Monday, September 30, 2013

The Atrocities of Modern Warfare

In my quest for the perfect book to jumpstart my co-ed book club, I chose our local library's selection for The One Book, One Community "The Cellist of Sarajevo" by Steven Galloway.  Highly acclaimed by everyone from O Magazine to Yann Martel (author of "Life of Pi") as a moving novel about retaining humanity in the face of the inhumanities of war.

At first, I found it hard to connect to the monotone writing style of Steven Galloway, but I soon fell into the rhythmic wave of the mere quest for survival that each of the four main characters faces on a daily basis.  The monotone writing style showed how war strips every person of their personalities, how it rids cities of culture, art and libraries, how it makes people cower with fear.  I appreciated Galloway's strokes of genius throughout the novel as the four intersecting character's lives overlapped in a city destroyed by fear, shells, and snipers.  The loss of electricity, water, food, and safety of all those who decided to stay in their beloved Sarajevo either because they couldn't leave or didn't want to showed the devastation of war time.  How a once functional city could deteriorate.  How Dragan, who was a baker before the war started,  could risk his life to move the body of a stranger out of the street because the Sarajevo he loves would not allow for a man's dead body to be left in the middle of the street to be filmed by an opportunistic journalist.  But "every day the Sarajevo [Dragan] thinks he remembers slips away from him a little at a time, like water cupped in the palms of his hands, and when it's gone he wonders what will be left."

The new reality of Sarajevo during the siege (from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996, the longest city siege in modern warfare) is one where people who are starving are killed while waiting in line to buy bread, where people who are filling water containers to take home are attacked by mortar shells lose limbs and some are unlucky enough to lose their lives, where people need to fear for their lives while crossing the street because snipers wait for perfect shots in the hills that overlook the city playing target practice with innocent civilians, where some snipers have a heart and try to protect the innocent, where one man decides to pay homage to the 22 civilians who lost their lives while buying bread by playing his cello for 22 days in the town center defying the war torn land that is now their home.

"The Cellist of Sarajevo" focuses on the powerful struggle of humans to retain dignity in the face of war's atrocities, and how music can soothe the souls of a tormented city and offer hope for the future in the face of a bleak present.

I actually went back and reread the novel again (it's short enough to do that), and I immersed myself in the bleak world or war torn Sarajevo - the world of Arrow, Dragan, Kenan, the cellist, and the other faceless citizens that lived like rats scrounging to survive.  My biggest take away -  I am spoiled and lucky.  I have never faced hunger or deep loss, nor have I been in a constant state of fear for my life - that almost overrides my need for basic necessities.  I've always been able to provide for my daughters, and my life is rife with choices and an excess of fun.  The reality that Galloway paints in "The Cellist of Sarajevo" is a sobering view of modern war fare and the hopeful reminder of the power of the human spirit.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Big Story, Little Bee

Rule #1 about Little Bee Club: You Do Not Talk About "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave.  It even says this on the inside jacket cover, "We don't want to tell you what happens in this book.  It is truly a special story and we don't want to spoil it . . . Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it.  When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is how the story unfolds."

With that out of the way, I won't say much, other than I loved this book.  You should read this book.  I  read it in a day in huge greedy gulps because I wanted to see the magic unfold. When I needed to put the book down, I actually felt angry.  Chris Cleave astounded me with his ability to inhabit the minds of two very different female characters and make me believe in them; both Little Bee and Sarah made me think about life on different levels and plights in the world that I never really considered before, but now I have to know more.

Not only that, Cleave's style left me a bit breathless at times in both Sarah's and Little Bee's narration.  Here is just a little taste to draw you in if you need a little peek of the magic:
"What is an adventure? That depends on where you are starting from.  Little girls in your country, they hide in the gap between the washing machine and the refrigerator and make believe they are in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around them. Me and my sister, we used to hide in a gap in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around us, and make believe that we had a washing machine and a refrigerator. You live in a world of machines and you dream of things with beating hearts.  We dream of machines, because we see where beating hearts have left us."

That's all I can give you.  No context to this quotation, but just a taste of Cleave's magical storytelling.

So . . . without much information other than a glimpse at Chris Cleave's style, I strongly recommend that you become a part of Little Bee Club.  You won't be disappointed in Little Bee's big story.

Raising Our Spirited Story

Loki - Age 9 and Story - Age 4

Story screamed, she cried, she fussed, she threw red faced tantrums.  From the time she was born, my husband and I came up with unsavory names for our second daughter: The Fusser, The White Tornado, The Widow Maker, and The Iron Fisted Dictator (my husband, by the way, came up with that one). In all of Story’s baby pictures, her mouth is wide open and she is screaming in my face, my husband’s face or her big sister, Raina’s face.  I remember one evening after bath time when Raina held Story who, of course, was screaming and crying.  Raina’s tears plopped on Story’s Boppy.  When I asked her “What’s wrong, Rain?” She looked at me and said, “I think Story hates me.  She always cries when I hold her.”  I looked at Raina and said, “Honey, she doesn’t hate you, she cries for all of us.  This is the only way she has to communicate with us.”  Raina looked at Story and said, “Well, Mommy, she’s communicating that she’s mad at something all the time.  What can we do to make her stop?”

I wished in that moment that I could make Story less angry, and more of the happy baby I wanted her to be.  I didn’t want my house to be filled with crying.  We were joyful people who loved being together as a family, and I felt like we were letting both Raina and Story down. 

Our big blue eyed, alabaster skinned, white haired daughter who started talking at 6 months did more than break us, Story made us question ourselves as parents. We never questioned our parenting prowess with our first daughter, Raina.  As a baby, Raina only cried for specific reasons - she was tired, hungry, overstimulated, or scared.  Story cried all the time and only nursing would calm her rage.  People stopped me when I took Story on walks because of her anxious screams telling me, “It sounds like her finger’s pinched somewhere” or “The sun is really bothering her eyes” or “She just wants you to hold her.”  In the grocery store as I wrestled with Story, often times giving in and trying to hold her while I put my groceries on the conveyor belt and tried to bag them, people would say, “It sure looks like you have your hands full with that one.” I internally cringed at their judgement or need to give advice on how to parent my daughter, but somedays I felt like screaming louder than Story from my frustration. How could my funny, linguistically gifted baby be such a handful of emotional unease?   

As she grew into a toddler, Story’s frustrations didn’t subside as much as shift.  We found out that she is lactose intolerant, so removing dairy from her diet helped her explosive tummy, but didn’t quite quell her explosive personality.  My husband, who did the morning girl routine, often complained about Story’s inability to get dressed.  “She can’t even put her socks on without crying and fussing.  Putting her in pants is a nightmare,” he would tell me with a weary look on his face.  When I picked her up from preschool every afternoon, I could tell when my husband didn’t want to fight the Story dressing battle - allowing her to wear whatever she wanted as long as she was properly covered for school.  These outfits ranged from cowboy boots and pajamas to striped pants and brightly flowered shirts.  We shrugged our shoulders and hugged our beautiful little daughter and loved her through every quick shifting mood.  Every day, we made sure she had plenty of fresh air and a nice long bath - both of these things seemed to help, but we still struggled. 

Everything became a battle.  After school time meant red faced screaming bouts until after dinner.  At dinner, we battled Story to eat anything other than noodles and strawberries.  Any transition into a new activity could lead to ferocious yelling and crying.  I finally knew I had to change something after telling yet another person who asked “How are your girls?” my broken record response, “Story is wild.” I knew I reached a breaking point while I told my friend, Cari that I didn’t always enjoy being Story’s mom.  “I love her, but it is so hard with her,” I said as my chin got wobbly and I willed myself not to cry.  

After that conversation I remembered an article that I had read when Story was only 18 months old from a free doctor’s office magazine.  The article described life with “a spirited child.”  I remembered feeling relief that I wasn’t alone after reading that article, and this summer I decided to research more about “spirited children.”  I found Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book “Raising Your Spirited Child” and read the entire book and annotated it in just one day.  I felt that finally I had tools to deal with Story - that she was normal, just MORE normal than other kids.  Story is always the loudest in a room, she always takes the longest when we need to leave the house, she gets fixated on one thing and trying to unlock her from that activity feels like trying to pry open a stuck lid, and she is so sensitive to noises, smells, sounds and textures like scratchy clothing that getting dressed can take 45 minutes in the morning.  Intense and persistent are two words we use to describe her now (which are way better than fussy and The Iron Fisted Dictator). 

Kurcinka’s book helped me to understand that 10% of children can be labeled “Spirited” and Story scores off the chart in every category associated with spiritedness.  The biggest part of Kurcinka’s book that helped me was her advice that we did not make our child spirited, but we need to help Story learn how to cope with her temperament without fighting who she is.  Why would I want to take away her intensity for life, her ability to fill up a room with her presence, her creative way of seeing her world, her ability to fixate on a task until she believes it is finished, or her keen sense of fashion.  At 4 years old, I recognize that Story is as unique and amazing as her name.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Modern Twist on Gothic Romance

The Time Between by Karen White
This novel brought me back to my senior year of high school.  I chose Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for my extended literary analysis research paper.  Truth be told, I only selected Rebecca because my first name is Rebecca.  Dumb reason, right? I'm sure many people have chosen books for far worse reasons.  I ended up liking the melodrama of Rebecca, but I ultimately disappointed my English teacher because I didn't want to focus on the gothic romance aspect of it for my research paper.  She looked at me through haughty eyes, and hacked a smoker's cough and said, "How can you not focus on the gothic romance of Rebecca?" I didn't take her hint, but I am one who learns from her mistakes.  So . .  Miss Adams, this blog is dedicated to you and the gothic romance aspect of Karen White's The Time Between.  

Before I patch up the past with my 12th grade English teacher,  I want to comment on the overall book. Although Karen White writes prolifically, The Time Between is my first foray into her work.  I love the titles of her books: Falling Home, The Lost Hours, The Memory of Water, Learning to Breathe, The Color of Light, just to name a few.  When I write my book, I hope I am half as capable to come up with a catchy title. Just like her catchy titles, White's writing captivated me from the very first sentence of the book when Eleanor thinks, "The first time I died was the summer I turned seventeen . . . Blood sat like melted coper in my open mouth as I rose above my broken body, splayed like a rag doll beside the dirt road." What's not to love about that opening?  Her narrative of Eleanor and Eve's troubled sisterhood derived from years of compounded guilt, a home grief ridden by the death of their father, and a rivalry over Eve's rather bland husband, Glen, unfolded like a mystery.  The bigger narrative revolved around the dying old woman, Helena's,  secretive past and her sister Bernadette's mysterious death.  Eleanor's handsome boss believes that she alone can help Helena crawl back from the brink of death by providing her companionship. And on the side he wants her to become a nanny of sorts to his precocious cancer surviving daughter, Gigi.  And, what he really wants is to get closer to her.  Dun, Dun, Dun.

I liked this book and I didn't like it.  The constant switch of female narration got wearisome.  There is a certain mystery that a first person narrative provides.  I don't always need to know what the other characters are thinking all the time, and that parallels how life goes.  Thankfully, I am not inside of other people's heads; I live only through my own experiences, what I think and what other people around me say and do.  The addition of Eve and Helena's 1st person narrative perspective muddied this book for me.  I knew too much too quickly, and all the female narrators sounded and thought the same.  And . . . most people don't think and especially don't talk the way these women do - so many realizations in so little time.  So many deep and poetic conversations . . . it started to feel more soap opera-ish to me as I progressed through the book.  I could almost see the camera angles and hear the dramatic music (probably Chopin) in the background.

Let's get back to the gothic romance aspect of the novel, and me trying to make amends for my 12th grade research paper.  Here is the definition of Gothic Romance from Infoplease (maybe not the best source, sorry Miss Adams, but it helps me make my point): "these novels usually concern spirited young women, either governesses or new brides, who go to live in large gloomy mansions populated by peculiar servants and precocious children and presided over by darkly handsome men with mysterious pasts."

  • Spirited young women (check)
  • Governess and new bride (check)
  • Go to live in a large gloomy mansion (check)
  • Populated by peculiar servants (kind of check, she likes to bake - does that count?)
  • Precocious children (check) 
  • Darkly handsome man with mysterious past (check)

I guess that says it all.  The big difference for The Time Between is that White updated the situations and setting (kind of - I was actually surprised when Eleanor said she didn't have a cell phone early on in the book, because I really thought the setting was late 1800s to the early 1900s). The Gothic Romance vibe was all over the place, though - hidden letters, expensive artwork in shabby frames, baskets containing the past, Gullah woman prophets who weave patterns that all have significance, a young, lonely boy who fell in love with the piano emanating from the neighboring house, rich old ladies who live with the curtains drawn on their Hungarian past, the setting on a beautiful (but mosquito riddled) island, and a willful woman who sneaks around the house wanting to creep into the dark corners of the truth. 

Quick ending note: So far from the 4 of Oprah's "6 Sizzling New Beach Reads" I've read, I haven't really LOVE loved any of them.  I kinda liked all of them (The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams, The Yonahlossee Riding Club for Girls by Anton Disclafani, and The Time Between by Karen White), but I am ready to really fall in love with a book (it is close to fall, and I am ready for it).  I'm not sure if I will follow through with the last two on the list (abandon Sizzling New Beach Read ship before summer really is over!). 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Coming Clean: A Memoir

Dirty Secrets Exposed

Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller 

"What shames us, what we most fear to tell, does not set us apart from others; it binds us together if only we can take the risk to speak it." - Starhawk

When I taught Creative Writing for 10 years, my students always struggled with what they should write.  I often gave the advice, "Write what makes you feel like you are swallowing glass." These are the stories that we hide, the essence of who we are, how we have become who we are.  Sometimes (and more often than not) these are the ugly truths of our existence that we draw the blinds on, shove under our beds or even rip out of our journals for fear of being found out.  The odd thing about these "glass swallowing stories" are the ones that others need to hear to, just as the quote at the beginning of Kimberly Rae Miller's memoir Coming Clean says, bind us together.  Taking the risk to speak these truths or even more write them down for others to read takes bravery.  Kimberly Rae Miller's memoir showcases her courage and her devout love for her parents.

Miller's father is a hoarder.  She lets us into this dirty little secret (which is actually a dirty, big problem) in the first chapter via the nightmares she suffers from in her adult life because of the way she was raised in a hoarder's pile infested house.  Her mother makes excuses, is plagued by medical issues, and provides Kim with much needed love and fights for her daughter to live some semblance of a normal life beyond the stacks of papers, unopened boxes, and rotten food in her home.

I loved this book (HOORAY!), and I finished it in a day.  I gaped in horror at Kim's descriptions of the house when it was at its worse (flea infestation, animal feces on the carpets, doors that could not be open, unusable kitchen, no running water), and I cried as she nursed her mother to health, and stood by her parents even when they were unable to stand up for themselves.  I cringed when Kim's face burned with shame as she employed the help of friends and even her friend's parents to help dig her parents out when they were moving.

Somehow she emerged from the filth and the bugs and the stacks, and she emerged into a successful, professional woman who has blossomed into a blogging icon who comments on fitness and body image, and as a writer of truth.

What I loved the most about this book was Kim's loyalty to her parents and her furious love for them.  She says, "I do not hate [my mother] or my father.  Sure, I remember the dirt and the rats and squalor, but I also remember parents who loved me.  Doting, fallible people who gave me everything they had, and a whole lot more." The massiveness of the "more" could confound anyone who has never loved a hoarder or had a hoarder as a family member, neighbor, or friend.  Miller uncovers hoarding and those the disorder smothers in this touching memoir about family bonds and growing up despite the dirty, big secrets behind closed doors and drawn curtains.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Not Very Interestings

The Interestings: A Novel

I think I need a break from beach books. Or maybe its books that take place at summer camp.  

I'm actually excited that I am out of the prison of Meg Wolitzer's world of The Interestings.  Every character (besides Dennis) is so flawed and messed up, I just wanted the murky world and the "drama of the gifted child" experience to be over.  And now it is, so I can complain about it a bit.

First, I need to focus on some of the positives.  Meg Wolitzer is a brilliant writer in so many ways.  I am still thinking about the complexities and time span of The Interestings.  She took each of the characters from their awkward teenage years at Spirit-in-the-Woods art camp into their 50s.  She spanned decades worth of social issues - from HIV to 9/11, from the technology age to the Moonies, from women's lib to depression.  That takes talent.  It also takes talent to uncover the ugliness of human beings - the drive for creativity, friendship, acceptance, a life passion, money, love - Wolitzer touches on each of these themes and shows that even the best of friends and best of marriages can have messy patches.  I loved that the characters change and make huge life realizations as they grow older (even if at times it seemed a little too tidy). Jules, for instance,  realizes (after a life riddled with jealousy and a need to be interesting), "you didn't have to marry your soulmate, and you didn't even have to marry an Interesting.  You didn't always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation.  You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting."

On the flip side of the realizations and the expansiveness of this novel, I wanted to LIKE Wolitzer's  characters (so I could actually care about them), but I didn't.   I did not like Jules.  I did not like Ash.  I certainly didn't like Goodman.  I kind of liked Jonah, although his cool detachment to life left me wanting to know him (which I think is the point, but I didn't really care about his tormented past).  I liked Ethan until he became a dad and then I just felt sorry for him being madly in love with Jules his whole life even though his own wife and family were so awesome.

That left me with Dennis - boring, run of the mill, lab tech, solid, depressed Dennis.  He was the most interesting because he wasn't part of The Interestings.  His averageness (in Jules' eyes) made him the most noble of the characters.  Even in his deepest depression, he managed to be a stay at home dad and care for Rory and raise her to be a confident, active woman.

I read reviews on, because I wanted to know why so many people loved this book and why picked it as the best book of April 2013, and as one of the best books so far in 2013.  When I hear those sorts of accolades, I want the book to be amazing . . . or interesting.  Instead, I felt empty while reading this book, and disconnected and sad for the jealousy that so many people dwell on in their lives rather than enjoying the lives they are living.  It took me a long time to get through The Interestings, which is another tell tale sign that I wasn't as interested or invested as I needed to be to fall in love with it.

I got the whole idea that life comes in waves of awesome and not so awesome.  There are times when life truly sucks and each of the four main characters suffers through something at some point.
Wolitzer's The Interestings made me think about the complexities of human relationships and human drive, but overall, I wanted more.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Young Adult Book Recommendations

My current and not so oversized YA bookshelf

Young Adult Bookshelf

I stocked my oversized bookshelf in my classroom with hundreds of books.  My classroom library motivated so many students to pick up great books and I feel so proud of how many teenagers I edged back to reading.  Yes, the sad fact is that by the time students reach 10th and 11th grade, reading is only something some of them do at the beach, and MAYBE when they are forced to read assigned classics.  I can't tell you how many times I heard students say, "Reading is boring" and I would feel a little gasp leave my lips, and I'd try not to get completely defensive and indignant.  My best defense to the teenager reading malaise was to educate myself about Young Adult literature and stock my shelves with as many books as I could.  Having the books wasn't enough.  I had to put them in the hands of my students, read excerpts, recommend really great ones, have pronounced featured books and have other students recommend books to classmates.  Three times a year, I made sure that discussing student selected books was a priority and I held "Literary Teas" where we drank tea (supplied by me), ate healthy (and let's be honest not so healthy) treats, and we chatted about books that we loved.  Having these Literary Teas became a place where students breathed a sigh of relief from the hectic school routine and ENJOYED talking about and being surrounded by books.  Hearing a classmate rave about a book helped others want to read it, too.

When I resigned from my teaching job in May after 15 years as a high school English teacher, I felt the full impact the day I removed my oversized bookshelf and moved it to my best friend, Cari's classroom.  I didn't want to cry in front of my students, but couldn't help as the tears trickled from the corner of my eyes.  I inspired so many students to pick up a book - students who confessed that they NEVER read an assigned book, and students who NEVER made time to read at home, and students who NEVER liked reading.

I left many of the books for my best friend to continue lending books to students, but some of the books I brought home to create my own YA library for my daughter, Raina (who is now 8 and a voracious reader . . . she read three books yesterday!), to enjoy when she is older.

For teachers who want to find great books their students will love, or for lovers of YA fiction, or for parents who want to find a book their teenager will enjoy, or for anyone looking for great book, here are some of my favorites from the past 15 years as an English teacher:

Looking for Alaska by John Green
I did like The Fault in Our Stars (Green's latest critically acclaimed YA novel that is going to be made into a movie, see my blog entry about it), but Looking for Alaska is still my favorite Green novel.  The characters, the boarding school setting, the conversations, thoughts about life and love will captivate teenage girls or boys.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
What's not to love about a book narrated by Death? I didn't want this book to end, and as long as students stick with it through the first 50 pages where the back story of The Book Thief gets set up, they can't help but fall in love with the characters, and feel sad during the WWII era where persecution, poverty, and suffering were prevalent. I hear that this book also will be made into a movie this year.  I also really like his book I am The Messenger which retains Zusak's edible style (so many great lines, that I would like to eat them), but I am the Messenger is less sweeping than The Book Thief.  The originality of the story line will hook students, though.

The Maze Runner Trilogy by James Dashner
To be honest, I only really liked the first book in the trilogy, but I was intrigued enough by the world Dashner created to read all three books.  This series works particularly well with students who really liked The Hunger Games, and want another trilogy to keep them reading.  This is another series that puts teenagers in a horrible situation that they cannot control, but need to work to survive or perish with the impossible odds.  This series is slated to become a movie in 2014.

Divergent by Veronica Roth
The last installment of the Divergent triology, Allegiant,  is coming out October 22nd 2013 and Divergent the movie is being released Spring 2014.  Teenage girls love this series.  If you know a teenage girl who loved The Hunger Games or Twilight, she will love the Divergent series.  It follows Tris and her harrowing initiation adventures in Dauntless, the fearless faction of her futuristic society.  Girls will drool over Four and his magnetic connection to Tris.  They will gasp at the daredevil antics of Dauntless members, and they will feel deeply over family connections lost and gained in a world of separation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I know this has already been a movie (not that I am only trying to recommend books that are becoming or have already been made into movies), but it's worth a mention to students - especially reluctant readers because it is short, and it is written in letter format.  The narrator, Charlie, is a very memorable character.  About six years ago I had to buy 3 extra copies of this book because I had so many students who wanted to read it.  Then, when the movie came out last year, there was a resurgence of interest.

Any book by Sarah Dessen
Okay, so Sarah Dessen is a total chick lit author, BUT girls LOVE HER BOOKS.  The great thing about getting a student hooked on a Sarah Dessen book - if she likes one, she most likely will love all of them and there are a bunch.  Dessen's writing has not been as critically acclaimed as other YA writers, but her book Dreamland did receive some attention due to the subject matter - an abusive relationship.  My favorite of all of her books is The Truth About Forever.  I think it's because I liked the main character Macy so much.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
This book certainly raises questions about suicide, motivation of teenagers, and relationships.  This is another book that was hard for me to keep on my shelf.  As soon as one student read it, another would check it out and read it in a matter of days. The story of why Hannah committed suicide draws readers in and doesn't really let them go until the very last page. Although I would consider this more of a girl book, boys seem to like it just as much.  In this same genre, students who liked Thirteen Reasons Why also really liked the book Hold Still by Nina LaCour.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Truth- I read this book in a few hours and cried throughout the reading.  Something about Forman's writing sucked me right in to the moral dilemmas of her characters. I thought about my own family and how much they mean to me and I tried answering the question "What would I do if I had to choose?" between the pain of living with such a huge loss or letting go.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Many girls already know Stiefvater's writing because of her Shiver trilogy (about werewolves). I loved The Scorpio Races because it felt like reading a mythical tale, but the main character Puck adds realism and determination to a not very typical horse story.

I miss recommending books to students.  I felt like my own little in my classroom (Customers who purchased this book also purchased these books . . . ).  My biggest recommendation for any teacher or student or parent . . . KEEP READING.  When others see your enthusiasm for what you are reading, they tend to want to know what the fuss is all about and they may surprise you when they come in the next day with the same book you were reading tucked under their arm.