My blog is going offline starting February 19, 2017 in order for me to pursue writing in other forms so that I can apply to graduate school in the fall.
I’ll see you guys when I can manage both. Thanks for following for the last six years.
My blog is going offline starting February 19, 2017 in order for me to pursue writing in other forms so that I can apply to graduate school in the fall.
I’ll see you guys when I can manage both. Thanks for following for the last six years.
I’m of two ways about this court punishment that we’ll talk about today.
From the human perspective, I’m all about this punishment right here. For a summary of the article: five teens were given a reading books punishment for vandalizing an old building with Swastikas and “White Power.” The “old building” was the original “Ashburn Colored School” which makes the boys’ vandalism that much more disgusting.
Their punishment from a judge (the judge’s mother is a librarian):
What I didn’t appreciate about this article was that the attorney said the boys, “didn’t know what they were doing” and they were “just pranksters.” Nah, fam. That’s unacceptable today. In Common Core, WWII is mentioned multiple times, across grade levels and depths. I did everything I could to get Maus or Night into my lessons every year I taught 9th or 10th grade English. I harped over plans using Primo Levi’s poetry every year and my students came in with a range of knowledge on the Holocaust.
However, saying that these boys were “pranksters” is unacceptable when they blatantly disrespected, not only the African American students that attended and supported that school, but African Americans of today and the past, and also every Holocaust victim and survivor. Oh, and we should probably mention every non-white person ever. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Let’s not sugar coat for the good ol’ white boys.
I’m real sick of the phrase “boys will be boys” with all of it’s root depth.
This isn’t even the reason I chose to write about this for Newsday Tuesday. While I believe this is a phenomenal punishment that has the ability to open doors for these boys across cultures, schisms, and clearly blurred lines, I also just think back to the idea of punishment and the affect of rewards and punishment on the psyche.
I never punished a child with writing in my classroom. Because by making writing a punishment, it immediately eliminates it as a value. I encouraged my sister-in-law to stop using handwriting practice to punish my nephew because by making it something he’s disciplined with, he will never connect in his brain that this is a privilege, a right, an honor, a truly noble act of putting words on a page.
We’ve all heard the stories of having to write the same sentence over and over as a punishment. Heck, Harry Potter had to write the sentence with his own blood.
This has been scientifically proven to be a bad idea. I fear the same is true for reading. Right now, our students live in a culture where neither reading or writing are valued. Kids come into my classroom every year and announce, “I HATE reading” on the first day and my job as a teacher is to slowly chip away at this notion. I do it in numerous ways, like all teachers, in hopes that by the end of the year, each child has found at least one redeeming quality about being a book nerd.
There have been countless articles about the amount of television the POTUS watches and the very few articles, and books, he reads. He has even come out and said he doesn’t read. I wouldn’t go as far to say he isn’t “intellectual” because he doesn’t read, because come on, that’s a ridiculous blow, but I think reading brings about a certain level of humanity to a person’s world. I’m sure there are brilliant math minds, or science minds out there that don’t value the beautiful poetics of Sylvia Plath, or Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t intellectual, or that they don’t see the essential worth of reading a good book, or a poignant political poem, or a well-said essay.
We also live in a world of “instant gratification.” When you can watch a thirty minute show and feel entertained, it takes students a lot more patience, and a lot more long-term thought to follow a book through to finish. Just think about the pacing of a novel, not everything is packed with action and not everything is meant to drive the story. Sometimes those small moments are the most meaningful for the reader, but have little to no affect on the plot. Without the value of books, where are our students learning empathy? And how can we push them to understand that books have both entertainment value and worldly value. I’m not sure that’s through punishment.
While this punishment is going to open these boys up to new worlds, new ways of thinking, and *fingers crossed* new perspectives on their water, and the lives of those that also exist in the world, it might not keep them reading, or sustain the habit. The intrinsic value of reading a good, good book, might be missing here. I worry that training these boys to see reading as only a means to finish a court sentence will make them even less likely to take these books (and the stories within) seriously. I hope that some of their essays about each book get around to the news channels as well. I would like to know the scope to which they take to each book, the corners-turned, the pages dog-eared and quoted, and the means with which they use the author’s words.
(Side note: I literally got distracted by a Tweet while writing this. Today is Sylvia Plath’s death anniversary and someone tweeted that a new book of her letters is forthcoming, but didn’t tweet the publisher so I could ask for an ARC. BAH. Then I spent like ten minutes googling and I think it’s Faber & Faber).
Halfway through this book, I tweeted about the nightmares it was causing me. And I’m not talking about Stephen King ghosts or monsters, but live human cruelty. They weren’t dreams like others I have had, revolving staircases, or sudden drops into homes I knew, but had been subtly changed by my dream space. These dreams were as visceral as the words on the page. I felt the steel copper bullet – plunge – slow motion into my rib cage. Each bone flex forth and open like a cracked fence post. When I woke up each morning, I had stones in my belly, and gnarls in my gut. This story uprooted me.
And I wasn’t warned, so I’m warning all of you. This story conveyed the human capacity for cruelty so well and so often that I almost couldn’t finish it. While I believe it’s a story that needs to be told and a history that should not remain hidden, I want to scrape at the pieces of it that stayed in my mind for days afterwards. For a full three pages, Han Kang describes some of the Gwangju boys’ torture, the crisp sizzle of a cigarette to an eye. If you winced at that sentence, then I can’t recommend this book for you. It caused me physical pain to read.
(And I know some of you will roll your eyes and say that this is nothing to the physical pain that the people of Gwangju felt resisting and standing up to their traitorous government, but feelings are allowed to be felt).
Today, Amnesty International reported hangings of over 13,000 in Damascus. These hangings have been done secretly after victims are tried for under three minutes in a basement after being told they are being transported elsehwhere. We sit around arguing on Twitter over what’s fake news, or how many alternative facts will be spun in the administration currently in office, and in Damascus, Syrians are being targeted and wiped out by the thousands in Civil War. Until this moment, no news of these hangings had been released. This is probably not the fault of our news media, but the fact that this is happening in our modern world – after the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Tinneman Square and now after the Gwangju uprising, maybe we need to be a little more “woke.”
I listened to this story on NPR having just finished Human Acts. I had been contemplating the number of stars I could give a book that I was hesitant to recommend, that I was angry no one had warned me about (most reviewers just said, “it has beautiful writing”) and disgusted with the bottom dark of human capacity put into elegant words on the pages of Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith).
No where in my life have I had to contemplate the snap of a rope bruising and twisting my pale neck. Never the butt of a gun. Never a protest that could end in the spray of shrapnel. Comparing one’s life to another never makes anything easier, but I have been both lucky to be who I am, where I am, and lucky to read a book that makes me understand that luck is a physical phenomenon and not just a mental/emotional privilege. I can only speak for myself, but all I really wanted to do in hearing that report was spit it out so it couldn’t become a part of me, of my existence.
“Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there” (202).
In the last chapter of this novel, the author becomes a character. She describes her journey seeking out information on the massacre itself, but also on the family written throughout. She is indirectly related to this family. They lived in the house she moved out of at a young age, and they lost a brother to the Gwangju uprising while living there. The narrator talks about her nightmares while researching the novel. I know why. I experienced nightmares as well. I texted my best friend, and Korean scholar, Seth and asked him about what was told to him about this while he was in South Korea. His first response when I began describing the book was “they don’t tell tourists those stories.”
I wonder how many stories are left dark in the world. How many shoved into corners, buried against one another, corked. This is no longer one of those cave stories, this mosaic novel of different voices interwoven. It is really a connection of short stories, some more difficult than others to get through. I believe Han Kang did exactly what she set out to do, make it so no one can desecrate these memories again.
“Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again” (214).
In the beginning, I found hope in the short anecdote about the chalk erasers and board spray from middle school between the loving sister and brother in the novel. I hung onto that for the rest of the novel because there isn’t much redeeming about the human spirit here. This is a novel that very much lacks the bud of hope. It doesn’t make it less true, it just, for me, makes it more sad. If we believed the world ended like this, I don’t think any of us would continue letting it fester.
“Isn’t he your friend, aren’t you a human being” (43).
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Over lunch the other day, a few of my girlfriends and I mused over how we grew up on The Princess Bride. I mean literally like an after school snack. A drug of choice for hip 90s girls who knew we’d grow up and really want to be more like Robin Wright on House of Cards, but for a little while, we could love Wesley and his sexy bandit costume. There were two movies that I obsessively watched as a child, Grease and Princess Bride. I feel like between these two movies PLUS Clarissa Explains It All, I can be discovered. This may or may not be true for most girls, we shall see in the comments section, but I think a lot of girls found themselves binge-watching The Princess Bride because it wasn’t your normal “princess story.” Sure, she had to be saved several times from Humperdinck, but Princess Buttercup was no pansy. What I love most about this movie is that it convinced me that there’s such a thing as a final word.
I have sought that final word to the point of damage a few times. I’ll argue until the height of high-pitched yelling. There’s a moment when I say something despicable that I know can’t be taken back, but I still release it into the world like it’s a clattering truth. I never remove myself from arguments. I have a hard time walking away. And even when someone is trying to give me the hint that there’s no place for me in their life, I pursue them until the ache grows softer and I, too, can let go.
It’s a downfall for sure. I’m no hero.
But with that all said, I think Lindy West’s first book is doing just what I’ve done my whole life, just what Inigo Montoya does with every man who even narrowly looks like his father’s killer. It’s what a lot of feminists do when they realize that maybe they’re being heard (the sound) but they’re not being listened to (the meaning). They keep going. Shrill, West’s memoir really encapsulates this idea that silence isn’t golden, it’s boxy and the only way out of it, is to keep on talking.
I knew this book was going to pack a punch when in the beginning she lists out every “Fat Female Role Model” that existed for her as a child. Characters like the Queen of Hearts, Mrs. Trunchbull, Lady Cluck, Mrs. Piggy, and Ursula were the most prominent according to my notebook. I listened to this on audiobook, so I had to pause to write down little tidbits I wanted to remember forever. In Chapter 2, she says, “There is not a thin woman inside me awaiting excavation. I am one piece.” With this quote I began to realize that we were going to witness every bit of Lindy West, whether she thought it appropriate to show or not, she was nothing but transparent and relatable for the entire book.
(If you don’t know who Lindy West is, she came for Tosh.0 in Jezebel with a piece called “How to Make a Rape Joke.” And she rocks). She has been trashed by internet trolls, even one impersonating her deceased father, and she married a man who in her words is “conventionally attractive” who plays the trumpet. The reason why I say her book is a final word of sorts is that it gives all of the baggage (and I don’t mean this as a negative) to the stories that everyone else construed about her. These stories created by trolls, comedy show hosts, feminist bloggers, newspapers and magazines, and her blog were in some ways all fabricated. While I blog my life blood into everything I write at Books & Bowels and Almost an Independent Clause, that doesn’t mean I owe every single one of my followers a pound of flesh.
But in the eyes of the public, Lindy West did. She was trolled, tattered, and left on the defense over really important issues like fat shaming, rape jokes, abortions, periods, and privilege. At one point, during the comedy chapters, she says something like, I can easily name 20 white male comics, but … “Name 20 female comics. Name 20 black comics. Name 20 gay comics.” Early in the book, she writes so unabashedly about her abortion when she was dating a guy that she loved, but didn’t quite like very much, that I heard every woman who walked the women’s march sigh in relief. It wasn’t some grotesque tale like the biblical posters of “baby waste” will have you think, it was a real woman’s life trial, true to each hard step. She even at this point in her life (what I would argue is probably a low point for some women) thought about her privilege, about the way it was so easy for the owner of the Abortion Clinic to let her pay later.
“Privilege means it’s easy for white women to do each other favors.”
I’m not going to lie, I found the chapters rehashing her experience of Tosh.0 kind of boring, but I knew they needed to be said. I’m not going to put words in Lindy West’s mouth (like everyone else has done before me), but I get the need to have one last say, to make sure people understand your point, to make one even when all corners are trying to silence you. For me, what she said had value, is valuable, and should be repeated even if the “shrill” is deafening. Especially in today’s political climate.
“We live in a culture that actively tries to shrink the definition of sexual assault. That casts stalking behaviors as romance. Blames the victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood…Convicts in less than 5% of allegations that go to trial” (Chapter 13).
I loved this book because it didn’t ask for anything. You know how sometimes you read memoirs and you can feel that the writer is asking for pity, or asking for understanding, or even just asking for love and adoration? This wasn’t like that. This was just a girl, standing in front of a really bookish crowd (with a pack of Lena Dunham’s behind her) telling a few truths about life. She wasn’t asking for you to understand why your fat joke is sorry, why rape jokes aren’t funny in any contexts, why free speech isn’t necessarily free, or why feminist voices matter, she was just telling you an experience in a life of a human being.
If we could find more writers that do this, our world might open up a little. Internet trolls might apologize more and Lindy West may have a twitter full of quips that crack a girl up while she’s at a boring desk job. We haven’t gotten there yet, but if Lindy West keeps publishing, we just might. I liked Slate’s review here.
I’ve crowned this year, “Year of Essays.” And while I’d also really like to dedicate some time to the Outlander series and the free audiobooks I got when I cheated the system and got Audible for only as long as it took me to choose four free books — I may have stolen BJ’s too — approximately four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, I still want to read more nonfiction in the form of the essay. I want to finally unpack Annie Dillard, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Proulx from my shelf. Basically, I want to read more women who fought back. I’ve read A LOT of memoir and can swallow a short story in a sitting, but the form that always eludes me is the essay. Maybe because I’ve tried to write several about the same ex-boyfriend? And maybe because I’m not sure how to know when to stop writing an essay?
I think it’s only fair then that I start with Rebecca Solnit. She is the new age queen of the nonfiction essay. You may have seen her book Men Explain Things to Me all over Subways and feminist Instagram posts. Her latest Hope in the Dark is on my reading list for this year so that I can try to make it through a Washington Post Twitter feed without crying in the morning before I’ve even had coffee. However, I started with A Field Guide to Getting Lost. If you follow me on Instagram (@bookishcassie, shameless plug) then you know that I’ve felt very lost lately.
I actually think I’m losing brain matter, teaching kept me sharp. And I’ve always loved the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art.” During my worst year in college, the frustration came out in the form of locking my keys in my car. Even once overnight, while running in the rain, I lost my keys to a dead engine. I cried to the last triple A guy, on the twelfth time. You read that right, 12 incidents in a year of losing my mind long enough to leave my keys enclosed somewhere I wasn’t. In the beginning of our relationship, BJ was constantly losing things, or leaving them somewhere and forgetting them until just the right moment of overtime when we were walking out the door. He doesn’t do this anymore, but I remember it being a test for me, I thought. The little things we can handle due to love.
And I imagine these scenes of oddly connected things is what leads an essay. At the deconstruction of an essay, if demolished, it would be these strange miscellaneous tools and objects that we’ve weaved together, not like a loom, but like shaking-hand crochet, to make meaning. I think, at least, this is what Rebecca Solnit is doing in A Field Guide to Getting Lost. There were moments where it worked for me so hard that I was furiously underlining passages and moments where this read more like a text book than a thoughtful process of braiding moments.
In the beginning she loiters over the idea of distance and the color of distance, blue. We walk through mountains, towards an island on a dry lake, and through paintings — the amusement of painters in flight. This idea that distance and going towards it is a way of getting lost guides the reader through Solnit’s dreams from her childhood home. Memories from this place haunt her dreams although she left the place in her late teens. There’s the distance between men and gold, the distance of extinct animals who both come back and remain undone. This long-form essay is both a love letter to the distance of the desert and to a home that we can’t go back to. All of these geographically lost things given new homes on the page. What we can know, what we pretend to know, and how our previous knowledge fills in gaps that we shouldn’t fill in is all also a part of this. It’s our minds mixed with our place if I could describe it in the weakest terms.
“I survived not the outside world, but the inside one” (90).
I know this just sounds like some weird gak of nonsense, but it was beautiful at times. There were moments where I could have licked the words to hold them in and moments where I was falling asleep reading. I didn’t understand the ending on the Gold Rush trails, it all felt very boring-Oregan-Trail to me, but I think the message stands firm. One must get lost to know oneself. I’m sure some philosopher has said that well before me and in better form. We all do have something to find after all, right?
There were moments too when I was like “YAS, GIRL” because what she was saying was so true to what we’re currently living. If you wake up devastated to the news you read, then you are feeling somewhat lost in a place that no longer looks like the home we’ve built as a nation.
“In these terms, even nostalgia and homesickness are privileges not granted to everyone” (123).
If you don’t read that quote thinking about refugees that have been further displaced by new “Executive Orders,” then you need to pick up a newspaper, or phone a friend.
“Such moments seem to mean that you have surrendered to the story being told and are following the story line rather than trying to tell it yourself, your puny voice interrupting and arguing with fate, nature, the gods” (134).
This, the time we finally decide to stand, against any odd.
“Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and unmappable. One of those in-depth local or state atlases that map ethnicity and education and principal crops and percentage foreign-born makes it clear that any place can be mapped infinite ways, that maps are deeply selective” (160).
I’d be lying if I believed that where you were born didn’t immediately dictate about fifty-percent of your life choices. As a privileged American woman, I face the idea of sliding into complacency and believing I’m owed what I’m given. The other option is realizing my own privilege and trying to narrow those gaps by fighting side by side, and listening to those who are faced with far less than I. I think Solnit finds that deep connection to geography, to home, to the memories that we apply to every landscape we press feet to. I think Dr. Seuss and the mantra “Oh the Places You Go” would be the child version of this idea.
I can’t argue that this is a perfect book by any means. But the ideas in it, the way they’re imperfectly balanced against and for one another made this such a meaningful read. I will read the rest of Solnit this year and I will eat each word like a delicacy because I know not everyone, and especially not all girls are given that right.
And words are everyone’s right.
I suck at readathons. I think I read harder when no one is making it a “thing” and it’s just something I know I need to do for my own mental well-being. However, there are a few readathons that represent matters close to my human bean spirit.
DiverseAThon is one of those very readathons. It is a readathon for celebrating diverse literature; diverse authors, diverse places, and diverse histories. Kelly’s Rambles actually introduced me to it from her blog. DiverseAThon has its own Twitter handle and hashtag. They’re actually hosting a Twitter Chat tonight at 8 pm for anyone interested and they will do one everyday for the entirety of the week long readathon. It’s always good to chat with like-minded people, especially if you’re like me and you strongly prefer spending your Sundays only talking to your animals. My week actually consists of the nagging thought, “Is it Sunday yet?” This is the life of the homebody.
Because they’re social media savvy and know that bookworms prefer various social media tools, there are Instagram prompts as well. I won’t be participating in these, but I will gladly like all of your pictures if you choose to. All of this is up for grabs on the twitter account.
I believe whole-heartedly in supporting diverse literature. This all stemmed from being in the classroom and realizing that there were so few books with stories that mirrored what my students went through without turning them into stereotypes or cardboard cut-outs. I’ve said many times on this blog that I believe we need books that are windows and books that are mirrors. Literature that we can see ourselves in is just as important as literature that transports us to new cultures and new ideas, when both of these types merge and we find ourselves at the precipice of empathy, that is just a gift.
I found that my students had obsessively read The Bluford series. Each book was chapped and cracked open, with wrinkles of age and smudges from chip fingers holding tightly to the stories. My students would walk to the library afterschool to get to these boxed books. Of course I had to read them. What I found, with fear, is that my students couldn’t find much outside of the Bluford Series. It was its own beautiful niche, but knowing that hurts. Where are the other books that represent my students? As the faces looking back at me in my classroom became more and more diverse (I moved to an area very close to a Lumbee Reservation), I had to search that much deeper through the glossed hardbacks in the library for books that not only reflected their stories, but wrote them thoughtfully and truthfully. Now, Tweeters and book people like Debbie Reese, Roxanne Gay, Diverse Books, and Angie Manfredi keep me clued into literature today that is not only diverse, but accurate, meditative, and compassionate to the characters and stories within.
None of this stops because I’m out of the classroom. I still worry that students get to the high school classroom having only read dead-white-male authors. I still think about how often I turned to Patricia Smith when the textbooks were emptied of what I called in the classroom “literature in bubbles.” Where all characters were able-bodied, straight, and assumed to be white. (I’m still a little peeved with JK Rowling for just announcing one day that Dumbledore was gay without actually writing that into the literature). I even taught world literature and was fascinated with the very few tribal stories, and aboriginal stories contained in the textbooks. A lot of the beginning stories came from The Bible actually. Meh. In fact, I’m not sure there was one aboriginal story in the newest textbook in our book room. By year two, I had decided not to teach from the textbook at all (this involved killing a lot of trees, I’m sorry nature, until I could prove to my principal that I needed more technology).
In 2012, Roxanne Gay wrote in The Rumpus that 90% of the authors reviewed in the NY Times are white. (There’s a pie graph in the article if you’re too lazy to actually read it). The Guardian recently wrote that the publishing industry is dominated by white females, which definitely shows in the books published recently. FiveThirtyEight wrote about children’s books being “still very white” and in 2015 Sunili Govinnage wrote about reading books only by minority authors for a year and found, “just how white our reading world really is.” Govinnage gives a list of books read, if you’re interested in reading Diverse Books during the challenge, or making it a focus for this year which I highly recommend. Vida Count has been giving us data for multiple years now on the publishing industry and its diversity. See 2015 here and look at the trends from years prior.
While I don’t think dedicating just a week of the 52 you have in a year to diverse literature is enough, I do believe it’s a start if you read mostly white-washed literature. And I don’t mean “diverse” to only categorize race, but race, gender, sexuality, illnesses, disabilities, geography, landscape, and histories. (I really want to put etc, but I almost feel like that’s really inconsiderate). I need to do better at reading books with characters that have different sexualities than my own. I think I will make that a goal of this year. Actually at the women’s march yesterday I had to explain a poster to my best friend that read, “Support all of your sisters, not just your cisters.” Without diverse literature, I would never be able to understand and empathize with that sign.
If you’re considering participating and you don’t know where to start, here’s a list of some of my favorite diverse authors, and diverse character choices. I would love to chat with you about any of these.
I am going to read the following few books during this DIVERSEATHON, particularly:
I honestly can’t believe I haven’t read In the Time of Butterflies yet, but I just haven’t. Comment below if you have some FABULOUS recommendations of diverse books or ways you support diverse and amazing authors. I look forward to hearing about your diverse reads in the Diversathon. Follow the readathon on Twitter, Instagram and read along with me. YAY! Let’s get “he who shall not be named” out of Simon and Schuster and get their diverse and deserving authors promoted. This is also a way to continue what you started at the Women’s March by reading and advocating for women of color, and women of differing sexualities. Make sure you post what you’re reading and write about the why. When people know you’re why, they’re more likely to invest.
Because I need a few more days to mull over what I’m going to say about the new President on this blog, I thought I could review one of my already favorite books of the year.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles was a quiet simmer, a rustle, a murmur. I hadn’t read anything about it other than it was a finalist for the National Book Award and that there were 73 people on the library waiting list before me. That’s an accurate portrayal, not a fudged number. I can tell now, why, and why it has such a catastrophically high Goodreads score. Usually, even my favorite books tap out at 3.2, maybe 3.4 if there’s an influx of smart, beautiful readers, but typically all books stay average, even the good ones. (I don’t have any stats on this, this is just sheer user interpretation).
Right now, News of the World has a 4.23 star score on Goodreads. I’m going to make the argument that it’s all about the characters (and then the setting, and then the pacing, and then the softness, in that order). There’s two main characters and then a handful of townspeople that we meet as they travel through Texas. The two main characters are Cho-Henna and Kep-Dun. Captain Kidd is a former military messenger and Johanna is a girl who was captured by the Kiowa Tribe at a young age and only knows that life. However, at the beginning of the book, Kidd accepts guardianship of returning her to what’s left of her family (an aunt and uncle) and thus the book begins.
The entirety of this book is their journey on just a few roads. Kidd is stopping in towns to read the news from local and international papers, a former print shop owner, he likes to create fairytales of far-off places in the minds of Texans, and while doing that he teaches Cho-Henna a few “house rules” without changing who she is at the core. I fell in love with both of these characters. By the end of the book, I could actually hear the peep of Cho-Henna’s voice saying “Kep-Dun” from behind a flour barrel, or underneath a blanket.
She was so quiet, almost silent, and yet the sound of her stays with me. It wasn’t the voice of the character that was so moving in this book, it was the subtle sounds of everyday life that she made. The way she patted the captains arm, or handed him dimes to be used as bullets, or ripped the lace from her skirt. Those sounds that create a live-action movie in the reader’s heads. I knew that countryside while I was riding, and although we had to listen for the sounds of danger, it was so easy being with Captain Kidd and Johanna just a little while longer. I feel the same soft spot for Johanna that Kidd grows in this story.
And although we know from the beginning that this will end tied with a bow, I don’t fault Jiles for the conclusion being that neat. This was a feel-good story from the very beginning. I eased through the way Captain Kidd treated Johanna like she didn’t need to be anyone but herself in order to get along in the world. He could only teach her this through his own ways of being in the world, just a visitor, always in motion, and always with a message. At one point, he thinks the following:
“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed” (121).
I think this was just the most perfect instance of how life is made. Whether we’re Captain Jeffrey Kidd making life after the Civil War, or we’re a child with two visions of the world that collide and collapse at random. I’ve harped about this idea of purpose for the last several months. I’m a pray-er, I don’t know what you guys believe, or what religious doctrine you follow, if any, but I like to send open words out into the air and hope someone is catching them (kind of like The BFG and dreams).
For a long while, every time I prayed about being a teacher, I got a solidified answer as to why I needed to keep doing it. Even in my most desperate, cry on the side of the bed as I slide down the post, moments. Where a whole tissue box wasn’t enough, and neither was the constant heaving, I got a sign the next day, or a word, or a moment. When I decided to quit teaching, those signs that I was holding like small weapons against any stray ideas, went dark. I couldn’t find anything telling me to “just keep swimming.” I was carrying a message, but I didn’t think it was the right one anymore.
I’ve had a lot of nights where I manically mindmap my purpose. Where I talk to myself about podcasts, and blogging, and editing, and reading, and making life. Not making a living, but just making life. I’ve tried to find goals and make them into something. Truth be told, I’m lost as hell. But with all of that, I’m also in a moment of creation.
“To go through our first creation is a turning of the soul we hope toward the light, out of the animal world. God be with us. To go through another tears all the making of the first creation and sometimes it falls to bits” (56).
In situations like this there’s that constant nag of failure. It creates a lot of fear. And that’s what wasn’t in this book. Neither character was tied to a certain message, a certain town or person or purpose. Both were just between living. Sure, their road had an end. Captain Kidd had a goal and a $50 gold coin to show for it. He had a mission for Johanna that wasn’t of her choosing, but was still a mission they both partook. And so maybe, it’s corny, but maybe it’s true – it’s about the journey. I know this book was.
This was one of those moments where I hit the just right book at the just right time. So what if the goal isn’t clear? So what if we’re reinventing all the time? If people know us as a chameleon or a lover of adventure or just someone that can’t stay focused? So what? Make life. Make it with people who don’t have to speak because the thud of their feet in the hallway and the click of a radio button and the morning voices of Mike & Mike are the only reconciliation you need. (Thanks, Beej). This is true for these two characters and I would argue that it’s true for most of us. If we gave up speaking, we would still make love with sounds. If we lost our voices, we would still show pity, embarrassment, joy with the soft strokes of being human.
News of the World is that subtle reminder that we all need. I highly recommend this read because it will seriously melt your heart. In many book clubs they’re recommending it be paired with Tribe by Sebastian Junger. I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy of that next. Get both from the library and dog-ear every page you love for the next person. Leave that muted symbol, imagine the rubbed sound of crisped page against their thumb.
I hated this book and I’m going to ruin it all for you in about three lines so if you don’t want spoilers, then stop reading right before the sign.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is supposed to be a look at high school in a wealthy town that the author once lived. She’s also tutored at in a “private learning center” in a town very similar to this one. The author, Lindsey Lee Johnson, claims that she is a “fierce defender of teenagers” in her Twitter bio, but I find this practically deafening after reading her book. I was constantly disappointed in this book, not just once, but over and over again. You can see it from my Goodreads status updates. In fact, the only reason I kept reading was so that I could say “I finished the whole book” and you wouldn’t question that maybe I only hated it because I didn’t read the end.
This is one of those books that makes me think the entire publishing world (at least the big five) is one big conspiracy of “who ya know” and that gets you a good review. Chicago Tribune RAVED about this book so it’s clear to me that their critic knows not a single teacher or a single high school student. Even Anthony Doerr blurbed for this book and I find that goods at least compelling, now I’m starting to question my author compass. NY Times was the worst, with the audacity to call this novel “funny.” What an adjective to choose. You know, just the flawed lives of teenagers who may or may not survive those years is funny. Definitely, NY Times. GET A THESAURUS.
Let me tell you just a few reasons why I hated this novel.
Every teacher mentioned is a stereotype. You have the male teacher that’s sleeping with a student. You have the young teacher who wants to be “friends” with her students and uses them to add filler to her own life. You have the bitchy group of teachers who sit around at lunch, what we called at my recent HS, “ducks” because they complain about the whole program, every student, and anyone who chooses to be compassionate at all about a child. They exist, I’m sure each of these people exist, but to put them down on a page and add another layer of “teachers aren’t professionals” or “you can’t do? Then TEACH” to the world, seriously infuriates me.
Did you know I’ve never had rows in my classroom? In fact, I hardly ever taught a novel until I taught AP Literature and College Board expected it. Yea, I had super comfortable furniture and a bike desk, but my students were never allowed to lounge on it, spooning, while I read them pages of a book. Last semester, I brought the Global Brands Manager of Red Hat into my classroom to teach my students about branding and then they built their own growth portfolios. We taught them about global citizenship. They’ve skyped with Ambassadors and Heads of State about Human Rights. Had their own UN Council. Get the fuck out of here, Lindsey Lee Johnson, you clearly haven’t been in a classroom since you were a high-schooler and to write a book where every teacher is a just another figurine of these stereotypes makes me sick with disgust.
I don’t know any teachers that add their students on Facebook.
There’s this cool thing now now called Remind where we can text through an app with “office hours” and no phone numbers exchanged. That’s what REAL high school teachers use now.
TEACHERS DON’T SLEEP WITH STUDENTS ON THE REGULAR. Contrary to popular belief, most of us don’t go into teaching to relive our high school experience.
Thanks for making us, teachers, ONCE AGAIN, the butt of a never-ending joke. This is why parents don’t believe we’re killing it in the classroom. This is why when I talk to them about “project based learning” and what’s ACTUALLY happening in education, they don’t understand. Because they read books like yours where we’re all still teaching like it’s 1982. Like Beyonce has said plenty of times, WE’VE UPGRADED.
Guys, I’m going to apologize now for the excessive amount of all caps yelling in this review. I am just so, so peeved and angrily texting my teacher-frands just ain’t enough.
I get that teenagers are flawed, and they make (totally awesome) choices that adults want to both laugh and cry at. I’ve always worked in high-poverty schools and I’ve been, not only a teacher, but their counselor, their nurse, their hug in the middle of a day, the person that greets them with their first warmness of the morning, their coach, their advisor, their mentor. I am a FIERCE DEFENDER OF TEENAGERS.
How can you be a fierce defender of teenagers when you literally wrote each one as a stock stereotype and each of their lives as a playbook for “reckless teens.” Not only that, but you’ve broken them down into perfect little cliques like a 90s RomCom. That’s not defending them. Treating them like real human beings is defending them. Working with them through the day-in/day-out of their very real lives is defending them. The only character that I really got could be a real human being was Damon in his section at rehab. I was melting with that kid, I was understanding his come-up. I got it at that point, and I got everything he did before and everything he did after. I’ve taught him in real life. He threw a textbook at me once, in fact. But that’s it.
Here we have the following: the juvenile delinquent, the smart boy who’s just on the wrong path, the drug dealer, the hyper smart Asian (I MEAN COME ON), the boy who’s closeted gay (or just magically walks into the porn industry at the end of the book), the smart girl who’s parents aren’t home enough so she sleeps with a teacher, the hippie kids, the bullies, the kids that are “different.” This review here calls what you did with these kids “archetypes.” If you fiercely defend teens, why are yours stuck in little less-than-cute boxes?
Where are the black kids?
You’re from this place. So, I get that. I get that you wanted to write about it. Were you thinking, “Hey, it’s been twenty years since I stepped into a high school. It’s probably exactly the same as it was. Let me write that down.” Because … that’s how it feels.
I owed this book to Penguin Random House. They gave me an ARC and when I read on Goodreads that each chapter is narrated by a different character in a high school, I honestly thought that sounded really cool. Not quite inventive, but cool, particularly when I realized that it all surrounded and stemmed from a tragedy that they’d all experienced. I love books, typically, that switch between characters and give us a fuller perspective on one story.
While I understand, this usually leads to an atypical plot, in this book it was kind of a let down. I liked that it bookended on Calista and her story and experiences, but I was disappointed by the actions some of the characters decided to take, particularly because they were so dated. The first chapter blew me away. I was mesmerized by Tristan’s bike ride to the Golden Gate Bridge and the way he described each small detail.
After that, pure bullshit. Every page.
These characters mean nothing to each other, and mean nothing to the reader. This is the first book that I actually, actively don’t recommend. I can’t back a book that pigeonholes teenagers or makes them tiny typecasts of themselves. I don’t know why it’s getting such great reviews, other than the big five in the publishing world are dying. Maybe it’s time to focus on Indie Reads.
My bestie, and best reader-frand, Nat, asked if this one was like “If Perks was on ecstasy,” and I can’t even give it that novelty. Sucked. Hard. (No pun intended).
I’ve always been on that weird middle line with feminism where I can’t jump over the fence and burn my bras because those things are DAMN expensive and sometimes kind of pretty, but I also am definitely not on the side of “all girls should sit and be pretty.” I can’t say that I’ve always been on the side of women, I’ve talked my fair share of smack and I’ve always kind of felt (and always loathed) Daisy in Great Gatsby:
“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about—things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'”
Some of my judgment: For too long we’ve lived in a world where women who play dumb and look pretty get ahead. It doesn’t matter if they’re legacy makers in every right (See: Kim Kardashian or Jessica Simpson), but the way women are still supposed to portray themselves for the public is to be just what Daisy said. What these woman actually are, are bosses. Big men on campus, but it’s the “beautiful little fools” they play.
After reading You Don’t Have to Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding Feminism by Alida Nugent, I have to agree that it isn’t my call to judge them for how or what they present, but what they can represent for feminism and girls everywhere. Nugent says “There are other words, too. Bossy. Bitchy. Rude. Fat. Ugly. Stupid. Whore. I used these words when I had an agenda. I was always looking for ways to frame other women in a way that made me seem better and more appealing. I was a cool girl, not her, don’t you see?” And for the record, I don’t just mean girls who are born biologically girls, but also the ones who decide / choose to come to the dark side as well. You’re all girls in my Barbie World.
I loved this essay collection like it was a time-tested musical number or a Pablo Neruda ode. Nugent didn’t have to shout at us with her torch and teeth barred, instead she spoke feminism like a soft wave from a wet kayak. One chapter would have the punch of lemoncello and the next would be a little quieter, but just as brave and equally meaningful. Towards the end of the book she smacks the reader around with her to do lists on masturbation and porn, but in the middle, the soft stuff like female friendships (that are never, ever soft by the way) and virginity are breached.
When everyone else in a girl’s life is silent on these topics, Nugent is educated and sassy. I tweeted multiple times about stalking her and becoming real friends. One imagining even got very real: we were in the grocery store, knocking on cantaloupes because aren’t they one of those fruits when you just never know the ripeness? Some people flick, some people tap, some squeeze slightly like the first time you touched Nickelodeon Gak, but Nugent and I, we are two in the same. With full chapters on lipstick and the haven’s of bliss that are women’s restrooms in a crowded club (other than the pukers and the ones that have to hold their hair), I couldn’t get enough of Nugent’s perspective on feminism.
In her world, and mine now that I can stop secretly torturing myself for “Hm”ing every time a dude makes a mild sexist joke, feminists can make mistakes. They can disagree, but support all the same. They can understand their bodies, their moral lines, but also accept everyone else’s bodies and moral lines. I finally get what all the tweets are talking about when they bash Teen Vogue or Cosmopolitan for “fat-shaming.” To be a feminist, it doesn’t mean you have to be pure as a saint or reeking of sex 23/7 (no one can have sex for an entire day, we’d all die a slow and maybe only half painful death). It means that you – at the bottom of everything – you have to believe in other women, and believe they should get the same treatment as any man.
That means it’s okay to suck at that too sometimes. It doesn’t mean you have to show a nipple once in a while and it doesn’t mean that you have to have a vagina pin on your backpack and it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to be angry with all the dudes in your life, because some of them are kind of cute, ya know? In Nugent’s feminism, you just have to be knowledgable and accepting.
I literally, full-on, laughed out loud at work reading this book. And it wasn’t a cute laugh, it was one of those wide mouth laughs that has you burying your face into your elbow while people kind of stare at you. To the point where I had to almost make up a reason that something would be that funny in a book. It was. It totally was. I almost cried a little bit too, but mostly I laughed. A lot. Nugent’s voice is like listening to your girlfriend tell you a drunken story except she’s really smart so it still sounds smart, but there’s tangents of nonsense and hilarity.
I texted my best friends paragraphs of text from this book. We joked for a few minutes about how much she “knows” us. This is one of those girl’s girl books. If that’s not enough to pick it up and read it, I don’t know what else to tell you. I especially liked the chapter on losing your virginity because I think someone needed to say it.
“I did not lose my virginity. I know exactly where it went. It went on top of a futon in a basement that you could enter through a sliding door. Nobody took my virginity, because my virginity wasn’t a landmass that Columbus entered and then ruined. Nobody took my virginity, because my virginity wasn’t a number-two pencil somebody asked to borrow during a Scantron test and never gave back. Nobody took my virginity at all. I had sex for the first time in a condo with a sarcastic dude whom I sort of liked. I don’t feel like this is a sad story.
It’s enough to feel shame about your public smile, about the way you look in a tankini, about the amount of tortilla chips you ate for … linner. It’s enough. It’s enough to feel shame of not living up to parental expectations of “being a good girl.” No one needs to feel shame for the way they use their body if they wanted to. If there were 2+ consenting adults and they chose to make moves. My religion makes me feel some shame, I think it comes with the Catholicism though and so I accept it as part of the “Catholic guilt.” I can’t save anyone from that because it’s a lingering sort.
What Nugent can save you from is digging holes against other women (or just people) and burying yourself. She can save you from judging someone’s past because it doesn’t match up with their present, or judging someone period because your idea of “rightness” does not align with there idea of “learning.”
Everyone always says, “think before you speak.” Maybe instead we should be saying, SPEAK. and in equal measure LISTEN, and while you’re listening don’t judge, degrade, downgrade, take back to another dinner table and spill about with giggles. Support your fellow woman and make good decisions. When they aren’t good, own them and learn.
That’s a feminist if I ever saw one. (Except I haven’t seen her even though we could totally be best friends. This is definitely an awkward “Call Me, Maybe” moment that I will own and learn from).
PS. I kind of also wrote about Nugent’s book here when I went on a rant in support of Planned Parenthood.
Any review I generate here is not going to do this book justice. At all. Ever. If you can stand that idea, then keep reading.
I know that Copper Canyon Press produces again and again significant and deeply meaningful poetry collections, but Ocean Vuong’s poetry in Night Sky With Exit Wounds is like nothing I’ve read before. I went through some Goodreads reviews to see if everyone else thought this was fatal magic like I did, but there are some pretty critical men reviewers. I found that kind of interesting because, like I’ve talked about in other blogs, I always wonder how much who we are when we come to a book impacts our feelings about said book. Obviously, I have only ever read this book as a late-twenties-white-female-fan-of-beautiful-words. No, seriously, when the guy at the desk next to me asked me what kind of books I read last week I said, “the ones with pretty words.” I think I lost all credibility in that moment, but there’s really no other definition. I could try to be more thoughtful with it, but what’s the use when I could be spending that time reading poetry like Ocean Vuong’s.
This one, up here, was my favorite review.
That’s the funny thing about reviews. I loved this book, I wanted to eat it and share it with everyone I knew who would just “get it.” I underlined hundreds of lines, wrote six pages of notes, was inspired to write poems about my grandfather on my mother’s side, and have post-its galore sticking neon from the pages. I have a tender spot for poetry about heritage because in my long list of “writing territories” I write a lot, and I mean A LOT about womanhood, generations, passing down, and my grandmother. Lately, I’ve been writing about my Dad, but my grandmother, the place that she’s buried, and what I can remember of her in the hospital after her stroke come up often on the page.
But reviews are sometimes more about the person who read the book than the actual book. If you read them seriously, if you devolve into a book blog spiral the same way you can rabbit hole on X-factor videos, you can learn about a lot about people, specifically bookish people. Sure, we have things in common like a lot of us prefer cats, or we drink enough coffee to not mind it black, or when we get overwhelmed we are in desperate need of pockets of quiet, but in reviewing books we are wholly ourselves.
I’ve never read a book review that didn’t have the voice of the person who wrote it. Whether that be scene child, literature critic, NY shower curtain separated apartment dweller, or me, that girl who goes on tangents that I find a little funny, like quips.
Lately, on Twitter, I’ve been seeing people attacked for their reviews. For all kinds of things about books, but most recently, for not liking the voice of a novel. The reviewer used some choice language and called the book’s language “slang.” Someone with a follower count above 500 read it and a bunch of people decided they would “educate” the blogger through harassment about their knowledge of AAVE. (I’m really not sure AAVE is even the correct term for the colloquialism in this book because I have no idea what the book was). Whether the reviewer was correct or not, their opinion is now only solidified by the swarm of others who join in on the bullying.
When someone calls them out on it (which wasn’t me by the way, but should have been), they passive aggressively discuss how there’s a difference between being “critical” and “harassing.” (I know, I realize by talking around it I’m being passive aggressive right now too). The thing that bothers me the most about this is that when confronted, the Twitter mob will say things like, “I’m uncomfortable and I’m hurting by what was said so if she feels just an ounce of the my hurt as a POC, then I’m sorry, but I don’t regret it.”
I get that. But I also get that my Mom always told me “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I get that literature needs diverse books (DUH). I get that readers want books to be both mirrors and windows and that the amount of white authors, and white people on covers far out number that of any other race. It’s actually pretty disgusting. This makes me desperately sad. As a reader, I try to support publishers that support diversity. I buy books about the experiences our world is facing so I can better understand how to help and when to stay quiet (shut up and listen). I read, more than anything else, to be culturally responsible.
Thus, Ocean Vuong. Thus, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Thus, the other side of the face of the Vietnam War. Because war always has a face and it’s always bleeding no matter what side you’re on. And those that win, they pronounce that win in the books of history and own not just the “win,” but the content, the stories, the shape of the culture behind that win. This has led us to where we are today. I don’t believe that by capturing a snip-it of a review and calling someone a racist on Twitter, and encouraging others to do the same helps people heal or understand. I also don’t believe most people go into the world hoping that they can expose their own ignorance, their own racism, their own blatant disrespect for other human beans. I believe people, at their core, understand like a solid 3% of what other people, like them or not, go through on a daily basis.
We were all brought up to believe something. Given a life, we are able to either uphold or upend those beliefs. It is our choice whether that comes from books, or experiences, or understanding a counter culture, or holding tight to a historical wrong, or writing our way out of all of it. I think we have to remember that people aren’t choosing to be assholes (most of the time). Now, some people, yep, full throttle douche canoes, but most people just have no understanding of your uncomfortable, your misunderstanding, your belittlement, your poor treatment. So, to educate, recommend them a book. Recommend them a song or its lyrics. Point them towards the most truthful perspective of the history they don’t understand.
Hate that authors who write bisexual characters always use “likes girls and guys?” Then email them, email the publisher, write a letter, talk more openly so that people hear the right thing more often. Hate that a chick says there could be no characters with disabilities in Lord of the Flies because that wouldn’t work? Write a new chapter on Scribd, on Live Journal, on your blog. Make the case that Piggy wasn’t able-bodied. Write a book with characters who live in the real world and not a bubble of it. Talk to someone at school, at lunch, at work, in the street that isn’t able-bodied and learn their perspective.
So, here. Here is Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection. Here is a collection of poems dedicated to a heritage, a gene pool, and a man who loves other men, and his life shone back to him in a notebook. Here is a life on a page, like every life, that’s worth reading. And it’s beautiful. The repetition, the word play, the imagery, I couldn’t even breathe sometimes while I was reading.
I didn’t even realize that I was holding my breath.
I’m going to link to some of his poems down here. And then I’m going to expect you to buy this book from Copper Canyon. Once you’ve read through every page like its a track slick with grease, I want you to read each one slowly. Then, I want to talk to you about it in the comments because I just don’t have the “stuff” to even review this one.
Because the middle-aged white guys didn’t love this book, I went through the recommendations they made in their reviews. And I will read them (Sarah Howe and Andrew McMillian). Because maybe it’s me that’s missing something about Vuong and in order to justify that it’s not, I’m going to read their recommendations. At the end of the day, my life is about how well I understood, cared for, and tended to other people. So, I’m going to do that with as much respect as I can muster.
I also have A LOT of feelings about this article, but they’re probably for a whole other blog. If in our need to rectify histories, we discount other histories that impact the histories we’re trying to protect, then what the hell?