling grateful to have a lunch table to sit at, and being a part of a big group of girls who all dressed as Dalmatians for Halloween. I wasn’t the prettiest or the most popular in the group, I still had the layers of insecurities, and there was plenty of drama, but having a space and a group to figure all this out in made a difference. (I’m most grateful that none of this played out on social media).

The book The Girls by Emma Cline is set in 1970s California, and loosely based on Manson family lore. The protagonist is an 8th grade girl who is lonely, insecure, and looking for more. She ends up spending most of her summer before high school at a ranch where some girls she met live, very similar to the Manson ranch. The historical perspective, the suspense of the story and wondering if she would get caught up in the violence of the group kept me turning pages, but it was actually Emma Cline’s writing about adolescent girlhood that kept me underlining parts of this book that I initially thought would be escapist entertainment:

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you–the boys had spent that time becoming themselves. (28)

How desperately Connie and I thought that if we performed these rituals–washed our faces with cold water, brushed our hair into a static frenzy with a boar-bristly brush before bed–some proof would solve itself and a new life would spread out before us. (42)

That was part of being a girl–you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if . you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you. (56)

That was our mistake, I think. One of many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that somebody could understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intentions in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything. (56)

Connie studied me with cold wonder, like I’d betrayed her, and maybe I had. I’d done what we were not supposed to do. Illuminated a slice of private weakness, exposed the twitchy rabbit heart. (61)

I was stunned as I read these, and despite my relatively happy teenage years, by how much I could relate. And, I was shocked by how far into my twenties I still carried some of them–that was the shocking part. What I couldn’t stop thinking about (and talking about to anyone who would listen) was the notion that while girls spent time readying themselves for boys, boys spent that time just becoming themselves. And of course, some of this is part of growing up and learning–thank God for that–but there is a part of me that is jealous for that time; there’s a part of me who is still trying to figure out why I spent time trying to figure out what girls did that annoyed guys so I would never become “that” girl.

And so. Reflecting on my own journey of adolescence has made me really think about the girls I interact with each day, about my nieces, about my friends’ daughters. How are we, as adults, men and women alike, creating a world where girls get to just become themselves without fear of illuminating a slice of private weakness?

(As a side note, after processing this book, I also just finished My Sunshine Away, another mystery and coming of age novel told from the perspective of a grown man about a crime that was committed in his neighborhood in his adolescence. The same questions could actually be asked in regard to him–so the issue isn’t a gender one, necessarily, but one about adolescence and its echoes beyond. I responded to The Girls in regards to my own experience as a young woman.)

Summer Reading 2017

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I’ve been in a season so far this year where I’ve wanted to escape into books, but the drive to write about them has disappeared for a little while. Since January there has been so much for me to work out in my regular life that writing about my reading life took a backseat. That being said, I’ve read some amazing books so far, and wanted to mention them in case you were looking for some perspective-changing books this summer. And, of course, I’ll share the books I’m planning on reading this summer–which, I think, will be a little bit lighter than what I’ve read most of this year. If this isn’t enough for you, I have ten summers of reading you can check out here. I wish you a summer that has a piece of this kind of joy:

Books I Loved, Should Have Written About, That You Should Absolutely Read

While I typed this I realized that the most poignant books I read so far this year were about race. For so many reasons, I think it absolutely necessary to read voices and perspectives that are not one’s own.  (I’m linking to amazon for ease, but by all means, please show some love for your local independent bookstore):

March Books 1-3 by John Lewis: I actually did write about this book. It gave so much history and context to the protests of the Civil Rights Movement. Brilliant.

Homegoing: Brilliant. Should be required reading for humans that chronicles the future generations of two girls from Ghana, one who stays and one who is sold into slavery.

The Underground Railroad: Powerful and necessary. Follows an escaped slave as she journeys north.

Born a Crime: Trevor Noah’s memoir was simultaneously laugh out loud funny and an important education about life in South Africa pre and post Apartheid

The Hate You Give: One of the best Young Adult novels I’ve read in a long time. This one tackles race in a nuaced, powerful way and I couldn’t recommend it more highly (also try pairing it with All American Boys–both should be required reading for teenagers and adults alike).

Summer Reading List

Many of these have been on my to-read list for a few years. I always lean more into mystery in the summer, and am looking for books that feel a little bit lighter than what I’ve been reading lately–literally and figuratively! These are all in paperback!

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Tender by Belinda McKeon

I’m Supposed to Protect You From All of This by Nadja Spiegelman

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Still Life by Louise Penny

You by Caroline Kepnes

The Girls  by Emma Cline

Read this now: March

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March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell has been on my list since I saw educators writing about it in the fall, suggesting it as a great graphic novel for teenagers. I finally bought it a couple weeks ago–around the time it shot to the top of the best sellers in light of the president saying that John Lewis was a man of all talk and no action.

The trilogy is Congress Representative John Lewis’s memoir of his work in the Civil Rights era, told in flashback as he attends Barak Obama’s inauguration. It tells not only his personal story, but the story of the movement and a lot of the nuances that aren’t a part of the simplified Civil Rights era with which most of us are familiar. There are scenes of brutality that even when told through small pictures took my breath away and I had to pause to grapple with our country’s history. I appreciated the inclusion of many famous speeches by leaders of the movement, politicians, and the people working against civil rights–it helped me understand the tensions and nuances of the era.

There was a particular series of panels that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, though. It was a scene with Robert F Kennedy where he tells John Lewis: “You, the young people of SNCC [Lewis’s organization], have educated me. You have changed me. Now I understand.” Lewis goes on to narrate: “It showed me something about Robert Kennedy that I came to respect: even though he could be a little rough–ruthless, some would say–he was willing to learn, to grow, and to change,” (Book 2, page 152)

 

It felt like this was a calling out–and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about one’s capacity to change–about my capacity to change, and about the times where I can look and see shifts in my own thinking. I never want to stop learning and I never want to stop reflecting: who am I? Who do I want to be? What is influencing who I am becoming? I want to ask myself these questions often and not be afraid to broaden my perspective, to grow as a human, to change–and I would encourage everyone to ask the same questions.

This series is a must-read. Period. I am so grateful to MyLibraryNYC who provided 9 copies of the series to share with my students–graphic novels are expensive to get into my classroom library and their teacher set has been making quite the circulation among my classes. Seeing students eager to learn about history, talk about history, talk about change and justice is the main thing that is keeping me sane these days.

 

A decade’s worth: my blog just turned ten.

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Ten years ago (yesterday) I wrote my first blog post in an effort to do more thinking about my reading and to get comfortable with sharing my writing. For some context, my favorite dance songs included SexyBack by Justin Timberlake, SOS by Rihanna, and The Fray was having a hell of a year. This was the year iphones were introduced, the year I joined Facebook, and blogging was relatively new (and I was over at blogspot, where all the cool kids were at the time). For the record, I was also living in the only NYC apartment I’ve ever had with a dishwasher. I was 26.

Looking back, there were years I wrote a post every single Saturday and covered every single book I read. Other years, I was lucky to write once a month. What remains true, no matter how often I write, is that reading broadens my world and I can think of no better way toward empathy and understanding on the micro and macro levels.

Last January I gave myself a challenge to reread ten of the books I claim as favorites. I revisit books like Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables on a regular basis, but not much else. The shelves of the bookstores are usually too tempting to slow down and linger in something I’ve already read. So, I wanted to revisit the books that impacted me the most–and I absolutely loved it. Revisiting my favorite books felt like spending time with a great friend I haven’t seen in years. It was also interesting to see look at old notes and things I underlined–how different parts resonated with me now, but some things things remained just as striking. Here’s a round-up of what I had to say throughout the year:

Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy 

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Great House by Nicole Krauss

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery 

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi 

Beloved by Toni Morrison

If you’re going the math, you’ll realize I reread 9 books. I laughed out loud because I only realized it five minutes ago. When I decided to change up the last few books to diversify, I mixed up my counting. My over achiever self hates it, but the part of me that’s trying to give up a bit of control is laughing that I messed up an assignment I gave myself. I also had to accept that I didn’t write about Beloved (there is so much to think about and such an important book–I recommend it so much not despite of, but because of the devastating issues within it). I did write about it the first time around here.  Here’s to more grace in 2017!

Speaking of this year, my reading goal is to read more books that help me get to know perspectives and cultures different than my own, which I wrote about in my post about The House on Mango Street. I don’t think it’s naive of me to say that if we all read more, the world would be a better place.

Top Ten Books of 2016

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Looking back on 2016, it feels different from other years–election tension undergirded most of it and I wasn’t able to travel much. It was a year where we focused on things closer to home, one of the most significant being our little dog Penny, who became ours in August. Other major highlights included graduating from my Literacy Specialist program and the Cavaliers winning the NBA championship (!!!).  But of course the reading highlights. I will dedicate an entire post to this, but I did reread ten of my favorite books, which I loved. This year, my reading goal is to read more about people who are less like me, and read more books that are set around the world. I think it is so important to get to know others through literature. The following ten were the ones that stand out the most (and here are 2007-2015, if you still need some more ideas):

 

City on Fire: I technically started this at the end of 2015, but didn’t finish it until January. My book club read this much-hyped story with dozens of characters who are living slightly interconnected lives in New York City in the height of the 70s, with the climax of the story occurring during the infamous blackout in the summer of 1977.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Another book club choice, Glibert’s book tells the life story of Alma Whitaker, a (fictional) botanist born in 1800 whose scientific mind is challenged by the spiritual. This book is for people who love to know and get lost in a character’s entire story, as it covers her birth to death.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: The story begins by following 4 college roommates, each with a different background, all now living in New York City trying to make it in their chosen fields. That description sounds like Friends, but this is a dark, grave story. I felt immersed in the characters’ lives and found myself thinking considerably about relationships, grace, and the ability to move on from tragedy.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiehly: This is hands-down the best young adult novel I read all year and also the most important for teenagers and adults alike. It starts with a moment of police brutality and switches between two narrators, one white who witnessed what happened to the other, who is black. So thought-provoking and so relevant.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld: This hypothetical imagining of the life of Laura Bush was another book club pick. Sittenfeld’s writing is exceptional and I was completely drawn into this story, and I think anyone would be no matter what your political leanings. I found it fascinating.

Salt by Nayirah Waheed: This book of poetry floored me. Waheed’s voice is fresh, urgent, and striking. I actually couldn’t find this collection in any of my local stores–I think she is gaining quite a following, so hopefully it will be there soon. It’s worth tracking down! And very readable, if you are thinking of dipping your toes into poetry for the first time. I can’t wait to share some of her work with my students in our poetry unit. (Speaking of poetry, I also read Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems Volume 2 and her latest book of essays Upstream, both of which I loved. However, I’ve written about her so much, that I thought I should share the poetry love. She is an excellent introduction to poetry as well.)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: I actually can’t believe I didn’t write about this book, because I had two pages of notes going into our book club meeting. It told from the perspective of various family members as they deal with the effects of depression on 2 of the 5 members. It is so powerful and poignant, and though dark, also darkly comical and I laughed out loud a few times.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany: This was a highly anticipated read of my summer because I was in need of some literary escapism. I forced myself to parcel out its 4 acts over as many mornings on my fire escape. It wasn’t without problems–but even so, it brought a lot of joy to my summer. The parent/child themes I thought were incredibly well done.

Great House by Nicole Krauss: This was one of the books I chose to reread, and I wasn’t disappointed. I started by reading the four pages of notes I found tucked inside it, and really savored the whole book. What Krauss attempts to do in this book is pretty immense–there are four narratives that are connected only by the fact that at some point one of the characters in each owned an enormous desk that took on a metaphorical life of its own–to a point where it represented a deep kind of loneliness.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: This was another reread, and I was devastated when it was over. Philosophical and beautiful, I’m certain I’ll be coming back to the alternating narrative of 12 year old Paloma and 54 year old Renee many more times.