Category Archives: books

Remembering truth, yet again.

hearing heartbeats

Often I find characters in books who are calloused–who have suffered and have created ways to walk through life with steps that enable them to avoid pain.  In turn, they also lose the ability to feel joy and beauty and sink into cynicism.  I am thankful to authors who can write this emotional place well–it helps me to feel less alone, especially when I’ve allowed busyness or the hard side of adolescent behavior to get the best of me in my day-to-day.   But though it is normal, I am realizing (yet again) at the end of a jam-packed semester it is not a way to live.

I have found myself saying countless times in the past few months: “well, when my grad school semester ends on May 13th, then I’ll be able to live more fully.  I’ll take out my paints and practice yoga and go for runs in the park again.”  While this goal-mindset has helped me to  move through the semester with fortitude, it has not enabled me live with an inner peace. Instead it fuels, accepts, and accompanies anxiety. The rest I do manage to get isn’t deep.  I began to seek out some nonfiction favorites like Brene Brown and Henri Nouwen to feed my soul.  And in a timely fashion, my mom handed me a book she’s been talking about for months that added a narrative angle to my effort to have a deeper peace.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by German author Jan-Philipp Sendker is a story framed in narration by Julia, the daughter of a wealthy Burmese immigrant father and American mother.   Her father, who she describes as a person who truly had an inner peace while she was growing up, abandons the family and his business and disappears shortly after her graduation from law school.  She ultimately decides to follow his trail to his native Burma in an effort to seek him out.  She meets a man who tells her the story of her father’s childhood, which is the main narrative in the book.  Julia comes to know a part of her father she never knew existed and as a reader, I was transported the same way she was by her father’s story of suffering, pain, love, and peace–and appreciated the truths that were able to be found within deeply complex and imperfect characters.

The story is written in  lyrical prose and moves back and forth between the reality of suffering:

“Life is interwoven with suffering. That in every life, without exception, illnesses are unavoidable. That we will age, and that we cannot elude death.  These are the laws and conditions of human existence,” (108).

and the beauty of life and love:

“Of course I am not referring to those outburts of passions that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot life without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person-a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on what we cannot.  No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.” 

Calloused cynicism is certainly an easier way to live, but it prohibits inner peace and rarely allows for true joy to appear.   About two-thirds of the way through the story, Julia remembers something about her father that I think gives insight to us all who are bumbling through busy days, sorrowful days, joyless days (and brings me back to my theme of the past year of developing life rhythms that help us sort through and make meaning from our lives):

Every evening before going to bed, he would sit in the living room, eyes closed, listening to music on headphones. How else will my soul find strength for the night, he had said quietly,” (234). 

Prayers.

My spring break has been a lovely one.  I got to turn my state-test riddled work brain off and simply relax, which included the High Line and margaritas, Brooklyn Heights brunch, visiting my parents in Louisville and of course, reading (because I also got to turn my grad-school-brain off).  I read my former student teacher Lindsey Palmer’s new book Pretty In Ink (narrated from multiple women’s voices in the post recession magazine industry), a short ghost story called The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill, Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement and The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker.  After spending so long in The Goldfinch (thoughts coming soon), it was nice to have some time to literally get lost in so many stories.

I’ve lamented with some of my friends about the overabundance of novels about privileged, educated people having existential crises–and though I still read them and sometimes enjoy them, I often wonder how it is expanding my world or helping me to know the world as a whole in a better way.  It feels easy and relatable to read conflicts that could be my own, but they usually don’t challenge me as a person.  Over the summer, Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane opened my eyes to different kinds of fiction, and I would say now that Prayers for the Stolen helped transport me to a completely different and necessary place.

It takes place mostly in Guererro, Mexico, in a village where all of the men have left in search of work in the US and the women are left to survive on little and protect their children from the drug cartels.   They cut their daughters’ hair, blacken their teeth, and dress them like boys to prevent them from being stolen.  The main character in the story, Ladydi, is saved because laid in a hole her mother dug in the backyard when the cartels came through town.  Her story takes her to Acapulco as a nanny, and ultimately jail when her name is wrongly entangled when a murder implicates a friend.

My husband has been reading a book about the Mexican drug cartels, and Prayers for the Stolen is like the perfect companion because alongside the horrific realities a reader obtains from the nonfiction, this fiction tells the story of a hidden population of women, but whose fierce spirits have been forged through survival.  About half way through the story, Ladydi’s mother is enraged that a magazine is going to run an issue about what it is to be a woman, but doesn’t believe it will capture anything that is true, be it the existential struggle or the blunt truths of their day to day realities: ” Do you think those Mexico City women writers are going to write about the sadness?” (85).

The answer is a resounding no.

And there it is, again.  When my reality is not what these women face, I can so easily get lost in my own plights nonsensical in comparison.  And I wonder if, though I can’t directly help, maybe it is the prayers that matter. For all of us.

Once again, my reading reminds me to walk away from my to-do list.

{cover design by Anna Bauer}

My reading life has been consumed with graduate school.  Lately I’ve been studying Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan,  A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence by Carmen Farina (New York City’s new chancellor) and Laura Scott, countless articles on gifted education, and the middle grades novel Al Capone Does My Shirts to study narrative progression with a colleague.  Add into the mix a (wonderful) trip out of town and a Saturday conference, and it makes sense that my writing about reading–and just fiction reading–hasn’t been happening at a quick pace.

I finished The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht a few weeks ago.  I usually like to read reviews after I finished the book, but with this one and the unfocused reading life I’ve had lately, I actually wish I read this New York Times Book Review before I read it, so I could have done some better critical thinking about the beautiful work Obrecht did throughout the story.  The overarching narrative is about a young woman living in a vague post-war setting in the Balkans who is working to finish her medical training.  On her way to deliver medical aid to a small town, she learns her grandfather just died.  When she goes to pick up his belongings from where he died, Obrecht interweaves stories of her grandfather’s youth, which are essentially tales of superstitious new myths.

This post has been sitting in draft form for a couple weeks as I’ve frantically tried to grade papers, read articles, write papers, create presentations.  The weather outside remained cold and my days at work felt frantic preparing my students for the state test.  Sitting down to finish this post again, I felt like I had nothing to say.  But then I started thinking about the crux of the story for me: when one of the characters tells the narrator: “We’re all entitled to our superstitions,” (272).  At the moment, the narrator is the only one in the story who didn’t have some kind of stake in the unexplainable.  She armed herself with medical know-how and pragmatism–and until this moment in the story, her relationship with myth and superstitions was cynical at best.  By the novel’s end, she doesn’t become a believer in magic, per se, but she does not remain the same.

I’ve been so task-oriented, busy, and mad about the weather that I’ve forgotten to remember the existence of magic in the world.  My mental respites have been thinking about a future that doesn’t yet belong to me: one where I have some land and a garden, woods to walk in, seasonal rhythms that don’t involve honking cars or paved streets.  Of course, hoping for this future isn’t necessarily bad, but I do think it is existentially dangerous to live without a touch of superstition, or rather, an awareness of the beautiful and mysterious.

My hope is that this weekend, amidst the work, I would remember some stories and revel in what I can’t explain.  (And I wish I could reread The Tiger’s outside of my task oriented life, on a blanket in the park.  You should read it that way.)

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction: Moving from pat answers to real conversations

(Welcome to my new website! This is my first post on akindoflibrary.com, after spending seven years over at blogspot.  I’m so thankful to my husband, the very talented Daniel Warren, who was the technological, coding brainpower, and inspiration behind the move. If you are interested in redesigning your own blog, switching to wordpress, buying a domain name, making your page responsive so it adjusts to screens on all devices, etc. please get in touch.  Leave a comment for me or you can DM him on twitter).

{cover design by Jeannie M. Lee, Simon & Schuster}

This is the third blog post in a series about how violence in portrayed in young adult fiction.   I started with Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick and then Hate List by Jennifer Brown.  This week’s book is technically adult, but it is by Jodi Picoult, who many of my 8th graders read when they are ready to try a harder book.  Nineteen Minutes is a story about when a boy who was mercilessly bullied walks into his New Hampshire high school and starts  shooting.  In Picoult-fashion, it is a highly researched page turner with a surprise ending.

The strength of this story is that Picoult uses multiple narrators and flashback to tell the story so it becomes not just about one character.  We hear from his best friend from childhood who had abandoned him for the popular crowd and her mother who is a superior court judge.  We also hear from his mother who is a midwife and his father who is an economics professor who studies the cost of happiness.  In addition, Picoult includes narration from the defense attorney and the detective, both characters who throw their hearts into the case.

I also read his former best friend sympathetically because I was able to feel the social conflict she tried to bury, which is an extremely relatable emotion for teenagers, and honestly, any adult. The character who I read with the most sympathy, however, was the shooter.  The pain and humiliation he faced was unbearable, and I think for teenagers, the most important voice to hear.   As a teacher, I have sat in on countless assemblies where students hear messages about bullying, and honestly, they aren’t learning anything new.  Kids can recite for themselves the “lessons” presented to them and walking through the halls they mock them–not because they are callous or cold, but I think because they can sense that assemblies don’t make a difference.   What does, though, in my experience, is:

  • Inviting kids into stories that have a beginning, middle, and end in which they can explore motivation, cause and effect, character growth and begin to develop empathy and understanding for what it means to be human.
  • Inviting kids into art that addresses the difficult questions, rather than giving them another pat answer.
  • Inviting kids into conversations about these books and these pieces of artwork and giving them time to think and respond through conversation, writing, and art.
  • Listening to kids, respecting their opinions and experiences, and giving them grace and room to grow in the process of growing up.
  • Creating homes and classrooms where kids are reminded that everyone has a story and most often we don’t know all of it.

There are so many jumping off points for important thought-work and writing and conversations in this story, that my resounding answer to the question of how do we cope with these incredibly difficult issues in young adult literature is that we let kids read about them–we hand them the books–because they represent the complex, uncomfortable, difficult issues in life.   Reading (and responding to reading) is a safe way to explore things that they are going to be exposed to either way.  I’d recommend that parents actively read alongside their children–it will open up doors to conversations you didn’t know could exist with teenagers.

Sometimes you just need a book to get lost in.

There is something about making my way through a brick of a book that is so satisfying.  My friend Julie handed me her 830 page copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and I decided I wanted it to be my companion for my December break, which meant lugging it in my carry-on and trying to creatively balance it while laying in bed reading.  But what its size guaranteed was I would have a single story to get lost in for at least a week (and as it turns out, it took me a couple–I blame staying up too late with my family while at home).

The Luminaries is set in a growing town in New Zealand during its gold rush in 1866.  A new man arrives in town after being terrified by something he saw on the ship on his way there and accidentally stumbles into a criminal mystery involving a wealthy man who went missing, a prostitute who supposedly attempted suicide, a hermit who was found dead, and gold, of course. Soon enough, a cast of 12 men realized they have connections to the crime and we hear their different tales.  Catton structures the story against the planetary and stellar positions and says in her note to the reader that the story is Piscean in nature: “an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things…which affirms our faith in the vast and unknowing influence of the infinite sky.”

Part of me wishes I read it with people, because I am certain there are intricacies I missed, but also I enjoyed just getting lost in the story and seeing how decisions and happenstance connect people and create a narrative force forged of money, hope, love, fear–the age-old motivations that exist around every corner, if you’re a story hunter.  Just throw in some fate for good measure.  So, I wish that I had more intelligent things to say about this novel, but I treated it is now what I’ll refer to as a “Christmas break” read–which sometime is exactly what you need.