I can’t breathe /

I believe we need to talk about race.

My longest friend is a mixed race, homosexual man.  This is if I reduce him to his census data. Although “mixed race” is a term we constructed to make sure the one drop rule stands.  And homosexual is a nice dot on a spectrum of sexuality that has ranges larger than four categories and connotations stronger than a dictionary term.

The rest is just unused data.

Because America designates that you must be this, or you must be this. I can’t speak for the world because I haven’t visited it, but I can speak for what I see in my country.

“You are this. You aren’t this. You can sit at the table. You may not break the bread.  You ride in this seat.  You are allowed to use this water fountain. You can participate in gender specific olympic events.  You have too much testosterone. You can be medically reconfigured into a woman. But you were a man first, always remember. You stay in the closet. You stay in your own head. You don’t speak of the police’s interactions. You mourn the loss. You side with the white man holding a gun. You believe in thugs. You don’t. You think school is a pipeline to prison.”

I could write this list for days, through tears, and still not get to some root, or meaning, or end to the categorical boxes we’ve placed ourselves in.

The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward

And this is why I took up The Fire This Time when Clint Smith wrote about its publish date on his Twitter.  I requested it from the library because I’ve studied Baldwin.  I’ve read him to students in American Literature. My gut was filled with tension at the climax of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and in my most intimate friendship of seventeen years we spent an evening on ice, skating around race after he posted on Facebook pictures of Oakland protests, and called out white people for their misunderstanding of why African American’s are covering highways.  And he still has not told me about his own encounter traveling west this summer with a white police officer somewhere over Kansas, maybe? I don’t even know because I am not someone he chose to talk to about it.

It could be because I grew up in Suburbia with literal picket fences in my neighborhood.  And that our high school had to bus in non-white students from downtown so that they could call themselves “diverse.” It could be that I once said something that made him feel like I could never understand the walk in his shoes and that race is not something that should enter this friendship because it could inevitably end it.

And I can’t live like that, and I don’t think he can.  I can’t be sure, but I think we’re ready for some critical conversations, and not just the two of us, but the communities we live in.  Race can be a hot burner that we avoid or it can be discussed beyond the reaches of Twitter.  So, I brought it to my classroom.

Clint Smith

Clint Smith

I read this quote in The Fire This Time, “Who I am is who I must be: a flawed human striving to live in a state of becoming.” Mitch Jackson in his essay “Composite Pops.”  When I got through the first part of The Fire this Time and was well into The Reckoning, I read Clint Smith’s poem “Queries of Unrest.” I had followed him on Twitter for some time, retweeting his educational reform tweets (@ClintSmithIII), and liking almost any reference to SLAM that he posted.  I had never read any of his poetry unless it appeared on youtube. But this poem, with its allusion to the classic children’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein was where race would enter my classroom this year.

Citizen | Claudia Rankine

Citizen | Claudia Rankine

Last year, I used excerpts from Citizen by Claudia Rankine in my refugee unit and encouraged my students to buy it, but we didn’t do enough open dialogue with the book and ourselves. I find it interesting that I used a collection of writing about the black experience in America to talk about refugees due to Edwidge Danticat’s final essay “To My Daughters” in The Fire This Time where an immigration lawyer discusses the fact that “African Americans living in the United States could easily qualify as refugees.  Citing many recent cases of police brutality and killings of unarmed black men, women, and children.”

(If you’re reading this like “this girl is only seeing one side,” then you should know that I’ve read the other side too. And I’ve read the academic journals. And I’ve studied the cases enough to be at a point where I need to talk about it to be okay with the person that I hold inside this body).

Where the Sidewalk Ends | Shel Silverstein

Where the Sidewalk Ends | Shel Silverstein

This year in our first unit for perspective we did it. “Queries of Unrest.” Step by step: We analyzed “Where the Sidewalk Ends” for its lessons to children and its lesson to adults.  A lot of my students said it looked like the edge of where childhood ends. Or it looks to be a new beginning after a dark period. Or for adults, the sidewalk could end in death. Or for children, they could be forging a new path.  There were many interpretations which is the proof of the power of words, and the power of poetry, and the power of English.  We then read “Queries of Unrest.”

I just asked for meaning.  Few annotations. A little interpretation. Initial thoughts.  I didn’t need them to drown the poem. (Due to the fact that I don’t want anyone to have the ability to write my students off in this discussion, I teach in a high-poverty Title 1 school with a ton of students who are first generation college students.   That’s not to say I don’t have students who live in neighborhoods straight out of middle class America where everyone rides their bike to the pool in the summer and stays there all day until their mother’s are home to make a meal prepped with every piece of the food pyramid.  They do know the meaning of sidewalks ending though).

They gave me that.

We didn’t discuss it because they would discuss it in silent writing in a chalk talk.  The chalk talk has three pieces of chart paper and three question bubbles.  The questions are as follows:

  1. If every piece of writing is manipulation, then how is this poem doing that?
  2. What is your strongest interpretation of this poem?
  3. What does power have to do with justice and fairness?

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-26-56-amThe silent hum of markers on paper was monumental, but it wasn’t until I started getting single questions that I realized the tension was bubbling.  A white student had written “people of color” as an umbrella term to categorize everyone that isn’t white in a statement.  While this is the “politically correct” term deemed by media (who are mostly white and in power), the question should be asked that a. why do we even have a term that is for everyone not white, and b. how does the historical background of the word “color” in that phrase impact an African American.

And the answer came in the form of my students. The word color was unacceptable for some, particularly one of my more vocal students who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and I’m so proud of her for that.  Others wanted to use it as something to embrace.  At one point the idea of the phrase “I see no color,” came up, similar to “I don’t see race,” and in unison the agreement was that that’s not even possible and it disregards the great diversity of the classroom.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-10-amI’m not going to lie, it was heated.  At one point, one girl stepped towards another, using her body as a signal of disruption.  BUT it was a critical conversation.  Sometimes in society, we don’t realize that people don’t come from a place of understanding or even knowledge, they come from a place of ignorance.  And when that’s not the case, and they’re coming from a place of flat-out untruths then it is a responsibility of the other human beings (in my mind) to crack that “truth” wide open until it’s questioned.  Sometimes all we can ask is that people question their own beliefs.  Sometimes that’s a beginning.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-26-amMy students came to the conclusion that the only acceptable truth in my classroom, for “umbrella terms” is that we call everyone “people of multiple races.”  This was accepted and has been used since by all parties, even when those parties are in disagreement.

It is my belief that in the classroom, and in the street, we have to discuss things that are controversial and we have to be the cause for understanding.  I tweeted this. I believe it. And I think it can take us down a path of knowledge and not ignorance. I believe it starts with more knowledge, and thus I believe that The Fire This Time is the strongest and most powerful book I’ve read this year.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-37-amI got a copy from the library and now it is dog-earred to oblivion for the next person.  This book is strong because we are weak humans that often put blame where we like to keep it, in boxes that are tight and narrow and inescapable.  We like to look at our side of the picture without viewing the whole thing.  We like to have a perspective, and clutch it tight in our fists and never let it turn to liquid and move.

This book showed me where I’ve failed, where I’m still failing.  It showed me my own bias.  It looked in my face and told me I was wrong.  This is the same thing that happened in my classroom on Thursday and the same thing that should be happening across America until the discussion is so loud, and so filled with every form of rhetoric, and has the voices of every American.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-45-amIt is no longer valuable (and not acceptable) to sit in indifference.

I know that this isn’t “a book review.” But how do you review a collection of human truths? You can’t. You can only recommend it be the most borrowed book at the local library.  It enters classrooms. It enters conversations.  It breaks down the tight-knit boxes that we have shut so tight no air gets through / “I can’t breathe” /

 

Mudbound: In a Genre I Like to call “Grandma Literature”

This whole section is my story of coming to this book:

I was recommended this read by Sunday night #APLitchat teachers so it’s fitting that I finished this book over the weekend and have a keen need to address it.  Plus, big news, I’m officially out of a book slump.  I can’t say I was in a reading slump because I was constantly reading the news, articles, short stories, and anthologies, but I haven’t read a book all summer.  This, from the girl with the blog about books.

I wasn’t aware when I started the story, because who reads the author discussion at the beginning, that Hillary Jordan’s grandmother, and real life farm, Mudbound was what inspired the novel.  Everyone here today knows that I’m a sucker for grandmother literature.  Lucy Calkins advises her writers to keep a running list called “Writing Territories.” I think Ms. McClure outlines what these look like the best.  When I was still teaching at Scotland, I wrote my own writing territories to introduce the concept to my creative writing class.  This was probably two years ago, but I think they still ring true today.  I love using my grandmother’s stroke tone, the virginity of southern girls and its harness, clotheslines and Carolina red mud, widows on grand second floor terraces with handkerchiefs, and rain, too much rain, rain so caked with mud, it can no longer be known as two separate things.

This whole section is the story of this book coming to me (and hopefully you):

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

Which is why I wish I wrote Mudbound.  Mudbound is the story of land and the people that reside on that land, both owned and unowned.  It is the story of a full crop season, a pair of families deeply interwoven with poisonous roots and it’s told from the multiple perspectives of the farm. I love a book where narration changes every chapter, but it’s not often that those books turn out so well, when every character given the opportunity to speak bends the influence of the one that came before.

I think the best way to describe it is by using my favorite idea from the book.  The voiced men are full of “bone-sense,” something that comes from an “older, darker place.”  They move, make decisions, and crack white like scars all in the physical sense.  They drink to soothe their mind.  They take from the body what they believe is taken from the town’s moral conscience.  They think with the turning of the land, the seeding of the crop, and the thrust of rain.  The women, however, are “head-sense,” moving with passion built on daily wear and tear desire.  Florence, my favorite character, is described as all body – a rough, tall woman, with the force of a “Delta Storm.  However, she handles the inequities with her mind and then uses those churned thoughts for the utility of her body.  She is a character that women can be proud of.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 7.10.07 PMThis book is also one of those books that leaves the cliffhanger on the tip of every chapter.  The “if I just would have known then…” or “that’s the last time I heard his voice..” takes the reader through a slow burn.  When the great moment comes, and even when it has left the land, the anticipation of hearing the angle of every character still heightens the book through its end. Ronsel, my second favorite character gets the last word (which is significant due to the big scene. He ends with what I believe is Jordan’s great social commentary of the book:

“But to make the story come out differently I’d have to overcome so much: birth and education and oppression, fear and deformity and shame, anyone of which is enough to defeat a man” (322).

“Coal-Is-Dirty.com”

And isn’t this true when a system is built to keep the land in the hands of the generation before.  An ownership passed down like a belief.  A tenure of laws built on the justice of making a profit.  A claim and a title that cant be read.   But those other hands, calloused and bruised, glued together so they can’t sign a name, hold another, or shake on it – we’ve used those to defeat a man before he can even grip that system to tear it down.

And this is what I like best about this book.  It’s set in WWII, two of the male characters face different life circumstances at the hands of the war, but it is not a book about WWII.  It’s a book about raising an unsettled loss into a belief system that rides one side at the helplessness of another.  I think sometimes it’s hard to see that timeline and be able to look in the mirror.  While men, good and bad, were fighting Nazis, we had laws that pursued the disregard of human beings that I would argue still dilute our waters today.  Our hands weren’t clean either.

Art by Darling Christie @Deviant Art

This book is not only brilliant because of the many voices that ring true and relentless, but because of the deep history that our society tends to neglect until it’s a major motion picture that’s not nominated for any awards.  Or until a young and powerful gymnast chooses to honor her country with her hands behind her back instead of on her heart.  Or when the media feeds 24 hour news of shootings until the cases no longer affect the populace and we just call it “another one…” Maybe this book will remind us of who belong to, each other.

(Thanks, Mother Teresa).

Recommendations, Please

I’m sure all of you have heard of #bookstagram.  Maybe you haven’t and you need to take a ride through Instagram’s latest craze.  At least it feels like a craze (maybe a revolution), but then can anything really compete with #catstagram? Just put stagram on anything you love and you’ll have the same followers as a Michael’s craft store or a Hobby Lobby if you’re of a religious breed.  Funny thing is, every Michaels that I’ve ever hoarded beads in has always been near a “bible store,” but this is the south, so there’s that.

Anyway, #bookstagram has a new community that’s not on Instagram, but this new app called “Litsy.”  The bookish account, “Crimebythebook” posted about it on her profile and I joined. It’s like a mix of Goodreads and “Bookish Instagram Community” AKA people who wear large-button sweaters, ballet flats even in the edge of winter, and have figured out how to foam milk into designs in their coffee OR they spend an absurd amount of money on fancy coffee in big white mugs every year.  Seriously, this community could fund your local coffee joint with one thud of cash.

Unfortunately, Goodreads, Litsy, Instagram, or “WhatshouldIreadnext.com” has not led me to any good choices lately.  Instagram has far too many fan girls reading the third book in a  YA series.  Goodreads can get really intense, especially if you have a big personality, with big feels about books. People can get real heated on there. Litsy is too new to really be advantageous. WhatshouldIreadnext just hasn’t really promoted the kind of read I need at the moment.

This is where you come in.

Guys, I didn’t read a book in April.  Don’t get me wrong, I read seven thousand and twenty-two essays, articles, short stories, poems, and academically, or globally relevant short form pieces to share with my students, but not one book.  Me, who has run a book blog for almost six years.  I did not read a book.

I need recommendations.

I need something that will pull me in and not let go, but not in the mystery way.  I need writing that sucks you dry.   I need a Milk & Honey feeling but in novel form (maybe no doodles of vaginas though.  My students showed me that one and it was a weird day).  I’m currently reading about the historical and cultural significance of rain and I need a little fiction on the side.  I like a touch of romance, but I don’t want to read any books that have the words “full throttle” or have pink covers with large red font in a cursive.  I like to problem solve, but I don’t want crime.  I just want something that will touch the human spirit, but hasn’t been a NY Times Best Seller.

I’m starting to think I’m asking too much, BUT here are a few of my favorite books:

  1. Lark & Termite – Jayne Anne Phillips
  2. The Woman Warrior – Maxine Hong Kingston
  3. The Tsar of Love and Techno – Anthony Marra
  4. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Hold Your Own – Kate Tempest
  6. Paint It Black – Janet Fitch
  7. Summer Sisters – Judy Blume
  8. The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld
  9. All the things by Louise Gluck
  10. All the things by Tiffanie DeBartolo

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Presidential Book Club [Reads Based on Candidates]

Earlier this morning, I took the Isidewith.com quiz because I thought I might use it in my classroom.  I’m not sure how to infuse it just yet into my weekly lesson plan, but I did decide on a blog idea.  In this quasi-political episode of the blog, I’m going to recommend reads based on candidates.  Next week, I will recommend reads FOR candidates because I think there’s always an alternating side to our beliefs that can be discovered through literature, and although we may not agree, we can better understand.

First up, Bernie Sanders.  If you’re feelin’ the Bern, and you find his Larry David-looking independence and firm hand on the people’s hearts an easy way to declare a vote, here’s some recommendations from me that would align with Bernie’s political stances.

Bernie Sanders:

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  1. 1984 by George Orwell: I think most people read this book in American high schools, however, if you haven’t, I think the world Sanders is in the fight against the future concocted by Orwell in this book. Thought Police, drones in windows, Big Brother, and opinions that are lost in the abyss of brains that are not allowed to remember them.
  2. The World Without Us – Alan Weisman: Weisman introduces the concept of mass extinction of humans and how the earth, the literal geographical and environmental structure of the earth would continue to thrive.  Weisman uses too many scientific studies to count to show the stamp humankind has left on the earth and gives a visual where the reader can infer how their carbon footprint influences the effect of global warming, and climate change.
  3. Teaching to Transgress – Bell Hooks: I love this woman, I love all her books, but this one especially speaks to my profession.  In Teaching to Transgress, Hooks emphasizes the power of teachers in the classroom to rub up against and break down the boundaries of sexuality, gender, race, and cultural differences.  She’s inspiring, but also practical in her approach to politics and “politically correctness” in the classroom.
  4. The American Way of Poverty – Sasha Abramsky: This book emphasizes the war on poverty in America.  It discusses economic inequality in both an emotional and political way and looks to the future possibilities of poverty in one of the richest nations in the world.

Donald Trump:

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  1. Women Who Make the World Worse: and How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports – Kate O’Bierne: sexist / anti-feminist

  2. The Turner Diaries – Andrew Macdonald: Racist and White Supremacist

  3. The Doctrine of Fascism – Benito Mussoline: facsist / dictator
  4. Mein Kamph – Adolf Hitler: dictator / anti-semitic / racist

Hillary Clinton:

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  1. Lean In: Woman, Work, And The Will to Lead – Sheryl Sandburg: This book is just a wonderful look at women in leadership positions and how to have it all.  She took a lot of heat for this book, but I believe it’s a great growing tool for women with a mind of entrepreneurial spirit.
  2. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party Revolution and Battle over American History – Jill Lepore: Lepore never writes a book that disappoints.  This book blends politics and religion and the definition of American History based on the battle between the two.  Plus, she overanalyzes Sarah Palin which just makes me giggle most of the time.
  3. The Men We Reaped – Jesmyn Ward: A meditation on the lives of black men in America.  Ward lost five men in her life in quick succession and this book has an emphasis on the worth of bodies in America based on race, but also asks critical questions if it’s audience on the role of race, particularly black men, in America.
  4. Negroland – Margo Jefferson: This book is especially powerful in the wake of having an African American president reach practically a full term in office (YES!).  It discusses, in memoir fashion, the lives of elite African-American families and the boundaries placed around privilege from both white people and black people.

Ted Cruz:

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(I feel like I’m clearly missing The King James Bible here).

  1. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power – Jon Meacham: This book is actually AWESOME.  Ted Cruz wants to restore the constitution so people who vote for him should probably understand the founding of that constitution.  While he wasn’t physically there to write it, he was the first enforcer of it.
  2. In The Name of Identity – Maalouf: This is a meditation on how identity is not one thing but multiple things, and that parts of our identity are on the forefront most often when we’re threatened which makes identity almost directly, in today’s world, lead to violence. (My students actually read parts of this one and loved it).
  3. Undocumented – Aviva Chomsky: A professor who discusses the role of immigration and immigration reform in America.
  4. Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel – Julia Keller: The history of Mr. Gatling and the Gatling gun. Definitely written more like fiction than nonfiction.  Mr. Cruz wants to protect the second amendment, so we should probably discuss where it began.

Feel free to comment for additions to the list.  I’m not really in the mood for a political debate, and I will do my best not to respond rudely to any of you that are #teamtrump.  As an educator of the population he would like to keep out of our country, I just have too many views on how his words impact his build it while he flies it platform.

Happy semi-political reading! Follow next week for reads you should pick up (based on my opinion) if you want to know more about the heavy hitting platforms in this years elections.  Can’t wait!

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Why I Suck at NetGalley

Creating a bio on social media is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done (I feel like this deserves #firstworldproblems).  How do you compose everything about yourself in 140 characters? Goodreads at least gives you a solid paragraph of bio.  On WordPress, I could have a whole blog dedicated to who I am, and even then, it’s like the longer the bio allowed, the harder it gets to pare down what you want to say.  In a bio of a few sentences, you choose the markers of your self-hood.  Creating a bio on a place where I get approved or rejected based on said-bio is even worse.  On Shark Tank they say to lead with the numbers, but I always lead with the cereal-obsession, or the standards of being a cat lady, or the brutal statistics of my love for wildflowers (a la Alice).

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This is one of the reasons why I suck so hard at NetGalley.  I can’t create a bio that sells me as a reputable blogger.  And let’s be honest, lately, I haven’t been.  I’ve been slacking on reviews, unable to come up with interesting blog topics, and I’m in yet another reading funk.  As a teacher, I find it hard to read when all day my brain has been actively influencing other smaller brains to work.

Twitter

The best reason I suck at NetGalley though is because I hate people telling me what to read. Yes, I have the power to request the books that I want to read.  But even then, the idea that now I have to read it in order to review it for a publisher that was nice enough to grant me early access makes me avoid it all together.  This is the exact reason I still haven’t read my favorite authors newest book, Fates and Furies. (I have read every review ever though so it’s almost like I’ve read the book without all the fancy). I may also be avoiding it until I know she’s working on another book so I don’t have to wait too long to have her words again in my hand.  It’s like buying really beautiful pieces for your wardrobe and then never wearing them because you don’t want to ruin them.

I suck, because like high school, when you tell me I have to read something by a certain date I pointlessly avoid it with the power of procrastination and Catholic guilt.  NetGalley does this to me every time.  It’s not even like I read the books that have been gifted to me, I’m not reading them because if I was I would definitely be reviewing them.  I might even buy them in the store or get them from the library after I’ve had them on my NetGalley dashboard for months.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.06.47 PMI have a 40% review rate on NetGalley.

NetGalley recommends an 80% review rate.

This. is. sad.

Then, there’s ebooks. I love my kindle.  It’s got a cute case.  It’s easy to access.  It carries like two hundred and ninety seven books on it so when I’m traveling it’s perfect.  However, it has to be charged. I have to swipe to turn a page.  All the pages of every book look the same. Poetry gets this weird, ridiculous format.  It glows, but it doesn’t show in color and if I want color then I have to read a computer screen for most of the evening.  There’s no perfect ebook on the market and if you have one that doesn’t strain your eyes, or truly feels like a real book, then let me know because I will buy it.  The closest I’ve found is my Kindle Paperwhite.  And look, it just ain’t a real book.  It highlights yes, but then to find that page again is a three step process and I keep a book quote notebook (#BUJO) and I need easy access to everything I loved about that book.

My obsession with post-it note flags can’t be enacted on my kindle.  I can’t brush my hand along the side of the pages and feel each little mark of love.  I can’t write my own handwriting into a kindle.  There’s no annotation feature.  If I was a college student, I would be dead in the water with a Kindle.

There is no other way to read books with Netgalley.  You get an email, or you get a pdf, or you get both.  I’m a reader who needs a paper copy.  I have to want to pick up my kindle.  For your information, my kindle fell behind my bed’s side table in the beginning of December and I just picked it up and charged it because I got access (on NetGalley) to Kate Tempests new novel.

AND NOTHING WILL KEEP ME FROM THAT BOOK. EVEN MY OWN SUCK.

(This doesn’t mean I’ll stop sucking anytime soon though, there will just be less suck for a time.  Kind of like history). Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 4.05.13 PM

How’s your relationship with the galley? Are you able to push yourself to the 80% suggested reading rate, or do you have to take time off from Kindle ever so often. There’s too many used bookstores in the world, cheap, cheap, cheap used bookstores for me not to read a paper back that opens like a locked chest in my hand.

PS. Can I send this as a review for all those books on my shelf that I didn’t review yet? Sorry (not sorry).

 

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Spring | Letter A Day

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A few years ago I wrote a “Letter a Day in May” to followers and readers of the blog.  It led me to some wonderful penpals like Claire (@ Word by Word) and Muzette, who I still write to this day and she knows some of the most important thoughts in my head.  I love a good penpal and I love good gossip (the good kind as in, “tell me a good thing.”  If you want to participate in “Spring Letter A Day” starting March 1st and until I run out of people to write, fill out this simple Google Form.

In fifth grade, I was given a penpal that lived in another country.  My mother kept those crayon-written letters.  The lines were tipped downwards and the letters got bigger and then smaller like they appeared under a microscope, but I thought it was magic that I could communicate with someone so far away.  I didn’t know what longitude and latitude were but I could feel miles on the drives back and forth to Florida.  This was my first experience with a penpal.  Since, I’ve written my best friend Seth for all the years he lived in South Korea (we even have a symbol that we both own to commemorate those funky posts).  My dear, Sarah, who moved to New Zealand after her whirlwind marriage, wrote me back and forth for ages.  Bri, who follows this blog, and has one of her own, has written me from Nevada for most of last year.

So, if you think handwritten is a thing of the past, or you just wish something other than bills came out of your mailbox, sign on up.  I can’t wait to write you.

Again, Google Form here.

I look forward to single-handedly keeping the US Post Office open. (Because come on, those uniform britches have to stay on the waists of middle-aged men and out of museums for things of the past).

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We’re going to call this one, “A Big F You.”

Recently, I got an email to be a part of a new reviewing website that promoted themselves as being “similar to Netgalley.”  Now, there’s a reason reviewers love Netgalley.  It’s a database of up and coming books from major publishing houses, to small publishers, to self-published authors.  It’s honestly, a beautiful thing for a reviewer because it’s like walking up to someone’s shelf and being allowed to request access to anything on that shelf.  It’s a library in shrink wrap.

I don’t always finish my Netgalley books in a timely manner and if I’m being honest, I’m a binge Netgalley user.  I don’t request a book from them for months and then when I do, I request seventeen books all published in two months time.  So, obviously, I struggle to keep up with my own reading load on top of reading the entirety of the internet to be able to better teach my students.  If you ever say something like, “she’s just a teacher,” I want you to remove yourself from this blog immediately. However, I digress.

What I hated about this email was that after looking at the website, I was under the assumption that self-published authors pay this site / publishing house / wannabe Netgalley.  Note to publishing houses: make your websites REALLY RIDICULOUSLY clear. Well, everyone, actually. On this website it said that reviewers could pay for a review of $289 for a review in 5 to 8 weeks, and for an extra $100 your review could be sent to you like an Amazon package from a Drone in 3-4 weeks.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 7.01.14 PMFirst off, when people pay for reviews, there’s this automatic expectation that that review will be positive.  For me, this eliminates the whole point in reviewing the book.  Slap five stars on that thing and call it a day. There’s no point in having an opinion when an opinion is forced down your throat.  Isn’t that why people leave the home of their parents, to open their minds and learn more about the world than just the ideas their parents instilled in them? COME ON.

The second part of this “paying for reviews” douchebaggery is that this company would be making money on my reviews. They are middle-manning book review culture.  They aren’t paying the small business blogger.  They are paying themselves, which in my book can be as heinous as witch craft and wizardry.  While this turned out to be untrue, they have “professional reviewers” review those books on various book database websites, but I’m still miffed.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 7.00.25 PMWhat exactly is a “professional reviewer” unless your some swanky old white man writing for the NY Times or some other well-established news magazine.  While yes, NY Times bestselling authors are often reviewed by the newspaper first, I know plenty of FANTASTIC reviewers that run their own outlet with crowds of followers who believe in the truth of their recommendations.  No wonder small business owners everywhere want to fight the man.  I feel a little bit like I have to defend my small section of the internet in this situation.  Don’t come to my suite and tell me you aren’t going to pay me, but you’re going to pay someone who doesn’t use “douchebaggery” as commentary on a book.

I can’t replace this mouth with someone who has a filter.

I really, really, hope that publishing is not drifting to this middle man mentality.  While I would love someone to pay me to be this person all day, I have a village to raise and innovators, entrepreneurs, and global citizens to help build.  Don’t try to finagle your way into my bliss without making it worth my while, and definitely don’t tell me at the end of the email that you plan to pay your best reviewers. How about you take a note from this teacher, “best” is not possible when you believe that everyone comes to the table with different and excellent skills, and everyone comes to the table to prove mastery in a new and engaging way, and everyone comes to the table expecting you to know their uniqueness makes them the best.

You can shove it.

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Salt Water and Leftovers

It took me almost a month to read this book. The odd part, for me as a reader at least, was that I didn’t pick up other books during my breaks on this one.  Island of a Thousand Mirrors is exceptionally hard to read.  Lovers are separated and have to watch the other turn to dust while a child stumbles in the belly of another.  Families are held together by a piece of yarn wrapped in tradition and expectations.  Culture, to the extent of the Parsley Massacre, is questioned in the burn of tires around ribs. The writing is so heartfelt, that the reader must handle each word one by one.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 5.09.40 PMIsland of a Thousand Mirrors is the story of the Sri Lankan Civil War.  I knew absolutely nothing about this when I began reading this book.  I even looked at the map and had no idea that Sri Lanka had ancient civilization ruins.  While my closest relationship to anything Sri Lankan was Nicki Minaj, reading this story made me want to hoard books on the island, and devour Nayomi Munaweera’s perfectly timed new novel.

So, of course, when you’re useless for knowledge, you Wikipedia (like it’s a verb).  I learned a lot of statistics about the war, but this book gave the stories of the people and one of the most eye opening moments in literature for me, when I read the inner voice of a Tamil suicide bomber.  Civil War short: the island had two deep-seeded cultures Sinhala and Tamil.  From what I’ve gathered from reading the book and doing a tidbit of research, the Tamil wanted to create an independent Tamil state (based possibly on Sinhala prejudice) and the leader of this revolution called the fighters, the Tigers.  Eventually, after twenty-five years and countless deaths, the Tamil Tigers were defeated by the Sinhala.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 5.15.36 PMI really liked Munaweera’s historical fiction of the Sri Lankan Civil War because it gave me both sides of the argument.  I wasn’t tied to either side of the fight because in her painful and deliberate words, I saw the desperate frustration from both cultures.  While there are two different family lines portrayed in the novel; one Sinhalese and one Tamil, both families suffered equally.  I was drawn more to the Sinhalese because the amount of story behind that family really spoke to me.  The Tamil family gave sons and daughters to the war effort and unspeakable atrocities happened to the female members of the family.  The Sinhalese family also suffered the loss of family members, and from neighborhood vigilanties no less.

I really, really, really, loved the beginning of this book.  The grandmother, who is clearly prejudice, on the Sinhalese size, fiercely protects the Tamil tenants living upstairs that have become almost inner circle to the Sinhalese.  She handles threats from the outside world.  Not only that, but the family house woman, although she never really speaks, is such a strong character. I find the most poignant writers can make characters that may not have a voice literally on the page, but have such a strong voice in the undoing of the novel.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 5.17.59 PMThis particularly grandmother is reminiscint of all strong grandmother figures in the lives of women outside of the US.  There’s something uniquely me about attaching to a grandmother figure.  I lost my grandmother when I was nineteen, and when I was eleven, she had a stroke that left her a ship anchored at sea with only the sound of “doe” in her mouth.  I have spent years trying to write her strength, her southern, her brick shit house onto the page, but it’s proven difficult.  My grandmother is almost too much woman for the page and Sylvia Sunethra is that dominant on a page as well.  These entire novel is built on female characters made of withered stone.  It is demandingly female, but that’s not to say that it is specific to that gender as a reader.  This book is true to the spirit of womanhood, no matter the culture, but readable.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 5.21.28 PMI feel like I’m almost doing this novel a disservice because it has been my favorite book in a very long time.  I recommend setting a month or two aside to take patience with this book, and kind of pull it apart at both ends.  It’s a difficult read and every few pages I had to stop and remind myself to take a breath.  The pain on the page can be overwhelming, but the story is worth being pigeonholed into sadness. I found so much mercy for these characters that are from such a different postal code than I am.  It’s such an important experience to read books about cultures that remove all of our pretenses and just give us hope and satisfaction.  I am emotionally drawn to Sri Lanka now and will forever scour the used bookstore for stories of this island built on history and salt water.

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Notable Quotables from The Moleskine

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 12.06.30 PMI finished My Name is Lucy Barton in a plane ride, however, I never got to share the brilliant little trinkets found in this one.

“When my great-uncle died, we moved into the house and we had hot water and a flush toilet, though in the winter the house was very cold.  Always, I have hated being cold.  There are elements that determine paths taken, and we can seldom find them or point to them accurately, but I have sometimes thought how I would stay late at school, where it was warm, just to be warm.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 12.08.23 PMThis quote spoke to me because as a teacher, I’m constantly trying to evaluate the motives of my students.  Why would that kid answer a phone call from work in the middle of class? Why does this child where pajama bottoms every single day? How is it that seventy-five percent of my new students this semester have moved more than three times in their life? It’s a part of worrying, I guess.  This quote from Lucy Barton means a lot to me because it’s such a simple reason.  She didn’t like being cold, so she stayed late at school and was able to get the tutoring or study time she needed to be successful in high school.  What a tiny thing that I keep for granted, that my house has heat and I can turn it on with a switch.

“Still, I loved him.  He asked what we ate when I was growing up.  I did not say, “Mostly molasses on bread.” I did say, “We had baked beans a lot.” And he said, “What did you do after that, all hang around and fart?” Then I understood I would never marry him.  It’s funny how one thing can make you realize something like that.  One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one’s past, or one’s clothes, but then — a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 12.09.54 PMThis. is. dating.  I had so many thoughts when I read this quote back again just now.  The thought that my mother, before dating my father, dated a man who was so selfish that he didn’t buy her Christmas presents, but refused to celebrate with her so she wouldn’t know.  He did however, buy himself everything he wanted, to the point where he was a bit of a hoarder.  When my ex-boyfriend decided to buy a video game, while he was jobless, and let his mother pay for my Christmas present, I realized how much I had repeated my own mother’s past in a new way.  This quote says all of that.  Those Oh, moments.  I think it’s safe to say that those tiny moments also inflate a relationship.  My boyfriend, who homemade me a Happy Birthday banner by cutting and stringing and coloring.  This man inflates the soul, he is an Oh moment with an exclamation point.

I highlighted and scribbled so many more quotes into my notebook, but maybe I’ll save those for another time when I’m reading a book that has very little beauty and I have to question why I’m reading it.

 

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What’s Your Story? | A Review of My Name is Lucy Barton

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 11.33.38 AMThe day I met my friend Ashley, she asked me “so what’s your story?” And really she wanted the story of how my boyfriend and I met so that she could squeal and tell me how she married her husband in only four months and ten days exactly after the ring.  It is a love story that’s on going in her life.  I liked her story because she was so proud of it.  It was the story she started with.  I think everyone has this story.  The story you start with in a conversation with an almost stranger, but someone you trust, for some unknown reason, just a little bit more.  These “stories you start with” have street appeal because they’re normally emotional (Hello, Humans of New York), but they also have a stir of secret to them as well.  Sometimes you’ll add a flourish of detail on a certain part, and other times you tell it straight, just the way your truth tells it.  There may be a new joke, the fifth time you’ve told it, or something you notice in that hazy memory that never appealed to the inner eye before.

“This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true.”

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I think Elizabeth Strout’s newest book My Name is Lucy Barton is just this kind of story.  It’s the story she starts with in her middle ages.  This might be true of the “stories you start with” also, that they become different in different stages of life.  I have always started with a story of my grandmother, I wear it on my sleeve like an army medallion and I weave her into each short story, or journal poem that I write.  I’ve always started with a clothesline in fiction, or a southern breeze, or a corn field.  Something about these things brings me closer to myself.  Now, I might start with the story of my mother.  I’ve grown up, I’m not “too far” away from my Grandmother, my mother has just become the figure that starts my story.  This is also true for Lucy Barton.

My Name is Lucy Barton is just what the title says.  It is the story of a hospital visit by a woman named Lucy Barton that weaves in her childhood, her angry sister, and hay-sick brother, her mother who she hasn’t seen in years since she moved to the big city and who now sits quietly in the dark waiting for Lucy to get well.  And her father, who is oddly silent as a character but looming like a cement statue in Lucy’s story.  I think it’s also her coming into her own story, the story of her children and husband and the future that she will have after this hospital visit and with the people who cared for her with gracious nicknames like Toothache.

Image @ Skinny Artist

I think this novel is so powerful because of its tender heart.  Usually, that’s meant to be said by some older southern woman in a full hat, “oh, bless her tender heart,” but I really mean it as a compliment here.  There’s something about this novel that is so gentle that it doesn’t need to be loud. It doesn’t need to contain more action than a hospital cot.  There is no need for Strout to yell where the emphasis should be.  I love this novel because it proves that great writing can be subtle.  We can be in one room with two half-broken characters full of longing and loneliness and it doesn’t kill us, and it doesn’t create a feeling of sadness, it’s just the story of a life.  The story that Lucy starts with.

For this, I believe that My Name is Lucy Barton is a pocket watch novel.  It has all these little turnings, working together to form one person who tells her own story with grace, subtle power, and conversationally.  Lucy Barton is an old friend who you’ve just met. She’s a neighbor who you don’t pass often enough but get an afternoon with.  She recounts her life not like a diary with all of that raw emotion, but through a telescope where its reflected differently on the other side.

I know Elizabeth Strout is good.  I’ve read every book she’s written except The Burgess Boys (which is on the list), but where I was expecting another drawn out tale of a woman on exploration, this isn’t that.  She’s gotten even better this round.   This is a novel written like poetry.  Strout has tasted each word and politely dabbed it onto the page.  It can be painfully moving, but it is exact.  There is something to say about using logic to bring emotion, and here is where Strout has mastered her art.

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