Sleeping Too Close to the Stars & Rereading The House on Mango Street

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

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.

◊◊◊

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

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

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.}

Everything Beautiful Began After

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

imgresThis week I’ve been teaching a nonfiction reading unit, and I’ve gotten pretty fired up about the power of literacy and of reading widely. We teach students strategies for reading critically and asking questions, and honestly that is one of the most powerful things a citizen can do. Of course if you’ve read much here over the past ten years, my true passion is narrative, fiction or nonfiction. the ability to get to know stories and perspectives that are not your own is, I think, the best way to heal the brokenness in our country. This week NPR had a great article called One Way to Bridge the Political Divide: Read the Book That’s Not For You. They quote Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation: “My life is small” she says, “and I think books are a way to make your life larger.” It’s an article worth checking out–and the idea of reading books about people who are different than you might just be one of the answers to creating more empathy in our country: our classrooms, our homes, our social media feeds.

I finished reading Everything Beautiful Began After about a month ago for my 2016 rereading goal. I loved it as much as I did the first time, even when the second half switches to second person narration (which takes some getting used to). There is a tragedy that happens to the main characters, and this writing style forces the reader to feel as if they are the one experiencing the longing, the deep sense of grief, the lack of center along with him. Van Booy  has a gift for description that cuts to the marrow of human experience, and as I reread the following passages I underlined while reading, they became metaphorical for any kind of rebuilding, but felt particularly relevant to my current political frustrations.

First this:

“A man on an upside-down bucket is selling small tubes of glue from a folding table. On the table are things glued together…He asks if anything you have is broken. “Everything,” you say in Greek. He puts a tube of glue in your hands. You hold out a few coins, but he pushes them away,” (293).

Then this:

“You are sitting on a bench in Sicily, in the town of Noto, where George lives. Once destroyed by an earthquake and then rebuilt. After every chapter of devastation, there is rebuilding. It happens without thought. It happens even when there is no guarantee it won’t happen again. Humans may come and go–but the thread of hope is a rope we pull ourselves up with,” (367).

And this:

“He keeps going. He can feel the weight of their lives in a single step forward. And he is enchanted by the beauty of the small things: hot coffee, wind through an open window, the tapping of rain, a passing bicycle, the desolation of snow on a winter’s day,” (401).

The last one reminds me of course of Mary Oliver (thoughts on her latest coming soon) and living mindfully. Being present with love and grace rather than scrolling through twitter on the lookout for the next thing to incite anger. Being present to see signs of hope. Being present to rebuild. The title of this book–everything beautiful began after–is a precious reminder that after suffering, hope and life can spring.

Longing and Loneliness: On Rereading Great House by Nicole Krauss.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

imgresWhen I opened Nicole Krauss’s Great House to reread, three typed sheets of notes fell out. I realized that I planned a rather epic blog post about it when I finished it in 2010, but there was so much to say that I think I just touched on a single line from the 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.

There are a few lines in particular that give a name to what these characters long for: a sense of safety and being known:

“Negotiating this obstacle course, stripped of any sense of purpose, all I longed for was to be home in my childhood bedroom, tucked under the covers with their familiar smell.”

“It’s something amazing to feel that for the first time someone is seeing you as you really are, not as they wish you, or you wish yourself to be.”

One of the narrators is an Israeli man whose business is to track down items stolen during the Nazi era. At the end, he shares one of his favorite Jewish stories about how if all the Jewish memories and experiences were put together as holy fragments, the Great House, or the destroyed temple, would be metaphorically restored to its original self. “We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.” It seems to me that the rest of the book is about disconnected people fiercely trying to preserve the tiny part of the world that makes sense to them, which sometimes means tip-toeing through life and bearing its weight alone. These moments of narration were utterly gut wrenching:

“I came across you standing in the garden, a strange stiffness in your posture as if you carried a wooden yoke like the old Dutch, only instead of water it was great reserves of feeling that you wished not to spill.”

“In her work the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.”

“He who never dared to break it, and I who bowed to the borders drawn, the walls erected, the areas restricted, who turned away and never asked.”

As I’m trying to make sense of all of this, I am remembering now why I didn’t try to address the entire book six years ago–the weight of it is so immense, that the act of reading it is perhaps all there is to do. I remember finishing it in my studio apartment the first time thinking that all I could really do was start reading again at the beginning. This is the kind of book that is worth rereading because it gives a poignant look into the mess that is the human condition.

That time I decided it would be a good idea to reread The Waves by Virginia Woolf. (And it was…it just took me about a month longer than it did in undergrad.)

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookEmail this to someone
img_4462

Penny has high brow taste in literature and prefers to read while wearing her Buckeyes jersey.

When I was a junior in college, I took a course where we read 8 novels by Virginia Woolf in 8 weeks. I loved it. There’s never been another time in my reading life where I’ve been able to cover so much in such a short period of time, and she still remains the author I’ve read most extensively. Over the years, though, I’ve only reread Mrs. Dalloway  (along with The Hours by Michael Cunningham) with my old book club. For this year’s rereading of favorites, I picked Woolf’s The Waves, definitely her most difficult book and the one my pretentious undergrad- English-major-self claimed to love the most, and what I wrote my final paper on. I’m not going to lie–15 years later, The Waves felt like a lot of work to get through even while simultaneously understanding what a masterpiece it still is. (I tried reading it before bed and I fell asleep within 2 pages every time. It then lived in my purse for weeks as my subway book. Then I read it during my school’s 20 minute independent reading time after lunch each day. Then I finally sat down on my couch until I was done.)

The story is told from the voices of 5 friends and covers their early days into their latest years, with the central event being the death of their 6th friend in his early twenties. It is told in a stream of consciousness, moment-by-moment narration, giving me the sense that each character is simply trying to make it through from one to the next. There is a lot of inner thinking and philosophizing about the nature of life and being that begins to change as the characters grow older.

As a 21 year old, I read it through the lens of love: “There can be no doubt, I thought, pushing aside the newspaper, that our mean lives, unsightly as they are, put on splendour and have meaning only under the eyes of love” (178). I still try to see the world through a lens of love, but looking at my older notes, it’s amazing to learn how the layers and years of your life can change the way you interpret a book. Ultimately, I still believe that love creates meaning, but what stood out for me this time was the capacity one has for being in the moment (and let’s be honest, despite knowing better, mine’s quite small).

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

“The moment was all. The moment was enough.”

Meanwhile, I’m connecting to articles that tell me if I’m turning to my phone because I think I feel bored, that’s a problem.

The other thing I noticed significantly more this time around was as the characters grew older, many of them embrace life’s messiness. I imagine when I was 21 I would have seen these characters as being somewhat lost, whereas now I connect more to this view:

 

img_4539

After Penny finished The Waves, she was exhausted, too.movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost…” (238-239).

“But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story–and there are so many, and so many–stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases. How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground! […] What delights me [now] is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and

movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost…” (238-239).

The piece that enables me to embrace the mess is this:

“I am rooted, but I flow.”

No more words are needed.

(Note: I also just read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which is a memoir about her life as a botanist and in it she writes about the root systems of trees, which I find profoundly metaphorical. Highly recommended if you are even a little bit of a life science nature nerd.)