Category Archives: books

The Age of Miracles & maintaining a sense of self

Months ago I saw the book The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walkder and added it to books I wanted to read, namely because it sounded like a good next step for my 8th graders who had read every futuristic, dystopian novel in the young adult section and were ready for an adult level book.  I ran into it the while browsing in the digital books collection of the Brooklyn Public Library and decided it should be my first library ebook.

The premise of the story is that one seemingly typical morning, people wake up to a news story that states the rotation of the earth has shifted and minutes have been added onto the day.  This continues and throws the entire world into a frenzy as the governments decide to remain on 24 hour clock-time which, as the days grow longer, can mean the waking “day” is completely in the dark and the sun is shining brightly while people are sleeping at “night.”  Of course there are people who decide to rebel and let their circadian rhythms readjust, but soon the days become 48 hours long.  Some people become afflicted with sickness, tides are shifted way off and coasts flood, the magnetic field is damaged and the sun’s rays become so dangerous that people do not walk into the sun anymore.

What I kept thinking about was that even though there were life changing and life threatening conflicts, people needed to maintain a sense of self in the face of it all–and that may be what enables them to face the conflicts with courage. This made me start thinking about when everything in life feels like it is being thrown off–when the earth’s rotation in this story is like a metaphor for our lives–how do we cope?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of taking the time to do the things that are good for my soul–even if that means not finishing everything on my to do list.  Or even if it means deciding to paint or bake instead of sitting in front of another crime show–which feels relaxing for the moment, but doesn’t impact my sense of well being in the long run.

What was devastating in the book was when the government decided to make a time capsule of sorts so that if civilization were destroyed, people of the future would have an understanding of the age.  Inside the capsule, though, was a disc that contained information about how civilization worked: the internet, government systems, medical advances.  Our narrator, who is telling the story from her mid twenties about her 12 year old self said: “Not mentioned on the disc was the smell of cut grass in high summer, the taste of oranges on our lips, the way sand felt beneath our bare feet, or our definitions of love and friendship, our worries and our dreams, our mercies and our kindnesses and our lies,” (267).  These are the things of actual life.  The things that she shares throughout the length of the book itself.  And that, is a beautiful and clever idea from the author: it is the stuff of stories that make life worth living.  (It reminded me a lot of this book, which I also wrote about here.)

And so, I’ve tried to be in pursuit of these things that remind me of the goodness of life; the things that store up strength for later and can provide true comfort.  For me, that has meant art and cooking real meals and going for runs in Prospect Park to soak in the season.  Having these rhythms in place keeps me grounded when life seems to throw everything else off.  And that in and of itself, constitutes a miracle.

Summer Reading Conclusion

I write about it every year, but never have I been more grateful for the rhythm of summer to work its wonders in my overwhelmed teacher brain.  This year in particular I was able to be re-inspired and energized professionally by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Institutes in July, take a few weeks to read, breathe and finalize details for my wedding, then celebrate getting to spend the rest of my life with the best guy I’ll ever know with my favorite people in the world.  We were able to escape and soak in the Cinque Terre, Florence, and Barcelona.  And suddenly I found myself excited to be thinking about September, my new students, and who we will all be as readers and writers.   Here’s the text journey that got me to this place. I posted in mid June about my plans, which included curling up with some nonfiction, but that never happened.  I think in the summer, especially, I just want to get lost in a good story.  I’ve starred the ones that I’d most highly recommend.

I call these books the “I commuted for over two hours every day” collection from late June/early July.  You can also tell by the fact that I blogged extensively in my early summer days that I was ready to really think about what I was reading.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman**
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy**

These books are the “I need a vacation and only want to read mysteries” collection from August.  You can tell by the lack of blog posts about these books that I was either on vacation or starting to plan curriculum, so I haven’t written about these yet. The first three I read on my Kindle–as a e-book newbie.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson**
The Stone Cutter by Camilla Lackburg
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Young Adult:
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness**
I am J by Cris Beam
Playground by 50 Cent
Nothing to Fear by Jackie French Koller

On my parents’ porch, as always, I read The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.  However, I didn’t write about it this year because this was in the three days before my wedding. I did post about it on instagram, though! A picture is a text, too, you know:)

Happy September.  Enjoy the new starts, the school supplies, the football, the pumpkin spice.  Sigh.

Poetic Connection: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

It is rare to find an author who sees people the way that you do and in an age where it seems like so many modern authors are jaded and whose characters are disgruntled, bored, angry adults, reading Van Booy’s work is a breath of fresh air.  His prose is like poetry and it is impossible for me to not get caught up in them.  My favorite book of last summer was Everything Beautiful Began After and then I immediately sought out his collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love.  While I was browsing at my local book store, surprisingly open on the 4th of July, I saw on the front table that he had a new book out and I couldn’t help myself even though I have a large stack of books to read on my nightstand already.

As I meet his characters, they are still open to the possibility of beauty and hope, even if it has felt long vanished from their lives.  And this I believe is what a lot of today’s modern characters–and people, of course–are in desperate need of:  tiny moments that can begin to rewire the joy that has seeped out of living.

The Illusion of Separateness opens with a quote from monk Thich Nhat Hanh: We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.  The concept that Van Booy carries throughout his story is that the feeling of separateness is an illusion.  I wonder about the original context of the quote and what the “here” is meant to convey.  It could be on earth.  It could mean in this moment.  Or it could mean in an intentional place–literal or psychological–a readiness to face where life has taken us.  And perhaps it is in the journey of awakening we realize it is often those tiny moments of beauty and longing that connect us to those around us, whether we realize it or not.  In the book, that is part of the beautiful mystery.  The reader, by the end, is able to see the connections between the vignettes of characters presented to us from 1939 to 2010, from England to the East coast of the United States, but not all of the characters see the connections that draw them together–but–they each are able to find a bit of peace as they begin to see themselves in the larger context of humanity:

We all have different lives, Martin believes–but in the end probably feel the same things, and regret the fear we thought might somehow sustain us (16-17).

In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment–we are all defined by something we can’t change (82).

Everyone was searching, he thought–trying to unravel the knot of their lives (152).

I’m not sure when life becomes that knot–but once we realize that nearly everyone feels it, all of a sudden just that knowledge lifts some of the separateness.  Not just empathy but community is born out of the shared brokenness–but through it has the ability to make life beautiful and poetic.
And of course, it brings the reader back to what I probably write about too much on here: why we need to read literature to understand humanity–and let our understanding of characters help us to look for the lives behind the faces we pass each day.

One of my favorite parts of the book (beyond the achingly beautiful character sketches) was that the characters took care of each other–often as strangers.  Be it with a bag of tomatoes or shelter in a war field.  Just like all of my favorite books do, this one makes me want to look for more poetry and hope in the cracks and corners of my world.

A Monster Calls: a book about healing from grief, the power of story & some ruminations on the teaching of reading

My cousin recommended a middle grades book, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which is stunningly illustrated by Jim Kay.  I hadn’t yet heard of it, but apparently it is causing quite a stir, having already won the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.  It is beautifully written, smart, and the pictures are breathtaking–but it is not for the faint of heart; I cried for over an hour when I finished it, which I do not admit lightly.  There is such beautiful, difficult truth in this book, though, that I find it impossible not to recommend.

The main character Conor has been having a terrible nightmare, which he cannot talk about and does not reveal until the end of the story, that began when his mother started getting treatments for cancer.  In the mean time, a monster begins showing up at 12:07 every night, claiming that he only comes walking in matters of life and death. Conor has no fear of this monster because in comparison to his true nightmare, he isn’t scary at all.  The monster tells him he is going to tell him three stories, which are “the wildest things of all…Stories chase and bite and hunt,” (37) and then, he says, Conor will tell the monster a story–his story, his truth, what happens at the end of his nightmare, that he cannot tell anyone.

What is brilliant about the book is the way the monster interacts with Conor and the way that the stories he tells symbolize the complexity of what it means to be human–Ness has crafted a story that gets at the heart of pain and healing in a way that is significant and weighty and truthful for both 12 year olds and adults.  Through the narrative voice of the monster and his stories, he approaches life’s biggest fear–loss–in a heart wrenching, beautiful, and most important, truthful, way.

After the first story, they have this exchange:  “So the good prince was a murderer and the evil queen wasn’t a witch after all.  Is that supposed to be the lesson of all this? That I should be nice to her?” He heard a strange rumbling, different from before, and it took him a minute to realize the monster was laughing.  “You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons?” the monster said.  “You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?” (63).

This reminded me of some of the work I recently did at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s summer institute for the teaching of reading.  One of the best ongoing conversations at multiple sessions was about how students often don’t do the reading work that will move and change and transform them as people–they look at a complex text and often want to reduce it to the first lesson they can come up with–but this is empty work when in a rich text.  Life–and the best kinds of stories–are far more complex than to reduce to a single lesson.  And it is a sad day when amazing books get reduced to looking for a lesson (which seems to be what standardized testing is trying to do to reading–reducing it to a task, rather than an opportunity to understand what it means to be human, what it means to belong, to escape from reality for a moment, I could go on).

Conor goes on to say: “I don’t understand.  Who’s the good guy here?” The moster replies: “There is not always a good guy.  Nor is there always a bad one.  Most people are somewhere in between.” Conor shook his head.  “That’s a terrible story.  And a cheat,” (64).  This is where so many middle grade students find themselves–and because they have been trained to look for the “lesson” on a standardized test, or because for whatever reason they want to look for the easiest way out of a story rather than linger in what it is really offering.  The rest of the story follows Conor navigate and make meaning through the darkness in a way that stunned me as a person.

Like the monster says, stories are wild creatures.  They help us see.  They help us heal. And I love that it is my job to get books in the hands of kids and to teach them how to make their thinking messy, because that is how life goes.

Competitive friendships.

{Europa}

My Brilliant Friend is a novel, the first in a not-yet-finished trilogy, by the elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante that details the earliest years of a friendship between the unafraid, fiery Lila and the clever, though uncertain Elena in a poor Naples neighborhood in the late 1950s.  It is a novel of the time and place, for sure–as the reader, we watch the violence and passion of the neighborhood erupt in the name of pride and longing: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad,” (37). We see children fighting to free themselves from their parents yet without the resources, or heart, to do it, and so they couple off and begin again in the town they rarely leave.   But for me as a reader, this was a novel about female friendship–and at first you might be tempted to think it sentimental and nostalgic, but really it’s nothing of the sort.

The friendship between Lila and Elena is brutal.  Elena’s standing in her school is usurped by Lila and the other kids can’t stand her, but Elena is drawn to her.  As children, Lila seems to test to see just how far Elena will follow and remain her friend, and I read in disbelief Elena continued to be mystified and devoted to Lila, no matter how cruel she could be. In their neighborhood “the women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other.  To cause pain was a disease,” (37).  Lila manifested this as a young girl and used it with Elena and Elena did not want to back down and appear weak, so their friendship went on, more a repetition of challenges than an actual friendship–throughout their entire friendship. 

Their friendship became even more complex when Elena’s family allowed her to continue her studies and Lila’s family did not.  Near the end of the book, their friendship diverges.  If not for the prologue which is written from Elena’s perspective in her sixties and conveys that they are still friends (and sets up the trilogy), I would think that the friendship would dissolve, as often they do.  The more I thought about it I began to see how Lila pushed Elena and could be credited to the drive that enraptured her, but I was simultaneously repulsed by her manipulative behavior.  There’s a moment near the end of the novel where Lila calls Elena “her brilliant friend,” which is the way Elena had always seen Lila.  I’m left wondering about the truth or the manipulation behind the proclamation, or perhaps both.

The most thought provoking reflection Elena has about their friendship is this: “The better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become.  It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the joy or sorrow of the other,” (257).

This kind of unspoken competition simultaneously makes me sick and yet feels very human and familiar if I am to look back on some of my own friendships.  There are a few that feel as though they had a similar competitive edge to them–which brought dissension and drama into the larger group.  It brought my thinking back to The Interestings and what envy can do to one’s insides and in turn relationships.  It makes me wonder about why people feel the need to compare and judge themselves against others–not to sound simplistic or preachy, but it seems healthier to share in one another’s joys and sorrows–to bear them together, knowing that no one has it easy or has it all.  Maybe it bothers me so much because I teach 13 year olds for a living and hate watching these power plays amongst them.  Perhaps this is just something we  learn–or, choose to learn–when we are older.  It is definitely easier to be bitter, but there is no emotional health in it.  And yet, the competition seemed to drive Elena to her highest achievements, and so I am left with unfinished thoughts wondering yet again about the complexity of the human condition.