Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere

I finished The Sky is Everywhere the same day I started it. I stayed up late Monday night finishing Mockingbird and read The Sky is Everywhere all of Tuesday, all 275 pages of it. I cried a lot, and I laughed more than I might have expected to laugh, but mostly I nodded. Jandy Nelson knows from grief.

You find out on the first page, in the second sentence, that the narrator of this novel has lost her sister. The first sentence is, "Gram is worried about me." The second sentence is, "It's not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn't contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I think about is sex." So you can tell how this book is about grief, but it's also about more than that. Even if you didn't feel like reading a book about death and loss, you might have a hard time putting this one down.

And life is never all about one thing, as Lennie (the narrator) is learning. You don't just grieve. Life goes on, full of everything it's full of. It's sad and also happy and then when you've lost someone you fill guilty about being happy because she's dead, but you can't help it, you're happy anyway.

Lennie is grieving her sister but she's also falling in love for the first time. Which is not convenient, but when are these things ever convenient?

But Lennie asks her sister's boyfriend, the only person who understands this loss and this grief in a similar way, if he feels more alive since... "I'm afraid to ask this, like I'm revealing something shameful, but I want to know if he feels it too.

"He doesn't hesitate. 'I feel more everything since.'"

And Lennie doesn't say this then, but she observes it later, trying to explain how she feels to Joe: "'Now I'm someone who knows the worst thing can happen at any time.'" She thinks about what she's just said: "...I know now how close death is. How it lurks. And who wants to know that? Who wants to know we are just one carefree breath away from the end?"

He says, "'But if you're someone who knows the worst thing can happen at any time, aren't you also someone who knows the best thing can happen at any time, too?'"

And it isn't coincidence that the guy who says this to her is the guy she's falling in love with, who's falling in love with her.

Which is how it happens. Grief and joy mix up together and that's just how it is. Lennie thinks: "My sister will die over and over again for the rest of my life. Grief is forever. It doesn't go away; it becomes part of you, step for step, breath for breath. I will never stop grieving Bailey because I will never stop loving her. That's just how it is. Grief and love are conjoined, you don't get one without the other. All I can do is love her, and love the world, emulate her by living with daring and spirit and joy."

And she tells her sister later, "I can't stand that you're going to miss so much."


"I drop on my back, panting and sweating. How will I survive this missing? How do others do it? People die all the time. Every day. Every hour. There are families all over the world staring at beds that are no longer slept in, shoes that are no longer worn. Families that no longer have to buy a particular cereal, a kind of shampoo. There are people everywhere standing in line at the movies, buying curtains, walking dogs, while inside, their hearts are ripping to shreds. For years. For their whole lives. I don't believe time heals. I don't want it to. If I heal, doesn't that mean I've accepted the world without her?"

I'm quoting out the sad parts mostly, the parts that made me cry so hard I had to stop reading. But there is so much to this book. And it works like grief does: you cry, you grieve, and you learn. It maybe doesn't get easier, but you figure out how to manage it, how to live in it, and weirdly you figure out, maybe for the first time, how to be grateful for how much you have.

It made me miss my dad, remember how that felt at first and compare it with how it feels now. It also made me so grateful for my sister. Some of Lennie's grief is about she isn't a sister anymore, and she's always been a sister. I am so lucky and grateful to be a sister.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere (Part 1)

Such an accurate description of the way grief and loss will shock you into deep sorrow, over and over:

"This boy beaming before me, however, seems to glow in a class all his own. He must be from a very friendly part of the Milky Way, I'm thinking as I try to tone down this nutso smile on my face, but instead almost blurt out to Sarah, 'He looks like Heathcliff,' because I just realized he does, well, except for the happy smiling part--but then all of a sudden the breath is kicked out of me and I'm shoved onto the cold concrete floor of my life now, because I remember I can't run home after school and tell Bails about a new boy in band."

I will have more to say about this book. But that's on page 9, Lennie's just gone back to school after her sister died. So right on. So what it's like. And the voice is totally true.


I have read three books this year with titles related to mockingbirds: Mockingjay, The Mockingbirds, and Mockingbird, which I stayed up too late last night reading so I could finish it in one sitting. None of these three books could have been called anything else--well, they could have been, but I do think these are the perfect titles for each book.

I can't imagine three more different books coming so close to the same title, either. A dystopic futuristic novel; a story set in a ritzy private boarding school; and the story of a ten-year-old girl with Asperger's who has just lost her beloved older brother in a school shooting.

Mockingbird blew my mind. Narrated by Caitlin, the ten-year-old, this is a short and moving novel. Caitlin isn't trying to be moving, it's just what her life is.

Many of the scenes that take place at school happen either with her counselor, Mrs. Brook, or at recess. Caitlin hates recess, hates the noise and the chaos; in fact, she describes that awful anxious feeling you get in the pit of your stomach as "a recess feeling." I know exactly what she means.

Mrs. Brook thinks Caitlin has to work on empathy, and on making friends. When she makes friends with a first-grader (she's in fourth grade), and impresses him by burping her ABC's, he asks her if he can get all his friends so they can be impressed too, she agrees. They think she's awesome, and she notes, "I feel like Snow White because now I have a bunch of little dwarf friends who love me. I may not know how Scout's overalls feel but I think I know how Snow White's shoes feel because now I know why Snow White was happy." (Her counselor keeps telling her to put herself in --'s shoes, and even though she's explained what she means, it's too abstract for Caitlin to really understand--but then she gets it!)

Her brother loved the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, and was like Jem, and called her Scout. References to the movie and the book keeps showing up throughout the novel, and it's a beautiful illustration of so many things, not least of which is how much you lose when you lose someone you love--not just that person now and forever, but all those references you held in common.

(The Mockingbirds is also referencing To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

This book took me a long time to read. I started it probably a month ago, and set it down quite a few times. I usually have several books going at once, but I tend to read fiction pretty quickly, since I like to stay in the world while I'm visiting, if that makes sense. But I read at least several YA novels and a collection of stories since I started The Gathering. This is partly because the subject matter of The Gathering isn't always easy, but I think it might be more because I am out of the habit of reading really challenging contemporary novels, written for adults.

But I kept carrying it around with me/keeping it next to my bed, and I kept picking it up again. I kept loving it, too, and I have never been one to stop reading a book I'm loving. So this morning I finished it, and while I got it out of the library, I'll probably end up buying a copy--coming from this broke, library-loving reader, this girl with her bookshelves full, who essentially has to dispose of a book every time she adds a new one to the shelves, that's extremely high praise.

Enright is an Irish author, and the back cover compares her to many great contemporary woman writers (Munro, Didion) and she is compared twice to Edna O'Brien, but one of the blurbs that compares her to O'Brien also notes that "Enright is more interestingly placed among experimental, if otherwise diverse, Irish writers..."

Which is also why this novel took me a while to read, and while I found it challenging. Its structure is interesting, and perhaps experimental. The story of a large family, it flips back and forth between the grandparents' early courtship, a summer visit that three siblings pay to the grandparents during their childhood, and the funeral of one of the siblings, among other moments. I never had a problem following the shifts in time, and while I was certainly aware that Veronica, the sibling who narrates the book, couldn't have known many of the details she discusses, this didn't bother me--and Veronica is very open about it. It isn't so much a novel in which Veronica relates events, but one in which she tries to recreate events as a way of making sense of the events that followed.

It is, ultimately, an amazing book about family. As Veronica notes, "I do not think we remember our family in any real sense. We live in them, instead." And as we see Veronica living in her grandmother, her brother, her daughters, we see how true this is. At the funeral, Veronica says, "just at this moment, I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive."

It is also about how we present our families to outsiders, but how ultimately they only make full sense (or mostly full sense) to us, and us to them.

It is also a novel about leaving behind those who die. For one thing, Veronica notes that she feels she should console her father "for the distance we have moved from the place where he stopped." I know so completely what she means. I know that feeling absolutely, but I never had the words for it before.

It is also about childhood, or remembering childhood. Veronica observes, "I look at my own children and I think you know everything at eight. But maybe I am wrong. You know everything at eight, but it is hidden from you, sealed up, in a way you have you cut yourself open to find."

And it is a novel about grief, which may be why I kept putting it down, and also why I had to finish it.

This is one of those amazing books that is four or five stories in one, layered so richly that you might have to read it four or five times to notice everything, or at least notice most of it. It took me a long time to read because it was hard work. But Veronica imagines her grandmother thinking this: "If Ada [the grandmother] had reached any sort of conclusion in this life, it was a little one. People, she used to think, do not change, they are merely revealed."

This, this last, is not the only thing in this book that I will keep thinking about.

Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems: "Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Jean and Jean-Paul"

I'm writing about Charles Simic, formerly #92 on my list of my hundred most influential writers, now #93 (I forgot L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books, and the list is sort of chronological). Simic is important to me because of Dime-Store Alchemy, his book of prose poems about Joseph Cornell. So I am spending all this time trying to date and identify the origin of my obsession with Cornell. In my search, I'm reading through the blog I kept when I lived in Brooklyn,, and I found this poem,, from Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems. I went to all that work to type it in (I tried to just put in three lines:

but it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night
wondering whether you are any good or not
and the only decision you can make is that you did it

but realized "okay, except you really have to read the whole thing,") and as always, I learned so much from writing the poem over again--it forces you to read it in a different way, to interact with the words and the language more and differently than you would otherwise. Anyway, I decided that since I went to all that work, and since the poem continues to be so wonderful and so true, here it is again:


It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering
if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch
ah lunch! I think I am going crazy
what with my terrible hangover and the weekend coming up

at excitement-prone Kenneth Koch's
I wish I were staying in town and working on my poems
at Joan's studio for a new book by Grove Press
which they will probably not print
but it is good to be several floors up in the dead of the night
wondering whether you are any good or not
and the only decision you can make is that you did it

yesterday I looked up the rue Fremicourt on a map
and was happy to find it like a bird
flying over Paris et ses environs
which unfortunately did not include Seine-et-Oise which I don't know

as well as a number of other things
and Allen is back talking about god a lot
and Peter is back not talking very much
and Joe has a cold and is not coming to Kenneth's
although he is coming to lunch with Norman
I suspect he is making a distinction
well, who isn't

I wish I were reeling around Paris
instead of reeling around New York
I wish I weren't reeling at all
it is Spring the ice has melted the Ricard is being poured

we are all happy and young and toothless
it is the same as old age
the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do
blue light over the Bois de Boulogne it continues
the Seine continues
the Louvre stays open it continues it hardly closes at all
the Bar Americain continues to be French
de Gaulle continues to be Algerian as does Camus
Shirley Goldfarb continues to be Shirley Goldfarb
and Jane Hazan continues to be Jane Freilicher (I think!)
and Irving Sandler continues to be the balayeur des artistes
and so do I (sometimes I think I'm "in love" with painting)
and surely the Piscine Deligny continues to have water in it
and the Flore continues to have tables and newspapers and people
under them
and surely we shall not continue to be unhappy
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves everything continues to be possible
Rene Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn't it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don't believe it


Friday, December 17, 2010

Voice of America

I got E.C. Osondu's new collection of stories Voice of America, out of the library because we were at Syracuse University together in the MFA program, and I didn't know him well, but what I knew I liked. I wanted to support him as best I could, and at this juncture that does not mean buying a brand-new hardcover book, it means putting it on hold at the library. I buy very few new hardcover books for myself, and most of the books I buy come from garage sales, library sales, and thrift stores. This doesn't do the authors a whole lot of good, but it benefits my students, who are mostly who I buy books for.

But I think that I'll be buying several copies of E.C.'s book as gifts. I want everyone I know to read it. These stories are beautifully written, but they're also about characters who are so hugely underrepresented in our literature. They are primarily the stories of Nigerian immigrants to the U.S., though many take place in Nigeria.

I was commenting to a friend that many of these stories are also told from the viewpoint of women, or with the women's point of view as central and important, which E.C. does so thoughtfully.

I put this book on hold to support a friend, but wow.

Angry Management

So for two nights in a row, I had to stay up to finish books. First Chris Crutcher's Angry Management, then Daisy Whitney's The Mockingbirds. I am a longtime Chris Crutcher fan. I didn't discover his work until I started teaching, when I started facing the reality that many kids, most kids, aren't readers like I was. Many kids grow up not reading--it's not something they do outside of school, it's not something they choose to do, it's certainly not something they love. Often, it's not something they do even in school. It's horrifyingly easy to avoid, and most kids don't have a reason not to avoid it.

As a teacher, one of my greatest pleasures, one of my hugest victories, became being able to help a student who considers books a waste of time, stupid, lame, find a book that he or she (too often he) loves. I have given so many books by Chris Crutcher to so many students. But first I loved his novels my own self. They're all great, but Whale Talk might have been the first one I fell in love with. I also love/d Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, which has just about the best premise of any novel ever: the fat kid and a scarred up girl have a close friendship--they're brought together through being outcasts, but their friendship transcends that. However, the fat kid starts swimming and losing weight--but he's afraid that if he loses weight, he'll lose his best friend. Read the title again. There's a lot more to this book than what I've told you--Crutcher has been a counselor working with kids who've been to hell and back, and his books have some hard truths in them, because kids deal with a lot of hard truths.

He's also written about his books being censored, and several of his essays about censorship are central to my censorship unit. Speaking of, (hint to teachers!) nothing like a censorship unit to get kids to read. "Many adults don't want kids to read this," is such an excellent way to get non-readers to pick up a book, and often they won't put it down because first they have to figure out why adults don't want them reading the book, and then they have to finish it as a big fuck-you to all those stupid adults. More power to them.

So I was very excited to read Angry Management, but I'd be curious if it did anything for readers who haven't read Crutcher's other books. In the foreword, Crutcher describes it as three "novellas" which bring together "characters I've created separately over a fifteen-year span. In this book, they've stayed the same ages they were when I created them. Hey, the Hardy Boys have remained teenagers for more than three quarters of a century."

The premise that holds these novellas together is that all of these students are in an "anger management" group together; this is how they meet, learn a little about each other, and get the chance to interact. Angus Bethune, who's featured in a fabulous story in Athletic Shorts, Crutcher's book of short stories out of which I love to teach "The Pin," gets to be friends with Sarah Byrnes, and they help each other figure some stuff out. There is also a lot about Montana West, a character in The Sledding Hill, not one of my favorite Crutcher novels (if only because others are more wonderful).

Crutcher has worked with a lot of kids with lousy parents, and a lot of kids who've ended up in foster care. Montana is one of those, and her adopted little sister, Tara, is another. Montana's parents want to give Tara back, give up on her, and I think the most moving passage in this book is when Montana's trying to figure out how to help Tara: "How can she [Montana] tell her mother that feeling bad feels right when everything in your world is wrong; that at first you need your foster parents to make things familiar, which in this case means fucked up. It makes such sense at a heart level, but even for a wordsmith like Montana West, it's impossible to articulate. It's so true, and it sounds so crazy."

So everyone should read Crutcher. But maybe this book isn't the place to start. Read Whale Talk, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and Athletic Shorts, then all his other novels, then this one. I'm curious to hear from any Crutcher fans who disagree...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mockingbirds

I just finished the most remarkable YA novel: The Mockingbirds, by Daisy Whitney. Alex hooked up with this boy--"What's his name? Remember, Goddamn it, remember. Carver. . . . No, it's Carter. Definitely Carter."

And she slowly--with the help of her friends and sister--comes to the realization that he date-raped her. She knows her fancy boarding school won't do anything about it--the administration "totally ignores everything because [it] ... destroys their notion of who Themis students are--of who they're educating to be future leaders of the world and all that stuff." But her older sister, when she was a student at Themis, started The Mockingbirds, an underground society made up of students, that administers justice in situations like Alex's. If you bring someone before the Mockingbirds, and they are found guilty, they have to give up what is most important to them. The quarterback quits the football team, theater kids have to stop being involved in theater, that kind of thing. Alex's rapist will have to quit playing water polo.

One thing I love about this book is how much it foregrounds the students, and their willingness and ability to step up and take care of each other when the adults refuse to acknowledge what's going on. But Alex does have one good teacher, who gives the author, herself a victim of date rape, the opportunity to have someone in her novel say things like:

"You don't have to have been fighting him off the whole time for it to be date rape. You don't have to have been saying no the entire time, either. In fact, it doesn't even matter if you were having the time of your life, Alex," she says, her words precise, like individual slices of certainty. "What he did to you was nonconsensual, and it doesn't suddenly become consensual because for one moment you put your hands on his back. That one moment doesn't wipe the slate clean and make you sober. You were drunk. And you said no. That's why it's date rape."

So yeah, at some moments it might get a little preachy. But the above is spoken by a teacher, who's allowed to and even supposed to be preachy. I'm just glad this book exists. It presents a messy situation and a protagonist who feels guilty about her own behavior--she was drunk, for one thing--but it is clear about labeling the situation as what it was: rape. And the protagonist gets to have a boyfriend! Her life isn't over after she's raped!

I also love the narrator's thoughts about everything after the "trial," which ring so true for many essential battles we fight in high school and college and throughout life:
...Justice doesn't . . . erase what happened. It doesn't make you who you were before. I'm becoming someone else--someone else I'm figuring out how to be.

I wonder briefly why I went through it, why it was worth it. Because in some ways, nothing changed. This is just how it goes, this is how it feels to take a stand. It feels like life, like chocolate cake, like just another average school night; it feels like wanting to be alone. You don't parade in the streets, you don't dance on the grave. You sit on the steps and you watch the school go by and the moon rise higher in the sky and it feels like...

Like normal, actually. It feels like normal.

I want normal. I like normal. I did this for normal.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

June Jordan

I just started reading June Jordan's essay collection, Some of Us Did NOT Die. I'll probably have more to say about it once I'm finished, but to start, it's amazing.

All I knew about Jordan before I started reading it was a little bit about her "Poetry to the People" project. So of course, I looked her up on Wikipedia--which describes her as "one of the most significant and prolific Black, bisexual writers of the twentieth century." Um, I don't think I can name any other Black, bisexual writers of the twentieth century. I think that's what we call damning someone with faint praise. Anyway Wikipedia also informed me that June Jordan was the first to say, "We are the ones we have been waiting for." I don't remember ever hearing that attributed to her--or to anyone. Oh, citing your sources.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I went to the Portland Art Museum the other day, and was surprised and happy to see a small Catherine Opie show and an even smaller Alice Neel show. It's my local museum now, and the local museum has always been so important to me, since I was a kid growing up in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts was a short bus ride from me, and it was free, and by the time I was in high school, I knew that collection so well. I had my favorites that I visited: Lucretia, of course, and the mummy, and "dead boy," and that little tiny beautiful girl in the really ornate frame... that's what I remember off the top of my head. There is also that enormous Chuck Close painting, the Magritte Renée loved so much, and "Mrs." Nathaniel Allen. Artist Rembrandt van Rijn Fine Art Poster Print of Painting The Suicide of Lucretia

I miss the museums in New York too, of course--I got to know parts of the Met's collection pretty well, and I love the Whitney, and MoMA was in Queens for much of my time in NYC, and always so expensive (the Met is donation only, and the Whitney has a student/educator membership rate, so I was able to join), so I didn't get to know that collection as well, mostly only going on the occasional insanely crowded free Friday night. Same with the Guggenheim, but that's such a weird museum anyway. I was content to go two or three times a year and walk up the spiral and then down again. It's such an awkward way to view art.

Anyway, so here I am in Portland, missing New York museums, but also missing the awesome Minneapolis museums I grew up with. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts was classic and close and great. PAM is weird. First of all, there's the weirdness of the Jubitz Center, their modern art wing, a separate building which is accessible only through what feels like a secret passage in the basement. That's where the Opie show was, and the Neel show is in the basement passage. The Opie show is mentioned on the website, but I don't remember reading anything about it in the members stuff that's sent to me. The Neel show isn't mentioned anywhere on the website, and there is no way to search the museum holdings. As I recall, all the Neel paintings were long-term loans, but geez.

Alice Neel

That's all I have to say about that right now.

Obama's "A Letter to My Daughters"

Reading Debbie Reese's post about Obama's children's book and the controversy over the inclusion of Sitting Bull on his list of "thirteen groundbreaking Americans" (quoting back cover copy), I went to this link included in her post, and read about the 1862 U.S.-Dakota war. This war took place in Minnesota and resulted in the "largest mass execution" in American history--38 Native Sioux men executed, at the order of President Lincoln. I learned a lot of Minnesota history growing up in Minneapolis--I learned over and over again about the French voyageurs--but I don't remember ever hearing about this war, much less the execution.

I recommend Debbie's post, even if you're not from Minnesota. She has some interesting observations about Obama's book, specifically about the inclusion of Sitting Bull within it, and about the illustration of Sitting Bull.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Al Capone Does My Shirts

I just read two amazing books long after I should have read them, but I stayed up late and got up early to finish them, reading them back to back. If you haven't read Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts, and its sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, you have an exciting reading experience ahead of you. I don't know why it took me so long. Maybe since I've been teaching high school, I've been more focused on YA. Maybe I'd heard about the first book (published in 2004, so while I was teaching middle school) as "a book about autism" so I didn't make it a priority. Which is shameful enough in itself, but even more wrong because these are not novels about autism. They are about Moose Flanagan, whose family moves from Santa Monica to Alcatraz Island (outside San Francisco) so Moose's dad can take a job--really two jobs--as electrician and guard at Alcatraz, and Moose's sister Natalie can go to a special school in San Francisco. Natalie is different--now, in 2010, her condition would probably be diagnosed as a form of autism, but in 1935, when the novels take place, she is dismissed as "weird," "retarded," and other things just as bad and worse. It is suggested--and would be the typical thing to do at that time--that Moose's family should put her in an asylum, but Moose's family has rallied around Natalie, especially his mother, who wants to try everything possible--maybe not to "fix" her, but to let her have some kind of life. So they uproot themselves and move to Alcatraz.

But while these books are in large part about Moose's family and the ways in which they adapt to live with and care for Natalie (and that part of the story is moving and complex and fabulous, by the way) they are also about a middle-school boy who, in the middle of his seventh grade year, leaves his friends to live on Alcatraz Island, famous prison and home to many murderers, kidnappers, and other infamous criminals. Alcatraz is sort of the setting of the story, but I would say that's also a major player, one of the characters.

These books are awesome. Read them. I don't think I have more to say about them right now.


I didn't realize it until after I left Brooklyn, but Sahadi's was one of the things I would miss most. My friends, museums, Film Forum, and Sahadi's.

Portland is amazing, and the food here is great--I have found fabulous restaurants of nearly every kind, though the (east) Indian food is just not as amazing, and WOW I MISS ROTI! And Bed-Stuy. But that's another story.

But there's this tea that I would buy at Sahadi's, Pompadour brand tea, and I brought two boxes of their Rosehip and Hibiscus Flowers tea with me when I moved. But then I found it at a little shop on Hawthorne, and I was happier than I expected to be. However, last weekend Emilyn and I tried to stop there, and the store was gone! I was sadder than I expected.

However, today I went to the Bipartisan Cafe, at 79th and Stark, and just up the block was International Food Supply. They don't carry Pompadour brand, but I found Rosehip tea that has hibiscus flowers in it, plus I bought some Turkish Delight as a gift. So I am very happy. Shop at International Food Supply, 8015 S.E. Stark. I will go back when I need yogurt and some other things. It was very exciting, I was sorry I only needed tea.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

East Side Story

On this freezing cold (relatively, yeah--but it is cold out there!) day, I decided to watch one of my random movies from the library, settling on East Side Story, which I'd never heard of, but it looked interesting if not great. Plus it's from the library so it's free, so I check out way more movies than I ever watch, and watch just a few minutes of some and return most unwatched. But this seemed a good afternoon for East Side Story, so I went for it, and I watched the whole thing, all 88 minutes of it.


A totally cute gayboy movie, this film has more to it than that. It tackles--without them being the focus or the premise--gentrification, assimilation, and specifically gentrification by gays, in this case (but not only in this case), rich white gay men. However, of course, many of us don't fit into just one category. We can be queer and part of the community being gentrified, for example.

It has a lot of great moments, including the exchange between the closeted gayboy who tells his grandmother he has something important to tell her. She totally already knows he's gay, and she's just glad he's finally going to tell her--but then he tells her something else, and she has to reduce and shift her excitement hugely. None of us have ever been in that position. Ever.

But I think the best part in this sweet but honest and true little movie is the closing shot, which is a Latino nanny holding the Chinese baby adopted by white couple Adam and Steve, with the proud fathers saying goodbye and the nanny and their daughter watching them go.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

I read the first of these books several years ago and loved it, but never read the others. But I bought #2 at a library book sale, and then I put #3 on hold at the library. I have now finished #2 and #3, and put #4 on hold--who knew there were four?

The third book, Girls in Pants, is not the best by most standards, and other readers haven't liked it as much--the consensus seems to be that #1 was the best, and they have gotten worse ever since. But I loved the third, and cried and laughed most of the way through, I think because I'm nostalgic about that period of life--the summer after your senior year of high school, before you leave those friends you've known forever, who've known you forever, and who are your friends in a different way than any friends you will ever have again. The kinds of friends who can walk into your parents' houses without knocking, who know your parents and your siblings and maybe even your grandparents or your aunts and uncles or your cousins or your neighbors. The kinds of friends who are family in a way no one else will ever be. I think that once you have your own family, and maybe children, there are friends, especially other friends with children, who are family in another kind of way, but I didn't realize before I went away to college that my friends in the future would be close friends, but they would not know my family, they would not know my family history, and for those reasons there would be a distance between us that I did not have with earlier friends. Of course, you grow apart from those earlier friends too, but what you share? It stays there.

Friends can be family later on in your life, but never in the same way. Which is not entirely a bad thing. But this book--these books, but especially the third--made me remember that and miss it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Amy Bloom

I just finished Amy Bloom's new(ish) collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. I think she is very unlike any other writer I love--she lives in Connecticut, and when I was in college, I got a ride partway to meet a friend, with a fellow Bard student who was friends with her daughter. They lived in the same wealthy Connecticut town. Now, having done some research, I know that that must have been her first husband (she then had a serious ten-year relationship with a woman, and is now married again), and she was wealthier then than she has been since. But I still think of her as a white, upper-middle-class, Connecticut, therapist (now full-time writer and professor--formerly at Yale, now at Wesleyan), writer. Not what I usually read.

Nevertheless, I always love her stories. It's like reading Cheever--the stories are not about people I know, but the details are so real, so vivid, and there is enough overlap because her characters are thoughtful, well-drawn human beings.

Also, she is one of the few writers I read who deals with interracial relationships in a real, true way; when others write about/mention these relationships, the race is irrelevant, as we're supposed to believe it is, in our post-racial society. Or it's the whole story. But Bloom, while not foregrounding it, also very deliberately does not erase it. Four of these stories are about Julia, a white woman who had two children with her black husband, one her stepchild (his child by an earlier marriage) and one her child with Lionel. These characters were in earlier stories of hers, as well. The stories are not about her being white and her children being black, but that is part of the reality of the situation.

I will keep reading her books. Every book she writes.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

More Pat Murphy Interview Quotes...

& these tips are from this interview. A bit dated (the interview is from 2000), but still great, and in this age of the Kindle, perhaps more relevant than ever:


Review the book you love online in a newsgroup, on a webzine, on an e-commerce site, or on a personal web site. This is an easy way to tell a lot of people about a fabulous book. People pay attention to reviews. Hey--authors read reviews. With a good review, you can make an author's day.

When asked what you want for your birthday, or Hanukkah, or Christmas, or any other gift-giving occasion, answer with your favorite author's current book.

Give books as presents. If someone has a favorite author, buy that author's latest title. If the gift recipient doesn't have a favorite author, buy a book by an author you like. If your friend likes the book, you've done the author a big favor by creating a new fan.

Ask for books by your favorite author at your local library. If the library doesn't have a book, request it. Checking a book out of the library helps establish that there's a demand for that author's work. Demand leads library systems to buy books.

Tell writers how much their work has affected you. Go to readings—even if you can't afford to buy the book. Urge your local library bookstore or your school to invite the writer to do a talk, a reading, or a class visit. Sometimes writers just need to know that someone is listening.

Talk about books and authors at work, among friends, and in other not-necessarily literary environments. If you belong to a writing group, recommend your favorite authors to the group. If you add a book to your reading group, tell your favorite bookstore what you've done and buy your books there. The bookstore may put them out front on

Point to good books in the bookstore and tell people, even total strangers, "That one is great." If you see someone looking at a copy of a book you like, encourage them to buy it.

Carry around a copy of a book you love. Read it on buses, in waiting rooms, and in other public places. Be prepared to wax eloquent about it—spontaneously or only when asked; that's up to you.

Just because a book is out-of-print doesn't necessarily mean you can't get it. Lightning Print Inc. is currently asking for suggestions for books to reprint. You can vote now at their web site:

Nominate your favorite authors for awards. Any year that you are a member of the World Science Fiction Convention, you can nominate and vote for the Hugo Award. Nominate gender-bending works for the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award ( and works with gay or lesbian content for the Lambda Literary Award. If you subscribe to Locus Magazine, you can nominate works for the Locus Poll and Survey. And yes, it's worth taking the time—awards make a difference to an author's sales and that helps keep books in print.

Above all else, keep reading!

& something else from that interview, extracted, apparently, from Murphy's lecture notes for a lecture on pulp novels from a class she taught on science fiction: "All art provides unearned instant gratification: a gratification necessary to our psychic well-being. C.S. Lewis was once moved to observe that the only people to whom the word 'escape' is a pejorative are jailers."

Yeah, more great stuff:

"When I teach writing, I sometimes have students describe a character's home or car. 'Don't describe the character,' I tell them, 'but show me what the character is like by showing me where they live.'"

The City, Not Long After

Still reading Pat Murphy books, and I bought two copies of The Wild Girls remaindered at Powell's, one for me and one for Megan. I also bought a cheap massmarket used copy off The City, Not Long After, since in this awesome interview she says that The City, Not Long After is one of her three favorites of her books and the library doesn't have it! Published in 1989, The City, Not Long After is a post-apocalyptic novel set in Seattle. Reading it, I kept thinking how Parable of the Sower is so much better, but then I realized the world is big enough for more than one post-apocalyptic novel. It's fiction, Elissa.

Plus Murphy's and Butler's post-apocalyptisisms (heh) are so different. Butler's America dies because of, according to Publishers Weekly, "global warming, pollution, racial and ethnic tensions and other ills." Murphy's America is struck by a plague spread by monkeys representing the peace movement. And the best part of The City, Not Long After is that the few survivors ultimately end up in a war, of course--the bad guys, led by General Miles, are conquering city after mostly-abandoned city in their effort to recreate "America," but then they try to take over San Francisco, a city of artists and poets and ghosts that don't necessarily think recreating America is such a good idea. Ms. Migsdale tells Foursquares' (their name for General Miles) representative, "You seem to think joining together into a larger and more powerful nation is automatically good. We don't necessarily agree. Personally, I've always thought that nations were tremendously overrated. I can't say I was particularly proud to be an American; I never cared much for America as a whole, though I liked my neighborhood well enough. I've always favored a somewhat looser structure, more like the city-states of early Greece."'

But unable to convince the Americans to go away and leave them alone, given the choice of fighting a war or surrendering, San Francisco's citizens insist on fighting a Gandhi-style war, and instead of killing people they are simply marked as dead, with DEAD by and the name of who "killed" them painted on their face, and the agreed-upon CERTIFICATE OF DEATH placed in their pocket or on their chest. The certificate read, "Please consider yourself removed from combat. Look at it this way--we could have killed you. If you don't stop fighting, we really will kill you next time. Signed, the People of San Francisco."

Okay, so it's not Parable of the Sower, but it's pretty damn good.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Last Lecture

Last year a student told me I have to read The Last Lecture, it's the best book she's ever read. I'd never heard of it. But she's a thoughtful, good kid, and she was so excited about this book. So I put it on hold at the library, it came, and then it sat on my shelf of library books unread for a long time. I renewed it several times. But it's little, so finally I just read it.

Apparently it's huge; a quote from the book, "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted," is, according to Amazon, the seventh most highlighted quote of all time on Kindle.

The student knew nothing about my exciting health stuff, so she didn't mention that this is a book written by a dying man. But yeah.

It's also a book about learning to be humble, about living your life as fully as you can in the time you have (something that feels more urgent when you know you don't have a lot of time, but something that is good for all of us to do anyway), a book about giving people a chance to "surprise and impress you," and just generally a book about wisdom. Wisdom gained, that most people don't get the chance to pass on. This guy has--had--a lot of wisdom, too. Full of short chapters with pithy titles like "A Bad Apology Is Worse Than No Apology," and "Don't Obsess Over What Other People Think," this is a short book worth reading, filled with lessons one man wanted to pass along. He was a smart guy paying close attention. Note that I did go through Erma Bombeck and Andy Rooney phases (when I was reading every book in my house), but if you did too, then this one might be for you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pat Murphy, Max Merriwell, Mary Maxwell, and Weldon Merrimax

I just finished Pat Murphy's/Mary Maxwell's/Max Merriwell's fabulous trilogy, read out of order. In order, they are There and Back Again, Wild Angel, and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell. I read There and Back Again first, then Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, and then Wild Angel. Which I think was just fine. I loved them all, but I think Wild Angel might be the only novel not by Horatio Alger that I've read that's set in the California gold rush during the 1850's. It's definitely the only novel I've read that's set in the California gold rush during the 1850's featuring a heroine raised by wolves. Excellent.

There and Back Again is an old school sci-fi novel with rockets and aliens, Wild Angel is as described above, and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell takes place on a cruise ship, yet they are most certainly a trilogy. Fun reading. But thoughtful too. Highly recommended.

And so so different from the first novel I read by Pat Murphy! Wow.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

There and Back Again

So I read The Wild Girls, right? And loved it. Loved it so much that I put all of Pat Murphy's other books on hold at the library. But it looks like The Wild Girls may be Pat Murphy's only book that is realistic fiction. I just finished There and Back Again, which I loved, but which falls into that sub-genre of science fiction that's all rocket ships and worm holes (and it was written in 1999, which I think of as well after the rocket ships and worm holes sub-genre peaked). I am not terribly well-versed in this sub-genre, but There and Back Again was so captivating.

But she has an Afterword--or her pseudonym, Max Merriwell, has an Afterword--in which s/he explains and/or points out that her/his novel is modeled after The Hobbit and is a hero's journey.

Which totally makes sense.

So this book that I just finished is an old-school sci-fi novel, a hero's journey modeled after The Hobbit, captivating and enthralling and really fun, by the author of The Wild Girls! I'm excited to read Pat Murphy's other books. Which is good, since all the holds got filled at once so they're all waiting for me at home.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Messed Up

I just read another awesome book. Totally teacher-written, so much from a teacher POV, although ostensibly it's first person from R.D.'s POV. Somehow, I think, it manages to be convincingly both, and I think it would ring true to an R.D. reading it. But I'm a teacher, not an R.D., so what do I know. Anyway, he rang really true to me. I've known too many kids like him.

Messed Up by Janet Nichols Lynch is a novel about R.D., smart and interesting, but his mom had him at 14 and is now in jail, his dad was never around, and he was living with his grandmother and Earl, her beau, until she found a new man, Hairy, and left town with him, leaving R.D. with Earl. Which is okay, until Earl dies. R.D. doesn't tell anyone at first; he can already sort of drive (having already failed eighth grade, being almost sixteen, and helping Earl with the mechanic's business he runs out of the garage), he can already forge Earl's signature, and he learns to cook (one of the most moving and special parts of this novel, I think).

The teacher-ness doesn't really show up till the end, when R.D. and his friend Jeanette go into the shop room and wonder why these classes aren't being offered anymore. I was not the only one outraged and frustrated when the shop teacher at the middle school I worked at retired and was not replaced--R.D. speaks the truth for a lot of kids at a lot of schools when he tells Jeanette, "Most of the kids I know who took shop are in double math now. It's sort of funny because about the only time I ever used math was in shop. You gotta figure real careful or everything turns out messed up. It's the only class I ever got an A in." Thank god for the cooking and childcare programs at the high school I teach at--the classes are always full, and a lot of kids who might not end up going to college (which is FINE!) are loving them, feeling proud of their achievements, and learning real-life skills that will help them find jobs!

This book is so spot-on at a lot of moments. It was fun to read like that. For example, R.D. is at a school dance when "The music stops and I hear a girl scream, 'Let go of me.' It's that thing where you're yelling to be heard over the loud music and suddenly the music stops and it's you just yelling." Who hasn't been in that situation?

And R.D.'s class reads "The Gift of the Magi" right before Christmas, and when he "feel[s] the tears coming, I pretend to cough and sneeze so I can walk up to the front of the classroom and get a Kleenex." He raises his hand to tell the teacher "they really need to get their money back on those hair thingies to get the watch back cuz sometimes people buy things from pawn shops and they'll never get the watch back if they don't jump on it, and anyways, the dumb lady's dumb hair will grow back for free so what's she whining about?" His teacher says he's missing the point; He observes, correctly, "I'm not though, or I wouldn't need a Kleenex."

It works out okay for R.D. in the end, although his earnest first-year teacher who got the class with all the "bad" kids who've been held back quits half-way through her first year since she knows she's not going to get rehired next year--R.D. comes in over Christmas break when she's packing her stuff and she tells him, "'I uh... well, I haven't been reelected for next year.'" He asks what that means, and she says, "'It means fired. They don't want to call it that, but that's what it is.'" Yeah. No Child Left Behind. Except for the kids we don't give a shit about.

But R.D. gets emancipated, goes to an alternative high school, and gets a job prepping in a fancy restaurant. R.D. is one of the bad-ass smart kids dealt a bad hand who gets just enough breaks that he makes it out. Yay for happy endings.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Wild Girls

I just read an awesome book. It would've probably been my favorite book if I'd read it when I was 12, and it might just be my new favorite book right now. I read it in bed all morning, and I laughed and cried and laughed and cried, often but not always at the same time.

About becoming a writer and being 12 and your parents not getting along...

Joan is 12 in 1972 when her dad gets a new job in San Francisco so her family (she, her mom and dad, and her older brother Mark) moves from Connecticut to Danville, "a little suburban town about a half hour's drive from San Francisco."

When she breaks a glass helping her mom unpack, her mom tells her to go explore, so she does, and she meets "the Queen of All the Foxes," a.k.a. Fox, a.k.a. Sarah, who right away takes her hunting for newts.

She spends all summer with Fox, and when school starts and she sees Fox (Sarah at school), "I almost didn't recognize her."

They are sort of friends at school, good friends outside of school, and they write a prize-winning story and take a creative writing class at Berkeley the next summer, taught by Verla Volante, who in their first class asks "a lot of really strange questions. Not like most teachers, who ask a lot of questions that they already know the answers to. Verla asked weird questions, and she said stuff like: You're the only one who knows the answer to this question. Questions like these don't have right or wrong answers. If you don't know the answer, make up the answer. Later on you can figure out if it's true."

Joan (later known, at least in the woods with Fox, as Newt) loves Verla's class of course, and likes the other "loose nuts" in the class. She learns to write stories that help her make sense of her world, and quote Verla's aphorisms liberally including "Anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And later on you can use it in some story."

This book is much more complex and much better than I'm making it sound. You should just read it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Walter Dean Myers: The Dream Bearer

But then I read a YA book that I loved (see review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You here): The Dream Bearer, by Walter Dean Myers, which I was delighted to see he dedicated to Miriam! Yay! (Miriam is his agent, who I used to work for.)

I forget how well Myers does 12-year-olds. The last book I read and loved by him, this year's National Book Award nominee Lockdown, is among my favorites of his, up there with Autobiography of My Dead Brother and, always, Monster. But The Dream Bearer's main character, David, still has his big brother at home, which makes David a younger twelve than he might be otherwise.

Anyway, I loved this book. I read it till I finished it, in spite of much else to do--which isn't always an indicator of a great novel, but in this case I think it is. It's so much about family and, of course, about dreams.

Mr. Moses, the dream bearer of the title, tells David a lot of wise things. One of them is, "David, we build our dreams deep down in our souls. We use everything we ever knew and everything that's ever touched us. You've got a strong heart and a strong mind. If this old world can be changed, it'll be because you've nudged it toward the dreams you build. I got faith in you, David. I got a real true faith in you."

I don't know if it's a book that will appeal to 12-year-olds. But I'm going to be recommending it to every adult I know, especially those of us who work with children.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

I just finished reading Peter Cameron's novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. One of the blurbs on the back, James Cameron's (listed as author of The Misfits but better known and beloved for Bunnicula), compared it to Catcher in the Rye, and yeah it's sort of a 2004 update. Rich New Yorker kid (James went to Sty instead of a private school, but same difference really) with divorced parents, a wealthy lawyer father and a thrice-married mom who owns a Chelsea gallery.

It's no more YA fiction than Catcher in the Rye is, but since it was published in 2007, then it's YA. Similarly, had I read it when I first read Catcher in the Rye, I probably would have loved it, but at 34, I found the hero to be spoiled and annoying, and sorry I'm just not that interested in reading about rich white teenagers dealing with their dislike of their peers and questioning whether they're interested in starting their freshman year of college in the fall (Brown, of course!).

But I did finish it. Which says something. It was a fun read. & I was thinking how the passages I marked at 34 so aren't the passages I would've marked at 18:

"I walked deeper into the woods, down a slope, and into a sort of culvert, through which trickled a narrow stream. The stream smelled a little funky and I was glad it was dark, so I couldn't see how polluted it was. ...I squatted down and covered my face, pushing the heels of my hands into the sockets of my eyes. They fit perfectly, like two halves of a whole, and my hands were exactly the right size to cradle my skull. It seemed like another example of how well human beings are designed, that you were shaped to comfort yourself."

"I always feel humbled by people who speak more than one language. I envy them. It seems with two (or more) vocabularies, you could not only say so much more and speak to so many more people, but also think more. I often feel I want to think something but I can't find the language that coincides with the thought, so it remains felt, not thought. Sometimes I feel like I'm thinking in Swedish without knowing Swedish." (This does not feel like the thinking of any 18-year-old to me.)

James' awesome grandma: "Having bad experiences sometimes helps; it makes it clearer what it is you should be doing. I know that sounds very Pollyannaish but it's true. People who have had only good experiences aren't very interesting. They may be content, and happy after a fashion, but they aren't very deep. It may seem a misfortune now, and it makes things difficult, but well--it's easy to feel all the happy, simple stuff. Not that happiness is necessarily simple. But I don't think you're going to have a life like that, and I think you'll be the better for it. The difficult thing is not to be overwhelmed by the bad patches. You mustn't let them defeat you. You must see them as a gift--a cruel gift, but a gift nonetheless."

When Nanette (the grandma) eventually dies and leaves everything in the house to him, as she told him she would, he uses "some of the money my grandmother left me" to put it all in "a climate-controlled warehouse in Long Island City" against his parents' advice--they wanted him to have it all "liquidated" but he says storing it "seems reasonable to me. I'm only eighteen. How do I know what I will want in my life? How do I know what things I will need?"

I just realized that it was Peter Cameron I saw "in conversation" with Sherman Alexie at the Strand after both their YA novels came out--Cameron's, reviewed above, which he never intended to be YA but was marketed as such, and Alexie's Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which Alexie very deliberately wrote as YA. Their take on YA was so different: Cameron thought his novel being marketed as YA really reduced it as literature (he was so infuriating and ill-informed!) and Alexie was pleased to be directly writing for a demographic that was already reading and loving his stuff.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Yay! West Indian Food in Portland!

This cart doesn't have roti--the guy working said he's been bugging his mom to make some, though, and I said, "Tell him some white girl came and asked for it"--but the jerk chicken and chickpeas over rice--for $5!--made me really happy. It's called Caribbean Kookpot, it's open Wednesday through Saturday afternoon till 7:30, and it's on Mississippi just above Fremont.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I just finished Extras, the fourth and final book in the Uglies series, and I'm now even reading Bogus to Bubbly, "An Insider's Guide to the World of the Uglies," which I got out of the public library by mistake (I thought it was one of Scott Westerfeld's other novels).

This series plus the insider's guide made me so happy.

Hah! I'm loving all the fake history in Bogus to Bubbly. For example, from "another document uncovered by the Awesome Librarians clique": "In cities like Diego, the pretties with the greatest resistance to social programming and brain surge [the operation to make us all dumber, fun-loving-er, and less likely to challenge our current society] often became teachers and librarians." God I wish that's how it was. Except that is sort of how it is. But I wish it was more like that.

As I posted on Facebook this morning, "I just finished the last book in the Uglies series, Extras--when do you ever finish a series so happy about the final book? It ends PERFECTLY." How brilliant, to have the final book show us how Tally's rebellion played out around the world--the final book takes place about three years after the third one, and the main character is a post-ugly (what else should I call her, really? A fifteen-year-old? She does observe, very early on, that "It still pretty much sucked, being fifteen." Some things just won't ever change.) in JAPAN! Aya lives in a city ruled by a Reputation Economy.

I also love the quotations Scott Westerfeld opens each section of each book with. He talks a lot about beauty, understandably, and the epigraph for part 2 of the first book, Uglies, is from Francis Bacon: "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." He discusses this further in Bogus to Bubbly when he goes into all the research he did on neoteny, the halo effect, and the other hypotheses he used in researching and creating the Uglies series.

Also why I love Bogus to Bubbly: Westerfeld can explain each of the devices in his series by saying things like, "...bungee jackets allow my heroes to jump off tall things and not die, which is very useful for an author." He also observes that "It's cool how inventions that start out just for fun often wind up as part of the plot." CREATIVE WRITING TEACHERS! TAKE NOTE!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Peace, Locomotion

Today I read a lot. I called in sick: it was chemo Friday and also the Friday of my first week back at school after my stroke two weeks ago. So I would've called in anyway but I had extra reason.

I slept 11 hours then finished Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes, his take on Sophocles' Antigone which my sophomores loved last year--it has all the elements, love, incest, the gods--but it's also got the distinction of having the only movie version (from the 60's, in the original Greek) that multiple students suggested I never show again. Wow.

Anyway I finished The Burial at Thebes then read Scott Westerfeld's Uglies which a number of my students have been obsessed with--I wanted to read the copy I'd bought at a yard sale before I brought it in and put it in my classroom library, so I did that, put the other three on hold at the library, and read Jacqueline Woodson's Peace, Locomotion, the "companion book" to Locomotion. In this book, Locomotion (sometimes Lonnie) is in 6th grade, and when he tells his new teacher, Ms. Cooper, that he is a poet because Ms. Marcus, his teacher last year, said he was, Ms. Cooper says "Until you publish a book, you're not a poet, you're an aspiring poet, Lonnie." Thank god that stupid evil Ms. Cooper goes on maternity leave three months into the year and the excellent Alina takes over.

You should all read all of Jacqueline Woodson's books. Peace, Locomotion takes the form of Lonnie's letters to his little sister, Lili. Miss Edna (Lonnie's foster mom)'s oldest son Jenkins comes home from (a) war, messed up and without his leg, but Miss Edna tells him, "This wasn't the dream none of us had, but it's our lives now and we need to be living it, sweetie."

Rodney, her other son, asks Jenkins how his leg is doing and he says "I don't know, it ain't here anymore." When Miss Edna comes out of the kitchen to ask what all the laughing is about, Rodney tells her, "I don't know, Mama. You the one who said sometimes you gotta laugh to keep from crying." Jenkins adds, "And sometimes you just gotta laugh."

Lonnie tells Lili this in a letter and adds, "It's true, Lili. Sometimes you do have to laugh to keep from crying. And sometimes the world feels all right and good and kind of like it's becoming nice again around you. And you realize it, and realize how happy you are in it, and you just gotta laugh."

Thank you, Jacqueline Woodson.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Matt de la Peña

I'm excited to read Mexican White Boy with my students this year. Thanks to everybody who's been helping me buy a class set!

I read all of Matt de la Peña's books over the summer, and they made me so happy. Finally some good YA fiction about Latino boys. (If you know of other books, I want to hear about them!) And of course it's not just about Latino boys, but I'm happy to have a book I can bring to my students and say this is awesome for all these reasons and one of them is that the main character is Latino. Because it doesn't happen anywhere near enough.

From We Were Here, about Miguel and Rondell, who run away from the group home they're in and take off for the Mexican border as if that might really let them start over:
I picked up a rock and thought how weird it was that people call 'em aliens. Like they're from outer space and look like damn Martians. All green with big-ass Rondell heads. And not just aliens but illegal ones too. I wondered who made up that term. And how weird is it that they put cops all along the border so no Mexicans could sneak in? But on the other side it was straight crickets. Nobody was there making sure American people like me and Rondell didn't sneak into Mexico. Shit like that is weird if you really stop and think about it.
Also awesome in this low-key incidental way: some of the characters from Ball Don't Lie are also in We Were Here. I like when that happens. He's got a whole world set up.

Also, Mong says, "It's not about what happens to people. It's how they figure out what it means." There's some smart stuff in this book. Earlier, Miguel says, "I looked at him and then leaned back and crossed my arms. I started calming down, which pissed me off even more. I hated that something some damn counselor could say would make me calm down when I didn't even feel like it."

I'd love to read We Were Here with my students, but we'll start with Mexican Whiteboy.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mockingjay (A Review Without Spoilers)

I got my review copy of Mockingjay on Tuesday morning, since they didn't send out any advance copies. I took it on vacation and read it between hikes, finishing it Friday morning, three days after I got it. If I had been home, I would've finished it sooner.

I was partly slowed down because I read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the first and second books in this trilogy, back to back in March. (I blogged a very little bit about The Hunger Games here.) I remember that a major complaint about Catching Fire was that so much of the beginning of it was summary of The Hunger Games, and while that was frustrating, I think Mockingjay could have used a little more summary. I was grateful for The Hunger Games Wiki when I started Mockingjay; it helped fill me in on some of the details that had slid out of reach. There are so many characters in these books, and I didn't remember who Beetee or Plutarch was, or what happened to Cinna. In fact, as I recall, we don't quite learn what happens to Cinna, though it seems clear what probably happened--but then it's assumed in Mockingjay that we know.

Anyway. Although I don't think this book really stands on its own, it's a great ending to a fabulous trilogy. So read The Hunger Games if you haven't already, and I'll be surprised if you don't want to keep going and see the story through. I think these books are so realistic in their fantasticality: nothing happens that feels impossible. I do take issue with how Collins settles the question of whether Katniss will end up with Peeta or Gale. I love how it isn't clear throughout the book which way she'll go, how you can see her questions and feel how much she values each relationship. Also, Peeta has changed so much, and really, Gale has too. But when you get there, I think the end feels too easy. I don't want to say more, it would be too much of a spoiler, but this is the one thing that feels pat: the answer to Peeta or Gale? which is a complex and interesting question, until it's resolved. Not like I have a better idea for how it could end. I expected one of them to die, and I guess that would have been more irritating in many ways.

In her acknowledgments, Suzanne Collins thanks her late father, "who laid the groundwork for this series with his deep commitment to educating his children on war and peace." This series does closely and thoughtfully examine war and human motives for violence. It's interesting to see how different characters, raised in different ways and essentially in different cultures, though in the same country, have such variant views of values, inequity, the world.

At one point, Plutarch, one of the key leaders of the rebellion, observes, "Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated. But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction." But he adds, "Who knows? Maybe this will be it... The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that."

But this is a realistic revolution in the sense that many of the revolutionaries have their own agendas, beyond equality, beyond a better world. And they have their own yearning for power at the expense of anything else. We see the ways in which the personal intersects with the political, and each person brings their own worldview and their own experience into every decision made.

This is a thoughtful, captivating story, and I'm happy to have it in me. At one point, reading alone in my room, I called out, "Good! Good. That's what you were supposed to do, Katniss!" I hadn't been sure she would, but I was hoping so hard. And later in the story, I burst into tears, shocked with grief. Not all good books need to do that to me, but it does usually mean something when I start yelling at a character. I cry more often than I yell, but even that is a signifier: when I cry and I  have to calm myself down by reminding myself, "Elissa, it's a book. She's not real. It's not happening." But I still cry, because it is happening.

Friday, August 27, 2010


I just finished a fabulous book, Lamb by Christopher Moore. It was so good that I had to restrain myself from putting all his other books on hold at the library (school is about to start and I already have thirty books checked out--teachers can get a special library card that allows them to renew stuff over and over and over and over and over if there's no hold on the book).

I seem to be one of the few people who hadn't heard of Lamb until recently. Rachel loaned it to me saying, "You have to read this." Emily was talking about it and saying how great it was. So two good recommendations by smart thoughtful people with complementary senses of humor--I went for it, as unappealing as it seemed.

Lamb is the story of Christ's life, told from the point of view of his childhood friend Levi, known as Biff. Biff is brought back to life in modern times, taken to a hotel room by an angel, and told to write the story of Christ as he knew it. The irritating angel guards him closely, not letting him leave the room, watching soap operas on TV while Biff writes.

Biff finds a Bible in a drawer (thanks, Gideons!) and sneaks it into the bathroom, where he reads the gospels and is irritated--by their inaccuracy, by the huge gap of time left out,* and by the omission of his own self and his importance to the story. (There is a Levi in the New Testament, a follower of Christ, but he is a very minor character.)

In the course of the story, during those missing years, Levi a.k.a. Biff and Joshua ("By the way, his name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It's the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed.") go looking for the three wise men. They find the first one in Afghanistan just outside Kabul, the second in China, and the third in India. They spend years with each man, studying Buddhism, kung fu, and yoga, among other things. Biff also learns about sex, from various concubines and prostitutes and the Kama Sutra, knowledge he shares with Joshua, who is celibate at his fahter's request. After many years away from home, traveling, they bring their Divine Spark thing back to Jerusalem and turn it into the Holy Ghost. (I think I understand the Holy Ghost a lot better now, actually. Thanks, Christopher Moore.) Then Jesus starts preaching, gathering followers, and doing the stuff we all know about from the bible.

There were many things I loved about this book: how much research Moore clearly did, for one thing. But I also loved the references, most of which I'm sure I missed. But they celebrate Jesus' birthday "with the traditional Chinese food," and even Hans Christian Andersen makes a guest appearance, when a demon they meet outside Kabul has "dinner-plate-sized cat's eyes," just like one of those dogs in "The Magic Tinder Box." Appropriate in what could be viewed as one of the greatest and most enduring fairytales our world has seen.

I love that Joshua has a sense of humor, even laughing so hard at one point that he sprays tea out his nose. In his afterword, Moore notes, "It's more than a small anachronism that I portray Joshua having and making fun, yet somehow, I like to think that while he carried out his sacred mission, Jesus of Nazareth might have enjoyed a sense of irony and the company of a wisecracking buddy. This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone's faith; however, if one's faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do." His "Author's Blessing" at the beginning also reinforces this so nicely:
If you have come to these pages for laughter, may you find it.
If you are here to be offended, may your ire rise and your blood boil.
If you seek an adventure, may this song sing you away to blissful escape.
If you need to test or confirm your beliefs, may you reach comfortable conclusions.
All books reveal perfection, by what they are or what they are not.
May you find that which you seek, in these pages or outside them.
May you find perfection, and know it by name.
I think this really illustrates what a thoughtful book Lamb manages to be. While managing to be funny.

And Moore does right by Mary Magdalene. As he notes in the afterword, it doesn't say anywhere in the Bible that she was a prostitute: "No whore references, period." She's an important, thoughtful, well-drawn character in the book, smart and interesting and convincing.

There are too many apostles to keep straight, which is the same problem I'm having in my novel about the fourteen daughters of Ed. But that's not Moore's fault, and since the apostles don't even start to show up until the last fourth of this novel, it's not the biggest problem. I can see how any more focus on them would derail things.

So yeah. I liked this book so much. Do unto others..., and all that.

*As Moore notes in his afterword, "Of the time from Jesus' birth to when he began his ministry in his thirties, the Bible gives us only one scene," which is Luke 2:46-7, Jesus at the age of twelve "in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My hundred most influential writers (for now): the final list

1.     Dr. Seuss
2.     Russell and Lillian Hoban
3.     Maurice Sendak
4.     Tomie diPaola
5.     Laura Ingalls Wilder
6.     Horatio Alger, Jr.
7.     Shel Silverstein
8.     Hans Christian Anderson
9.     The Brothers Grimm
10.  Bible authors and editors (including King James)
11.  Virginia Hamilton
12.  The d’Aulaires
13.  Roald Dahl
14.  Natalie Babbitt
15.  Louis Sachar
16.  Frances Hodgson Burnett
17.  Robert McCloskey
18.  E.B. White
19.  Louise Fitzhugh
20.  Betty McDonald
21.  Astrid Lindgren
22.  Beverly Cleary
23.  Carol Ryrie Brink
24.  Booth Tarkington
25.  Lewis Carroll
26.  C.S. Lewis
27.  Lynda Barry
28.  Louisa May Alcott
29.  Katherine Paterson
30.  Scott O’Dell
31.  Shakespeare
32.  Madeline L’Engle
33.  Lois Lowry
34.  Paula Danziger
35.  Judy Blume
36.  Lois Duncan
37.  Antoine de Saint Exupery
38. Anne Frank
39.  Mark Twain
40.  The “anonymous” author of Go Ask Alice
41.  Dylan Thomas
42.  George Orwell
43.  Ray Bradbury
44.  Charles Dickens
45.  Charles Baxter
46.  Tracy Kidder
47.  James Baldwin
48.  Douglas Adams
49.  J.D. Salinger
50.  John Steinbeck
51.  F. Scott Fitzgerald
52. Flannery O'Connor
53. Sandra Cisneros
54. Oscar Wilde 
55.  Tom Stoppard
56.  Samuel Beckett
57.  Sophocles
58.  Gabriel García Márquez
59.  Alice Walker
60.  Tom Robbins
61.  Erica Jong
62.  Franz Kafka
63.  Margaret Atwood
64.  Grace Paley
65.  Jamaica Kincaid
66.  August Wilson
67.  Kurt Vonnegut
68.  Joseph Heller
69.  Tony Kushner
70.  Sherman Alexie
71.  Cindy Crabb
72.  Toni Morrison
73. Sarah Schulman
74.  Maxine Hong Kingston
75.  bell hooks
76.  Louise Erdrich
77.  Rebecca Brown
78.  Junot Diaz
79.  E. Annie Proulx
80.  Raymond Carver
81.  Stuart Dybek
82.  Ron Hansen
83.  Angela Davis
84.  Audre Lorde
85.  Alice Munro
86.  Walter Dean Myers
87.  Thomas Kuhn
88.  George Saunders
89.  Lucille Clifton
90.  Octavia Butler
91.  Andrea Barrett
92.  Charles Simic
93.  Jacqueline Woodson
94.  Yusef Komunyakaa
95.  Chris Crutcher
96.  Lisa Delpit
97. Neil Gaiman 
98.  Joan Didion
99.  Anne Carson
100. Jonathan Swift
I am finishing up issue #1 of a real-life paper zine about this list, entitled The Hundred Most Influential Writers in My Life to Date, As Best I Can Remember and Mostly Not Including Zines. Blogs are great, they do their job, but I think a paper zine is the ideal format for this project. If you'd like a copy, please email me for more info.