Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Own Two Feet

I finished Beverly Cleary's second memoir, My Own Two Feet, and I loved it. I'm going to buy it for myself and other people too. I love YA, I read tons of YA, but I don't entirely understand why this book was published as YA. It's the story of Cleary's life after her high school graduation (from Grant High School in Portland!), through her two years at junior college (free!) in California; then two years at "Cal" (now Berkeley); library school at UW in Seattle; a year working as a children's librarian in Yakima, Washington; and her jobs during WWII running first the library at Camp Knight, and then the library at the Oakland Area Station Hospital (previously a hotel she'd gone dancing at when at Cal). The memoir ends shortly after the war does, with Beverly settled as a housewife, first in Oakland then in Berkeley ("I told Clarence I wanted to move to Berkeley. Now."), and finally making herself write. She's always wanted to be a writer, but realizes she never knew what she'd write about. So settled after the war, she remembers "the procession of nonreading boys who had come to the library once a week when I was a children's librarian, boys who wanted books about 'kids like us.'" Henry Huggins comes out of this, and the book ends with Cleary depositing her first advance royalty check.

Over the course of the book, she also marries Clarence Cleary, works as Christmas help at the Sather Gate Book Shop in Berkeley, and when she's working in Yakima, she lives in a boarding house with a bunch of old men, who take turns picking her up at work on the evenings when she has to work at the library until 9.

Clarence's boardinghouse room at Cal is later Dustin Hoffman's college room in The Graduate.

Cleary has a moment in library school when she finally gets the glasses she's known she needed for years, but her mother told her to drop out of college instead (apparently glasses are so horrible? Her mom is weird), so she went without. "When I put on glasses and walked out onto the street, I walked into a new world. I could see individual bricks on buildings, street signs were suddenly legible, lines on the sidewalk were sharper."

In Yakima, she is confused when children call her "Stir," but another library employee explains that the Catholic school kids are "in the habit of addressing their teachers as 'Ster, short for 'Sister.'"

During the war, when working at Camp Knight, she notes that
Men from big cities spoke contemptuously of "those farmers" and looked down on fresh-faced small-town boys from the Midwest who saw war as an adventure. This did not sit well with me, once a farmer's daughter, and I finally snapped at one man, "You eat, don't you?" After a moment of startled silence, he said apologetically, "I never thought of it that way."

There are so many anecdotes and details in this book that I loved. When running the army hospital library, Cleary orders The Impatient Virgin, Tawny, and other books by Donald Henderson Clark, "an author I had never heard of," often requested by enlisted men who "pounce" on these titles, "usually saying, 'I didn't think you would have these.'" The Multnomah County Library doesn't have anything by him, but I'll track something down--I'm curious now.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Beverly Cleary

I am sure I tried to read Beverly Cleary's memoirs back in the day. Ramona Quimby is one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. I love the books about Ramona, and while I only owned Ramona Quimby, Age 8, I checked the others out from the library over and over. I also read Cleary's other books multiple times--Ralph S. Mouse was so important for a while, and Leigh Botts, the hero of Dear Mr. Henshaw, still is very important.

But I must have started the first memoir, A Girl From Yamhill, and just found it boring. I don't think I ever made it as far as My Own Two Feet, which is a lot better. A Girl From Yamhill is Cleary's early memories of living in Yamhill on a farm--until she's like six--and then her life in Portland until she goes away to college.

So I think I never made it out of Yamhill. The part of the first memoir that takes place in Portland is more interesting. Cleary had to memorize one hundred lines of poetry of her own choice, every year of high school! Awesome.

Cleary talks about how they read Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" and were inspired to write their own:
Shipper of wheat,
Grower of roses.

Feller of trees,
Catcher of salmon.
She was obviously totally my kind of nerd in high school too; she and her best friend Claudine studied their The Century Handbook of Writing and worked the examples of "faulty diction" into their conversations.
Our conversation became sprinkled with gleeful vulgarisms we had never used before. When I announced my presence by noisily tap-dancing on the Klums' wooden porch and probably annoying all the neighbors on the block, Claudine said she was nowhere near ready for school.

"I suspicioned you weren't."

Claudine's reply was something like, "This here shoe-lace broke."
Later, Beverly is dating a boy she isn't that into, and when he kisses her, "Being kissed by Gerhart was disappointing. I had expected a kiss to feel more like the time in Yamhill when I stuck my finger in the electric socket, only nice."

She chooses to recite "Patterns" by Amy Lowell for a dramatics class, which cracks me up. When Beverly rehearses it, Claudine says, "Wow! You're sure brave!"

I'm still reading My Own Two Feet, and loving it. "How terribly--I pulled a word from my reading vocabulary that I had never spoken--risqué. Black lace underwear! Gosh!"

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Chemo sucks.

I have a brain tumor. I've probably had it my whole life, but I found out about it when I got hit by a car in 2003, had a CAT scan, and the doctors were like, "You might want to have that checked out."

I wrote a lot more summary of previous events, but I've written about this so much, so moving right along: I had the tumor mostly removed (my neurosurgeon couldn't get it all because he was afraid he'd mess up my vision), got an MRI every year and it stayed away, moved back to Portland, and after my second annual MRI, the neurologist was supposed to say, "Looks great, see you next year," but instead she said, "It looks like there's new growth," and she referred me to an oncologist.

He put me on a miraculous little chemo pill, and I was on that for almost two years, no side effects, and the tumor wasn't shrinking, which would've been the best case scenario, but it wasn't growing either. I kept living my life. It was terrific.

But then I had another appointment post-MRI; again, the doctor was supposed to say "Looks great, see you next time," and again, he said, "Actually..." So now I'm on the old-school chemo, the hardcore IV stuff. Went in for the first time on Friday, and I'll be going every two weeks... a round of chemo is six weeks, three sessions, but as long as it seems to be effective, I'll keep doing it.

I'm generally a pretty positive person. But I made a list of my least favorite things about chemo:

1) nausea
2) fear
3) the bad taste in your mouth
3) the woman in the chair across from me who says, "What are you here for?" I'm wondering, "Is this standard etiquette? The appropriate topic of discussion?" But I answer her: "A brain tumor." She says, "Oh my god!" which thank you, is not helpful. I ask, "What are you here for?" She says, "Breast cancer" and gestures. Then, thank god, she leaves.

I started making a list of the best things about chemo, and I got as far as
1) Megan going with me

but then I realized that fuck it, I don't have to make a list of the good things about chemo. Chemo sucks.

I See the Promised Land

I just finished Arthur Flowers' new book, I See the Promised Land; A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. Arthur was my teacher at Syracuse University, and one of the many things I loved about this book was how loud and clear his voice was, telling me this story.

Also, there was all this stuff I didn't know, or didn't remember knowing! Like the children of Birmingham and the Children's Crusade in 1963, the kids marching because so many of the adult protesters were in jail.

And the way Arthur tells this story, the details he chooses... there have been a million books written about MLK, but these details were new to me:

During the Birmingham bus boycott, King
ask one old woman walking by if she wasn't too old for this, ask her if her feet not tired.

My feet is tired she say, but my soul is rested.

He like that.

He like that a lot.

Made his heart full to bursting.

He quotes J. Edgar Hoover calling King
"The most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country." Even better, "That goddamned nigger preacher."

He also talks about how King was "dismayed" when the SNCC called him an Uncle Tom, and points out that
(Actually Uncle Tom has gotten a bad rap. Check the text, he wasn't that bad. Did what he could with what he had. Wasn't no Gunga Din.)

The rhythm, the details, the humor. I love that Arthur Flowers.

This is a graphic novel of sorts, illustrated by Manu Chitrakar, a "Patua scroll artist" living and working in Bengal, and designed by Guglielmo Rossi, an Italian designer. There were a lot of beautiful things about the illustrations, and the design was so cool. But it seemed strange to me to have such an American story be illustrated by such a not American artist. I completely appreciate the idea behind it--"Turning King's journey into a truly universal legacy," as it says on the cover--and I would have been able to get behind this idea much more if the people looked more like actual African-Americans and white Americans. Instead, they often look Indian. There are a lot of moustaches. Also, there are many images of political protests--and the protests are holding either signs without text on them, just empty white (which I liked) or signs that appear to have Arabic characters on them. I did a search online and on the publishers' website and was unable to find any information about the language or translations for the text on these signs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Found and Blackbird

I just read Found, by Jennifer Lauck. Lauck was adopted, and according to her, it fucked up her life. Granted, her adoptive family saw some serious tragedy, and her adoptive brother was nasty about Lauck being adopted, but Lauck talks a lot about the essential maternal bond between mother and child, and how much she lost by never bonding with her birth mother as an infant... so she searches for her--this is largely that story. Lauck ends up really coming down hard on adoption practices in general--much of which is valid, I think, but some of it is over the top. I don't know. She's a mom now herself, and her descriptions of her relationships with her kids are pretty great. And I appreciated this:
It is distressing to learn that the U.S. leads the world as the single largest adoption nation. It seems startling to me that Americans are so fast on the scene of international disasters, and we scoop up orphan children and have them adopted into U.S. homes before body counts are added up.

Imagine if a collective of Chinese emissaries rushed to our shores after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina and took off with Louisiana babies. Or say a collective of Australian humanitarians came to Manhattan after 9/11 and hauled away orphans. These scenarios are ludicrous, and yet this is what American representatives are doing under the guise of being helpful.
She goes on to talk about what we could do for kids in crisis situations that would actually BE helpful.


After reading Found I put Lauck's first memoir, Blackbird; A Childhood Lost and Found, on hold at the library, and I've just finished it. Blackbird felt like a more successful book to me--Lauck is still clearly really close to some of the stuff in Found, and I know that for me, it's really hard to write about anything so close.

The best part about it was that yesterday I had it on my desk at school, and one of the freshman girls in my struggling readers' class said, "I read that book! Omigod I loved that book!" She's someone I haven't gotten to know, because she's absent more than she's in school. But it made me so happy. It also made me think again how true this passage is--I'd marked it before she said anything:
Just like that, I'm back in a school again. The thing is, when you aren't like everyone else, when you aren't normal, school isn't real, and that's how I feel here, like it's not real at all. There are other kids and there is a teacher, but I don't see them, don't become part of what they are part of. They belong here and I don't, and that's just the way it is.
I never felt that way about school, but Lauck put words to something that I've seen so many of my students dealing with.

My response to the Stephen Elliott interview at The Days of Yore

Cheryl Strayed posted a link on Facebook to an interview with Stephen Elliott of The Rumpus on a site that features interviews of artists "about the years before they have money, fame, or road maps to success" and "inspires you find your own." Your own money? Fame? I would guess your own road map to success? Anyway I thought it was an interesting interview.

He says this:
I realized there were two types of writers. There were writers that started at a young age because they had something in them that had to come out. These were the spoken word poets, people that…. were writing because they had this scream inside of them and they had to get it out in such a way that someone else would receive it. That doesn’t mean they loved to read. They might. They may or may not have even been interested in other people’s screams. But this is where it came from, their urge to write.

Then there’s this other group of people that, usually in high school, first year of college, they read something that impacts them so much that they want to be part of that tradition. More often, I think you see them in MFA programs. They love literature, so they want to be writers.

One is not better than the other. People come from different places. I was coming out of a need to communicate, because I was in an abusive home and lived in group homes for years, and I didn’t have anybody to tell. That’s always been why I’ve written, to communicate, not because I loved literature.
I’m trying to decide if I disagree with this, or if I’m just afraid that I’m the other kind of writer, not the kind that had something in them. But… maybe some of us are both, somehow. I think I do disagree. I don’t like pronouncements like “there are two types of writers.” I think there are as many types of writers as there are writers. Or almost as many. Also, the stuff I read that impacted me, I read younger than my final year of high school. I always think of Horatio Alger. Except that might not have impacted me in the “I want to be a writer” way. But somewhere along the way, reading Alger and Dylan Thomas and Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl and Tennessee Williams, I decided (realized? understood?) that being a writer was the best thing. You got to make up stories, make up people and actions and places. I’m sure I also had things in me that had to come out, but I also wanted to be a part of the tradition of Dickens and Ntozake Shange. Traditions. Later stuff impacted me, but so did earlier stuff. And I was a writer before the end of high school.

I might have kept writing because of later stuff that happened. Writing might not have stayed as important to me if my dad hadn’t killed himself, if I hadn’t needed that outlet. Except I think it would have.

Elliot also says:
What we think of as talent is actually just the desire to sit alone and write every day. I had my reasons for writing. Other people have their reasons. People write and write for years, and the ones who do it continually every day achieve the ability to communicate their own aesthetic vision.
This makes sense to me. I have known many very "talented" people who quit writing, making art, playing music, doing what they were so good or promising at. I have known a few who kept on keeping on, and some of them are successful now. If you quit, it doesn't matter how much initial promise (talent) you had. If you keep doing it, that initial promise does matter, but you might just trump a lack of initial promise by dedication and perseverance. And luck.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tender Morsels

I just finished Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, which I put on hold at the library when it was pulled from Bitch magazine's list of "One Hundred Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader." I talk more about the list here and here. But basically they posted a list of "100 young adult novels that every feminist should add to the stack of books on their bedside table" on their website, people complained about three of the books, so Bitch "reconsidered" those books and ended up removing them from the list. The books were Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. I read the other two and blogged about them, but a friend had said she read Tender Morsels and it was good but hard to read. I started it, but got cold feet. Living Dead Girl was really hard to read--I didn't want to do that to myself again so soon. So I read all the Ender's Game books (well, five of them, anyhow) and a few other things (Hush, The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson for my bookclub, Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan, Small Gods by Terry Pratchett... um and I forget what else [and I didn't blog about them because I've been finishing my novel]) and then I came back to Tender Morsels.

I thought this was one of the most interesting, thoughtful books I'd read in a long time. About family and the decisions we make because of them: what they want, what we want, what we think they want, what we think they should want. But not only because of family. About growing up, and loyalty, and reality, and the ways we deal with reality. This was wonderfully a book like none I'd ever read. A terrific fairy tale. And yeah, a feminist book, absolutely.