Category Archives: nonfiction

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation

I don’t usually use this blog as a venue for traditional “reviews” and recommendations, but this post will be just that. 

At the end of this year we ordered a lot of non fiction to be used in the classroom and I’ve been trying to make my way through some of it in preparation for book clubs in the fall.  I just finished Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s graphic adaptation of the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which shared the commissioner’s answers and recommendations in response to the 9/11 attacks.

As someone who would probably not ever read the full text version of the report, I found this book to be incredibly educational and thorough.  In its 133 pages, I was given a general comprehension of what led up to the attacks, how they happened, the government’s response that day and moving forward and the recommendations for how our country can be better prepared for the future.  I highly recommend reading it. 

The most jarring point for me as a citizen was the lack of communication that existed between officials and departments on the city government level as well as the national level.  It is overwhelming to think about how better communication, just like in almost every area of life, might have been able to help prevent the attacks or better assist in the aftermath.

One of the most interesting recommendations that the commission mentioned was for the government to have a greater imagination when thinking through policy.  My question is always about where that starts.  If students aren’t given the opportunity to think bigger and wider and deeper, how will they acquire the kinds of skill sets that are already in short supply in both the government and private sector today?

Hand them books.  Engage them in conversations.  Invite them into ideas bigger than themselves. Teach them history in an engaging way and connect it to the future. 

Best nonfiction read, ever.

When I finished reading Maus and Night it was impossible to not feel the cruelty that is possible in humanity deep in my gut. While reading In the Garden of Beasts, I only became more disengaged with politics and their inability to create the kind of change that the world desperately needs.  I’m a micro-thinker by nature, meaning that I’m a believer and participant in small change on a small nature when it comes to making a difference.  I’m thankful for people who have the brains and enthusiasm for policy and law, but am generally overwhelmed when looking at the world’s brokenness at such a vast level.  And so, I sit in my classroom and teach my students to be critical thinkers and to hopefully see some magic through reading and writing.  I knew that I needed to read something that would reveal hope to me on a micro level–to remember that amidst the ugly there were people who loved and people who fought for what was right.  Then I remembered a friend had recommended Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to me over a year ago and realized there would never be a better time to read it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Christian who was a part of the German resistance to Hitler and became involved with multiple assassination attempts, ultimately hanged at a concentration camp two weeks before the end of the war.  It’s just over 600 pages and it overtook my reading and thinking life, which partially explains my month long absence from writing about reading on here.  I’ve never been more engaged in nonfiction and I have never been so captured by the integrity of a single person.  There isn’t a way that I can begin to describe all that I took away from reading it, except to say that I can only hope to strive for justice and love the way that he did.  His life is a story of doing what is right, period, and not hiding under the illusion of safety in rules and regulations and inaction.

You should read this now.

I randomly revisited David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech for Kenyon College that he gave in 2005.  It is the best text I have read in a long time and at the same time heartbreaking, knowing that he died three years later.   You might click on the link and think that it’s too long, or think that it requires too much mental gymnastics for a Friday afternoon, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

in the company of those who struggle.

I came across Mary Karr’s book Lit after I read an article in New York Magazine about her, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen.  I had read all of the authors except for her and sought out to get a copy of The Liars Club.  Then I found Lit, an incredibly written memoir based in Karr’s alcohol abuse, the dissolution of her marriage and recovery, on a brownstone’s stoop and decided that would work.   I later found out that a few friends of mine had recently read and loved it, so I moved it to the top of my “to read” stack.
{I’ve learned that sometimes I love to share the story of how I stumbled upon a story.  Thanks for indulging me.}
There are a few parts from Lit that I haven’t stopped thinking about. One was that her recovery and redemption came in the company of those who struggled, too.  Karr found herself in AA with a mix of every kind of person imaginable, none of whom she would have sought out on her own.  The friends she made there were from across the social spectrum, people whose paths would have never crossed otherwise. And yet, they became a lifeline for one another because they deeply understood that struggle is best endured together. No one lives immune to hurt–and that means that each of us has something in common with every person we meet.  
I would not normally call myself a cynic, but in the winter it happens from time to time. For some reason that was the space my mind was inhabiting in the week I was reading this book: not in response to the book, but just in response to life.  I often get frustrated at the instagram-portrayed life.  Don’t get me wrong, I think small moments of life’s poetry are worth sharing, but sometimes it is easy to start thinking that everyone around has a perfectly curated life.  I know this theory is false.  Or, I start soaking in cynicism about the self promotion social media induces.   I’ve found that when I remember that I am always in (and a part of) the company of those who struggle, my heart seems to grow in compassion.  
I am always trying to teach my students that books make us better people because we learn to empathize with almost any character once we understand the ins and outs of his or her story.  Sometimes the teacher needs to remember this, too. 
 I also didn’t realize just how much spirituality was a part of Karr’s journey, and when added to a life rich in real community, a portrait of how beautiful–and simple–life can be rose before me. 
Therapy rescued me in my twenties by taking me inward, leaching off pockets of poison in my head left over from the past.  But the spiritual lens–even just the nightly gratitude list and going over each day’s actions–is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved,” (304).
I really can’t add much to her words, except that by allowing herself to consider, and ultimately accept, the way faith, not religious duty, could change a life, her life and mental landscape began to change.  Sometimes I forget this–and reading Karr’s story became one of the brightest reminders of my winter–and my own cold weather induced cynicism and anger has begun to slip away.  

This year’s winter.

First,  I have been in discussion with one of my best friends who also happens to be a teacher about how we always think of the “new year” starting in September. We realized that the main way we identify ourselves is through our job, which in many ways is great: teaching English combines so many of my passions.  It is generally hard for me to do a year reflection, because since I’ve never left the school calendar since infancy, January to me is the end of the first semester…the half way point.  It feels strange to think about 2011 because I had two different groups of students.  I had two different curriculum plans.  But. This is only if I look at my life solely through my profession.
Second, I caught myself spreading my winter blues this morning.  I’ve written before about my how my college roommate and I diagnosed me with Seasonal Affective Disorder online in 2001 and about how spring-forward is my favorite day of the year.  I’ve probably even written about how I blame the school calendars of my youth who had flowers decorating the month of March (obviously made by a southerner) for the way my heart starts to get prematurely hopeful for warmer weather.  However, my personal-not-job-related goal for 2012 (the first fourth of it, anyway) is to have a better attitude about the winter.  There. I said it. Please, if you see me, remind me of this.  
Another dear friend sent me an essay from a book called Let Your Life Speak many winters ago about living through the seasons as a polite way of telling me to get a better attitude.  I return to it every year.  It tells me: “Winter is a demanding season…and yet the rigors are accompanied by gifts: …times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things…One gift of utter clarity as in winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque and see the trees clearly…Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.”  Another friend of mine moved to San Diego from New York and told me that perfection can breed complacency.  
So, I would like to live thankfully and intentionally this winter.  I realized the other day that I never posted about Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids (which would have definitely made it onto the Top Ten).  I reread my notes inside and what I found has a direct correlation with how I want to live in this cold season: 
“…it was the work in a hall devoted to Picasso…that pierced me the most.  His brutal confidence took my breath away.” (11)  “I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself…Picasso didn’t crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed.  He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people. When I had extra money I’d go to the Museum of Modern Art and sit before Guernica, spending long hours considering the fallen horse and the eye of the bulb shining over the sad spoils of war. Then I’d get back to work.” (65)
“But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings could create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.” (11)
“He [Robert Maplethorpe] contained, even at an early age, a stirring and the desire to stir,” (13)
I want to stare winter down.   If it makes me angry, I want to do let that anger inspire writing.  Or to fight against it with dinner parties.  Or crawling out of my hole and stepping outside for a run with my friends and then feel as though I have thoroughly kicked it in the rear.  I want it to inspire me to actually live rather than hunkering down with Netflix instant streaming. I want to sense a stirring and stir.