Book Giveaway

Book Giveaway

I have a thing about bananas.

Because they are my preferred breakfast food, I need to have them in the house at all times.

If we are out of bananas, or even if we are running low, I can’t relax. If need be, I will zip down to the grocery store after dark, just to grab a bunch.

Sometimes, the next morning, I don’t even eat one of those highly important after-dark bananas.

It’s just that I needed to know they were there.

In case.

I am this way about coffee, too.

Oh, NOW you’re nodding at the screen? You thought I was a little bananas when it came to the bananas, but somehow when I substitute the word coffee, then crazy becomes normal?

To be honest, I have a fair number of things — beyond bananas and coffee — that are integral to my innards feeling peaceful. if the stash of wine is getting low, I need to make sure more wine comes into the house. If the sweets are looking sparse, I won’t rest easy until supplies have been replenished becauseTwizzlersarefundamentaltohappiness. This is true even if I’m going away for the weekend: I feel low-level anxiety if I don’t have snacks along.

Just in case.

This need for security extends beyond just food, of course. If I am packing for a trip, I want to be sure I am bringing along all the possible pairs of shoes I might want. Or if I notice my container of body lotion is running low, I feel better if the replacement is in the house even a week before I need it.

What’s bizarre is that I’m terrible at looking ahead when it comes to predictable, daily life tasks. We are so fortunate that my husband handles our meals because I am absolutely someone who at 6 PM every day, if I were in charge of getting the kids fed, would look around the kitchen and ask, “What you mean dinner?”

The impellent “I will need it; do I have it?” thrum that demands I stockpile, at all times, a full inventory of unnecessary items might indicate I have a tendency towards hoarding. Or maybe I have it in me to become a Doomsday prepper. Or maybe I have too much leisure time. Or maybe I’m just a mother and a woman who’s getting older.

Perhaps we can just accept that this condition exists within me, and leave it there.

I have to say, though, that the impulse towards readiness did help occupy the weeks of anticipation before my recent surgery. Because I wanted to do the surgery during my Spring Break, I scheduled it several months out. Doing this gave me entirely too much time to get worried and anxious — and to watch videos on YouTube at 1 AM in which wild-eyed people who had undergone rotator cuff repair detailed their recoveries. I also had too many weeks to read blogs written by those who had undergone the surgery and to talk to people around town about their experiences with it.

Fortunately, anxiety can be channeled into constructive action. As I counted down to surgery day, I made sure I had in place everything I could reasonably predict I might want or need during the tough days and weeks post surgery.

I had learned that I would not be interested in underwear or bras for some time — because even the simple act of pulling up my pants and getting a shirt on would cause me to break a sweat, and my shoulder would not be able to tolerate the pressure of a bra strap — but when I did feel I could wear a bra again, I would do best with a soft, stretchy one that I could place onto the floor, step into, and pull up my torso with one hand. So I bought a few of those. People had advised me that shirts buttoning up the front would be easier than over-the-head tops; so I invested in a few and also poached a stack from my husband’s closet. I had been told that consistent icing would be essential to my recovery, so I found a system that I could strap onto my shoulder (not that I have used it in the month since surgery: my shoulder has yet to welcome the idea of something being strapped onto it), and then we made some additional ice packs using Ziploc bags, water, and rubbing alcohol. I even had time to remember winter break when I was young and how I would return to school after a week or two off and not remember my locker combination; thus, I entered a note into my phone with my locker number and combination at the gym. As well, in the days before the surgery, I was compelled to vacuum the entire house, scrub the toilets, and make a last ditch effort to get the house relatively clean. Here is evidence of how deep my fear about the surgery ran: I dusted knickknacks.

Then, of course, I thought about all the passive time I would have in bed or in a chair — so many free hours that normally would be devoted to exercise or dickin’ around in the yard or interacting in the world in ways that require the hands. As I considered these hours, it became important that I amass a stack of books, always my best companions during sitting time. I didn’t want books that would make my brain work too hard — hello, Percocet! — but I didn’t want books that were stupid, either. So I read a bunch of reviews online and chatted with friends whom I respect as readers, and I found some titles that would suit. A few of them I got at the library, but a couple of them were not part of the library’s catalog, so I ordered them.

And now, guess what? I have finished one of them and am halfway through the second, and the sun is shining outside, and finally the wind sometimes has an undertone of mildness instead of frigidity, and, well, I’m in a mood for some spring cleaning.

I’m in the mood not to keep these books on the shelf but, rather, to give them away to readers of this blog. I won’t tell you my reactions to either book; the reading experience should belong to you alone. I can tell you, though, that I am at a stage of life where, if I do not enjoy a book, I do not finish it. Both of these books are “finishers” for me.

Here are the two books up for grabs:


The summary on Amazon describes Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass this way:

An enthralling literary debut that tells the story of a young girl’s coming of age in the cutthroat world of New York City ballet—a story of obsession and the quest for perfection, trust and betrayal, beauty and lost innocence.

In the roiling summer of 1977, eleven-year-old Mira is an aspiring ballerina in the romantic, highly competitive world of New York City ballet. Enduring the mess of her parent’s divorce, she finds escape in dance—the rigorous hours of practice, the exquisite beauty, the precision of movement, the obsessive perfectionism. Ballet offers her control, power, and the promise of glory. It also introduces her to forty-seven-year-old Maurice DuPont, a reclusive, charismatic balletomane who becomes her mentor.

Over the course of three years, Mira is accepted into the prestigious School of American Ballet run by the legendary George Balanchine, and eventually becomes one of “Mr. B’s girls”—a dancer of rare talent chosen for greatness. As she ascends higher in the ballet world, her relationship with Maurice intensifies, touching dark places within herself and sparking unexpected desires that will upend both their lives.

In the present day, Kate, a professor of dance at a Midwestern college, embarks on a risky affair with a student that threatens to obliterate her career and capsizes the new life she has painstakingly created for her reinvented self. When she receives a letter from a man she’s long thought dead, Kate is hurled back into the dramas of a past she thought she had left behind.

Told in interweaving narratives that move between past and present, Girl Through Glass illuminates the costs of ambition, secrets, and the desire for beauty, and reveals how the sacrifices we make for an ideal can destroy—or save—us.


The Amazon summary for Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night describes it this way:

Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.

As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.


So it’s spring, and the surgery is behind me, and I’m too busy healing to find the energy to dust books. Help a sister out, and take these babies off my hands.

It pains me to say that I cannot ship these books outside of the United States without the cost becoming prohibitive. Thus, my apologies to readers outside of the United States — but I checked the rates at the post office the other day, and it would cost as much as the books themselves to send them even to Canada.

However, if you are in the United States, and either of these books interests you, please leave a comment below. If you are interested in both books, please leave two comments so that you can be entered into the lottery for both. While it’s enough for you simply to indicate which book you are interested in, I personally would find the comments much more interesting if you also told me about something that you have won before. For example, my husband once entered a corn-on-the-cob eating contest, and after he managed to scarf down five cobs in two minutes, he won a luxe hooded sweatshirt — which he promptly gave away because it was not his style. In truth, very few looks properly complement a chest splattered with yellow niblets.

This giveaway will remain open until 5 PM CST on Tuesday, April 19, at which point I will count up the comments left for each book. If there are 20 comments for one of the books, I will go to Paco or Allegra and say “Pick a number between one and 20.” If the kid chooses the number three, and you are the person who left the third comment for that book (based on the time of posting) you will win it. You get the gist.

I’ll announce the winners next week and mail out the books shortly thereafter.

Okay, it’s time for me to go for a walk. I’m still not driving, but we’re getting low on bananas, so I need to shuffle to the store.


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Books for 13-Year-Olds


Recently, I did some crowd sourcing on Facebook, asking folks for help in coming up with a book that Paco and a couple of his friends — a group of seventh graders — could read for school as a sort of book club. Now, Paco is a persnickety reader. He wanted a book that was either sci-fi or fantasy, but nothing post-apocalyptic, and when it comes to romance, he says, “I find that very boring.”

Two of the three boys are very into playing Dungeons and Dragons, but the third boy is lukewarm about that type of imagination-based gaming. In a certain way, this further restricted the book options — because one of the kids is very literal as a reader while the other two enjoy the fantastical. Anyhow, we were feeling desperate that the three of them could ever arrive at a point of agreement.

Facebook Nation did not disappoint. Within a few hours, there were more than 44 comments and suggestions. Readers do love to talk about books!

After the thread of comments died down, I was approached by a handful of participants, asking if I would ever compile a master list of the suggestions. Quite happily, I started copying and pasting all the ideas into a document. Just as I was finishing the initial copying and pasting, I received a message from a longtime blog reader and now good friend, Jan Indermill.

Pointing out that she had two capable typing hands and a willing heart, she offered to compile the list, along the way adding in further information about the series a book might be from, what kind of appeal the book might have, testimonials from readers — and she even alphabetize the entire thing!

After putting in many hours, Jan sent me the list below. I, personally, have never gravitated towards sci-fi or fantasy, but when so many of my friends and family and former students are enthusiastic about these genres, I feel like I should expand my range. Thus, we will not only be using this list for Paco in the future, we will be using it for all of us.

So, for any of you looking for new ideas of what you or your teens might enjoy reading, here is a wonderfully inspired and comprehensive list. I’ll let you look it over before telling you which book Paco and his friends agreed upon.

Also, I do have this list saved both in Excel and Word, so if you would like me to email you the list as a document, just give me a shout, and I can do that.

Here we go:

Title Series Name Author Other Books in Series Possible Appeal
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy Adams, Douglas The Restaurant at The End of the Universe; Life, The Universe and Everything; So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish; Mostly Harmless; And Another Thing Romance free!
Short Stories Asimov, Isaac  
Entanglement: The Greatest Mysteries in Physics Axel, Amir D.  
Short Stories Bradbury, Ray  
Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury, Ray  
Sundiver The Uplift Novels Brin, Glen David Startide Rising; The Uplift War
The Sword of Shannara The Original Shannara Series Brooks, Terry The Elfstones of Shannara; The Wishsong of Shannara – and more. There are at least 12 books in the series. Detailed fantasy world inhabited by elves, humans, warlocks. Set in the future, the plot (1st book?) involves a search for a magical sword needed to defeat an evil warlock.
Red Rising Red Rising trilogy Brown, Pierce Golden Son; Morning Star Set on Mars
Storm Front The Dresden Files Butcher, Jim 15 novels Private investigator and wizard Harry Dresden investigates supernatural disturbances in modern-day Chicago.
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass The Cinder Spires Butcher, Jim 9 books are planned “Absolutely awesomesauce steampunk book that I couldn’t put down.”
Ender’s Game Ender saga Card, Orson Scott 14 novels, 13 short stories, a gazillion comic books “The author has some crap political/social opinions but his books about that universe are great reads.” “He’s very weird and Mormon-y but has some good books.” “Bad politics; good sci-fi.”
Graceling Graceling Realm series Cashore, Kristen Fire; Bitterblue Parental warning: subject matter could be advanced for some younger readers.
The Sword The Sword, The Ring, and The Chalice Chester, Deborah The Ring; The Chalice
City of Bones The Moral Instruments Clare, Cassandra City of Bones; City of Ashes; City of Glass; City of Fallen Angels; City of Lost Souls; City of Heavenly Fire Paranormal romance/urban fantasy
The Children of Amarid LonTobyn series Coe, David B The Outlanders; Eagle-Sage
Half Moon Investigations Not a series, but the author has told people he plans a sequel Colfer, Eoin No additional books have been published yet “My son laughed out loud while reading” From Wiki plot synopsis: Fletcher Moon (often called “Half-Moon” due to his short stature) is a natural born investigator. Knowing this, April, a girl from his school, comes to him for help in finding a lock of hair that she believes to have been stolen.
Over Sea, Under Stone Dark Is Rising sequence Cooper, Susan The Dark Is Rising; Greenwitch, The Grey King; Silver On the Tree
The Spook’s Apprentice The Wardstone Chronicles Delaney, Joseph 14 books in series Romance free! Tom Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, is apprenticed to John Gregory to become a Spook – a master fighter of supernatural evil.
Pawn of Prophecy The Belgaraid series Eddings, David Queen of Sorcery; Magician’s Gambit; Castle of Wizardry; Enchanters’ End Game
The Guardians of the West The Mallorean series Eddings, David King of the Murgos; Demon Lord of Karanda; Sorceress of Darshiva; The Seeress of Kell
Welcome to Night Vale Not a series — but there’s a podcast!! Fink, Joseph and Cranor, Jeffrey Romance free!
Time and Again Time Series Finney, Jack From Time to Time Stephen King says: “THE great time travel novel.”
The Ruins of Gorlan Ranger’s Apprentice Flanagan, John The Burning Bridge; The Icebound Land and more.  There are at least 12 books in the series, and at least one prequel. Old school sword & sorcery “Imagine if the Rangers from Lord of the Rings took apprentices — what kind of life would that be?” Amazon customer review by EA Solinas
The Outcasts The Brotherband Chronicles Flanagan, John The Invaders; The Hunters; Slaves of Socorro; Scorpion Mountain; The Ghostfaces (publ date June 2016) Humorous writing style – “Snarling bad guys and stout hearted good guys, what more could you ask for?” Amazon customer review by Bill
Flashman The Flashman Papers Fraser, George MacDonald ??18 books?? Flashman is an antihero who often runs from danger in the novels. Nevertheless, through a combination of luck and cunning, he usually ends each volume acclaimed as a hero.
Inkheart Inkheart trilogy Funke, Cornelia Inkspell; Inkdeath Romance free!
The Graveyard Book Not a series Gaiman, Neil Romance free!
Stardust Not a series Gaiman, Neil Romance free!
Good Omens Gaiman, Neil and Pratchett, Terry Parental warning: double check that this is age-appropriate.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley Not a series, but there is a sequel Garner, Alan The Moon of Gomrath (sequel)
My Side of the Mountain George, Jean Craighead
Myths of the Norsemen Not a series, but author has written many works based in other myths. Green, Roger Lancelyn
The Magicians Grossman, Lev The Magician King; The Magician’s Land “13 may be a bit young for this series” High school student Quentin Coldwater attends a college of magic in NYC.
Dune Dune series Herbert, Frank There are five sequels
Stormbreaker Alex Rider Horowitz, Anthony Point Blanc; Skeleton Key and more. There are at least 10 books in the series. 007 style spy stories with a 13-year-old protagonist
Into The Wild Warrior Series Hunter, Erin Into The Wild; Fire and Ice; Forest of Secrets; and more.  There are a gazillion books! 4 clans of wild cats
Rise of the Wolf Wereworld series Jobling, Curtis Rage of Lions; Shadow of the Hawk; Nest of Serpents; Storm of Sharks; War of the Werelords “Imagine a world ruled by Werelords–men and women who can shift at will into bears, lions, and serpents. When Drew suddenly discovers he’s not only a werewolf but the long-lost heir to the murdered Wolf King’s throne, he must use his wits and newfound powers to survive.” Amazon blurb
The Eye of the World Wheel of Time Jordan, Robert The Great Hunt; The Dragon Reborn. There are 14 books, including a prequel.
The Phantom Tollbooth Juster, Norton (illus by Jules Feiffer)
The Stonekeeper Amulet Kibuishi, Kabo There are seven books in the series Graphic novels
Helmet for My Pillow Leckie, Robert
Earthsea Cycle LeGuin, Ursala
The Word of Unbinding (short story) and A Wizard of Earthsea Earthsea LeGuin, Ursala The series comprises 8 short stories and 5 novels
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe Chronicles of Narnia Lewis, C.S
Legend Legend series Lu, Marie Prodigy; Champion dystopian?
The Merchant of Death  The Pendragon series MacHale, DJ There are 10 books in the series Bobby Pendragon, an American teenager, discovers that he must prevent the destruction of the ten “territories”: distinct but interrelated space-time realities.
Dragonflight Dragonriders of Pern McCaffery, Anne and/or Todd Dragonquest; The White Dragon and more. There are at least 22 books in the series. People have empathic abilities with their dragons. And space travel!
Riddle Master trilogy McKillip, Patricia
McKinley, Robin anything by this author “Kick ass female characters”
Wildwood The Wildwood Chronicles Meloy, Colin (of the Decembrists) ? It looks like all the Chronicles are published in one volume? gorgeous illustrations
Elric of Melniboné Elric of Melniboné stories Moorcock, Michael ?17 novels??
The Night Circus Not a series Morgenstern, Erin Romance free! A phantasmagorical fairy tale set near an historical Victorian London in a wandering magical circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise.
Beyonders: A World Without Heroes Beyonders Trilogy Mull, Brandon
Fablehaven Fablehaven Mull, Brandon Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star; Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague; Fablehaven: Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary; Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison Secret nature preserve for magical creatures
Midnight for Charlie Bone Children of the Red King (sometimes called Charlie Bone series) Nimmo, Jenny The Time Twister; The Blue Boa; Castle of Mirrors; Charlie Bone and The Hidden King; Charlie Bone and The Wilderness Wolf; Charlie Bone and The Shadow of Badlock; Charlie Bone and The Red Knight Romance free!
His Majesty’s Dragon Temeraire Novik, Naomi There are 8 books in the series; a 9th book will be published in 2016 Dragons!
Master & Commander Aubrey-Maturin O’Brian, Patrick 21 novels in series; the 21st novel was unfinished when O’Brian died in 2000
Eragon The Inheritance Cycle Paolini, Christoper Eldest; Brisingr; Inheritance A teenage boy and his dragon struggle to overthrow an evil king.
Trickster series especially recommended, but anything by this author is recommended Pierce, Tamara
Pratchett, Terry anything by Pratchett
The Golden Compass His Dark Materials Pullman, Phillip The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Riggs, Ransom Not a series
The Lightning Thief Percy Jackson series Riordan, Rick The Sea of Monsters; The Titan’s Curse; The Battle of the Labyrinth; The Last Olympian
The Name of the Wind The Kingkiller Chronicle Rothfuss, Patrick The Wise Man’s Fear; a 3rd book is promised?
Homeland The Legend of Drizzt Salvatore, R.A. Exile; Sojourn – and more. There are at least 28 books in the series. Appealing to D&D fans?  Follows the boy-child Drizzt, a Dark Elf, to maturity as he seeks harmony in an evil (?) matriarchal society.
The Final Empire Mistborn Trilogy Sanderson, Brandon The series includes two trilogies, a transitional novel between the trilogies, and, apparently, at least one book still to be published. Anything & everything by this author… but Mistborn Trilogy is a good place to start.
Cirque du Freak Cirque du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan Shan, Darren 12-part book series The struggles of a boy who has become involved in the world of vampires
Land Loss Demonata series Shan, Darren There are 10 books in the series. Romance free!
With the Old Breed: At Peleliue and Okinawa Sledge, Eugene
The Mysterious Benedict Society The Mysterious Benedict Society Stewart, Trenton Lee The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey; The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma; The Extraodinary Education of Nicholas Benedict Romance free! Four gifted children. Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire, are formed into the “Mysterious Benedict Society” and are sent to investigate a facility called L.I.V.E. (the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened), run by the brilliant but evil Ledroptha Curtain.
TenNepal, Doug anything by this author Graphic novels
Middleworld The Jaguar Stones series Voelkel, J&P End of the World Club; The River of No Return; The Lost City; 14-year-old Max must rescue his parents from Mayan underworld.
The 5th Wave The 5th Wave Series Yancy, Rick The Infinite Sea; The Last Star (to be published May 2016) Cassie finds herself in a world devastated by alien attack, desperate to save herself and find her lost brother. Cassie’s mission is to stay alone and stay alive. But then she meets Evan Walker, who may be Cassie’s only hope for rescuing her brother–or even saving herself. Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death.

So which book did the boys and up selecting?

They chose the book Storm Front from the Dresden Files series written by author Jim Butcher. It was recommended by one of my former students, a man who is very much into the world of Dungeons and Dragons, weapons, good books, and living life with gusto.

From start to finish: the entire process of finding a book that would satisfy Paco and his friends was fun, energetic, and a great example of a flash community popping up around a common interest. It made me happy.

You know what else made me happy? When I told Paco I needed a feature image for this blog post — something related to books and reading — and he offered to create it. It’s a damn piece of sunshine, that picture. He may be reading adult books these days, but his picture reminded me he’s still a kid inside.

So, in closing, I’d just like to shout: READING RULES!


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Cranky Broads

Upon learning of my career as a teacher of writing, a former college professor wryly noted, “Composition is the armpit of the university.” As had also been the case when he commended Wallace Stegner as the United States’ greatest author, the former professor’s judgment was keen.

Certainly, teaching composition can be inspirational and gratifying. At the same time, it’s a profession of back aches, headaches, exasperation, and drudgery. However, composition courses are the substance of our department, and without them, we don’t exist. To put an even finer point on it, without the money generated by composition classes, a few other degrees and programs at our college would also cease to exist. Because we English faculty each carry a load of 150+ students and bend our necks over non-spell-checked essays for myriad hours each semester, smaller programs–say, welding or machining–benefit from the tuition dollars we generate.

Few things highlight the tight miserliness of my character more effectively than the look on my face when I consider a trades instructor whose entire teaching load comprises a two-student cohort.

Fortunately, I manage to right my attitude when I admit I couldn’t do what the trades instructor does, even with a mere two students (‘tho I daresay our college would get significant coverage in the local newspaper–“Finger Severed on College Campus!”–were I to become an instructor in the machining program. I’d create a one-woman publicity blitz, really). Nor could the trades instructor do what I do, for it’s a rare individual who can employ the subjunctive mood with the precision of a Swiss-style lathe. We each work to our personal strengths.

Also: I chose my profession, and I stay in it willingly, so I don’t have a right to kvetch.

I don’t always stay within my rights. Indeedy, I do kvetch, complain, and snark. These activities clear the professional sinuses. After a metaphorical horking out of the snot, I get back to cleanly inhaling my good fortune.

I do best at appreciating my job when I focus on the heart-moving students; every semester there are at least a handful of them whose personal stories make me cry in the kitchen as I debrief with my husband. I do best at appreciating my job when I remind myself of the autonomy and flexible schedule, two things that are instrumental to my happiness. I do best at appreciating my job when I take a break from marking essays, stretch a crick out of my spine, and think, “I am so damn lucky. I get to live a life of the mind, not the mines. Sure, it’s a life of the mind peppered with strippers and addicts and dealers, but doesn’t every inflated aesthete need that sort of counterbalance? It’s like I’m Valjean, my students are Fantine, and only a genius state employer could assign a salary to that kind of dynamic.”

And I do best at appreciating my job when I get to teach a literature class.

In our department, we generally offer three or four literature classes each semester. Since there are nine full-time faculty and five or six adjunct instructors, there’s not enough lit to go around. Thus, when it comes time to create schedules, we try to give each full-time faculty one literature class each calendar year. It doesn’t shake out perfectly, but for the most part, those without “release credits” (for doing other kinds of work for the college, in addition to teaching) will end up with nine sections of writing and one section of literature during the course of the year. In short, literature classes are the cherry on top of a towering sundae of cause/effect essays.

Even better is the fact that I have been able to teach literature courses online in recent years. Although many justifiably take issue with the online platform, I can make a firm case for the effectiveness of lit classes offered remotely, as there is no back of the room in cyberspace, which creates a class teeming with equal participation from all students; moreover, every contribution students make online must be supported with textual evidence–something that doesn’t happen in a traditional classroom, a place where three students do all the talking, and no one addresses the text when responding orally. Online literature classes are terrific, and they feed my teacherly soul.

But then. Both in traditional and online literature classrooms, sometimes students balk. Some students, usually of a fundamentalist or evangelical strain, refuse to read certain books because their perceived contents run counter to the student’s faith.

You can hear the echoing grate of my gnashing teeth here, yes? It’s fortunate I have a job that provides dental insurance.

I have had a student refuse to read The Red Tent because Anita Diamant had the audacity to re-imagine a biblically based story (“I will take a zero on all the assignments related to this book before I will pollute my mind with a fictionalized account of the Bible!”). One of my colleagues has had students in his Adolescent Literature class refuse to read Harry Potter due to the looming threat of Satan in those pages. These are but two representative examples of a larger trend.

It’s terribly difficult to respond to such students. If I were able to reel out my real self, the response would involve a skull-rattling shake of their shoulders, perhaps followed by a “Snap out of it!” slap across the face à la Cher in Moonstruck. After that, the offending student would be subjected to a three-minute finger wave about how true faith can withstand tests; how belief is strengthened when it considers conflicting ideas; how JesuseffingChrist the Bible as an historical text is already a work of fiction; how fantastical stories of wizards don’t create the black magic that lives in our hearts; how learning to think requires dancing with a capacious variety of viewpoints; how the whole point of college is to push our brains and values out of insulated walls and into challenging wilds.

I reel in my real self, though, because today’s community college students, shored up by righteous indignation and dislike of authority, do love to make an appointment with the dean. Instead, I give them a watered-down version of my reaction to their objections and then, with sadness in my psyche, type zeroes into the grade book or come up with alternate assignments.

In addition to the objecting fundamentalists, there are also the students of literature whose every analysis is rooted in “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” To a certain extent, I’m okay with those reactions because, at the very least, they indicate a connection to the text, and for students who have never read a book in their lives (which is often the case), being able to express “I didn’t like it, and here’s why” is significant. As the semester progresses, I urge students to stop using the first person pronoun in their discussions, for a move to third person point of view immediately boosts the quality of their responses. However, the majority of students aren’t ready to let go of “I”–they literally can’t see it unless it’s pointed out, which is a phenomenon ripe for psychological analysis (“So you can’t see yourself unless someone else notices you?”) and continue with “I think…” and “I liked…” all the way through the final exam.

Most important to me is that they justify their reactions and learn to examine and support their emotional responses. This is the toughest task of all. What I’ve discovered over the years, and I know I’m wielding a brush so broad I could paint a house with a single stroke, is this: retention and graduation rates at community colleges are abysmal compared to those at four-year universities and private liberal arts colleges. The primary reason drop-out rates are so high is that the backgrounds of many community college students make it so they crumple in the face of personal life crises. If an aunt dies, a student might go missing from an online class for two weeks. Last semester, I had a student get a gel shot in her hip, thus necessitating a ten-day hiatus from all online class work–during the days when her research paper’s rough draft, peer reviewing, final draft, and final exam were due. After not completing any of those major assignments in any appreciable fashion, she launched a barrage of messages, telling me how much she needed to pass the class. Apparently, she was able to work at the computer when it came to writing emails. She also was able to post a cute photo of her dog in the “Random Things” folder on the day she was to be critiquing her classmates’ papers. More than anything, she created in me a feeling of gratitude that she’s not my wife because I can’t afford the speeding ticket I’d get as I gunned my way to divorce court.

Both as an individual and a teacher, I find it important to acknowledge that the class continues regardless of what’s going on in the personal life, and if grief or health or meds or bad boyfriends or car troubles or nasty best friends or former addictions or video games or double shifts or evil roommates or tender stomachs or social anxiety or chronic procrastination or lost backpacks or getting fired get in the way, and the student can’t participate in class, then the student should withdraw from the class. If one’s personal life is melting down to the point of incapacitation, then the added stress of knowing one is failing classes should be removed so that focus can remain on handling the personal crises.

More often than not, though, the crises in students’ personal lives are actually just cases of “life happening,” and if they were better equipped to examine and support their emotional responses–skills that come from being students in a literature class, ironically enough–they could arrive at this realization: “My aunt died, and I will miss her forever, and I have a test tomorrow and a paper due Friday, so I can work on the paper in the car while we drive to Indiana, and I can ask my instructor if I can take the test early, after the memorial service, because it’s an online exam, and there’s Wi-Fi at the hotel in Indianapolis. Once I’m done with the test, I can go out to dinner with the family and reminisce about Aunt Mabel’s wigs.”

Truly, I realize compartmentalization isn’t that easy. It’s a skill learned over decades. To a startling extent, reading and responding to literature can help with the process. First, there is an emotional reaction. Beyond that, though, there is a moment of stopping, looking at the larger context, and asking oneself, “Why do I feel this way? Is my reaction valid? Are there other possible reactions? Would it make sense for me to adjust my thinking, given what’s on the page in front of me?”

Beyond the life skills that can be learned from literature classes, students also gain a deeper understanding of human beings and the human condition when they read stories and novels. Woefully often, though, they approach works with very limited criteria for what is “good.” They want happy endings. They want action. They don’t want long descriptive passages. They want likable characters. Were they to read blogs, I’d wager they’d say, “This post is too long. It needs more pictures. Maybe a numbered list.”

It’s my aim to ignore their criteria–gleefully–and assign to them works that are sad, slow, lyrical, full of prickly characters.

Right here, Gentle Readers, I am finally getting to the original intent of this essay. When I started, my plan was to crank out a short, quick post about a few books I’ve enjoyed, notable for their choleric characters. Approximately 2,000 words later, I’m still getting there. Ain’t that the thing about reading and writing, though? It starts with a word and an intention, and before we know what’s happened, we’re somewhere else entirely?

You know what else I never intended to do in this post? Get all meta on your asses.

Quickly, then, let me roll all my previous points about teaching and students and literature into a quick summary: I am never happier than when readers and writers embrace difficult.

Whether it be plot, setting, structure, or character, the best writing is like life: demanding, confusing, flawed, well-intentioned, untidy, and surprising.

Poor dead, bewigged Aunt Mabel never tolerated pap, nor should we.

Aunt Mabel’s wig would have been bobbing madly had she read the article “Novels Don’t Need to be ‘Nice'” in The Guardian, a piece that sums up everything I want students to know about reading fiction: “Why bother to engage with difficult, demanding characters when we don’t have to? This [attitude] is a great shame: it’s reductive, and antithetical to what literature is about … Literature, after all, is not some cosy textual coffee morning populated solely with friends we haven’t met yet: rather, it is a site where the full panoply of human activity may scrutinised – and this isn’t always pretty.”

It is with a gleam in my eye, therefore, that I present to you a tidy list of three books featuring nettlesome female protagonists. They are tough, reclusive, cynical, sardonic, unpleasant, charming, and exceedingly human. If you’ve been on a Nicholas Sparks kick in recent months, I recommend these reads as a counterpoint to the dreck you’ve been consuming.

1. Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett: When I randomly picked up this book at the library, I had no idea it was a sequel. In fact, I read the entire book as though it was a stand-alone, completely taken by the crochety protagonist from the first scene when she slips in her yard and hits her head on a birdbath. Once I became aware of the book’s predecessor, I went back and read The Writing Class and Willett’s other novels. But Amy Falls Down is the best. The New York Times notes,”Essentially, Amy is a character who lives inside her head, and she needs to get out more.” That’s my kind of gal. Crusty. Solitary.

2. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The Boston Globe review deems this book’s heroine, Aaliya, “an utterly beguiling misanthrope” while The Wall Street Journal describes her as “affectionate, urbane, vulnerable and fractiously opinionated.” All I know is that I loved to read her.

3. Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: The New York Times describes Florence as a “congenitally difficult protagonist–so caustic and cold she even walks out of her own surprise birthday party…” While the book as a whole could do more, in terms of establishing Florence as the thinker and feminist she is purported to be, it still effectively portrays a no-bullshit woman who is unwilling to suffer nonsense.


So there you have it: a quick list of three books I’ve enjoyed! Yay! LOL! Thx 4 reading!

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books fear glaucoma sight

Just Where I Am

I’m typing this while sitting atop a brick red duvet, leaning back against a bright-purple down pillow. On the tv is a re-run of the Saturday Night Live hosted by Tina Fey (blogging troubador Furiousball best described her as “one of the women I’d like to lick the make-up off of” some months back); right now, Carrie Underwood, wearing some pleated and atrocious rip-off of a 1950’s cocktail dress, is belting Idol-style and shaking her unnaturally-golden tresses.

Other times, that screen features the mug of Bawbwa Wawters and her View Crew, Craig Ferguson making me contemplate adultery, and Dinosaur King rocking the youth on Saturday Morning cartoons. Oftentimes, the images on that screen bore rather than entertain, making me glad it’s rarely on.

My gaze wanders to the wall-hung quilt my mom made for Dinko (incidentally, the Niblet has also chosen the name “Paco” for himself; to my delight, I get to holler, at dinner time, “Get yer wee rounded tush down here for edamame and eggs, Paco Dinko”).

The fabrics in this quilt are from my grandmother’s old dresses; Grandma started cutting the pieces for the quilt before she died in 1974. My mom took over her project and finished it in 2007. I think it’s a Dresden Plate pattern, and I adore that my mom can sit in front of it and tell a story of her mother wearing a dress made out of the red-and-white gingham, of her mom making dinner in the flowered calico. I look at this quilt and am reminded my mom’s enduring devotion to her own mother. I look at this quilt and am profoundly grateful that it will follow my son into his adult life (Mom made another of these for my Girl, too, so no nattering about how maligned she is).

On the stand next to my side of the bed are a couple stacks of books. On the top of one stack is my reading lamp, which is meant for a desk and casts the beam too low for bed reading. So I’ve hefted the light up to the peak of a stack of five books: a Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (the kids do love hearing about The Showoff Cure), an advance reader’s copy of a book “coming in November 2006” (guess I’m running late); The Boys of My Youth, a Jo Ann Beard book gifted to me by my best reading source and finest galpal; The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser, which I’m sifting through a second time, having just read the light fiction The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (boy, did factual history not restrain that version!); and a book of poetry, Mean Time, a Carol Ann Duffy volume gifted to me last Christmas by one of my favorite blog maidens, Glamourpuss. These are the books that sustain my light. In the other stack on my nightstand, I have my active-reading pile: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral; The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea, loaned to me by a highly-patient neighbor more than a year ago; and I’ll Drink to That, another advance reader’s copy–this one a story of the French peasant who brought Beaujolais to the world. All of these, plus five thousand more, are my posse.

Behind me hangs a big painting made by my kids one sun-dappled Fall afternoon almost four years ago, out on the deck. They made that painting on one of those rare afternoons when parenthood–when having young kids–felt as easy and gratifying as an episode of thirtysomething would have had us believe. Everyone was happy. Everyone wanted to be doing what we were doing. Everyone was in a groove, got off The Mommy, and painted. Even better, they painted their feet and hands and skated across the huge swath of paper I’d taped onto the deck. It was painting Olympics. It was my life as a highly-rated and -reviewed one-hour drama.

Over on Groom’s side of the bed is everything else, for he is not tidy. He gets the clock radio, as I don’t believe in keeping time or getting up in the morning. He gets the Kleenex box, as my nose shouldn’t run. He gets the stack of Presidents of the United States cards, the fleece “sleeping bag” that a stuffed animal is supposed to inhabit, the hand salve, the massage lotion, the condom wrappers, the cough drops. On the floor beneath the stand is a waterfall of Cook’s Illustrated and Gourmet magazines, fleshed out by a book of NY Times crosswords and a curious bit of non-fiction entitled American Shaolin.

All of this visual gratification inhabits one mere corner of our bedroom, one ten-by-ten foot space. Eleven feet out, there is everything else in the world: the desktop computer; the sleeping children (they of huge blue eyes and mouths that only get wiped when I notice the Oreo crumbs); staircase after staircase; uneven ground in the yard outside; cars that take us to new mundane daily tasks and big life adventures; the fifth largest body of fresh water in the world (two blocks from our house…it collects pack ice in the winter and sparkles with diamond dust in the summer); friends I haven’t met yet; traffic weaving helter-skelter across the asphalt.

It’s all out there: what I know intimately; what I have yet to encounter; the changes that will be wrought by future decades.

It’s all out there. For forty-one years, I have always negotiated the world with a certain confidence, even when I have felt a wreck. At least I’ve always been able to open the front door and take off on a restorative run, no route in mind, just winding and turning along new roads and paths, letting the alchemy of waving leaves and unexpected deer and Spring wildflowers turn my dross into gold.

But now, at the moment of writing this, I question my future as a place of easy confidence. Rather, I feel paralyzed by uneven terrain, by all the options and vagaries of the world.

Three weeks ago, my optometrist, after a series of tests, joined rank with my childhood optometrist, who noted when I was seven, “If your eyesight keeps up at this rate, you’ll be blind by thirty-three.”

Actually, the verdict three weeks ago differed a bit (she’d have to be a pretty crappy optometrist to examine this sighted forty-one-year-old and declare me a blind thirty-three-year-old); rather, her musing was, “How are you forty-one with glaucoma?”

At last year’s appointment, she’d noticed a not-completely-health optic nerve, but a follow-up test proved things were still within normal range. This year, though, she saw a notch in one of my optic nerves, even clearer in photos of my eyes then taken, backed up by a loss of peripheral vision in a visual field test.

The diagnosis was veering, rather frightfully, towards glaucoma. She wanted me to come back for a couple more tests.

In the two weeks of waiting for those tests, I put the poor Google through its paces. On the positive side, a diagnosis of glaucoma is no longer what it was 20 years ago: a sentence that one is on a steady march to blindness. In fact, there are ways to treat glaucoma these days, most often with thrice-daily eyedrops.

Of course, the eyedrops have possible side effects. Like darkened vision. Loss of libido. Depression.

So, should it prove to be glaucoma, it would seem that I can keep my vision, such as it is, so long as I’m willing to spend the rest of my life as a dried-up, flattened, stumbling husk of a gal.

During the follow-up tests two weeks later, the doc checked my eyes’ “superior ridge.” The resulting graphic print out shows a suspicious dip in that ridge. On the other hand, other parts of the testing look okay.

The bottom line is that the doc is reluctant to give me a lifetime diagnosis and start me on 50 years of meds unless everything points to glaucoma. Since only 2/3 of the results do, and since the vision decline is so glacial in pace, we’re in a holding pattern.

I’ll go back in 4 months and retest, and freak it if I can’t cram for or cheat on this one.

Trust me, between now and then, and for every day thereafter, well into my audio-book-rich dotage, I’ll treasure even the smallest glimpse of the fakey Carrie Underwood, the assiduously-maintained Barbara Walters, the loving quilt on the wall, the grins on the kids’ faces, the compost bin in the backyard, the puddles in the alley, the cheese melting on my enchilada, the birch trees flanking the trail, the toilet paper as it swirls down the hole.

I am suddenly and profoundly less casual about it all.

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Alison Bechdel books reading Wallace Stegner

Epically Myopic

There’s a reason why I’m legally blind and why, when I’m not wearing my glasses, I mistake the coat closet for my husband. Sure, there’s the whole genetics thing. And, okay, maybe I like hugging fleeces and puddle boots. I won’t even delve into the illicit dalliance I’ve been having with a pair of fingerless gloves. It’d make you blush.

However, the fact that my first lover was a book–and what a skanky pleasure-seeker I’ve become since that first!–is also responsible for my sketchy eyesight. Indeed, many of my best friends are books, to the point that I feel some of them owe me Hallmark cards imprinted with messages like, “Sorry We Sucked Away Your Eyesight and Good Posture, Sis.” In particular, I think GONE WITH THE WIND, which I read 26 times in the fifth grade, and THE GOOD EARTH, which I alternated with GWTW that year, owe me at least a lunch at Applebee’s (they can present their Hallmark envelopes to me over the Tequila Lime Chicken).

Interestingly, even with the fields of black dots that float around as a daily part of my vision (the optometrist says it’s something about snapped, er, filaments), I keep reading. Often, I read crap chick lit. Other times, I read really good chick lit. Interspersed is a wide variety of other genres. I’m an equal-access book whore.

Naturally, some books have separated themselves from the pack of dust-covered johns.

For at least fifteen years, there has been a book I’ve called my “favorite.” Doing this is specious, really, as I can’t possibly have a favorite book, when so many are so excellent and do so much so well. However, when people have asked for book recommendations, I’ve often coughed up the title ANGLE OF REPOSE. I love that book because I love Western stories, and I love books that don’t read like “litt-ra-choor” but rather like rousingly-good tales of human beings being human, and I love what Wallace Stegner does with words. In fact, ANGLE OF REPOSE stands out in my reading life because its pages marked the first time I ever wept while reading, wept from the sheer beauty of the prose. Stegner’s use of language awed and astonished me; he broke my heart open with it.



I’m feeling a bit disloyal to the memory of one of America’s greatest-ever writers, this Stegner, because he’s just been edged out. First, he gets killed tragically in a car crash; then, fourteen years later, this novel of his, so long my favorite, finds itself getting slid over on my shelf…to make room for a newcomer.

Thanks to a gift from one of my best galpals, this last week of reading has caused me to fashion (down in my basement smithy) a new Golden Bookmark to plug into the pages of The Interloper: FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel.

Damn, people, but it’s a great book. It’s great so jarringly that I found myself complaining to Groom the other day, as he waited for his turn to read it, “I just don’t have the right words to tell you how richly and complexly this book is affecting me. I don’t know how to articulate my respect for what this Bechdel broad has done.” And seriously? I think we all know that even when I can’t figure out quite what I want to say, that rarely stops me.

This book has stopped me. I, em, not have way when it comes to analyzing its successes.

Certainly, it’s a memoir. And I do love me a life story.

But it’s so much more than that. For one, it’s a graphic novel.

And, honeychile?

I don’t like graphic novels.

I’m pretty sure, somewhere deep in my closet, I have a buried t-shirt that reads “Graphic Novels: How The Robotics Club Amuses Themselves When the Batteries Burn Out in Their Light-Sabers.”

Sweet Marmaduke, but I don’t even like to read the comics in the newspaper. Just give me some good words, and save your stinkin’ pictures.

Unless, of course, you’re Alison Bechdel, and your pictures enrich and support and elucidate the writing in ways I hadn’t thought possible. On each page, in this amazing book, I found myself reading the text and then diving into the accompanying picture panel for the next beat, urging the rhythm of the story to continue.

Plus, Bechdel manages to tell her story both in linear and circular fashion, coming back on the chronology several times, as she unfolds her realization that she is a lesbian and learns that her father, too, is homosexual.

In the midst of these fairly heavy life events, Bechdel dazzles with her vocabulary (I had to holler loudly one day as I read, “Thank you for using ‘prestidigitation,’ Smart Dyke Lady!”); her wryness (count how many times the can of Pledge appears in panels, as she hammers home her father’s neatnik issues); her unflinching approach (a few libraries in the South, finding their patrons unable to appreciate cartooning of masturbation and girl-on-girl, promptly yanked this book from their collections); her appreciation for how literature can inform understanding of life (for her continued lack of patience with college classes fueled by the pretension that is literary analysis, I kiss her Carhartts).

I’m not necessarily recommending that you gallivant out to the book store or library and grab this book. It might not be your style. Maybe you don’t read much. Maybe you have other priorities, like seeing which couples are “safe” on DANCING WITH THE STARS or, um, playing solo fooseball, racing back and forth from side to side to make the little men spin. Or maybe you do read, but you just like your Louis L’Amour.

So read it or not.

All I know is that I, a prodigious book-devourer, have had the enormous pleasure of apprehending, this past week, that my best reading isn’t behind me; that there are whole new ways to read that I’ve never before relished; that, at age 40, I am still plenty limber enough to kowtow before an author of greatness.

As I lay here on the floor before her, clutching her book to my bosom like a talisman–and wondering why I don’t bother myself to chase after the dust bunnies with a broom more often–I tell you this:

Alison Bechdel has left me humbled and breathless.

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books Halloween Mo Willems Niblet reading

Harvest Recipe

Take one locally-grown 4-year-old bubbie:

Mix in a little Mo Willems’ KNUFFLE BUNNY:

Shake vigorously.

Months later, after ripening and fermentation, when the wee bubbie subsequently suggests making a “gravetomb” (preschooler speak for “tombstone”) to decorate the yard for Halloween, gently fold in the question, “What shall we paint on it? R.I.P?”

He will figure out, with scant 1/4 cupful dollops of explanation, what the R., the I., and the P. stand for, ultimately decreeing, “No, I don’t care if the people under the ground are left in their peaces. I know what we need to paint on it.”

With that, his half-baked idea will hit the jar:


So for all of y’all who leave your porn propped open on the Fisher Price Rescue Hero Command Station, knock it off. Kids pick up what’s in the reading materials. They internalize it. They paint it on their gravetombs.

And wouldn’t it be a shame, this fine All Hallow’s Eve, to have the neighborhood reading on your yard’s gravetomb that “Hot sluts do it sideways”? Even telling passers-by, “Heck, my kid suggested it” won’t keep you from being regarded as the local Larry Flynt.

Keep it clean this Halloween, my dear ghoulfriends. Keep it clean.

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