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.