December 28, 2008

literary taste

It needn't be Dav Pilkey vs. Ellen Raskin.

I want to start a 4th/5th grade book club where the kids do something like the librarian in this article:

Kristi Jemtegaard, coordinator for youth services for the Arlington Public Library and a former member of a Newbery selection committee, has recruited youngsters at 12 public schools to review books. At Long Branch, about 15 fifth-graders volunteer to skip lunch and recess once a week during the fall to evaluate books that she believes have a chance to win the Caldecott Medal, the picture-book award. They will vote soon -- and learn next month whether they agreed with the real Caldecott committee.
I often wonder about the Newbery selection criteria - not because I think the books are inaccessible per se (but then, I haven't yet read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!) but because I think appeal to kids should factor in. And in my neck of the library, the kids read what they want to read - which is a few Newberys, a lot of Captain Underpants, and that insipid The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which, incidentally, won the 2008 Caldecott, distinguishing it as a picture book). And on accessibility - what I assume means some degree of relatability to one's own life - I agree that children treasure books whose characters and situations they can relate to, but I disagree that familiarity and literary quality necessarily go hand-in-hand.

I also think that you can look at a plot from one angle - Lois Lowry's The Giver, for example, a book about a fictional dysfunctional utopian society - and say that there is no way kids could "relate." However, what are the things in that book that kids can identify with? Well, the lack of "sameness" in our lives. And maybe the underlying/perceived value of standardization in school and corporate communities. Possibilities for reflection are endless. The Giver would also be a gateway to Kurt Vonnegut, via "Harrison Bergeron" (whose Diana Moonglompers, according to Huffington Post's Gerald Bracey, triumphs with NCLB. A good read.)

Lois Lowry, whose Number the Stars won the award in 1990, is also a gifted writer on the "other side" of the Newbery, having written such treasures as Anastasia Krupnik and Gooney Bird Greene. Books, I would argue, of high quality, but not Newbery material.

So, Winter Break is here, which means 1) more sleeping, 2) more eating, and 3) more reading. Left: Christmas presents! OK, some were presents to myself, but still and all.

By the way, I never did read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. It belongs to the same YA canon as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, and The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder - both of which I never read till Sherry Rose's class in grad school. Add that to my Winter Break / Last Reads of '08 list, I guess.

November 15, 2008

again with the lame

So consumed with wedding planning, joey combat, and restructuring my classroom that I have not had a lot of time to sit down and dig in to things of great substance. But have been having fun reading snippets, blurbs and blogs, and am getting by daily on the CNN ticker and Slate.

On the writing front, the two things I want to finish are a blurb on vermicomposting for my MIL's work newsletter and the heartfelt thank-you letter (also to MIL, and DIL too) for a lovely wedding present they gave me. These things are very important and long overdue. My sporadic stabs at fiction reside on post-its littering my workspace and canvas tote. It's sad, really.

Realized that since meeting S. I have become a homebody and have not hung out in a coffee shop with a book or a bookstore with a coffee and damnit, I need to fix that. Books and coffee at home are all well and good but it's just not the same.

November 6, 2008


Was issued a new laptop yesterday, for work, and have discovered the joy of VitalSource Bookshelf. So far have downloaded Peter Pan, Amerigo Vespucci's Account of His First Voyage, and Delacroix's painting Algerian Women in Their Apartments. I honestly feel that I have found the one object on Earth I would really need if marooned on a desert island (a good strong internet connection would help). Full-length novels, speeches, plays, and fine art at one's fingertips? Christmas has come early for this good little nerd girl.

Stars are beautiful, but they may not take an active part in anything, they must just look on for ever. It is a punishment put on them for something they did so long ago that no star now knows what it was. So the older ones have become glassy-eyed and seldom speak (winking is the star language), but the little ones still wonder.

(Barrie, J. M. Barrie. Peter Pan. Hayes Barton Press, 1904. 2).

October 30, 2008

a book by its cover

Blogger's latest notable. Four out of five "Blogs of Note" clicks leave me puzzled as to the definition of notability, but I suspect this one, which excites me to no end, is going to leave many others scratching their heads.


October 28, 2008

^sucky update

1. This is fabulous.

2. Sometimes I wonder why I put myself on the AR board with the kids; it's just another deadline to meet, and I am already smothered in "Where the hell's your ..."s. Then I read a book like Elijah of Buxton and I remember why. I'd say "Review to come!" but we all know what that usually means.

3. Conference week has bled into testing week. Will we ever have a solid week to read and write something, well, solid?

October 9, 2008

sorry, so sorry

This is one of my all-time favorites. It's a collection of essays and blurbs on a diverse range of topics, so like poetry, you can't consume it all at once, but pretty much whatever mood you bring to the bookshelf, Marjorie Williams will provide food for thought.

I wish Williams were still alive and writing, because I love her perspective and her prose style when discussing politics. Reading pundit blogs gives me a headache, because these issues have been on the table for years and I'm just tuning in (and I'm sorry, but what is McCain's "Crap Sandwich"?).

Just finished reading "The Art of the Fake Apology," a short essay published in March 2000. Somehow pieces (especially pieces with politics at the forefront or as backdrop) published before 9/11 seem automatically irrelevant; I skim them, wish for those times back, and move on. Pieces published after, I read for acknowledgment of a new era, scour for glimpses of optimism, an attitude of sure-footedness in this age of tension, heightened security, mistrust.

"The Art of the Fake Apology" is timeless, though. It offers a few examples of W's jack-assery, but other than that, states the author's distaste for bullshit apologies, i.e. the ones used merely to defend oneself, build an image, spin the story. It speaks not only of the character of politicians, but of the character of people.

"A real apology is useless, in the sense that it isn't offered for the giver's gain. Otherwise it isn't a real apology." - Marjorie Williams
Fake apologies may be the artwork of spin doctors and the most savvy of communications directors, but true apologies - any sincere declaration of feeling, for that matter - are way harder to produce. Because don't we all want something back for that kind of effort? Politicians want the upper hand, husbands and wives want forgiveness, people want it acknowledged that they're not the monsters they just made themselves out to be.

Our culture is so focused on "What do I get out of this deal?", and so true apologies are few and far between. The kids I teach really believe that mumbling "Sorry, dude" is an acceptable apology. The hardest thing about teaching them that it isn't, is the fact that true contrition can't be forced. Most times the kids aren't sorry for what they've done. I never tell my kids to apologize to each other (although I may suggest it if the offending party does seem sincerely regretful). Instead, I ask them what they're going to do about the situation. Lots of times, this just puzzles them. But it makes them really think, which I find preferable to them mumbling/shouting/sniping "Sor-reeee" and then going about their day.

September 15, 2008

fall kidlit spree

Managed to start How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connell, Schooled by Gordon Korman, and ("Finally, Ms. D_C.!") Gail Carson Levine's Fairest this weekend. Julie Schumacher's The Book of One Hundred Truths was the only one that stayed in my purse and so got carried everywhere I went, and so was the only one I finished. It reminded me of Deborah Wiles' Each Little Bird That Sings, although Schumacher's protag, Thea, is older and, even as the story's narrator, far more reticent than Wiles' Comfort Snowberger. Review to come.

Also finding Fairest to be slightly less appealing than (and less reminiscent of) Levine's Ella Enchanted, which I absolutely loved. Actually, Fairest, which deals with a heroine's perceived handicap, reminds me more of Shannon Hale's Princess Academy.

Just thinking right now of how much I wish I could teach novels. The basal we use (Harcourt Trophies) provides a nice range of genres and does feature excerpts from a few notable novels but I would love to have the time and freedom to select quality works and really get the kids to start critically analyzing characters, plots, authors' purposes, etc. Making connections (text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world) is an HCPS doozy, and using connecting skills with the full texts of carefully selected books would probably be a much richer experience than excerpt after excerpt. Not that I don't like Trophies - I do. I don't have a problem with basal readers as long as the range of selections is varied and appropriate (e.g. not boring to easily-bored fifths, thanks), as Trophies is.

Reviews to come!

August 13, 2008

i caught myself saying ...

"There's no freaking time to read!"

... But that's one lament I never accept from my kids, barring deaths in the family, horrible accidents, or the library disappearing like the USS Eldridge. Our school librarian, by the way, is beyond amazing; the way she galvanizes the entire school into reading frenzies each year is unbelievable. No excuses from the kids means no excuses from their ADHD teacher. So I tossed it out and made a manageable stack of stuff that they and I will read together.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963, Christopher Paul Curtis
Kira-Kira, Cynthia Kadohata
Eggs, Jerry Spinelli

I believe Kira-Kira and Eggs are Nene contenders this year, so I'm especially excited about those. I actually read The Watsons with a previous class and it was a great experience; somehow I think this particular class, which needs a Civil Rights movement of sorts of its own, would benefit as well.

July 21, 2008

a totally different story

In her own memoir, Lucy Grealy's voice is so much more lucid than it is in Ann Patchett's account of their friendship. Her overall presence is quieter. Saner. In Truth and Beauty, Grealy is so often a huge spaz - a larger-than-life personality, at times nearly unbearably (though I can't say unjustifiably) self-centered and demanding of her friends' attention and their constant validation of her talent.

On many occasions, Patchett's book provides details that Grealy "spared" (Patchett's word) the reader (or edited out, because her aim was to produce art, not a documentary), and initially I regretted reading Truth before reading Autobiography. I almost lamented finding Patchett's book first. Shouldn't I have begun with Grealy's account - what's closer to the truth than what comes from the horse's mouth? But now that I've finished both, I honestly don't think it matters. Grealy may or may not have been the most unreliable narrator ever, and Patchett may or may not have painted Lucy differently than she saw herself. It doesn't matter. They are not halves of a single story.

In Truth, Patchett portrays herself as the amenable, ever-dependable ant to Grealy's impetuous, wildly irresponsible but more appealing grasshopper; in Truth, Grealy's voice is steady and rational, even in its humor, even when describing moments of despair and high anxiety. Patchett's Lucy is crazy fun, sometimes annoying, always insecure; Grealy's Lucy is insecure but compos mentis, hopeful, philosophical, finding and holding fast to small, meaningful revelations.

The fact that Grealy does not once mention Patchett or the slew of other friends who care for her with such love and devotion in Truth is understandable but still weird. It was of course an account of her suffering and desire for inner peace and outer acceptance in the context of her cancer and subsequent disfigurement, but Patchett's entire book is a testament to their closeness, their love for each other and Lucy's dependency on Ann. This seemingly huge aspect of Lucy Grealy's life is completely absent from her book. In her review, the Seattle Times' Melinda Bargreen writes that "their brilliant friendship ... was the most vital thing in their lives." I think for Patchett it was. For Grealy, her quest for a positive and stable identity, actually, seems to have been all-consuming.

Of course, the two books were not written as supplements to each other. They were written under completely different circumstances and for completely different purposes. But I can't imagine reading one without the other. After reading Truth, I wanted to hear Lucy Grealy tell her own story, in her own voice. Which is what Autobiography is. It is beautiful, funny and sad, a must-read ... but I still felt it was lacking somehow. And I realized what I had been expecting was to read Ann Patchett's story from Grealy's point of view. It's a totally different story.

So yes, I should have read Autobiography of a Face before reading Truth and Beauty. But they are two amazing stories, in any order. Ann Patchett suggests reading Lucy Grealy's twice, and then again so you can appreciate the beauty of her sentences. I shall.

July 19, 2008

i tagged meself

thanks, Amanda.

What kind of book do you love to hate?

Short story collections. I feel like I have to read them all at once.

What was the last book you surprised yourself by liking?

Well, I'm not done with it yet but I am really enjoying The Age of Innocence. Every year my high school sent home Summer Reading lists, and every year I avoided this book. Just as well - I never would have been able to find meaning or relevance in it then. I'm pleasantly surprised by its wit (never judge a book by its cover, I know, but the whole package seemed so stuffy), and surprised by how much I actually care about this soap opera-esque story (basically gaslight-era chick lit.) I love society renegades - Scarlett O'Hara, Elizabeth Swann, Molly Brown - and am looking forward to getting acquainted with the Countess Ellen Olenska.

What was the last book you surprised yourself by disliking?

Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. It was one big headache.

What book would you take with you if you suspected you might be marooned in the near future?

Marooned where? In an elevator, I'd want Ladder of Years or A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler. They're my literary spaghetti and meatballs; they'd keep me from going stir-crazy till the Otis guy arrived. On a desert island I'd want Baby-sitters' Island Adventure, or maybe that Sweet Valley High installment where Jessica and Winston Egbert get stranded on Ancapa Island. On a curbside waiting for a ride, I'd want whatever I'm currently reading, and hopefully it would be nice and thick.

What forces you to read outside your comfort zone?

My kids. They're always trying to get me to read Harry Potter. I can't stand Harry Potter.

July 16, 2008

on love, in sadness

I read the end of Truth and Beauty sitting up in bed, alternating pages of the book with glossy pages of O Magazine. I needed something to regularly pull me out of the graphic downward spiral of Lucy Grealy's death - Ann Patchett's great loss - and there seemed nothing better to bring me back to the surface than recipes for barbecue sauce and tutorials on how to wear last season's skirts.

Even in its sadness, it's a beautiful, wonderful, hilarious book. Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magician's Assistant, and Taft, writes of "the first half" of her life in this book, and of a friendship that at some points seemed capable of swallowing it. Patchett's relationship with the late poet Lucy Grealy was uniquely rewarding and totally exhausting, even to read about, and I closed the book thinking, half-intrigued and half-horrified, What if I'm called one day to be Ann to someone's Lucy? Ronald Reagan said of the Challenger crew, "They had that special grace, that special spirit that says, Give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy." Could I meet such a challenge with the joy and all-encompassing generosity of Ann Patchett's spirit?

To compare Lucy in the depths of her depression to an exploding space shuttle is not exactly fair - she was not only a burden, she was a dynamic, generous friend herself, who possessed great wit and endless talent - but the comparison is not terribly off the mark. Like the Challenger, Lucy Grealy carried myriad hopes and dreams - her own, and others' - and like the crew of the ill-fated shuttle, she did what she could to make them come true. For Lucy, however, so many things in her life were out of her control, and the one thing she could control, her attitude, she could not make to rise above her circumstances. In the end, her explosion left hundreds of people reeling.

I devoured every page of Truth and Beauty until I got to the advent of the heroin addiction that eventually killed Lucy Grealy. From the beginning, it was an immediately profound, eccentric friendship between two writers, who aside from their craft had little in common. Patchett: ant. Grealy: grasshopper. The proverbial wind beneath Grealy's wings, Patchett put up with and even loved no shortage of her friend's antics and personality quirks. She fiercely protected her from the cruelty of people whose only way of dealing with Grealy's facial disfiguration (Ewing's sarcoma in her childhood had left her with without part of her lower jaw) was to mock it. It was a love deeper than most loves you read about. Deep enough to lift one high above the everyday joys of life; deep enough to sink one lower than rock bottom. Or so it seemed to me. Though Patchett resents Grealy's accusation that her desire to be saintlike is the source of her devotion, it seems that Patchett is no less than a saint. She does not want to be recognized as such - her voice in the book is straightforward and sincere, and that much is obvious, but page after page, you're left wondering if you could survive not only what Grealy lived through, but what she puts Patchett through.

Somewhere around Lucy's 36th surgery, things fall badly apart. The miniseries of operations that carried the promise to change her life for good, it turns out, will not. No stranger to depression, she falls into a much deeper abyss and eventually can't find her way out. Not with the love of Ann, the help of therapists, the devotion of countless other friends. She finds her solace, and eventually her demise, in heroin.

I went back almost immediately to the barbecue sauce and skirts, because Ann Patchett's pain radiates from the ending and I can't sleep with such emotion rattling around in me. Now, having had some time to think on the book and flip back through the middle and end again, I see part of my anxiety in reading it had to do with my own path as a writer and my path as a generally happy person; my assumption that once you've sold the book, once you've found deep happiness in a trade or a relationship or anything else you've always wanted, that you can't be pushed off the pedestal. Depending on your story, however, you may be extremely pushable. You may even jump. And the devotion of wonderful friends can't stop you. Only you can stop you. But Lucy Grealy, a gifted (and published) writer, surrounded her whole life by people who loved her, couldn't stop herself.

Now, finally, I can read Autobiography of a Face.

Side note: In her profound insecurity, one of Lucy Grealy's favorite questions to ask Ann Patchett (sometimes on a daily basis) was: "Do you love me?" I dreamed last night that I asked S. this question.

- Do you love me?

- Yes, I love you. I adore you so much that I can't believe Ken Gary said such a thing about you.

- Ken Gary? What did Ken Gary say about me?

- He said he can't believe I'm marrying such a dispassionate bibliophile who owns too many shoes.

- Did you punch him in the face?

- Well, he had a point about the shoes, babe.

July 6, 2008

a telephone and a red balloon

SO EXCITED that I got to hit the Friends of the Library Book Sale on its last day. I didn't even care that it was about six thousand degrees in the McKinley cafeteria. The gigantic fans posted in the corners kept the volunteers from heading for the hills, but didn't much help the rabid, eleventh-hour book-buyers whose t-shirts were soaked through with sweat as they rummaged almost frantically through cardboard boxes marked "hobby," "comix," "lit," "horror," "art." It wasn't quite what I'd call crowded (the selection had been picked over for two weekends, after all) but there were plenty of the hawk-eyed, cheap, and desperate last-minute types you'd expect to find at the final four hours of a gargantuan annual book sale. Practically-free reading material is way up there on the list of Things That Make Damned_Cat Happy. Except for National Geographics, which were a quarter apiece, everything was 50 cents, and this was the final nail in the Should I stay or should I go? coffin. I thought long and hard before allowing myself this opportunity because I knew that it would spark - at the very least - some consternation from Scott. Whether it would be voiced or kept silent was not entirely predictable. We have had many brief conversations about my Book Lust and book-buying habits, which usually go something like this:

Him: Could you, ah, maybe stop buying books and start using the library instead?

That's like me asking you to stop fishing and just buy our dinner from Tamashiro Market.

We've gradually expanded our conversations to include promises to install shelving (me) and space-related lamentations like, where in our tiny apartment will we store the children when we start having them? (him), cheerful replies that he can build a large wooden box to house the kids so that the books can roam free (me). Arguments that there is no such thing as too many books (me) and counterarguments that yes there is (him). I only got to go to the Book Sale this year because I promised that if I bought a single volume I'd clear every book that is currently sitting on his side of the desk and make every book I own fit on something that resembles a bookshelf. (I think the kitchen counter is a lovely place to keep reference materials.) <-- This is a prime example of my sense of humor being completely lost on Scott. Anyway, because I'd never been to this sale before and did not know what to wear (not heels) or bring (Pack-n-Roll or a really, really big canvas tote), I only brought home nine treasures:

I was so excited to find the Margaret Wise Brown biography because I am a huge fan of Goodnight Moon - mostly due to the half-year I spent long-term subbing in a preschool resource class with several wonderful autistic children who absolutely loved (and, I'm convinced, began to learn to read with) this classic that begins in a great green room. I sat down right outside the McKinley auditorium with some tea and a chicken walnut sandwich from the Wedding Cafe and started to read Awakened by the Moon, and in a single chapter already find MWB to be a fantastic role model, a kindred spirit, and timeless hero. I am also reading Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty right now and am enjoying the similarities between MWB and Patchett's friend, Lucy Grealy - two smart, unpredictable, individualistically quirky women. Women who love, write, and live such amazing lives - the complexities of which are belied, in Brown's case, by her deceptively simple but universal and enduring words and art for children. I would never have guessed that there was so much life and history behind that great green room. She was a tomboy in childhood, a troublemaker in college, a person who so relished all aspects of life that she could dearly love a pet rabbit while it was alive, but have no qualms about skinning its carcass after its death so as to continue appreciating its enduring sensuality and life-essence.

If the FoTL continues to hold the Book Sale in July, I might make it an annual birthday present to myself. I felt like a kid, taking "birthday money" to the sale of my dreams, and being pleasantly surprised that I spent the sum total of $4.50 for an enormously pleasing (and only slightly sweaty) afternoon of book-hunting, book-lust satiation, and nine take-home treasures. Now I have books for the rest of the month, plus money leftover for hiking boots.

I am giddy.

July 5, 2008

next decade, step right up

I am having, quite possibly, the most pleasurable 30th birthday I could have imagined. Sure, I woke us all up at 5 a.m. (having decided, the night before, that I had to get up before the sun to do the half-hike and get back in enough time to pretty up for lunch with Bon; I actually got up at 6:45) - but that aside, the day so far has been fabulous. Woke up (for real) to some very sweet written words from my love. Put on the clothes I'd laid out the night before. Took my brand-new birthday backpack out and got on the trail at 7:23 a.m. Logged 42 minutes to the tables. That was encouraging, since we had gone very slowly through some ankle-deep mud, meaning we did good time in the dry areas. I brought Princess Academy with me and finished the last third of it on a luxuriously long break at the tables while Kona explored the wet-leaved grounds nearby.

It's much different up there in the damp early morning. It's slower going up and down, of course - unless you're the runner who smoked us on the way up, and again on the way down, and again, on our way down, as he came up a second time. But it also smells, sounds and feels different - got to hear those morning valley sounds and smell the morning valley scents that I miss since I no longer live in Manoa. You're always warned about the Kuliou'ou boars that might get bored with their valley and wander up the trail (so unlikely, but so deliciously fun to freeze in your tracks every time something rustles the dry leaves as you hike. It's probably a foraging mongoose, but that's no fun to imagine.)

If nature's your thing, the halfway point is a great place to write. For some reason, I don't write well in "writerly" places like scenic nature spots or libraries. (I can go for pages at a coffee place, but I think sugary drinks have a lot to do with that.) I write on the go - napkins in the car, notebooks before bed, on my hand just before the lights go down in a movie. My thoughts are everywhere. It works for me - generation of ideas is most fluid when I don't have a specific place or time to write - but I do need a better filing system, and I DO need some sort of discipline that has me writing on a more regular basis.

Add that to a growing, still-pliant list of things this 30-year-old plans to take care of in the next 365 days.

July 3, 2008

time's a-wasting

It took me a few pauses but I finally figured it out.

I have a long wait ahead of me this morning, might as well bring me laptop and my current reading - The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (ed. Lawrence Sutin).

I feel ... energized.

June 20, 2008

friday confessions - "it's quite simple"

My first 'Fess Up Friday post. This week, on the scribblage front:

I have done too much superfluous blogging and not enough substantial writing.


On deck: I thought this was eight years ago. Turns out, it's right now. Stay tuuuuuned.

(Pic: From life on the non-writing front. When the salad greens froze over in the refrigerator, the roasted bell/sun dried tom vinaigrette I made from scratch was tossed with pasta and called dinner. A rare success for Wifery 101's cooking delinquent.)

June 18, 2008

bloggers take ... heart?

Feeling tranquil but not quite sleepy, despite the flight and the fact that we're three hours ahead so my brain should feel like it's 2 a.m. I started another of the books from my stash - the one I thought would go down smoothest, but I'm twelve pages in and already turned off.

Maybe it's because Diablo Cody suggested that 30 is the cutoff for sowing one's wild oats - and being less than a month shy of 30, I resent that. Not to suggest I have a long shopping list of Wild Oats Left to Sow - there will be no skydiving, no Peace Corps, and no career changes that involve learning to undulate in undies - though I did feel slightly affronted when my Peahen asked in some exasperation where this latest flurry of body modifications had come from. "Aren't you a little late with that?" asked she, who pierced and tattooed everything imaginable about ten years ago and is starting to have things taken out.

I still order off the Kids' Menu whenever and wherever I can (better cover up that tattoo or that's not gonna work for much longer) so psh, I say.

I have had a slight fascination with the candy-girl life since I met the stripper ex-girlfriend of one of my ex-boyfriends in '02. He kept nothing from me, so I knew all about her before we had that bizarre run-in at the movies. I listened to the stories with morbid curiosity - what a life, to be paid so much money to turn yourself nightly into what Diablo Cody calls "brown goop" at a "girl buffet." I didn't see it that way then - I saw the ex as an adventurous (if not slightly crazy and very opportunistic) girl who in turn saw dancing as an opportunity to make a lot of money while she still had the goods. But when I met her that day (which must have been five years after her dancing "career" ended), she just looked ... old. And I don't think I was seeing her through rose-colored, I'm-the-girlfriend-now eyes. She looked about 45 (I think she was about 30 at the time) - and an old 45. Run-down tired. She talked like a chipmunk, and was cute like one, too. A cute, old chipmunk. I would almost have felt better if she were gorgeous - but here she was, the tired brown goop, and I wondered how much the buffet had had to do with it.

Anyway, I guess I'll keep at the book. She has a tendency to overmetaphorize (as I have a tendency to make words up) and I almost threw up at the part about open menstruation at Amateur Night (although I'm sure the experience was heavily embellished), but the girl got her start in blogging, after all. She got a book offer based on her blog. That in itself is awesome. She also wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for "Juno." (And may I just say I totally approve of quasi-animal prints on the red carpet. Rawr.)

Earlier today I was contemplating The Writing (I would call it The Nonexistent Writing but ... self-fulfilling prophecies and all that) and decided that I need a group. Some years ago I had a group, and even if we sat around talking story and tasting each others' coffees for the first 3/4 of any given meeting, we did get some writing done, and that was the point of Us. Little by little we disbanded, and now I am an orphan with a leaky pen, an itch to write, and a summer break that stretches itself out before me. The Writing is like The Running. I need mates.

June 14, 2008

long lomita nights

"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."

How is it that I never read this book till now?

June 9, 2008

nostalgia, travels

When I was about seven, we went on the first of our trips to Yellowstone. My mom bought me Naya Nuki from a park gift shop, and I read it cover to cover countless times, wishing more than anything that I was that girl: shrewd, resourceful, and so loyal that she trekked through sickness and snowstorms, past grizzlies and enemy tribes, over mountains and through valleys to get back to her family.

While we stayed in cabins and lodges (and not makeshift shelters of fresh buffalo hide), those were always my favorite trips: Teton, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon - but best of all, Yellowstone. They were unbeatable experiences: A caravan of bison ambling through a lodge parking lot as if they owned it (because actually, they did); sneaking many a marmot my leftover dining hall breadsticks after dinner; witnessing a shimmering myriad of blues, purples and greens within one small hot spring. I've never since felt quite so at home among absolute wilderness. (Okay, the wilderness wasn't absolute - we were tucked into the sturdy Old Faithful Inn, which featured modern plumbing, a gift shop that sold polished geodes, and a cafeteria that featured processed breadsticks perfect for feeding twitch-nosed marmots. But animals roamed in abundance - buffalo by the side of the road, squirrels and marmots underfoot at a geyser stop, so many deer and moose that I grew bored of stopping to take pictures of them.) I keep urging S to consider Yellowstone for at least one leg of our honeymoon - because I know if we are fortunate enough to experience half that much wildlife, I'll never again take it for granted.

I always liked pretending I could hold my own in the Wyoming wilderness, like Naya Nuki and Sacajawea - nevermind that I have been known to get hopelessly lost on my way back to the table from the bathroom at Buca di Beppo. I wish I had the book with me (it's packed away - locked away - in my recently-cleaned classroom.) It's one of those books that had the power to sweep me away from a long car ride, a long time-out, a long afternoon back home in my rainy valley when none of the other kids on the block wanted to take out their bikes or play Wilderness Girls or build things out of wood and scrap metal in the garage.

It must be my personal connection with the story that made it so readable for me. Every year I do a book talk on it - read the opener, give sporadic teasers, bring photos of my own trips. The kids haven't bitten yet. They seem to prefer the made-up worlds of Eoin Colfer, K.A. Applegate, and C.S. Lewis - worlds I, too, love - but I want to expose them to natural beauty and history beyond their backyards, as well.

Speaking of science fiction and fantasy, Gregory Maguire's children's biblio is high on my summer reading list.

In terms of reading material, I always overpack for a trip. Currently shoved into the nooks and crannies of my purse, carry-on, and check-in luggage:

Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson
I'm a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
September Vogue, InStyle and a wedding mag I grabbed off the rack last night
A couple of Archie comics for my nerves

I'd rather be overloaded than underprepared, I guess.

We're going on a sentimental trek (loosely entitled "Ms. D_C's Last Hurrah") - the final Las Disney and Vegasland circuit "just the four of us" will make.

I should try to get some writing done, too ...

June 6, 2008

summer kickoff

Currently reading: This Boy's Life - maybe I'm on a growing-up-in-the-'50s memoir streak.

The final weeks of teaching shrank rapidly into the final days, and the finalest of the final was today. Many hugs, promises, and forgotten items that I had to walk down to the office in a gigantic bag (explaining apologetically that my kids obviously take after me) later, I opened my cards and gifts (this is always a melancholy ritual for me. Parents are so generous at the end of the year, but the kids are so heartbreakingly frank in their wording - "Thank you for everything," from a certain kid, is loaded with a year's worth of memories packed into the word everything - and every gift or card is a reminder that they've left you.) One of my students (we'll call him Milhouse van Houten) gave me a $40 Barnes & Noble gift card as a farewell / thank you ... Tonight, after a year-end-hooray-for-summer celebratory dinner (floating away on one too many mango iced teas from Chili's - I am in a state of bliss right now, despite already missing my kids), I spent it (and them some) on:

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi
This Boy's Life, Tobias Wolff
Candy Girl, Diablo Cody
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Stellaluna, Janell Cannon
The Beach Ball, David Steinberg / Liz Conrad

The last two are board books - birthday gifts for Meimei, Scott's two-year-old niece. The board book edition of Stellaluna was a nice find. I was thinking that come next educator week at either of the two Big B's, I should add Janell Cannon to my classroom library. I am a huge fan of Pinduli and Verdi.

A funny aside: Normally they'd just throw all the books into one big bag, but I think the clerk couldn't bear to put Diablo Cody in the same bag as Stellaluna. So I got two medium-sized bags instead. It's okay, I felt the same way.

May 29, 2008

on the edge of a curious happy derangement

A memoir about times so simple that people went out of their ways to complicate things - like by inventing a drive-thru grocery conveyer belt and an atomic toilet. It was the golden age of toasters, fish sticks, and 65-cent colored television. Bill Bryson, who always has me at "the" (or whatever the first word of the book is), re-cemented his status as Love of My Bookshelf with a narrative of the discussion between his parents (and subsequent weirdness involving neighbors) on the pronunciation of "chaise longue."

It is about a time in which people were "indestructible" - carrying echoes of my own aunts and uncles (and future MIL) who cannot abide seat belts in cars and can't believe people pay for bottled water. A time in which new conveniences were fun, if not totally practical or necessary. What blows me away in the first couple of chapters (and is somehow only slightly dampened by air raid drills and a national obsession with atomic bombs) is the feeling of utter and complete safety - an unimaginable luxury in today's world. Not only was a bike helmet probably the stupidest thing you could think of putting on your head (I mean, how are you supposed to feel the wind moving through your hair?), but bombs were being "tested" everywhere - and there was no doubt in America's mind (to the memory of the Thunderbolt Kid) that she would come out on top. We are talking about a short era in which television was the greatest thing about being alive - but unlike today, kids wanted to do other things, too: crawl, climb, taste, quarrel, and explore - in short, fully experience everything around them, mostly unchecked by silly precautions like car seats and warning labels on bleach containers. As Bryson puts it, "What a wonderful world it was. We won't see its like again, I'm afraid."


Re-reading Blink. Though I definitely agree that we should place more trust in our intuitions (Gladwell does not hold with the use of the word "intuition," by the way), and though I would pay any amount of money to meet the doc who can size up a couple's future within 15 minutes of meeting them, I was not altogether convinced of the supreme power of rapid cognition (manifesting itself in such forms as "thin-slicing," snap judgments, and that plain old gut feeling) the first read around. Blink was filled with so many fascinating stories and asides that I was able to wolf half of it down while waiting for S to finish his ASSETS test the other night. Maybe, in my haste, I missed something.

Hunted for Gladwell's The Tipping Point at Sam's Club last night ... ended up with Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, as well as a memoir by the love of my bookshelf, Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Side note: I wanted to pay for everything (the books, S's contact solution, and our dinner) with cash instead of the Discover, but when it looked like I would be $3 short, I actually considered putting back the chicken.

I need help.

May 15, 2008

a million miles beyond wrong

Ida B. Applewood and John Taylor Gatto would have such a field day comparing notes over a slice of Macintosh apple pie. From her descriptions of school and the school bus as the "Pit of Sacrificial Agony" and the "Yellow Prison of Propulsion," Ida B is the ultimate poster child for JTG's Pro-Homeschool / Anti-Compulsory Schooling Movement and Assorted Rants on the Subject. The difference is I love JTG's ideology but would probably despise him as a person, whereas I love Ida B completely.

"There was a rabbit in a cage in the room, but we couldn't pet it until it was time. There were books on the shelves, but we couldn't read them until it was time. There was a big playground with slides and swings and balls, but we couldn't play on it till it was time. There were lots of kids, but we couldn't talk till you-know-when."

"And every day I'd be slower and slower coming back to myself after school was finished."

Initially, I wrote Ida B off as an older, less spazzy Junie B. Jones, but was pleasantly surprised by the depth of Katherine Hannigan's protagonist. She is the product of the sort of parents we want for all our students - smart, loving, and so caring that they - gasp - leave her alone on many occasions to befriend and learn from the earth itself. She's not yanked from soccer practice to painting lessons; climbing a tree provides exercise and solace, lying in the river cleanses her body and spirit. For teachers there is a valuable connection to make - between the sullen, contrary newcomer and the deep, reaching-out need within.

How do you reopen your heart after it's been hardened over by what can only be seen as the ultimate betrayal by your own flesh and blood? How do you go to fourth grade when two weeks in kindergarten made you shrink so rapidly into someone else's much smaller ideal of you? How do you leave your home when you know how to talk to trees and befriend a river, but can neither talk to nor befriend a girl your own age?

Ida B truly is all she proclaims herself to be: "Superhero Deluxe, Friend of the Downtrodden, Foe of Cancer, Meanness, Mindless Destruction, and Traditional Schooling."

John Taylor Gatto, on the other hand, is just a crank. But even as I strive to make school worthwhile for the droves of kids who come through our classrooms, I believe to be true - at least to a degree - one of his most profound statements:

"Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents. The whole blueprint of school procedure is Egyptian, not Greek or Roman. It grows from the theological idea that human value is a scarce thing, represented symbolically by the narrow peak of a pyramid."

An an employee of the DOE, I have a hand in killing the family. Everytime I tag an absence as "unexcused" in the database - because a child has gone on a camping trip with her family (and that's not an acceptable excuse, according to the powers that be) or has stayed home because his father passed away this year and sometimes he just can't deal (also not an acceptable excuse) - I think to myself, how is what I'm teaching more valuable than time spent with her family in the wilderness? What's more educational than spending time outdoors? How is what I'm teaching more important than relocating the feeling of safety he had before his dad died? Why can't I excuse this absence? I can't think of a better place for a kid to be than turning things over in a tidepool or ironing alongside his mom.

"How much more evidence is necessary? Good schools don’t need more money or a longer year; they need real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks. We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it."

Ida B could articulate her unease far better than a lot of kids for whom school is just not right:

"Right then I was wondering if I got in a class for bad children who needed fixing, and my punishment included losing my name and never being able to make a plan again."

"And every day I'd be slower and slower coming back to myself after school was finished."

If that's not what Gatto's talking about, I don't know what is.

May 14, 2008

6 Unspectacular Literary Quirks: v. D_C

(Snagged from LK!)

The first 3 quirks are about me as a reader; the last 3 are about me as a writer.

1. I am a slow-ass reader with an embarrassingly short attention span that's been further stunted through the years by too many ed psych textbooks. The best way to ensure comprehension on the first go-around (e.g. so I am not reading the same graf over and over and over) is to read aloud. This is effective but inconvenient. It is why only the noisiest coffeehouses will have me, and why I look like one of those people (pause while you conjure Einstein-haired girl with canvas book bag and mouth moving in a perpetual mumble) while sitting in traffic.

2. Yes, I read in heavy traffic. I know: escaping to the Washington Zoo while operating heavy machinery, even in the slowest of "rush" hour crawls = bad.

3. I like reading to people and being read to. Introducing literature by reading to students is one of my favorite things about being an elementary school teacher. This year I've read: Sharon Creech's Replay, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and countless beginnings of other stories (with the hopes of drawing the kids in to read the novels independently). You can read picture books to fifth graders. You can read novels to fifth graders. Fifth graders can read to you. It's awesome. One of our favorites, which has been read aloud countless times this year: Double Trouble in Walla Walla, by Andrew Clements (the!) - a wonderful mess of onomatopoeia and repetitive, rhyming, alliterative and assonant words and phrases. You can't not read this one aloud.

4. As far as fiction goes, I've only ever finished four short stories. I've stashed countless beginnings, middles, and ends; I have notebooks upon notebooks of, well, notes - on the humanity contained in stolen conversations and constantly-upset assumptions based on trivial observations. I have written seven pieces published under the Features and Editorial sections of the local paper. I blog daily. But finished pieces of fiction: just four shorts.

5. I do my best writing when I'm not supposed to be writing at all. When I should be grading papers, washing dishes, getting in the car to go somewhere important, sleeping because there are only four hours left to the night - these are the times I get the really, really good ideas.

6. I've never even attempted NaNoWriMo. There, I said it. Now go away and leave me alone to wallow in my shame.

May 12, 2008

the rust and the rain endure

Because Joan Didion says so early on in this memoir that one cannot know grief until one is inside it, I feel like this book is for members of a club to which I do not belong. I have grieved certain definite losses - beloved relatives, people I knew from a considerable distance whom I would like to have known better; animal family members who were more human than some people I walk amongst daily. However, I have not experienced the loss of anyone I am intimately close to. Because my family is healthy and I am approaching marriage, I'm stepping into joy, not grief, and I feel almost not in the right place - "yet" - to read this book. However, I cannot stop.

One thing Didion urgently wants you to know is that your family may be healthy, and you may be stepping into the greatest joy you can imagine, but it can all be taken away from you in a heartbeat (or, as she reconsiders, "the lack thereof.") Where I am in the book, this is not a Buddhist-type understanding on her part. She's calm, but not at peace with anything. In fact, she half thinks he might not even be gone, really - and she hangs onto his clothes so that he'll have something to wear if - when - he returns.

Last night I tried to explain this thinking to Scott. "She's not deluded," I said.

"Um ..." he replied.

"Well, no, I guess you'd have to call it a delusion. But what I mean is she just wasn't ready. They really depended on each other, all their married life. So she wasn't ready. But she's not crazy."

And Scott carefully answered, "She sounds crazy." (Very carefully, because of part of an argument we'd had - or maybe it was more like I blew up at him for not regarding me with seriousness, pretty much ever. Stepping headlong into joy, did I mention?) But I couldn't blame him for not understanding the magical thinking - you can't, fully, unless you read the accompanying observations, the small comments, the snippets of Hopkins, all the little pieces that go along with this magical thinking that her love would never die - and should the unthinkable happen, that he would come back and would need a pair of shoes to wear when he did.

This is not so much a memoir about the writer John Dunne as it is a portrait of grief. For me it's also a reminder that as deep as a love can be, the vessel will not always be in your possession. Whichever of you leaves first, love with this knowledge in your heart and mind. I hope the bottom line is that it makes love more precious, not less worth the effort.

Because even before reading this book I have always been interested in the dynamics of marriage and (but separately) loss - another portrait of grief, love, and the beauty of life. Read the blog in its entirety - from heartbreak to peace and everything in between - it is worth every minute you'll spend.

On Love, In Sadness

Oh love, it's a brittle madness - I sing about it in all my sadness
It's not falsified to say that I've found God
Inevitably, well it still exists
So pale and fine I can't dismiss it
I won't resist - and if I die, well, at least I tried.

- Jason Mraz

May 7, 2008

stalwart and true

"It's never too soon to start being finished." -- from Ella Enchanted, 1998 Newbery Honoree.

Ella of Frell stands out in the thickening crowd of plucky heroines milling about popular YA novels these days; this junior feminist reincarnation of the classic Cinderella character was born to Gail Carson Levine around the time my kids themselves were born - 1997 - but she appeals to them as much as much as the Gossip Girls and Main Street orphans.

Two things in the story just about kill me, in the Holden Caulfield sense: What Ella does - and does not do - in the name of love, and her relationship with her mother. Lady Eleanor is the Lorelai Gilmore of Frell - instead of making fun of people from inside Luke's, Eleanor and Ella pelt unsuspecting passers-by with rubbish from high in the boughs of a tree. Who wouldn't want such a mom?

There's nothing not to like about this story. From the imaginative (infuriating!) obedience curse to Levine's depictions of Mandy (the fairy-cook and Ella's surrogate mother) and Hattie (the deplorable eventual stepsister), I was hooked enough to read Ella Enchanted in one sitting. Next: Fairest ...

Levine is also the author of Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly, a book I believe belongs in every Language Arts classroom.

May 6, 2008

spend it like beckham

It's just Brit month, that's all. For each page of Harry Potter I suffer through, I reward myself with a chapter of the thoroughly enjoyable That Extra Half an Inch. You do have to giggle when Victoria Beckham suggests she's not the model type but poses like one on the cover, tries to be Everymom by fitting diapers into small Prada handbags, and proclaims her love for ease and economy just before suggesting you buy a pair of Balenciaga trousers. (It's enjoyable the same way Kevyn Aucoin's Making Faces is - you don't need a lot of makeup, just a dab of concealer!, he insists, like on every page, opposite how many pictures of celebrities who have either been airbrushed to death or are sporting a metric ton of foundation.)

Silly as it is, it's the perfect dessert book. Thank goodness it's well-illustrated - apparently a "vest" in the UK is a tank top in the US. "Trainers" are sneakers. I'm still trying to work out what she means by "prom dress" because clearly it is not formal wear but there is not much of a distinction between her "prom" dress and her "date" dress.

Anyhoo, this book makes me want to go out and buy some jeans for my "trainers." And some for my high heels. And some for my ballet flats. And some for my wedges. And ...

May 3, 2008

but when will i sleep?

Barnes and Noble Bookfair. Just when I thought I'd settled on Harry for the month of May.

My kids performed their poems and stories at B&N tonight; as an added bonus, a percentage of all the night's purchases was donated by the store to the school. I know I just bought way too many books at our most recent Scholastic book fair, but 1) I've actually finished most of them, which is totally unlike me and should be rewarded! and 2) far be it from me to do my part to support the school in any way I can. My gauge for stopping the insanity: When my canvas Philosophy tote can't be lifted off the ground, it's time to stop. I admit to trying to hide behind a pillar from S while at checkout, but then reasoned that he might as well love me for who I am. I handed him the bag, which weighed him down for the rest of the evening.

May Polysyllabic Spree:

Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett
That Extra Half an Inch, Victoria Beckham
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Laurie Viera Rigler
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, Bill Bryson
Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson


Just finished No More Dead Dogs, a YAn by Gordon Korman. Loved it less than No Talking, but just a shade. Korman gives his characters a little more bite; I kind of like Clements' kids better - they're just as sharp as Korman's but they're less cynical. Or something. It's hard to explain. Still, Korman's drama club was hilarious, and all those letters to Julia Roberts were a great plot device. SIAS: Kids empowered by honesty and integrity (the kind that some teachers will mistake for disrespect) rock the school play, discover a jock can be a drama geek, and solve a completely ridiculous mystery. Yeah, everything was solid except for "the reveal" - the culprit was a real letdown.

I read my first Gordan Korman novel (Son of Interflux) years ago, when I actually could be considered a YA. I wasn't yet in high school; the humor was slightly beyond me. Korman's characters typically challenge authority in a manner reminiscent of Andrew Clements' - but Interflux was just plain weird (or so I remember from trying to read it in 6th grade.) That a teenaged son could (or would) orchestrate an effective showdown with his father's high-powered company just struck me as bizarre. No More Dead Dogs was awesome - a classic that I recommended to several of my struggling readers just today after reading the first two pages. In Language Arts we're talking about the value of a strong lead, whether in a story or an essay, and Dead Dogs has a great one.

My favorite openers of all time:

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Each Little Bird That Sings, Deborah Wiles
Charlotte's Web, E.B. White

Okay, veering back onto the topic, having finished Dead Dogs, I'm readier to jump back into Swindle, Korman's current title. It started okay, but my interest waned when Mr. "Swindle" went on TV with the Babe Ruth card and the light went on in Griffin's head: he'd been cheated. Enough stories about kids outsmarting idiot adults for awhile, I thought ... but then I realized, that's pretty much the bottom line of every YAn out there.

Also have got to get back into the "adult realm" (although I must say, I feel like I have to hide my newly purchased Water for Elephants and The Blood of Flowers because they are marked by Scholastic with an "Adult Bestseller" stamp, due to the fact they're sold at Book Fairs for children. Makes me feel like I'm carrying porn or something.)

May 1, 2008

my may

So I changed my mind. I put Bill Bryson, Tony Horwitz and J. Maarten Troost aside and am making the month of May Harry Potter month.

Why, when I find Harry Potter so unappealing? When I find the books unreadable - probably because the early ones all start with Dudley et al, and progress to things like flying cars (I am not into flying cars) and owls (they're just plain spooky). When my favorite part of the movies, for goodness sakes, is closing my eyes and listening to those lovely English accents? Jason Isaacs and Alan Rickman in particular, yep, I love me some baddies.

It's Harry Potter month because I so, so, so badly want to be a part of this mania. No other reason. I want to get into the flying cars, the disgusting jellybeans, the violence and mania of Quidditch, the allegiance of houses. How many collective hours did people spend waiting outside Barnes and Noble for fresh copies of the newest release? How many kids learned the fine art of reading under the covers with a flashlight, due to J.K. Rowling's wizardry? Into how many languages have the stories been translated, so that how many more kids could access the magic? How long was the New York Times receiving emails from readers incensed over Michiko Kakutani's premature review of Deathly Hallows? I feel like I missed something amazing. I realize the highest point of the fever has already come and gone - and I suspect I know the bottom line of the series - but I want to love something as much as the throngs of people who love Harry Potter love Harry Potter.

I am going to give it one last try.

come in, it said, come in

Finished The Killing Sea in a couple of hours last night. I don't know if it was a good idea to schedule one YA novel a day - just because they're YA doesn't mean there isn't meat to them; the substance of Richard Lewis' novel on the '04 tsunami was downright gritty. I felt tired reading it. I didn't love the book - constant action and not enough internal reflection from the two protags - but it was something I'd like to share with my kids.

YA novels provoke reaction, deserve reflection, and most warrant a thorough review before I share them with my students. This one I put forth with reservation, only because I can see this bunch insightfully discussing Ruslan and Sarah's journey - and Sarah's instantaneous transformation from Supreme Biyatch daughter on vacation in Indonesia to steadfast, intrepid and loving sister with one goal on her mind: the survival of her family - but I can also see them utterly dissolving at the mention of brief nudity, and I don't know how they would react to pages and pages of death and mud-caked corpses. So it's not a read-together but it goes on the classroom shelf - I never keep literature from them or them from literature. We'll see what they discover and what they make of it.

A shortie on YA crossovers. I never thought that about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, did you?

April 29, 2008

may poll

Okay, it's not yet May (and apparently I'm a poet ... yada yada.) But I thought I should expand on my poll (sidebar) so you know what you're voting for, you three people who will inevitably cave in and humor me with a vote.

My selections for travel writing are based on stuff I was so jazzed to find on Amazon but never got around to reading. Mostly Bill Bryson stuff. Here's the list:

In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson, and please don't comment on the fact that I've been reading the first three chapters for years now.
Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson
I'm a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson
Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz
Baghdad Without a Map, Tony Horwitz
Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost
Walking to Canterbury, Jerry Ellis

My selections for Gabriel Garcia Marquez include, again, stuff on the shelf that I need to dig into:

Love in the Time of Cholera or One Hundred Years of Solitude
Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Innocent Erendira

Autobiography /memoir selections:

Personal History, Katherine Graham
The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan
Lucky, Alice Sebold
Her Last Death*, Susanna Sonnenberg

Historical Nonfic menu:

Sex with the Queen, Eleanor Herman
Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick
His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis
All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, Elizabeth D. Leonard

Ray Bradbury titles:

A Medicine for Melancholy and Other Short Stories or The Illustrated Man
Dandelion Wine
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Should be an interesting month. Vote!

* Would have to acquire.

spring kidlit spree

Friday April 25 to Friday May 2 has been declared YA Fiction Week. By me.

Kicked off on Friday with No Talking, followed by Oggie Cooder (effectively, a comic book in words about a "talented" misfit's harebrained brush with fame) on Sunday. Yesterday I read Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs, whose protagonist - struggling with a diamond mystery, an electronics class forced on her by a well-meaning brother acting in loco parentis, and a doofus boy who won't call her from his family trip to Montana - has a voice reminiscent of Sharon Creech's Mary Lou Finney. Today it'll be The Killing Sea by Richard Lewis (check out his very cool page), or Deep Down Popular by Phoebe Stone. Depends if I'm in the mood for global tragedy or middle school tragedy.

Update: Don't judge 'Tween Lit by its cover. Deep Down Popular it is, and at page 58 I am already pleasantly surprised. I was all set to snicker right through it - the cover and title suggest a "Hills"-esque view of the shallow life on the middle school fast track - but it is set in the (fictional) town of West Taluka Falls, Virginia, not LA, and it explores (in unexpected ways) themes of family and friendship. It also features a twist on the ever-elusive creature so many fifth-graders seek: popularity. So far the week's protagonists (with the exception of Clements' Dave Packer) are all archetypal misfits of one kind or another, although Minerva (what with her electroshock-induced confidence) is less inclined to care what the Popular kids think of her and Oggie is simply oblivious to Donnica's nastiness. Jessie Lou, a "sorry Southern tomboy," is so far the closest to my heart.

April 25, 2008

hail the unshushables

So Andrew Clements has written a book about my class: "[N]one of these kids really meant to be disrespectful or disobedient or discourteous. But none of them wanted to stop talking. Ever." I sat down and consumed No Talking in an hour ... and thought, what would it take for Real Live Children to be galvanized into a movement of self-imposed silence?

The phrase "you have the right to remain silent" takes on a whole new meaning (and is shouted quite poignantly) in this book - which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who's ever been a kid who would or could not shut up, and any parent or teacher who's ever fought (and even succumbed to) the urge to bellow, Kindergarten Cop-style, "SHUUUUUUUUUT UUUUUUUUUUUP!" at their own unshushables.

I laughed at Mrs. Hiatt, the administrator with the bullhorn, because she so reminded me of a principal I once worked under. She measured her success as an administrator by the volume of her cafeteria at lunchtime. She, too, carried a bullhorn. She, too, was slightly off her rocker. But unlike Mrs. Hiatt, she retired before ever realizing that she was a bully with a bullhorn and a worthless mission.

Like The Last Holiday Concert's Hart Evans, No Talking's Dave Packer is creative, perceptive, and willing to provoke and challenge authority figures for the sake of defending a principle. Like Frindle's Lorelei Granger, I hug my dictionary and lie in wait for the day my kids figure out that this is what I want from them.

Mayhaps I'll pick up Lunch Money again. My faith in Andrew Clements has been restored.

all set for the weekend

Got a jump on Water for Elephants in crazy Friday traffic this afternoon. Reminds me of the part in my favorite Anne Tyler novel (what does not remind me of an Anne Tyler novel?), A Patchwork Planet, where Barnaby advises the reader: "I'm telling you, don't ever get old!" The way Sara Gruen's Jacob describes it, aging is a mighty injustice. Nothing dignified or beautiful about it - makes you want to take the other way out. But then, I am only on page 16.

I know I won't be able to resist No Talking this weekend either - it's about a girls-vs-boys contest to see which group can talk less one school day. I love these Clements characters - creative, innovative, and enterprising - the kind most adults quash in defense of the status quo and of themselves, because without all traditional standards of the teacher-student hierarchy in place, they just don't know how to deal.

Scott is camping with friends this weekend and I am alone for - minus a packed Saturday day - two nights and a half day's worth of wordy bliss.


April 23, 2008

the roots of booky goodness

Scholastic Book Fair is the main event in these parts this week ... here is my preliminary list: No Talking!, Andrew Clements; 101 Ways to Love A Book, Mary Englebreit; Bad Dog, Marley!, John Grogan; Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen; The Blood of Flowers, Anita Amirrezvani; Oggie Cooder, Sarah Weeks; Walk On! A Guide for Babies of All Ages, Marla Frazee.

A few notes.

My favorite Andrew Clements character so far has been Mrs. Lorelei Granger. I want to toughen up - I want to be that teacher. None of the books after Frindle really grabbed me - except for The Last Holiday Concert - but I stock my classroom with them because they are full of great role models. Even the troublemakers are great role models.

I do not really like Mary Englebreit products - they are too Country Fair for me in general - but this book had some really neat ideas for the classroom.

I thought the children's adaptation of Marley would suck, but it is hilarious.

I pass up Water for Elephants at Sam's Club in favor of some other book every time I go. Might as well finally pick it up and let the school profit from my indulgence.

Oggie Cooder charves. What's your hidden talent?

Walk On - thinly-disguised life lesson, but so charming and so true. I will replace the mean NO-WHINE ZONE poster I made with several copies of this book.

postscript: Queued are -- No Talking, Water for Elephants, The Blood of Flowers, Oggie Cooder, and a book on the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. <-- written by a volunteer worker who saw the aftermath in Aceh up close. I cannot find a link or any information on this book anywhere online. I swear it exists. It's downstairs in my pile.

Anyway, the pile grows from Monday through Friday, the day I make my final selections based (loosely) on how many Scholastic certificates the kids donate to the class. So far we are at Wednesday, $25.00. No Talking, Oggie Cooder, Walk On!, and 101 Ways to Love a Book are top pri.

April 17, 2008

waddy and me

I rushed through the second half of Marley and Me for two reasons: 1) I had purloined my brother's copy and needed to stealthily return it, and 2) I wanted to soften the blow of Marley's impending death. I almost had to leave the bedroom to finish it because I did not want to explain myself to Scott if my crying woke him at 1 in the morning. I solved the problem by placing the book on the floor and leaning over the edge of the bed to read, which created a new problem involving gravity, tears, and snot - and once-pristine pages being wrinkled by their synergy.

Though I have recommended Marley to all the dog lovers I work with, I also passed along a few caveats, which made me seem less like a dog lover (keep reading for more on that thought) and more like a general hater. Who does not unconditionally love the story of the big, dopey yellow Lab? Uh ... me. The book is not earth-shattering in its conclusions; it's not even extraordinarily well-written. And much as I liked and rooted for the Grogans themselves, gifted ultimately with the experience of the pure-hearted Marley, I found them to be unbelievably naive at so many parts of the story. From their rationale for getting a dog (something like, "I suck at raising plants! Let's get a dog!") to their method of puppy selection (something like, "The dog that's not smart enough to run away when you pretend to attack it is the one for us!") ... There were points at which I wanted to write a letter to the Grogans chastising them for the stupidity that is leaving babies in the care of a 97-pound Lab who enjoyed nipping at their diapers. There were points at which I wondered if the Grogans' three kids would ever resent that a memoir about the dog became a New York Times bestseller, while one about them would probably never be written.

If Marley were fiction, its fatal flaw would have been the human characters' "philosophical" attitudes toward Marley and his behavior; the author's insistence on romanticizing the dog as well as the entire situation. Since it's non-fiction, I constantly wondered what universe these people were living in. I realize you're trying to sell a comic-tearjerker-memoir, here, but they seemed to live on the brink of an entirely other reality. One in which property damage, expensive repairs, and social disasters were all events worthy of a philosophical chuckle too shortly after the initial oh shit. So at some point Jenny melts down, pummels the dog, and demands that he be removed from the home. In a few pages it's all chalked up to postpartum depression and is never mentioned again.

I had, not long before reading it, vowed that if I came across one more "My dog has taught me ..." column in my life, I'd swear off the features section of that paper forever. On that premise, I would never have bought this book to begin with. And I didn't, actually, buy this book. It was lying there on my brother's desk a few days after its purchase from Sam's Club. And so I picked it up, and read it all the way through - and felt, acutely, the family's grief (the children's at losing a sibling, the couple's at losing their first child). It is the story of everyone who has ever had to let go of a dog they've loved - naughty or angelic, purebred or mutt, reserved or gregarious, gargantuan or pocket-sized - and so it's my story, as well as that of so many others I know.

Here's my "What I Learned," or rather, "Two Things I Learned" from Marley and Me. The first one is a startling revelation, actually: I am not a dog lover. I loved my old dogs; they were a gentle, sweet pit bull and a loyal, undemanding pit-lab with no behavior problems save going a little nutso on New Year's Eve - nothing a few kisses and some beer wouldn't take care of. I love my Bentley because he picked me, and because he's some kind of stodgy old person in a young dog's body. I love Kona because he was just so git-danged happy to go home with us that day that he couldn't stop smiling. Or peeing. But ... I do not love dogs in general. I don't like the smell of unwashed dog, and I'm not one of those ladies in the park who lets other people's dogs slobber all over them. I don't even let my dog slobber on me. I don't like rambunctious dogs (I had no flippin' idea what to do with, and therefore sort of detested, my client-friends' 110-lb. Weimaraner mix) and I don't like tiny, yappy things that can't learn - where to take a crap, what's actually edible, etc. (Early on, I thought Kona would fall into that category. Fortunately, he filled out, stopped yapping, and learned to crap outside. He hasn't stopped eating cat litter, though.) The bottom line is I can think as many dogs I dislike as dogs I like.

However, I know that dogs will always be in my life. Because of Scott; because even though I may not be a dog lover, I can't resist a puppy; because I've never not had a dog. Which brings me to the second thing I learned: I have not yet found what Ian Bedloe in Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe calls "the dog of [my] life" - as in, the dog that is just mine, who loves everyone but waits mainly for me, you know, that dog. I don't believe I'll go looking for that dog; I think that dog will find me, someday, somehow.

Until then, I'll try to love the dogs in my life right now a little better. Last night after Marley died I took Kona out of his sleepy box, turned off the light, and brought him to bed. I wrapped my arms around him and told him that like Marley, he was a great dog, because I didn't want him to hear it for the first time on his deathbed. He tolerated my maudlin behavior for about three minutes, then wriggled away and went to sleep at my feet.

Oh, the dogs of our lives.

April 16, 2008

words and "we"s*, installment 2: The Ken Momochi Files

Ken Momochi and I met in October 2001 at Bamboo Ridge's "Try Write!", a festival-institute of sorts for anyone local who'd ever wanted to put pen to paper. In attendance were struggling writers, published writers, prolific published writers, dreamers, posers, and no shortage of weirdos. (It was held at UHM's Campus Center, after all.)

I was a poser - having written scads of stories and poems as a kid, the usual melodramatic journals, essays, short stories and letters in high school, and four well-liked (by a total of three professors) short stories in college, I fancied myself in the struggling writer bin, but really, I was a poser. My writing had turned from creative to pandering - online journaling, cute-ifying my prose or using words as cheap barbs, forgetting how to think privately and therefore create true substance.

I was happy to be there, though - I felt like it might be the start of a new era. There was a vibe to the gathering that I can't quite describe. It was just a month after 9/11; everything was fresh and raw, and - even in the islands, so remote from New York - larger than life. Healing had been the theme of the presentations the night before. I had come alone and stayed that way for most of the morning, happy as a clam to keep to myself - my cup of coffee and I - just people watching, eavesdropping, popping in and out of lectures and workshops.

It's true that every good friend was once a stranger. I do not know who broke the ice first when I met K in a food writing workshop, although I think it must have been him because I was intent on staying in my clamshell. But we ended up sitting next to each other, and it was not a workshop in which you could remain silent. It was hokey, and required hokey discussion. We gamely ate whatever weird morsels they passed around in tiny tupperware containers, exclaiming and writing silly prose about dried melon getting stuck in my teeth (for him it was, "I don't KNOW what green tea sounds like in my mouth!") ... Later, I divulged that I thought the workshop had sucked, and he said he'd liked it, and thus, from the very start, we were friends who did not always have to agree.

We had lunch with a mutual friend; it was over cold teri beef and warm Pepsi that I found out K was at the institute because he wanted to write a memoir for a friend who had recently passed away in a diving accident. The three of us decided to form a writers' group - something I desperately missed about the English program I'd just graduated from - and started meeting a few weeks later.

So, it's been six-plus years of a friendship built on a love of words and a desire to create them. The friendship grew in large part because, as he puts it, we are black sheep of sorts who are often accused of not trying hard enough to conform, who don't know (or, in our approach to and journey through 30-dom, care much about having) just the right thing to say at just the right time. Somehow, we have always worked so well as friends, and many times I thought we'd be great colleagues or business partners. We have written together, recommended books and authors to each other (he rekindled my interest in Chaucer and introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri), built a mental bookstore together, argued about books and authors over chai tea lattes, and at the height of a two-year interlude (for lack of a better word) of dating, we even read to each other weekly - most memorably, all but a chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie. (We never read the last chapter because he went and saw the movie before we finished the book, which pissed me off, and as punishment I refused to read the rest of the book with him. Don't laugh.)

In the NYT feature about dating (or dumping) according to literary tastes, Anna Fels calls scoping out another person's taste in books "a bit of a Rorschach test." While I cannot abide K's taste in movies - the first time he Kind Of Sort Of asked me out, he asked if I'd like to see "Brother Bear" - I loved the fact that he would read and could enjoy about anything, from a Kate DiCamillo Newbery Honor book to modern Indian American short stories. Sure, one could say this is like having no taste at all, no literary personality. You could also call it an adventurous spirit, a mind open to the telling of countless other lives, a willingness to take in and consider - before, while, or sometimes instead of putting one's own art - and life - out there for scrutiny and validation.

Someday, I'm going to read K's memoir for Richie (as well as his current project, a creative take on the medieval allegory Psychomachia). I forgot to mention that in that amalgam of characters at the institute, K definitely sat amongst the dreamers, and, were he to go back, would be included amongst the writers.

Life, not our literary tastes, keeps us apart, and I do already miss talking about books, amusement parks, and life in that funny way that only two black sheep that have found friendship in each other can.

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