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?

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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imgresI first read The Elegance of the Hedgehog in 2009, not long after it was translated from French. While reading it this time, I had two separate French people stopped me on the subway to tell me what a wonderful book it was. When I went back to see what I wrote about it on my blog after the first time I read it, I saw I didn’t. It made my Top Ten Books of the Year but apparently a lot of the books I love the most I haven’t written about–as though they were too immense to try to put into words. But now, seven years later, I will try.

The story alternates between two narrators who live in the same Parisian building. Paloma is a 12 year old girl who is frustrated with the rich, privileged people she comes from and is surrounded by. Renee is an autodidact and the long time concierge in Paloma’s building. She has created a secret life for herself, hiding her passion and ability for learning and philosophy, and love of civility behind what she believes to be her peasant-like station in life. As the story progresses, each character learns in her own way, as their paths cross with each other and a new tenant in the building, to live more freely as themselves, and to reassess how they perceive others.

Paloma’s story begins when she states she is going to commit suicide at the age of 13 because she can’t bear the world any longer. Her narratives are excerpts from her journal, where she records what she calls “movements of the world”–“the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us” (page 38). Her hope is that she will find a reason for being, and reading the different things she noticed reminded me to look for them, too.

I love Paloma’s journey, especially as a middle school teacher who appreciates/understands the simultaneous energy and self-centered nature young adolescents possess. Renee, though, is like a dear friend. She encompasses, in most ways, the kind of quiet, reflective life filled with learning that I want to have for myself. In her story I found so much of the mindful nature I work at on and off. She speaks of her daily tea with her best (and only) friend:

“I know tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” (page 91).  Here she is talking about tea, and she is also talking, unknowingly, about herself. Renee’s greatest flaw is that she wants to hide her best self from everyone, and in doing so misses out on the joy of kindred souls.

My favorite moment of the book, though, is when after gathering courage and dressing up for a night out with a new tenant, none of the old tenants recognize her. The new tenant replies “It is because they have never seen you. I would recognize you anywhere” (page 303).

The story of Renee finally sharing who she really was and the beauty of this new tenant to see it has been filling my thoughts the past few weeks–to what degree do we see people? Or do we just pass judgement? Or make assumptions? What friendships are we missing because we are holding back? I want to have eyes like this new tenant. I want to teach my students to have these eyes. To see without prejudice. To find small moments of beauty when all else seems dull.

{As a side note, I saw the French film version 3 or 4 years ago, and loved it as well. Of course, only after having read the book.}