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?

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