A long Week

At the end of my post from January 11, I mentioned that in the following week I’d post my version of an annotated bibliography of my favorite Neil Gaiman books. It has therefor been a long week, because right after that posting, I stepped into a space/time vortex and have only just emerged. I am alive, well, and relatively unscathed, sheepish for ignoring my blogging time, and happy to return to posting.

What have I been doing while not posting, you might wonder. The quick answer is that I haven’t been doing anything in particular – or at least, not anything different. At work, I experimented with fresh perspectives on educational relevance and switched up my lesson plans to allow for more kinesthetic learning opportunities. I tried and failed fantastically at letting my students use bottle flipping, one of their favorite pastimes, in a classwork activity. For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided this, I will describe: Take an un-full water bottle and flip it. If it lands upright, or even on its bottle top, then you win – nothing. Just joy, I guess. You will want to try at least five billion times to achieve this balancing act of purposeless awesomeness. Think back to a drinking game you may have played in college of cup flipping, but with no relay race and no adult beverages involved. Lots of noise, big screechy fun – it makes teachers miss the days of pen clicking.

I allowed my students to flip bottles for sentence work. If the bottle landed on its side, they were to write a declarative statement. If it landed upright, they could choose a complex or compound sentence, and if it landed on the bottle top, they wrote a compound-complex sentence. My purpose for this little activity of pain and suffering (for me) was to increase sentence fluency. At the end of each period, students volunteered (and by volunteered, I mean assigned) to clean up the spills, toss out the bottles, and reminded to never speak of this activity again. The kids said it was their favorite lesson from that week – and their quizzes reflected this. For me, two acetaminophen tablets and a 15 minute lie-down took care of the pain. Suffering for one’s art is not always a metaphor, I reminded myself. Plus, we now have those fun fidget spinners to contend with. Do I think they’re useful? Yes, if used appropriately. Do I think they bother the living snot out of fellow students and the occasional auditorially impacted teacher? Most definitely.

In the land of Alwaysliz, I paid taxes as further evidence that I am a breathing adult-like person. I read a whole truck-ton of books as I continue on my quest to read All The Things. I measured out my life in coffee spoons (thanks T.S. Eliot), though not sadly; contentedly grateful for the smaller rituals that make my life all mine.

Back to present day: I am relaxing at home while on my school’s May break. One of the many advantages of a year-round educational calendar is the interspersed week off while still maintaining instructional momentum. Less regression, more concept consolidation. Count me in. Additionally, I can get caught up on projects. Not cleaning-the-garage projects, a week isn’t long enough for that; nope, contentment-building projects like this, reading All The Things, and fresh air.

However, the original “next week’s” posting was supposed to be about Neil Gaiman, and I keep my commitments to myself, however long it takes to do so. I won’t annotate a bibliography of books by Gaiman; there are plenty already written by and about his work. I will simply relay why his work matters to me: he believes in words. Using words matters, and reading them matters, and working with them matters. What matters is that we remember that we can change infinities with words, create and devastate worlds with words, change political systems with words. I’m paraphrasing him poorly, but everything he has written, whether I’ve liked it personally or not, resonates with an appreciation of words. His word choice is no different than the words you and I use; he is just uniquely talented at presenting them. I am grateful for this every time I read something he’s written.  While I don’t know him personally, he appears to be unsnobbish, humble even, in his approach to language, reading, and writing. He writes with the same affection about ghost stories and romance novels as he does about fairy tales and journalism. I respect that. In fact, I celebrate the living daylights out of that.

Gaiman stated, “Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes” (Why Our Future Depends on Libraries Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013). Yep, twenty six letters and some odd punctuation marks and you too can change the world, or at least how you think about it. Woahhh.

Give yourself the gift of some Gaiman time if you haven’t already. Any of his works are wonderful. American Gods has premiered on the Starz network; read the dang book so you can compare and contrast in your noggin rather than let someone else’s vision inform you. Read Smoke and Mirrors or Trigger Warning if you prefer short stories and poetry interspersed with your regularly scheduled novel reading. Read Good Omens if you want a fresh perspective on the struggle between good and evil and why the line between both is a little vague. Read the Sandman series if you prefer graphic novels or comic books. Gaiman lives his literary life in the shadows between myth and reality, of ghost stories and real-life horror. Just read his work. Your brain and heart will thank you.

There you have it: from bottle flipping to taxes to a celebration of all that is Neil Gaiman. it’s been a long week (ahem), but a good one. Hope yours has been a celebration of the things that bring you joy as well.


Book Diva Time: Books about the Fae


Since I’ve rededicated myself to spreading joy where I can, what better place to start than sharing books? I read book lists and recommendations the way others follow their favorite websites, blogs, or book club picks. The challenge for people who are like me — neither exclusively high-brow, nor low-brow, nor middle-brow, but rather some capricious version of uni-brow I guess – we like All The Books. We don’t care if a book is for teens, or for kids, or for people with advanced degrees in physics. Bring it. If it’s well-written, I will read it. If not, I will give it to someone else to read. This is what I like to call a win/win scenario.

I’ve been rotating the books on my shelves for ease of access and reconfigured one to include books about the Fae. I love the struggle between the Seelie and the Unseelie Courts and who’s good and bad — and actually why good and bad don’t really matter in the land of the Fae. The books lend their own rhythm to the mythology of alternate-universe type characters whose morals are inhuman. A couple of my favorites:

Holly Black, the Tithe series. Written as young adult novels, these books are anything but youthful and exuberant. There’s no joie de vivre amongst these pages. In fact, Black captures ambivalence brilliantly. Her characters are compelled toward each other even as they try to tear each other apart. Of course there’s love, but it’s the kind that demolishes universes. For those who like their stories badass and complicated, check these out.

Karen Marie Moning, the Fever series. This is a series of stories in which the main character, MacKayla, finds out she has Fae powers as she’s trying to discover who murdered her sister. The pages are loaded with charisma, cheating, double-crossing, and conniving. If you’re looking for an easy-breezy novel set, this isn’t it. Sure, there’s love and betrayal and reconciliation and more betrayal (because, remember, Fae), but it’s rendered with Seelie and Unseelie flesh. Sounds gross; believe me, it isn’t.

A frothy bit of floof you can read while waiting for an appointment:

Skylar Dorset, The Girl Who Never Was. Our main character, Selkie, discovers why no one wants her to know her birthday: she’s half faerie and there’s a bit of a problem with that. She is also in high school and likes a guy who may or may not be human. In other words, this is like the Fever series because our gal discovers she’s part Fae, and like the Tithe series because the main character is in high school. That’s where the similarities end. Where Tithe and Fever are both immersive and loaded with innuendo, out-uendo, and all the endos, this is simple. Kind of sweet. Probably boring to people who want their literature ponderous and complicated. However, don’t hate: some books exist to entertain and pass time. It did for me: I really did finish it while I was waiting at the doctor’s office.

This is not a list of read these books during 2017 or your life will lose meaning. Nope, I’m quite sure your life has meaning already. These are just some fun books you might like to read if you like stories about the Fae, or if you have some bit of free time while you wait in line and/or don’t really need to concentrate. Next week: Legends, myths, and why Neil Gaiman is amazing.


Reading: Not Just for Homework

One of my students came to see me early this morning to say hello, as she does, with her folder full to bursting and protein shake in a Tervis tumbler. She’s been a little quieter than usual lately and I was glad to see her linger by the door.

She told me I was busy and she’d see me later (thoughtful little passive aggressive person); my response was to pull out a chair and invite her to sit. Once she organized her thoughts, her description of her troubles was fairly typical for a person her age. By saying ‘typical’ I don’t diminish what she was telling me. As a gross understatement of the obvious, middle school is not for the weak of heart, and she was experiencing the conflict between trying to accept herself while still fitting in with the expectations of her family and friends. Added to this was her deep-seated (still secret) knowledge that the thing she most loves to do is read.

I forget that the stereotypes of those who love books runs counter to the propaganda in the media. Here is a wonderful person bursting with energy and joy over reading and she feels she must contain herself because she is too bookish for her family, not girly enough. I haven’t personally experienced that type of pressure to fit in, but I saw in her brown eyes her passion and the fear that she was somehow behaving “incorrectly” (her words).

This ball of person-ness is at a crossroads between who she is and who she wants to be, and I couldn’t tell her the truth: that she’ll deal with this for the rest of her existence, that sometimes it will be wonderful, and sometimes it will be awful, but that she is a fabulous person now who will be an amazing adult. I just want to see her make it with her authenticity intact. I know, high standards.

She shared her ideas about how to be a better daughter, a better friend, and was absolutely confused when I reminded her to be better to herself. “You like to read, so read,” I told her. “Find books that bring you joy, that make you feel all the feels, that lift you up.” She shook her head. “Books cost too much money and I will get in trouble.”

I asked her, “Will you get grounded? Punished?” She wiped a stray tear. “No, but they don’t want me to buy books.”

The solution to this is obvious, but she is a proud person and books that are gifted feel an awful lot like charity to her. Library? Too far away. School media center? Due dates loom too quickly. My bookshelves? No, that would be imposing. Then inspiration: homework. We agreed that she is now going to be reading books of her choice for my class, with homework assignments and tests, the whole works. This is only a temporary solution. At some point, I hope she develops the self-confidence to read with joy, not just because it’s homework.

My New Library

After accepting the fact that my desire to read all the books ever written has impacted my finances, I returned to my local library today for some free words-in-print goodness. I love the shelves upon shelves of awesome at the library: Young Adult fiction over here, Books on DVD, over here, adult fiction and nonfiction over there — all ordered using the Dewey decimal system. The sliding doors even whoosh in a celebratory manner when I walk in. In my mind, the library showcases the slight musty smell of well-loved books, and the soft noise of small children trying their best to be quiet by using their whisper voices: “MOM! LOOK HOW WELL I’M WHISPERING!” I’ve heard on more than one occasion – while I’m in the adult section. With headphones on. I am always proud of my fellow parents who will answer, “You’re doing great, try talking like this now,” before they create a whisper game.

I am only digressing a little since kids and parents feature in this narrative again. I entered the library humming a jaunty tune (off key, Prince for you inquiring minds), went through the lobby, the sliding doors, heard the whoosh – and stepped into the Starship Enterprise. Gone were the juice-box spilled carpeting, the books for sale section, the rotunda of librarians on call, and the cluster of parents with their overflowing baskets of movies and books. In its place was gleaming flooring, computer stations galore, and noise level posters with accompanying directions on how to set the phones. No musty smell, no bounding children (they were in a sequestered section with soundproof glass or something because I saw them tumbling about even as I couldn’t hear them). I felt underdressed because Captain Kirk the librarian was standing at his station looking dapper in his polo shirt and Dockers. Me, I was in my library uniform of denim cutoffs and a slouchy t-shirt.

I was disoriented. With the emergence of Librarian Kirk and his triple-screened computer system, it appeared as though Dewey Decimal System had taken a semipermanent vacation. I found my way over to a computer terminal and began teaching myself how to find the books I wanted. I tried four times before I found the Young Adult section, but at last I found it. You might wonder why I didn’t ask the librarian to give me a tour. I might wonder why you’d ask such a silly question. Teaching myself means trial and error until I can kinesthetically absorb the knowledge. It is the most effective way I have to navigate new surroundings, and these surroundings were bright-sparkly new. Eventually, I figured out the system. The challenge then became a personal dilemma over whether to get audio books, of which were abundant, or e-books. Many of the classics have been rendered available and check-outable on e-reading devices. Cool, I have one of those, so I asked Librarian Kirk to show me how to check out e-books.

While still slightly bemused, I turned to leave the library, and heard the dulcet tones of a child who was practicing his whispering: “MOM! LOOK HOW WELL I’M BEING QUIET!” Thank you, small human person for reminding me that the more things change, the more constant they are. Leaving the library with nothing but a couple of download code options, I was content.

If you haven’t gone recently, please join me in reading all the books ever written (or audiotaped, or electronically published) for free. I will be wearing my Lieutenant Uhura ensemble the next time I go so I feel dressed appropriately for the occasion.

Modern Romantic Fiction

The Romantic era – that post-Enlightenment phase of literature and expression that embraced both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – knew how to feel the feels. Commentary wasn’t limited to the placid appreciation for love and beauty; it necessarily included extremes in human emotion. Wordsworth may have reflected in tranquility, but Mary Shelley brought horror and rage to the page via Frankenstein’s monster while Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean was a Superman before Superheroes even existed. Given a numeric representation, the characters experienced their fictitious lives at about a 14 on a scale of one to 10.

In modern-day experience, we have romantic characters hanging out with absolute intellectuals who are then tossed in with amoral and/or immoral characters who remind us of the complexity of all humans. We can even drop all these character traits into one setting and call it the Starship Enterprise (tip of the hat to Star Trek). Our heroes are either charismatic mavericks who rely on intuition and sidekicks (Harry Potter, Captain Kirk) — or they can be mutant geniuses who could control the minds of people but who are so clearly good they would never willingly do so (Professor X). The occasional character of ethical and moral ambiguity can enter the fray, but they usually end up fighting for some version of “right” (Deadpool, Wolverine, pick most of the Marvel characters).

Why ponder the Romantic genre? For one, why not, but for two because the notion of romance doesn’t have the same connotation it used to. One of the reasons that literature is so fun is that I like to play connect-the-dots between characters and current events. Whether the good guys are in the Resistance or the morally ambiguous guy wants to tell his beloved that he’s still alive, I take comfort in knowing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jean Valjean may have morphed into The Fugitive and Frankenstein’s monster may have morphed into an X-Man or the Hulk, but our characters are not as desensitized, or as desensitizing, as we might think at first glance. We’re still feeling on a level 14 even as we’re pretending to be all aloof and cynical. Romance novels may have morphed from breast-beating protestations of innocence to bodice-ripping flights of fancy, but people still like it when the good guy emerges victorious.

Bookstores: For those who live out loud

Picture a hazy Saturday morning spent with a dear friend browsing through books at the book store, the only sound punctuating the happy silence the occasional turning page. Then there’s me: laughing out loud, tossing my book in my daughter’s lap to point out a particularly colorful turn of phrase or swear-laden pledge, and her patient response of, “I’m just reading this text, right here. You know, the one in my lap, not yours.” Well, sorry my progeny, momma shares her literature (though occasionally I apologize for interrupting her tranquility).

For those of you who don’t find a book store to be an exciting adventure of awesome, you haven’t gone with me. Where else can you go to find freshly repurposed elephant or rhinoceros poo transfigured into notebook paper? Or refrigerator magnets featuring Jean-Luc Picard face palming his oh so sexy forehead? Or bookmarks that don’t look like my used up envelopes, spoons, pens, or the other flotsam I usually use to mark a page? Bookmarks are cool and all, but I don’t use them. I just admire them. Oh, yeah, then the books.

I don’t care why or how you actually find yourself in a book store, just get yourself there. Used book store, brand-spanky-new bookstore, commercial bookstore – I don’t care, just go. There’s some happy stuff hiding out on the shelves, lining the floor, and adorning the wall space of a bookstore. Do you miss the 60s? You’ll find them again at the bookstore. Love comic books but hate to admit it? Own your personality and get yourself over to the bookstore, where there’s these zany things called graphic novels: kinda the adult version of comic books, but quite a bit more R-rated and much sexier than I remember the Archie comics of old.

The beautiful thing about a bookstore is that nobody is going to judge your nerdy/geeky/sports-enthusiast behind for the fact that you entered it. We’re all there together. I had a great conversation a couple weeks ago with a guy whose political opinions were remarkably different, and we got along just fine. Because, you know why? We’re not jerks, and we were after the same book. Yesterday, I found a fantastic vegan cookbook. I’m not vegan, but I eat food and the recipes were amazing. Sign me up. Though I have never seen this nooch stuff in my life, I’m ready for an adventure.

Those of you intellectual superiority types, get over yourselves. If we’re at the bookstore together, chances are we have something in common. Oh, yeah: printed material. I don’t care if you want to read the 500,000 best novels ever written and I’m over in the home improvement section wishing I cared enough about painting my walls to make them gloriously harmonious, we are in this environment together for a reason, so share some space with me please.

I am not quiet at bookstores, not complacent, not minding my own business. There’s all these happy words bounding through various mediums and you expect silence? Nope. Not happening. I will make eye contact with you and I will ask you what you like about the book you’re holding, not because I want to date you, but because I want to know what you think. For real.

Bookstores are fantastic gathering places of all the personalities and thoughts we have smashed together with greeting cards, tshirts, print art and what-nots. If you haven’t been in a while, go. You’ll find all the food groups in one place: the snack food group, the beverage food group, and the good-for-the-soul food group. See? Bookstores are good for you.

A Book Nerd Trip through the Dystopian Genre

I am a big fan of the dystopian genre. Present me with the framework of a post-apocalyptic society and I’m giddy. I was deliciously horrified by 1984 and Brave New World; I identified with the short story Harrison Bergeron; and more recently I savored the Matched series. The Giver made me cry, but then so did The Hunger Games. Actually, they all did. The notion that any culture would obliterate another or attempt to control the very factors that make us unique sounds a little too much like any other eugenic theory floating around within our more recent and very real histories.

The dystopian genre uses futuristic scenarios to remind us of our all-too human tendency to isolate and/or to create factions (Divergent). In other words, the future is already here, and we’re not doing very well at accommodating each other on the only planet we’ll ever call home during our next bunch of lifetimes. There is no “over there” anymore; the world is a plane ride away and filled with people who don’t share the same philosophies we have.

This is an intentional oversimplification of the complex issues we grapple with as members of the global community. I’ll bring it local for a moment. Think high school, the Greek system, your first internship or job, maybe even your present situation. You are faced with trying to fit into an engine that’s already been percolating along without you, thanks very much. Some people seem to fit in no matter where they go, while others figure the social rules out as they go along. Still others behave as though the landscape in which they’re living is mountainous and they’re without climbing gear. Even here in America where we applaud the maverick who goes against The System, we still have our unwritten social rules. We wear pink on Wednesdays, after all (Mean Girls reference — not dystopian, still fits). We still spend an exhausting amount of energy trying to fit in, or from another perspective, trying desperately to stand out.

The most compelling part of Divergent to me is the clinical method of assigning people factions. Veronica Roth does a brilliant job of turning our most basic descriptors of The Self into forced lifestyles. If I were to ask you the first thing (and one thing only) you think of when describing yourself, you would probably answer with one of the five faction categories: honest, intelligent, friendly, caring/self-sacrificing, daring/brave. She then explores what identifying the self in only one way means for humanity. In short, it doesn’t amount to anything very healthy.

I think that we need to have the dystopian societies fall apart in our works of fiction, whatever the medium, because we need to remind ourselves that we have the capacity to change our futures for the better. Instead of some “out there” faction or political agenda, the thing we most need to shape in order to build a more stable future for our progeny is ourselves. I realize time is a funky concept, but I don’t have the mental capacity to imagine a future that I haven’t in part shaped by what I’m doing in the present moment.

For me, that moment evidently involves baking bread with Amity because the first thing I thought of to describe myself was kind. I can envision myself protecting those I love without a second thought, I can definitely tell the truth, and I love learning, so there’s that; but if I were to go through the faction exercise, I’d definitely have made friends with the doggie. Whatever you’d choose, we need each other working and living together, not judging and fighting apart. Now let’s go have some of that bread.