Now all my ads are for comfy shoes.

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The other night Eric and I went out for crab. I tequila-ed myself up a little and ended up posting some crazy (for me) questions on Facebook like hey you guys should I get bangs? and hey, I am all about that comfy shoe work life, should I buy some clogs? I’ll just let that sink in for a minute: when I get get my buzz on I suddenly have the courage to ask my peeps about my top secret heart-yearnings for a new hairstyle and supportive footwear.

It’s kinda hard bein’ Snoop* D-oh-double-G.

Anyway. I have two weeks left of summer. I am trying hard not to spend them only eating Red Vines and watching The West Wing. But my annoyance with the terrible, no good, very bad dialogue on True Detective this season and the fact that there were only two seasons of creepy/wonderful show The Fall on Netflix (which we gulped down in three days) is making me crave some good ol’ fashioned (if drug-fueled) Aaron Sorkin West Wing walk-and-talk writing. I don’t even care that The West Wing seems in hindsight to present an idealized notion of America, a Bizzaro World to counter our worst summer of news in forever. Nope, I don’t care because it’s my escape. There’s a drought in California and all the plants are dead and about to burn up and everyone is cranky and it’s making me hate everything. The West Wing feels like happy. It can’t be tough feelings around the clock.

I am reading still, a lot. I am trying not to write only about reading, though, since it seems like that’s turned into most of my whole deal. I will briefly mention that I started War and Peace and I am reading it with a pen in my hand to make my brain pay attention, and I am only reading about 20 pages at a time so I don’t get sick of it. It is all kinds of wonderful. It begins in 1805, when Napoleon was stomping around Europe but hadn’t yet decided to march into Russia (which we know ended really great for him). I should not be surprised, but Tolstoy’s writing is just delicious. I love it, and I love that I’m not reading it for anything. Just for me. Bonus points for surrounding myself with a cadre of patient and generous history teacher friends. I called Kitty the other night to ask something about upper-class Russian perceptions of Napoleon in the years before he invaded, and that’s not really something odd for me to do in our relationship.

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The kids are great and about to start 5th (Henry) and 8th (Addie) grades. The other day I stumbled on some pictures from when Addie was about to start 5th, and the moment was so vivid in my mind, it felt like it just happened. It’s true what they say: the days are long but the years are short. The start of school feels a little less scary for our whole family than it did last year–I’m glad Miss Roo will be in the same place and I’m glad she never has to do 7th grade again. Henry is fine and will continue to be fine; he has confidence in spades. For him, now is about figuring out when it’s okay to be funny and when he maybe needs to cool it a little. But this feels like it will be a year of just doing what we know, which sounds, frankly, fantastic. Though I’m not looking forward to living by a bell schedule again in two weeks at work (it’s been so nice to use the restroom whenever I want!), this year will be easier for us as a family because we all know what to expect.

*P

Days that count

UntitledI’ve been a real peach this summer. A cranky brat.  This, as most of my peevish moods, came out of a dumb assumption. For sure my hysterectomy was only going to put me down for a few weeks, right? That’s what I thought. Then everything would be normal summer awesomeness: bike rides, daily swims, short trips around the state.

Nope.

I have spent most of this summer building a wall of books around myself–I’ve read 14 books in six weeks–and reading so voraciously that something feels wrong about it. Reading has been a way to fill my time and avoid thinking too much about all the adventures I’m not having. Last year’s dizzy summer of travel is still fresh in my mind, while this summer I have done a whole lot of zero, and I’ve been angry. A pouty, unreasonable, frustrated anger. Let’s call this a tantrum.

Poor me. I know. This is nothing. It’s really nothing. But right now it’s my something.

Anyway, it’s getting better. I’ve had some days, in the past week or so, that count, and make me feel like I’m moving. Yeah, I’m thankful for all of my days and they’re a gift; the healing, boring days are just harder to appreciate. It’s a stagnant state of I’ll-be-happy-when, which is, frankly, shit. I don’t like waiting, and I don’t like it when I struggle to find joy in the moment.

In the past week I’ve had three really good days, three days that meant I could forget that waiting. First, a funeral for a friend’s mother. Not that funerals are any reason to celebrate, but it put things in perspective. It was sad, but it was so lovely. Such a positive remembrance of the way that one person affected so many people in her life and made each person who knew her feel special. That day was also filled with people I haven’t seen in a long time. It ended up being a reunion of sorts: the kind of day when you laugh and tell stories and don’t watch the clock.

Second: Tuesday I took a solo day trip to our family cabin. I dropped our kids off with their grandparents and drove another half hour to my happy place. I haven’t been there alone since I went to finish my thesis in 2013. I spent most of Tuesday staring at the water, reading, and dozing in my chair to the white noise of water on rocks. I feel whole there. If a place can be an antidepressant, this river is it.UntitledUntitled
Third: I had lunch today with some friends–all retired teachers from my school. It felt like being normal. It felt good to laugh. It felt like an actual reason to get out of the house, but not the kind of day that means being worked up. Today was ordinary, but joyful. And another reminder that the people in my life are so great. I also had a decision about work to make today, and the day ended with one of these glorious friends telling me that no matter what, everything is going to be okay.

It doesn’t get any better than that, if you’re wondering.

I’m beginning to feel like a person again, and less like a body whose sole purpose is to sit still and knit together. If I’m being honest, I’m still shaking my fist at the sky a little because I know I won’t feel 100% until the day I go back to work. This entire break will have been an exercise in patience. This was not a fun summer or even an interesting one. But tonight I’m thankful for a few days that really count.

Binge

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Do other people read because they’re lonely? They must. I wonder if there’s a point where this is not okay. If it can be too much, an excess, unhealthy. If books are a way to avoid the mess of human interaction. I’ve read 12 books in the 4 weeks since my surgery. 12 books is more than I read the entire year before I started my MFA. I attach myself to characters. Not mistaking them for real, but often allowing myself to like them more than people. In fact, I like them better because they’re not. They require only observation.

Reading as meditation: It’s tough to sit still. It’s tough to ignore the phone, the hope that someone is thinking of you. It’s tough not to check Facebook. (Facebook is good for making yourself feel busy, loved, important.) But it gets easier to read for long periods of time if you do it every day. My mornings alone on the couch in the dark with a book and a cup of coffee and a flannel quilt bring me peace. They make me feel comfort within my own frame. A churchly calm. An ease of breath that is too often a struggle to find.

Reading as chore: Tell me I have to read it and I will hate the text. Try to trick me into learning something—something prescribed, clever, something that’s about your box of crayons rather than me being able to feel the book in my own colors, the way I know sunshine, or sadness, or the taste of homemade jam—and I will hate you.

Reading as rebellion: I can read anything I want. I say what it means. My authority comes only from my having read, my perspective is only as relevant as my own voice. (Ridiculous, meaningless, intoxicating and terrifying power, our voices.)

Reading as Invisibility Cloak: Don’t bother me, I’m reading.

Reading as shared suffering: File under: College Prep English Anthology, 11th grade (Colonial American Stories That Teenagers Will Not Enjoy). See also: Textbooks, Teacher Preparation Programs.

Is there a way to abuse books? To use books as a crutch? I’ve gotten so good at inserting them into the pauses between activities in my life that I find it difficult right now to be alone with this much time. Difficult to not read. To stop the frenetic tumble of words. I find it challenging to sit still, to heal after my surgery. I am lonely, but I don’t want to reach out. So I read and read and read, and in this way, am I’m more than alone, choosing characters over even my own company? I’m gulping down other people’s words, filling myself with things I can’t possibly digest.

Reading as a way to document experience: The books I remember best are the ones I can place in space and time. I listened to A Tale for the Time Being on the train in France. I read The Grapes of Wrath by the pool in Rancho Mirage. I read Middlesex at my parents’ while the kids were swimming. I read Gone with the Wind in the window of a hotel café next door to a teachers’ conference I was enrolled in, but ditching. I read John Adams in the car, at the public pool. Dichotomy of content and place make the reading even better.

Reading as physical act of love: The comfortable space between you and your spouse as you sit near each other, lost in stories.

Reading as impossible dream: The more you read, the more there is that you haven’t read.

The mannerisms of my reading are ridiculous, even when I read for fun. I’ve stopped pretending I want to read like normal people; I indulge my weirdness. I fold down the corner of every 50th page before I start. One hour of reading, each, a way to know how much is left. I read with my pen in my right hand, and I chew on the cap or scrape it gently against my lips. I read with discipline that’s almost militaristic, each hour allotted by to the teal blocks of time on my calendar, but this structure allows to indulge myself. My process of understanding what a book means is very woo-woo, very feely. As I’m reading I’m often more aware of the thing of the book than the detail. Embarrassingly so. I will forget dates. I will forget names—I often have to underline these for myself several times until they stick, check them three times before I submit a review—but the thing of the story comes to me like the steady time signature underneath the music. (Alternately, this is sometimes the cacophony of a discordant narrative.) The thing is like a waking dream, an exchange between me the person who wrote it. And maybe that’s just crap I tell myself, and maybe the thing has nothing to do with the thing they wrote. But I don’t question it. I just let it be, let it be something I feel. And then I type the quotes and then I really know. And I write it, or I try to get as close as possible. That thing.

Reading as a way to spy: How many times have I tried to see into the people I admire by trying to absorb their words? Both those they put down and those they pick up: equally enlightening.

Reading as marathon: A little a day actually makes significant progress. I am always shocked and pleased to find myself at the end.

Reading as sleep aid: When I read at night, I get sleepy in the background. I can’t help it. I’m too much in the story and my body quits. Every time. I should read more at night since I’m a terrible sleeper. I should let it happen. But I resist it, almost because I know it works so well.

Reading as currency, status, course of study: Resume.

The more I read, the less I feel purpose in my teaching job. Or more accurately, the less I believe in how it’s been defined in practice. The more I read, the less I think you can make someone read or deceive them into caring about a book or writing down what it means in a way that fits into a box. What I like, I like. What I don’t like, nobody can change. In fact, searching out more of what I like and defining what I don’t has made every book I read more pleasurable. Even the ones I hate. But we (English teachers, high school, mostly) don’t generally allow kids to hate the thing they read, or we haven’t given them the tools to hate a book and still read it. To hate it and to know why. So many people in my profession are afraid of what will happen if we let kids admit that a book for the class is boring. It goes against everything we need to tell ourselves.

I’m not sure how long I will keep up my reading sprint this summer. Maybe this is some kind of training I need so I can come out on the other side with a skill, a realization. Maybe it’s just filler, the carrot onstage in Waiting for Godot. But it’s eating at me.

Summer Reading List

I love summer reading. Most books are better read outdoors–a phenomenon I became aware of during my preteen cat mystery obsession. Sacramento summers provide lots of opportunities for sweaty outdoor reading while guzzling ice water.

Since high school I’ve been using summer to get ahead on my work. There never seemed to be enough time to read everything during the school year, so summer became about preparation. Getting things read so they were off my plate. This didn’t change when I started teaching, and grad school necessitated that I read ahead so I could meet all my deadlines. But the other side of summer reading is freedom. When you decide at age 13 that you’re going to teach English (then write stories, then review them), your normal life is going to mostly be about assigned reading. So many of my summers were the only time to read what I wanted to read. As an adult, I try to make my summer reading list a mix–getting ahead and indulging in something fun. This year is no exception.

What’s on my summer reading list this year? Books of all different types, it turns out. And–as always–the hope that I’ll get through one monster, one Big eFfing Book. The BFB.

Car Buddies

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I happily let Colin Firth read this story to me as I ran errands in my car: Graham Greene’s moody and obsessive 1951 novel, The End of the Affair. I’m haunted by this book in a really good way. Something about Firth’s accent and the structure of the story (maybe the cold way these lovers regard each other?): it begins at the end of a relationship, and it unwinds slowly. I couldn’t get enough. This may be unrelated, but Mr. Firth is invited to drive around with me and tell me any stories he’d like.

Learning Things

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The opportunity to interview David McCullough about his book, The Wright Brothers, for Goodreads was a huge surprise. And he was delightful–speaking with him ranks as one of my favorite experiences, ever. It also earned me more cred with my best friend, father, and grandfather than I could’ve ever hoped for. But even though I was familiar with Mr. McCullough’s work and a huge fan of the HBO series based on his biography of Adams, I hadn’t read more than fragments of his other books. So lately I’ve fallen into a nice rabbit hole of American history. His style is so conversational and easy, and it’s lovely to read to learn about something. I’m not sure if that makes sense? I hope everything I read makes me a little smarter, but usually I’m reading for style and literary content. I’m usually learning about feelings. It’s nice to read for information. It feels like it uses a different part of my brain. I love history, and I’ve loved every page of his work I’ve read.

The Wright Brothers is exactly that, the story of the two Ohio gentlemen that changed the world. The Greater Journey is about Americans in the mid-1800s who went to Paris to learn everything they could; they wanted to go and study so they could bring back art, medicine, and culture. Since I was in Paris almost a year ago, this was really fun–I could picture exactly what parts of the city he was writing about, and I had no idea about most of the history in the book. John Adams was fascinating, and besides giving me even more respect for the relationship President Adams had with his wife, Abigail, it was such an interesting look into the early American experience. It gives me hope that we were so messed up then and we still managed to make it work.

I’m hoping to dive into 1776 next.

Core Work

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Lately I am acutely aware of the relationship of all stories. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m writing this series for Ploughshares, so I’m searching out connections, but I have felt for the last 6 months or so like I’m building a lifetime independent study course. I read things for fun, but even the things I read for fun end up circling back to things I’ve studied. Eventually it’s all material for the same project. This is kind of exciting, if you think about it–I just read this article about biliotherapy and how sometimes books are prescribed to people for various conditions. But I’m thinking of this in a looser sense–I’m building the kind of person I want to be, and accessing the information I want to know. It’s all working together.

So. In that vein, I read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. Mostly, I was just curious, since the Arab’s perspective in Camus’ The Stranger is certainly something I’d discussed with my AP students. Camus was huge for me in the years I taught AP English. I talked to Literary Disco about the book just last year. But I’m curious about anything that examines a story from a different side. I read it just for fun, but by the time I finished the (short) novel, I had pitched it as a post. I had too much to say to keep it to myself. So that’s coming soon.

My Brilliant Friends

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Do you ever read books just so you can fit in with your peer group? That’s what happens when you go to grad school. If someone reads a great book, you read it too, so you don’t feel like the dumb one the next time you’re all standing around chugging martinis. Well, you still might, but at least you’ve read all the cool things. You can nod with authority.

My friend group has such good literary taste and reads so voraciously that I can barely keep up. But I finally had time to read Emily St. John Mandel’s excellent post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleventhe other day, and it did not disappoint. And if you like Shakespeare (me!) and Star Trek: Voyager  (me!) there’s a few details that might make your day. My friends, as usual, were right. Station Eleven is thoughtful and well-written. Up next in Books My Friends Said Were Decent is the first in the Neapolitan novels series, My Brilliant Friend. And yes, I do have to look up how to spell Neapolitan. Every time.

Real Work

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I had pitches accepted to review both Phoef Sutton’s Crush and Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness in translation. Neither one of them seems like it’s really going to be work to read. Sometimes I can’t believe that reading books is my job.

BFB

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Every summer I read something enormous, something that I think is too challenging for me and something that I want to read just so I’ve read it. Like running a marathon. Summer offers the opportunity to get through something that will take me a looooong time. Something I need to walk through carefully. Slowly. Methodically.

I haven’t decided yet what the BFB will be this year, but right now the two front-runners are Infinite Jest and War and Peace. Really.

Aim high, kids.

I Don’t Want Another Mockingbird

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 1994, as a high school sophomore. It changed me. It was the first book that showed me that stories offer clues about humanity, that they’re full of meaning beyond the literal. That they tap into a need for connection that we feel deeply beneath the narrative. I don’t exaggerate when I say it was reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Ms. McMichael’s 10th grade English class that opened my eyes to the world of literary analysis. I didn’t know I would be a book critic then, but that book certainly set me on the path, and before that it set me on a path to being an English teacher. I wrote my first successful essay on Mockingbird, an exploration of why Mayella Ewell’s carefully tended flowers–red geraniums–mean that she wants more than her sad life. About Lee’s choice of flowers–such hardy, indelicate blooms–that show how everything about Mayella is rough, even the natural beauty that surrounds her. Harper Lee’s book was the first one I wanted to explore, discuss, write about.

Because of this, I’m well aware that my feelings toward the book aren’t neutral. When I started teaching high school English at my alma mater in 2002, I was excited to share Mockingbird with my students (and my heart melted a little if they didn’t love it as much as me). Mockingbird remains a part of the curriculum. It’s a rite of passage. Every student that’s passed through my school has–if not read it–at least endured the expectation that he or she should know this story. It’s cultural currency that we want our students to have.

So in light of this, my reaction to yesterday’s news about another Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, wasn’t so happy. I felt excited for the first few minutes after I heard the news. But my glee faded quickly as I thought about what a sequel (even a related book written before the one we know as the first) would really mean. Sequels almost never hold up to the original. More isn’t always better.

We want more from the world of our beloved characters, but the truth is often less appealing than what we can imagine. It’s too prescriptive. Full disclosure: I don’t read fan fiction. I don’t generally like sequels penned by different authors. It makes me sad that J.K. Rowling has broken her word about not writing anymore Harry Potter stories. Even if a series is imperfect (as I mostly expect it to be), I’m happy for it to be over.

Chasing after more of a character is chasing after a want that can never be fully fulfilled. Once we see Scout as an adult, we have to live with knowing that she was someone else to Harper Lee than she to us. I like to imagine her in her ham costume, her future wide open. I’m free to make what I want of her childhood, of her revelations, and of the meaning of the book itself. I’m free to imagine that Scout is in some ways, like me, and that I can absorb the lessons of her childhood as my own.

Do I imagine the world beyond the known world of books? Outside the boundaries of story? Sure. But that’s part of why fiction is enjoyable. What we learn in a finite narrative is measurable; the lessons of life are not. Fiction has arbitrary bookends of structure, and they are not the same bookends of birth and life that set the narratives of history. The rhythms are different. Fiction isn’t real by virtue of its form if not just its truth, and I would argue that the very fact that it’s incomplete is part of why we like it. We don’t want to know how Gertrude came to fall in love with her murderous brother-in-law or see Walter White teach Chemistry before his diagnosis. Partially, because these things are boring, and we spend our own lives in boredom. But partially because fiction is concentrated magic.

Also, this. One of the hardest things to learn about being a writer is how to edit. Not what to say, but what not to say. Which details to choose and which to leave hidden to your reader. There is a reason this novel was put in a drawer. And now, by all accounts, Harper Lee isn’t healthy.We know her sister protected her until she died. By publishing her novel now, I think we ask something of her that she might not have the capacity to handle: we ask her to abandon earlier ideas of editing, of choosing what is most poignant or most right, in order to satisfy our own greed for consumption.

I’d rather have something brief but wonderful than a glut of sub-par.

That’s what this is, right? We can’t get enough of a good thing. We can’t accept the work that Harper Lee gave us and be a good steward to her legacy. We can’t be a good steward to old ladies, either, because we want the brief illusion that we can quiet our urges to know everything. I don’t like what that says about us.

Miss the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird? Maybe you should just read it again.

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