Wednesday, June 26, 2013


I should have listened to my mother.

My mom isn't much of an advice giver, but she has given me two very valuable life lessons:
1) Whenever life gets rocky or uncertain, or if you and your spouse are at each other, go on vacation.  Even a quick getaway can restore love and harmony in a marriage or family.
2) Do not read Dan Brown's Inferno.

When Eric and I told my mom that our first "Eric's out of town often and we are going to stay connected through choosing mutual books" book club selection was Inferno by Dan Brown, she looked almost stricken shaking her head no, trying to give us warnings of going into a forbidden land of horrible literature like the talking skull and bones in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride that says, "Dead men tell no tales" right before the big drop.  Even after the subject had changed to the Orioles and then to our home garden, she continually brought it up, "Really, that book is so bad.  Really bad. Don't read it." This is coming from my mom who reads EVERYTHING.  She loves Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Jeanette Walls, Sue Monk Kidd, thrillers, mysteries, chick lit, memoirs, Pulitzer Prize winners . . . you name it, she reads it.

She was right about Dan Brown's latest installment of the Robert Langdon thrillers.  Although I was looking forward to having a action packed, page turner after my memoir bender in May and the beginning of June, I can't believe Dan Brown can write a book this bad.  I mean really bad.  I mean if I had not paid the $12.99 to download the book from onto my iPad, I would have stopped reading it after the first ridiculously bad 50 pages.  I mean, really when I hear people talk about this book even being remotely good, I want to throw a tantrum about it because the narrative was thin, the characters were ridiculous, even the information about Dante's Inferno was the elementary school version of it.  I turned the pages quickly because I really just wanted to finish it to move on to another book.  Unlike The Da Vinci Code which spurred questions about religion and history and made me want to research Da Vinci, this book made me feel stupid.  The watered down version of the population crisis (which was the only real interesting part of the book which reminded me of the research I did for the Summer Academic Enrichment Program at McDaniel College for the DC Success Foundation students which centered on environmental disasters.  One topic we decided to avoid was the population crisis because the problem is so vast we didn't want to depress all the students) and the oversimplified villain, the shapeshifter ally, the constructed shooting, the death mask with written clues, the man following them with the horrible rash / plague . . . . every detail felt contrived and predictable, and the twists and turns of the plot were just plain dumb.

Please, listen to my mother and don't read this book.  If you haven't read a Dan Brown book yet, read The DaVinci Code or Angels & Demons, but stay away from what my husband affectionately calls Dumbferno.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Memoir Bender

The Pacific Crest Trail (from Wild by Cheryl Strayed - my favorite of all the memoirs I read on my bender

Before I handed in my resignation letter (which is the teaching world's nice way of saying quitting letter, but who wants to be a quitter, right?) I went on a reading bender.  I felt a bit like an addict with my drug of choice being memoirs.  I wanted to shoot up at every chance I got.  I escaped into the stories of women dealing with life.  We all deal with it differently, but some have more to deal with and they write about it for people like me to feel better about their own not so tragic life stories. 

I am thankful for the strong women who wrote the following memoirs that showed me a way into my own dark places while I tried to sort life out before resigning from my 15 year English teacher profession:
*This beautiful memoir moved me (not to mention Ruta's edible writing style that left me breathless).  Domenica's struggle to grow and evolve despite her mother and because of her mother made me think of the power of our own will.  I was devastated with her as her mother neglected her and loved her the best she could. When Ruta slid into addiction, I found myself trying to tug her out of her abyss, and in a way helped myself know that the changes coming in my life were not a way down the rabbit hole, but a way back to a new sense of reality in my life.

*I heard Christina Parravani on NPR on the way home from work one day reading from Her.  Terry Gross asked her about the rape scene.  Parravani describes the rape of her twin sister in great terrifying detail.  She took parts of her sister's journals to reconstruct the whole, violent scene. She utilizes an almost dream sequence approach to the moment that changes her sister forever.  I was moved by the relationship between the sisters and how sometimes love cannot save the people we hold most dear. After reading this story, I realized how beautiful our connections with the people closest to us are, and how they are there to be our support system in our darkest times.

*I'm not surprised to find out that Yuknavitch is a Ken Kesey disciple and in the same writing group as Chuck Palahniuk.  As it said on, "this is not your mother's memoir." Yuknavitch's style surprised me, punched me in the face and ultimately made me love her and her story of finding her identity and voice.  I loved learning about Yuknavitch's journey and how took an unconventional approach to writing, her life path and love, but she found so much success. This inspired me.

*I tore through this memoir and didn't want it to end.  I loved every second of Cheryl's Pacific Crest Trail harrowing hike.  It made me remember my own days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail and finding myself in those rocky, breathless ascents and descents.  I loved her style, her story, and her ultimate victory over nature and herself.  I never wanted this book to end, because it taught me how when we make up our minds to do the impossible, we can achieve it. Even when Strayed doubted her hiking and camping abilities, she never questioned her will to survive and achieve her goal of finishing the trail.

Then, I hit a road block.  After Wild, I requested Paul Auster's book Winter Journal thinking I would keep the momentum of my memoir bender flowing.  My high came to an end with his deadening voiceless, chapterless, 2nd person memoir.  Yuck.  I read the first 20 pages and gave up.  

Sad to see my streak was over, I searched for a new book - maybe fiction this time, to occupy my brain as my teachinig world was being stripped around me.  I started packing away my classroom, and each day I removed 1 or 2 bags of books as I walked to my car.  My classroom got lighter, as my home office/ guest room got heavier.  The weight of the books reminded me of the heavy loads I carried on my shoulders for the 15 years I was in the classroom. My students' home lives, my curriculum, my department's ineptitude at getting along, the sneers from across the hallway, the daily 3pm exhaustion of talking all day long - so much energy required to motivate 100 teenages to love reading and writing every single day.  

And I had an idea that I needed something funny like David Sedaris's new book of essays, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls.  I love Sedaris and even had the chance to see him at a theater in York, PA shocked that his following in this area is so huge for a sell out crowd.  I laughed so hard that night as he unassumingly read from his new book and from his journals (diaries).  I liked Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, but didn't love it as much as Me Talk Pretty One Day which made me laugh so hard on the train ride to NYC that people around me asked what was so funny.

Switching from the humorous, I went right for something that sounded somewhat sad, but looked really good (it reminded me of Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom which my 11th graders almost always choose as one of their favorite books of all time). I found the book The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe which recounts his mother's battle with pancreatic cancer and the books he and she read together during that year. I loved his adept ability to apply the book themes to what was happening with his mother's treatment. I loved learning about his mother and what an incredible person she was, and I loved their tender relationship.  

I searched for something new to get me through the very last week of school and I found a final memoir escape for my last few days in my empty classroom. The last week of school brought an abundance of rain. The deluge felt like monsoon season. It rained steadily even moving graduation into the gym. On my last day surrounded by empty shelves, empty desks, empty closets and an echoing white walled no personality room, I loved that when I got home that day, I could travel to Paris by reading Eloisa James's memoir, Paris in Love. I read the reviews for this and some people compared it to eating chocolate - a beautiful addiction of sweetness. For me it was more of a light snack, told in her Facebook posts during her year living in Paris, this book gave me small inspiration bursts of life in one of my favorite cities in the world. I could see James walking the streets of Paris loving it - feeling at once an outsider and an insider. The style she chose of the short Facebook posts followed by longer essay like chapters helped me in my focus-less state while I tried to sort out the stacks of books now inhabiting my guest bedroom and clogging the already cluttered laundry room in our basement. 

Around this time, as Eric and I sat down to figure out his new travel schedule for work, we decided that we would engage in our own sort of book club. Each month when he traveled out of town we would select a book to read together that we could write about and blog about, kind of like a he said / she said discussion on our views. We chose a few of the classics that I haven't read already: 
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Night by Elie Wiesel

And, we settled on reading something completely different for the first selection: Dan Brown's latest installment of Robert Langdon's Raiders of the Lost Arc-ish approach to art history and symbology, Inferno. We chose this one because it is topping the best seller lists, and both of us read a few of Brown's other books. Eric and I had some great discussions as we read The Da Vinci Code. I went on to read Angels and Demons, and Eric read The Lost Symbol. Although Brown's books are not my favorite, sometimes I like to step down from my literary ivory tower and read what the masses read.  

Stepping away from real life in my favorite genre of books, memoirs, sometimes is hard for me, but I was ready to delve into the world of Robert Langdon again. I checked the reviews before I started and was pleased to see that out of the over 4,000 people who read the book so far, few were giving this book bad reviews. That is until I talked to my mom about Eric and I starting an "Eric is out of town and we want to stay connected through literature" book club and that our first selection was Brown's Inferno. She shook her head and mouthed the words "you'll hate it" to me. I grimaced, but told her that I had to wait and see because Eric was leaving the next day and I had already purchased it to read on my iPad, my first ever ebook.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Walking into the storm

Maybe we are crazy to take this gigantic leap now while every report for the economy stresses the severity of the financial situation for the world.  I had job security, and I had a job where I inspired people.  I had a job that I loved for so many reasons.  I tell people, "There were 1,000,000 reasons to stay and 1,000,001 to go" and so I chose to go. And I say "we" because my husband and I are both in agreement that this huge life shift  - leaving my solid high school teacher profession (where I spent the last 15 years of my life) - was the right move for him, me and our two girls.

I guess from an outside perspective it seems ridiculous to leave a teaching job.  Teachers make good money by my local median salary projections.  It is one of the few professions remaining that actually has a pension, and some sort of safety when you retire.  I have my summers off.  I have vacations when my kids have vacations.  I get to use creativity, and see people every day. And even more I get to inspire people every day.

The other big thing to know about teaching is that the students are not the problem.  Ever.  I think over the last 15 years of my English teaching profession, when I tell someone what I do, they usually make a strange face like they just ate something sour, and then they say, "Wow. Better you than me." People believe teaching teenagers must be the equivalent of Oedipus gouging out his eyes with the bed curtain pins over and over again.  Most people can't fathom the life of a high school English teacher just like I cannot fathom being a chemical engineer.  The difference, though, is that everyone seems to have opinions about education in the United States even if they could never really understand what a day, week or year in the classroom is really like.  And, just like it would be incredibly hard for a chemical engineer to describe her job to someone, I don't really want to spend this entire opening of this blog about books describing my job to you.  I really want to discuss books.

I created my identity around books. I hide in books, I search in books.  They protect me sometimes, too.  Like when I lived in London, I never really left my flat on Turnpike Lane without a book tucked safely under my arm.  It was more important to me than my wallet or my umbrella (which I know my friend Cari would never understand since she thinks I have an OCD about having my umbrella with me everywhere.  So sue me; I don't like drizzle (my four year old calls it dribble) on my head, or mist, or rain or precipitation of any kind.  Maybe the occasional snowflake is fine, but once it starts to really snow, no thank you.  Yesterday, though, my daughter Story and I were at the grocery store and the skies opened and dumped water in this terrific end of spring downpour.  It was comical, really.  All these shoppers looking out into the rain with forlorn expressions on their faces, their full carts and plastic bags overflowing with groceries blowing in the wind gusts, getting dusted with the rain mist. I watched in awe as the rain blew sideways under the overhang of Giant.  One mom kept telling her 2 year old to stop making noises, as if any of us waiting for the rain to subside cared about her daughter listening as her voice echoed on the concrete walls.  Story, my 4 year old, and I looked at each other and the pouring rain.  I asked, "Well, honey. What do you think?"  She looked at me with serious eyes and tilted her head a little and said, "We got this, Mommy."  So I just walked right into it, not even a run, but a gentle walk.  I gave Story a reusable bag to stick over her head like a little platform, but the rain was on all sides, not just coming from above and the puddles in the parking lot were sucking my flip flops almost making it like I was floating over the water - hydroplaning over the asphalt.  Story started to cry and said, "The thing is, Mommy, that I am getting really wet.  Everywhere!" I could see the panic in her eyes, and hurry into more of a trot.  We made it to the car and I shoved Story in the back as I struggled with our reusable bags which were full of sopping wet groceries.  My kiwis were swimming in their container and the pasta box holding angel hair was collapsing spilling noodles in the bottom of the bag. But somehow even with my daughter red faced and wailing and the rain all around me, I smiled and laughed thinking the whole situation funny.  With my white t-shirt stuck to me, my hair slicked, my mascara in my eyes and hardly making it to the cart return as more rain dumped on me, I peeked back at the onlookers - those afraid of walking into the storm watching me and checking their phones.  The other shoppers with their freshly bagged groceries stood looking helpless and lost, like the rain was somehow stopping their day, their lives at a halt.  I walked right into it.  And I know that sounds ridiculous, like my walking into the downpour was a rebellion, but sometimes we just have to walk in the rain, even when it stops others.

Which brings me back to my reason for starting this blog - books.  And the reason for leaving teaching -  because I loved teaching, but I didn't love it all at the same time.  I felt like I was in an odd prison surrounded by books I never had time to read while I always encouragemy students to read and check out my books.  I was buried by the weight of paper and odd slow demise of logging grades and attending meeting after meeting where I was supposedly developed into a new version of a teacher that I didn't want to be.  Whatever the state wants.  Whatever the administration wants.  Whatever the package they bought or the latest principal objective.  And I didn't want to spend another year by the frantic pace of the school calendar.  I couldn't experience another choking Sunday night with hours of grading, my head bent over a stack of research papers that I didn't have time or energy to grade. These reasons led me to walk right into the storm of the unknown.  The little voice inside my head sounded just like Story's little voice, "We got this, Mommy" and even if I cried a bit at the fear, I know that even when the rain gets hard and dumps on me, I have a warm towel waiting for me, and the rain will eventually subside.

As much as I loved teaching, my first real love in life was books. Then, my second love was writing.  My third (and truest) is my husband, and then the two newest loves of my life - my daughters Raina and Story.

And this summer I want to focus on all these loves of mine, and I want to create a habit of writing about them.

I read voraciously, and I love to write about what I read and recommend the good stuff and warn against the bad stuff.

In my high reading cycles, I read about one book a week, and will post a blog about each book.  I also will return to some of my favorite highlights of my reading year.  During my last year of teaching I read some incredible (and not so incredible) books and I can't wait to share my thoughts with the audience.