Category Archives: books

An Unnecessary Woman.

UWfinalcompAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the kind of novel that practices what it preaches, one where form matches function, and one where I felt ready to give up on it half way through when I couldn’t define a real plot line, but then began to see what Alameddine was up to with his protagonist.  Aaliyah Saleh, 72, has lived alone in her Beirut apartment ever since her husband of 4 years left in her early twenties. She spent her career working, and educating herself, in a bookshop and retired when the shop closed.  She translates a novel a year, using French and English versions to write an Arabic one, and yet she simply saves her work in a small back room of her apartment.  We meet her when she is pondering her next translation, and her thoughts take us through the Lebanese Civil War, as well her more personal battles.  By the end, it feels like we’ve not necessarily read a book with a clear plot, but instead got to know a woman and her city.

The most interesting part of this book for me the fact that while Aaliyah is virtually a recluse at this point of her life, she is also a brilliant literary theorist–and her theories were fascinating. Real literature, she asserts passionately and convincingly, exists to make palpable the mysteries of human existence, not explain them away.  This is what Alameddine did with his work, and why I think this book wasn’t written with the standard narrative plot. I think this book is brilliant, though difficult to recommend unless you comfortable stepping into Aaliyah’s world–and if you are reading from a privileged, Western perspective, being made to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Because her world is so intricate and complex, and because it took me the entire length of the book to fully appreciate its purpose (the “rising action” occurs in last 15 pages or so), I thought the best way to end this post is to share some of Aaliyah’s ideas–her reflection on the literature she reads and the Lebanese Civil War is extraordinary. The irony of the title is not lost on the reader, because though she is a childless, unmarried, reclusive woman, her voice is also absolutely necessary in a reader’s growing understanding of human existence.

None of us know how to deal with the aleatory nature of pain. (98)

One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe. (99)

There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.  Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories. (148)

No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed. (155)

To write is to know you are not home…It is that longing for a mystical homeland, not necessarily a physical one, that inspires art…I appreciate longing.  (195-196)

Year in Review: 2014

2014 has been a year in which I’ve flown by the seat of my pants.  Graduate school took over most of my evenings and a large chunk of weekends–and though it’s been a lot of work and severely limited my social calendar, I feel like I am learning alongside some of the most passionate literacy teachers and from the all-stars of my profession. A great deal of my life at work was spent immersed in the world of inclusion teaching: thinking about what full time co-teaching would look like, trying to get the necessary supports ready, sitting in on interviews, clenching my jaw nervous about letting go of full control, and then feeling utterly thankful for the co-teacher I now share a classroom with and how much I’ve learned from the experience.  The team of teachers I work with has amazed me with their passion and drive–and the support that exists among us when at the end of the day all we can get out is “teaching is hard.” (True story. That was where the conversation took us at a party a few weeks ago.)



This has also been a year where I’ve been so thankful for family.  We lost my grandpa in June, and I witnessed the definition of what family should be–and that is exactly what my grandpa would be the most proud of–having his five kids, their spouses, and his 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren together.  So many dad’s side of the family came to the services to stand alongside us. I’ve been able to get home to my parents 4 times this year to laugh and listen to music.  I celebrated my first Christmas away from home, but married into a wonderful family that includes the cutest nieces in the world and got to eat waffles from my mother-in-law’s grandmother’s waffle iron.  My apartment continues to be an adventure in shitty-coziness (leaks, slants, animals), but couldn’t ask for a better guy to check for rodents that may or may not have fallen from the ceiling.


I’m still trying to weave art and poetry into my life, playing with watercolor and drawing, reading Mary Oliver. I journeyed through The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron and am still learning so much from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. But as always, it is reading that has built the backdrop of my year: opening my eyes beyond my daily existence, reminding me of bigger truths, letting me escape, introducing me to new people.    Here are the best of this year, linked to the post I wrote about them:

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker: recommended by my mom and a gorgeous story that explores the space between suffering and love, set mostly in Burma

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: an incredible book to read closely and the basis of one of my favorite book club conversations of all time

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: a surprising favorite that started as a beach read but stole my heart in the last third

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: the second half of this story beautifully (and surprisingly) pulled together threads of women’s history and walked me through grief

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: the most beautiful and thought-provoking book of the year, set mostly in Japan

Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: the most enjoyable book to read while in week 2 of a month long cold, with some tea, while it’s pouring. Fey/Poehler for president.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: stunning, though-provoking, lyrical WW2 historical fiction

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan: my foray into science-nerd reading which literally showed me just how big and wonder-filled the universe is

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki: I thought this young adult graphic novel would be for kids, but it was a poignant reminder of the complexity of the early teenage years

The Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra: the post for this book is still in progress, but its craft and themes taught me so much about Chechnya and life in a war-torn country

This is the end of my 8th year writing this blog. You can find lists from 2007-2013 here. I think I’m going to re-do an old reading resolution–read the books on my nightstand before I buy anything new.  Here’s the current pile:


Flight Behavior

I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in 2008 and The Lacuna, which I wrote about a few times in 2010.  I deeply appreciate the way she is able to dive into the heart of a people and place, their sense of self and home, and challenge her readers to reconsider the way they are processing the world.  Her latest, Flight Behavior, is a book centered around monarch butterflies who have left their usual flight pattern and roosted for the season on the hill of a small, woflightbehaviorrking farm in the south, bringing beauty and wonder to the locals, but alarm to scientists who come to study the displaced creatures.  The two opposing ideas Kingsolver explores are: “If fight or flight is the only choice, it’s way easier to fly” and  “A person can face up to a difficult truth, or run away from it,” (322).

The main character, Dellarobia, is a smart but unhappy woman who married young when she got pregnant and lost the opportunity to be one of the few in her town to go on to college.  Her husband’s family runs the farm where she lives and in the beginning of the story, she is on her way to cheat on her husband, ready to flee her reality.  She is stopped in her tracks when she comes across thousands of monarch butterflies and is stunned, believing it a miracle and a sign that she needs to return to her family.  She becomes friends with the scientist who leads the study of the monarchs and uses the family’s barn as lab for him and his students, and eventually does some work for them as well, giving her a new vision for what she wants from her life.

Flight behavior is not only applicable to Dellarobia.  Her family has decisions to make in terms of its failing farm, the scientists have to decide the extent to which they can fight for their beloved monarchs, and the butterflies themselves stand as an environmental metaphor–whether it is possible to fight against the climate changes that have altered their regular flight behavior. All of these “fight or flight” conflicts give the reader a much deeper understanding of people, and honestly, Kingsolver is able to paint a beautiful picture of the educated scientists and their brand of being good to the environment side by side with Dellarobia’s small town, mostly uneducated brand that comes by way of necessity.  She writes against the stereotype of ignorance, and allows us to know the people behind it, which I think is a life lesson for us all.

By the end of the story, I realized this is a book about knowing when and how to fight or fly, and discerning when each one is important, necessary.  It was fascinating to follow Dellarobia’s  flight and flight decisions: as she got to know and understand herself more, her reasonings changed.  Ultimately does end up flying, but in a completely different way than in the beginning, when she was walking up the hill to have an affair.  It is more on level with what it looked like to watch the monarchs all using their wings.

Looking for an unreliable narrator?

Sometimes certain stories are good for one’s soul: they enable readers to embrace the beautiful mess of it means to be human, or perhaps invite them into a corner of existence they would not have known or understood otherwise.  The Dinner by Herman Koch is not that book.  It is structured over dinner in a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam.  The narrator Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge, a popular candidate in an upcoming national election, and his wife to discuss a crime their sons committed together, which isn’t named until much later in the story.  I’m not sure that I would describe it as a psychological thriller, exactly, because it didn’t read like a standard crime novel, but it was brilliantly psychological in its narration in that the voice we are hearing is not a detective or the criminal, but a parent, who is one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve read.

On the surface level, the question raised throughout the book is: to what length should parents go to protect their children and at what age do children become responsible for their own actions?  On a deeper level, it is a novel of a man with little empathy grappling with his own psychological struggles that he is now forced to see in his son.  As he travels back through memory, the reader is sucked into his worldview and as we hear events from Paul’s perspective it is easy to align with his thinking.  At first.  And so perhaps it’s a book about the ability to become a victim of manipulation or good storytelling.  And then it becomes a book that leaves you scraping your jaw off the ground as you watch people cooly making completely unethical decisions.

The quandaries faced in this book reminded me of the mystery I read earlier this year, Defending Jacob, where the narrator’s son is on trial for committing murder and the family has to grapple with whether he is guilty or not, despite the public face they put on for the trial.  Both books also touch on psychopathy, which adds a fascinating and frightening angle to the crimes and the families themselves.

As a closing note, it was interesting to learn that this book was much better received in Europe than in the United States–apparently the average American reader is much more interested in a story that has likable characters and more cathartic closure.

Beautiful Ruins.

9780061928123_custom-70e2b335f923fa2b9e2d96fcc5dbe44c914184d6-s6-c30I love my job for a lot of reasons.  I was reminded of the best one while at class a few weeks ago: that reading and writing are tools for meaning-making.  My professor handed us a copy of some of the new Common Core Standards for reading and writing, documents I’ve been looking at professionally for a number of years now.  She wanted to experiment to see if we could train our eyes to look at the standards in a new way: to find the “echoing chord” of the work it is asking us to do.  For instance, she looked at Reading Standard 1, which is about referring to details and creating inferences and said that for her, the small details of life have always mattered: small objects, a look, the things of small beauty that make her feel grounded again.  She said to create meaning from the standards, we have to leave reading and writing aside, go into our lives, and then return to reading and writing.  In that space we will find the moments and the lessons that will make our teaching come alive.

I proceeded to look through the standards in a way I’ve never done as a teacher.  All of a sudden, describing a setting in depth became deeply worthwhile.  I thought about what my home means to me: the chalk mural of Ohio and New York my husband made, our wall of old family photos, the urban basil we are attempting to nurture in the window.  These details began to tell a story of the place–and I realized that to teach setting, we can think about the settings that have been significant to us.  We can grow that into understanding characters and themes and moods.  It’s beautiful life work.  I went on to do this thinking with sequence of events, point of view, literary patterns…and I’ve never felt more passionate about the work I get to do each day.

And of course, I was finishing the book Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters on the train that day and everything came together beautifully.

The book’s cover is a picture of Manarola, part of the Cinque Terre in Italy, where I visited on my honeymoon last summer.  This plus an endorsement from a friend was enough to get me interested.  It is set in Italy in the 60s, California in the present day, and a handful of other places as we follow the various archs of the characters. It mostly tells the story of a young actress who finds she is pregnant with a famous actor’s child, and then finds companionship in the young owner of a hotel in Italy where she is sent by a producer to hide the pregnancy.  The reader follows these characters into the future, where their lives intersect 50 years later.

This was an entertaining read for the first half and then became a deeply poignant read for me.  Walters is writing, essentially, about story and meaning-making: how people are changed, shaped, and propelled forward.   By the end I was utterly floored by the ways he interwove these characters and their regrets, justifications, creative pursuits, and their journeys to make meaning in their lives.

There are a lot of gorgeous, thought provoking lines I could quote and write about, but without context, they lose part of their depth.  So, I will leave it at this: there is a moment toward the end of the story where the entire mismatched cast of characters are watching local theater in Idaho and find themselves stunned and moved by what they see and they all draw inward.  And this, I think, is what they were looking for all along: something that would propel them to stop, think, and make meaning.

The title provides some insight into the discoveries–beauty has emerged from the struggles.  Walters is insightful enough that not every character has revelations that bring rich insight and inner peace.  Through those characters readers can see the shells of existence that remain when life merely becomes a place to craft and project an image.

So, this book helped propel my current planning for my summer reading and adventuring…more to come soon, but it is all operating under the theme of looking at art and the details, draw inward, and live.