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.

Persepolis.

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One of the biggest lessons I try to teach to my students is to read (the world and books) with nuance. It is dangerous to assume that there are only two sides: black/white, right/wrong, good/bad. I first read (and apparently didn’t write about) the graphic novel/memoir Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi years ago. The title, Persepolis, is the name of the ancient capital of Iran, which is now in ruins, and represents how Satrapi sees her home–something that was once beautiful and vibrant now in ruins. The book simultaneously tells her story of growing up as a child of avant garde intellectuals in a country changed by the Iranian revolution and tells the story of the nation.

One of my reading goals for 2017 is to read more stories that help me understand the diversity of people across the world. If you are interested in this as well, Persepolis is an excellent place to start–it challenges a lot of the assumptions people may have about the inner lives and political beliefs of Iran’s citizens. It forces readers to rethink those binary understandings of the world around us.

Unfortunately, I am battling a massive head cold as I write this, attempting to finish up before the close of 2016. So I will just leave you with the recommendation to pick up this book that resonates just as loudly as it did when it was originally published in 2000.

Sleeping Too Close to the Stars & Rereading The House on Mango Street

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I realized it was November and I was way behind on my goal of rereading ten favorites from the last ten years (I blame The Waves, I think). What I realized, though, was that as much as I love the books remaining on my list, they weren’t the titles that felt urgent. What I mean is, I haven’t stopped thinking about the article One Way to Bridge the Political Divide: Read the Book That’s Not For You. The author writes of Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation: “Reading a book, Lucas says, is a “protracted engagement” with people who are different from you personally, culturally and — perhaps most important at this moment — politically. “We all need to be reading across the lines we’ve drawn in our lives,” she says.”

I have a lot of new books to read in that regard, but I felt it was important to go back to some of the touchstone texts for me–the ones that really helped me see and begin to understand the lives of others. I chose The House of Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. This is something I believe in so deeply for children (please check out We Need Diverse Books), that I thought it was time to take stock and think about my own reading life as well.

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The House on Mango Street was given to me by a dear friend at a perfect time: I recently finished high school, and though I loved my English program there deeply, it was a “classic canonical” reading experience. I volunteered a lot in college with high school students who were very similar to me demographically. This book is one of the first in my memory (other than perhaps historical fiction) that focused on a life very different from mine. Cisneros’ writing style awoke a passion for words and narrative voice in me, and Esperanza, the narrator of this collection of vignettes, has stayed with me ever since. I have reread it so many times that I had to retire my original copy in fear it would fall apart.

The beauty of this book is though it seems simple at first glance, each time I read it, a new complexity appears. Honestly, I could write a blog post on every vignette in the collection. Esperanza is one of four children in a latino family who frequently moves throughout the poorest parts of Chicago. She has always longed for her own house–the kind in storybooks. Each vignette is about a place or person near their new house on Mango Street and gives life to the beauty, complexities, struggles, and hopes of those in the neighborhood.

A nun from her school once saw where she lived and said “You live there?”  Esperanza continues: “There. I had to look to where she pointed–the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn’t fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded.”  I ache thinking about the way this woman (un)intentionally shamed Esperanza. I ache thinking about the casual talk and assumptions among the privileged about those with less.

Later in the book, Esperanza says “People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget about those of us who live too much on earth. They don’t look down at all except to be content to live on hills. They have nothing to do with last week’s garbage or fear of rats. Night comes. Nothing wakes them but the wind. One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I”ll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house. Some days after dinner , guests and I will sit in front of a fire. Floorboards will squeak upstairs. The attic grumble. Rats? they’ll ask. Bums, I’ll say, and I’ll be happy.” 

This is a good time of year to start thinking about giving–not just financially, but in what moments can I offer grace? Practice patience? Share my time? Choose to see the actual person rather than judge? Whose stories do you need to hear? What vision do you want to cast for your 2017?