Category Archives: My Reading

How Does Your Garden Grow?

All little kids know that crashing your parents’ bedroom first thing in the morning is inexplicably awesome. When I was that age, I couldn’t wait to invade my parents’ room to get my first hugs of the morning and snuggle. My mom set up a password system for me, though: she’d say, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” And my response: “With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row” — this in a certain half-singing way. If it wasn’t just right, I had to re-do it in order to get my pass to enter.

Of course, gardens are an all too familiar part of my reading life, starting with Adam and Eve, moving to The Secret Garden, and most recently in Standing at the Crossroads. But up until recently, how actual gardens grow in my life is not well; my black thumbs have killed successfully just about anything that comes from a seed, including one or two cacti (!).  The only green item that survived my care was some lucky bamboo purchased for my first apartment, and it lived on for at least seven years before our move to Alaska.  (Maybe the bamboo and I had a special Asian connection?) Continue reading

I’m Starting to Hate Lists

In general, I am a list maker. It gives me a fleeting sense of organization and control, whether that’s making a grocery list before heading to the store, writing out an errands list to spare myself making separate mini-excursions, or even working up a to-do list for the day as soon as I get to work. To me, these lists have immediate use for a few hours, maybe a day, and then they get tossed.

The reason why I am starting to hate lists (“hate” being a relative term, of course) is because I’m starting to feel insulted that a huge percentage of writers (journalists, bloggers, you name it) continue to bombard me, a reader, with lists. 5 Ways to Be a Nice Blogger. 10 Movies That You Should Go See. 7 Reasons Why This Team Will Beat That Team in the Playoffs. 6 Things I Learned When I Went to This Conference. 50 Things You Should Never Say to a Guy. (Cosmo, of course, is one of the worst offenders of The List, though the frivolity of their lists is obvious to most… I think.) As I mentioned up above, I use lists briefly, and toss them; thus, when I read a List that is supposed to be an Article, that’s what I do to that info — toss it. It’s like throw-away writing, except it’s published. Sad.

Don’t get me wrong. In the land of creative non-fiction, list-making has its place, and I understand that. I even appreciate it. It’s the ever-growing mass of public list-making acts that are seen as articles that are starting to stress me out unnecessarily. I actually like to read things that are written out in lovely paragraphs full of solid grammar and often deliciously delightful adjectives. I appreciate the art of a writer working hard to make a transition from one idea into the next one smoothly. Lists-turned-articles are a bit of a killjoy for me… As they are being presented in my universe lately, they seem to take the thinking out of thinking; to me this underestimates the abilities of literate folks altogether.

Yes, I also understand that people have limited time these days — limited time to write and limited time to read, especially if they’re reading from a 3.5-inch diagonal screen. Lists have a way of squeezing themselves neatly into that space, and maybe that’s what lots of people want/need in their day of digesting way way too much information in the first place. I get it. Even if I had some kind of smartphone (I don’t — it’s sort of fun to be a pseudo-Luddite), that’s not my ideal means of getting any sort of reading — even casually — accomplished.

For this girl, this English major at heart, I’m going to have to have to opt for other forms of written creativity. I don’t need to read daily treatises or Bible-length articles all the time (that’s what The New Yorker is for sometimes), but I need something greater than a list to generate my interest these days. To quote the timeless sarcasm of John Bender in The Breakfast Club: “Moe-Lay really pumps my nads.” That’s how I feel about lists right now. Maybe not forever, but definitely for the time being. In the future, I will signal a change of heart when I post a list of Reasons Why I Now Like Lists Again.

All Good Readers Unite

Currently I am working with the 6th-grade students in a 5th/6th combo class. There are 11 of them, and we have been meeting for about 40 minutes per lesson — today was Day 4 of our mini-writing unit. I am asking them to write the time-honored five-paragraph essay. In today’s teaching universe it is more correct to say “multi-paragraph” essay because obviously not every idea can be argued in only three little body paragraphs, and on the flip side, students don’t need to be forced into saying more than is necessary to get the point across. I imagine five paragraphs has held for so long  because of the magical wonder of things that come in threes, so intro+body+body+body+conclusion makes sense.

They are writing character analysis essays about a character of their own choosing from a novel they have read this year. Many of them (but not all) are writing about one of the characters from The Hunger Games trilogy. Overall I think they’re doing rather well so far, especially considering that I’m moving them along faster than if I had a full class. Today I explained to them that they are allowed and encouraged to make any argument about their character that they wish… as long as the text supports that idea. This is the moment when I call upon their CSI: (fill in city of one’s choice) knowledge — when the CSIs come up with a theory about a case but don’t have evidence, then they either have to find irrefutable evidence to back it up or revise their theory based on the evidence they do have. (Referencing pop culture is one of my favored teaching tools.) In other words, if they misunderstood the book, then it’s more than likely they would make unsupported inferences about their characters. The pre-writes I saw today need some revision but not much.

Now in the land of online news, people are not called upon to write multi-paragraph essays to demonstrate their understanding of articles. But people feel compelled to write comments on material they read and/or engage in dialogue around it, and I do enjoy this democratic freedom. What is painful to me — when I  feel interested enough in an article to read some of the commentary — is the seemingly poor reading comprehension of the readers. So many comments (especially the hyper-critical or extremely favorable ones) don’t seem to reflect what is actually written.

Within any article’s comments, I am simply irritated when people are 1) snarky; 2) self-righteous; and/or 3) easily offended by any kind of disagreement or question of their opinion. But I am plain old concerned when folks seem to have completely missed the point/thesis/gist of the article, not to mention the author’s tone… then compound the problem by taking on the tone of #1-3 above. There are multiple contributing factors to this, one of which is the ease that one can just click “Comment” and start writing based on a gut reaction or respond to another comment in the same way. Another would be the anonymity that virtual commenting provides — it feels safe to make ridiculous remarks without necessarily having to put your live face behind them. Most of all, however, I am worried that people in general are weak readers. (insert my sad face here)

There’s a reason why people have to take standardized tests, at least in my opinion: they’re essentially massive reading comprehension tests. Going into college or graduate school would be awfully hard if you couldn’t read non-fiction and/or fiction… and write about it in a meaningful way. Sure, Twitter and texting are here to stay, but there is still  a space in the world for writing that is beyond 140 characters. Maybe articles should have a quick 3-question multiple-choice quizlet to check comprehension before you’re allowed to comment….???

Now I know that my English-major self is clearly biased and possibly over-reacting. Regardless, I know that it is so important that our students — who will grow into adults faster than we can think — read and write competently for schooling purposes and for being good at life. It would be wonderful if the comments people share were more often examples of thoughtful, constructive criticism and praise grounded in the text. I don’t think that’s asking too much. It’s the least I am asking of my students.

The Hunger Games and Me

Because I am going to see the movie this Sunday and because I am trying my best to ignore all of the reviews (both professional and personal) from folks who have already seen the movie, I thought I would write a brief history of my relationship to Suzanne Collin’s now world-famous trilogy.

I first heard of The Hunger Games back in the summer of 2009. I was at a summer training led by an incredibly gifted and experienced 5th grade teacher who is a master of Reading Workshop. I cannot even begin to tell you how impressive her students’ reading and writing skills are — high school students could learn a thing or two from them, seriously. Anyway, she was showcasing some of her latest and greatest favorites in YA (Young Adult) fiction so we could be more in the know for our middle school students. She picked up The Hunger Games from one of her piles, sighed, and couldn’t even find words to describe it. All she could say was that it was “such a beautiful book” as she showed us the cover. I knew then that it was a must-read when I saw that kind of reaction from another teacher.

I bought it at some point that fall, in time to bring it with me on our honeymoon in November 2009. It was one of three books I brought with me, actually, and I remember patiently explaining to Husband that I hoped he had some kind of solo activity to do, be it crossword puzzles or playing cards or something; I would otherwise be preoccupied with reading out in the sun. We agreed that instead we would try me reading the book aloud to him, and if he didn’t like it he would just let me know. I actually fell asleep reading chapters — much to his chagrin — while he was still wide awake and caught up in the story. He even requested that we read chapters first thing in the morning before breakfast buffet because we both were clamoring to know what was going to happen next. Needless to say, over time we finished the entire trilogy. Yes, we read all three aloud together.

That following spring 2010, there was still a critical mass of my 6th graders who hadn’t yet experienced the awesome-ness of The Hunger Games, so we made it our read-aloud book. There were a few afternoons when I literally read to them for an hour. They didn’t want to go to lunch; they didn’t want to read their own individual books. They just wanted us to keep going with Katniss and Peeta and Rue. Much like Husband, they were hooked from Chapter 1, page 1. We didn’t have enough time at the end of the year to start the second book, Catching Fire, and they were sorely disappointed.

Now it’s 2012, and everyone and his/her respective mother has read The Hunger Games trilogy, and good for them. I still think that the first book is by far the best book of the  entire series (because let’s face it – J.K. Rowling’s ability to wrap up Harry Potter in the 7th book in a satisfying way is unrivaled, in my opinion). But the selfish part of me is quite pleased that I had a chance to read it a little bit before the entire universe thought it was amazing and before Hollywood decided it could be built into a movie franchise.

I get that art influences and inspires other art. But maybe a book can just be an incredible book, and I (and other readers) can imagine it any way I want to. Maybe I don’t actually want someone else to interpret and popularize a singular vision of it in movie form. Or reprint the book cover with a scene from the film instead of the original cover art. So that one day, my own kids won’t say, “Isn’t The Hunger Games a movie?” because they’ll know that Suzanne Collins is an author and wrote an outstanding book first.

All that being said, I’m still going to see the movie. In my heart, I already know that the book will be superior, but I plan on enjoying myself anyway.

Behold the ’80s

Sweet Jams shorts - not the ones we had in our family, but a fine example

Growing up in the ’80s was great, as I recall: the 49ers and Joe Montana were dominant; my pop music cassette collection ruled; and I was not at all embarrassed by the thought of wearing Jams shorts. (Admit it — you owned more than a pair or two yourself). I remembered the phone numbers of my parents and friends easily, too, and the only place I answered a phone was inside my house. Ah, memories.

Now that I live in the 21st century, though, I am still re-living the ’80s. Every single movie or show that is currently popular was once popular in the ’80s (though yes, I liked The Transformers trilogy, as over-the-top as they were)… they even had to revisit Tron with Tron: Legacy and remake Dallas for TV to boot. Seriously? As for fashion, there are parts of the updated ’80s styles that I can handle, and then there is the rebirth of odd crop tops and the whole jeggings trend, and I just can’t get behind either of those things. Because shirts cover stomachs in my world and I think one should have to choose to wear either jeans (skinny is fine) OR leggings instead of both at the same time. Call me old-fashioned that way.

So I don’t know what to make of this. On the one hand I get that fashion and what is popular goes through its natural cycles. I have noted the steadily rising popularity of true bell-bottom jeans (far beyond bootcut) and some serious platform, verging-on-disco-worthy sandals — welcome back, ’70s! On the other hand I worry about a dearth of new ideas and innovation in general. Does every single book that people like have to become a movie? Does every ’80s Saturday-morning cartoon have to become a movie? Or better yet — a movie trilogy? I guess one can argue that recycling these kinds of things makes them relevant for a new generation, and perhaps there is value in that. But there’s this selfish part of me that thinks, “Those things were part of my childhood. Get your own distinctive cultural material to remember.” No one person can own art and culture, I know, and probably the folks who are producing this material for the popular audience are my age+ and feeling nostalgic.

Maybe what I’m actually concerned about is what the implications may be for my own future children and the kids of my peers. Are they just going to remember being over-stimulated, over-digitized, and over-exposed? And in thirty years will we have retreated back to landlines and more thoughtful privacy rules because we finally tired of loving Big Brother? I adore my 2-year-old goddaughter — my brother’s youngest child — and she definitely said to me over Christmas, “You have an iPod.” One of my colleagues told me that her daughters — who are approximately 7 and 5, respectively — will take a picture and say, “Mommy, are you going to post this on Facebook?” Frightening, but a result of what we have created collectively.

I even read an NPR article yesterday that said our manners are declining! People statistically are growing less and less inclined to say “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.” Wildness.

Again, this is all just further proof that I am turning into my parents and pining for “the good old days.” Or it just begs the question that we used to examine in 10th-grade Humanities Core when I was teaching high school English: To what extent does modernization create progress in a society? While our teaching team made sure to offer them a variety of texts, we also read — appropriately so — Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

[Side note: Did I also mention that I hate how Oprah Book Club books — even for classics — get brand new paperback covers emblazoned with her Oprah Book Club seal? As a lover of books and an English major, this bothers me to no end.]

Looking forward to re-reading this post when I’m 60-something.


Another word on my mind this week. A lacuna is an unfilled interval or gap; it is also the missing part of a book or manuscript. I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s 2009 novel, The Lacunaand while I will not repeat my review here (I already posted it on Goodreads), I do want to contemplate this word.

The novel is built through the main character’s collection of journal entries and letters, in addition to an assortment of newspaper clippings relevant to his experiences. Not surprisingly, however, we are to ponder the lacunae in his story as much as we are to engage with this assembly of his chronicles of his personal history. I was thinking about this in particular because of my own journaling experiences and the lacunae created by my own recordings. When I have stopped writing and there are “gaps” in my history, what untold stories lie there that reveal my character?

In my mind, the lacunae of a person’s life are breathing room spaces, like the white space on the pages of a book. As a reader, this is one of the reasons why I’m particular about publishing choices for a hard copy of a novel; if the page itself seems chaotic from a visual perspective, I will choose another book. Text without any spacing (either between words, lines, or paragraphs) runs together and either becomes nonsensical or too intense to comprehend. (There’s a reason why double-spacing is standard for essay-writing.) That’s how I feel when I have many things going on and not enough time to think or reflect about any of them. In those periods of time, it gets hard to tell what’s important and hard to discern meaning when there is little to no “spacing” between happenings. So in that way lacunae become necessary and important instead of random.

The novel implies that lacunae are somewhat mysterious, especially because the protagonist himself is very introverted compared to the majority of his friends and associates. I don’t think lacunae necessarily are meant to provoke speculation about someone else’s life, but they do imply depth, a Something More than what we can see or read. They’re a reminder that there is more substance to a person than the words on a page, more than their exterior selves might show, no matter how much we think a person is revealed through what they write.


The Importance of Agony

My sister and I were agreeing the other day that March — which supposedly comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb — continues to be one of those trying periods of every year. Because Lent always falls during this time, I half joked that all of Lent can feel like the Agony in the Garden. And then this morning she sent me an excellent article on this topic, and I started to make sense of the happenings of this past week.

Let me start with a definition, of course:

“The word agony is not just a pious term from the Rosary or other traditions; it’s a term from Scripture. In Greek they talk about Christ’s agonia. We know what agony means in English, but in Greek, at the time of Jesus, it was also a technical term for what athletes did warming up for the Olympic Games. During that warm-up, the Greek athletes would produce a certain sweat which would warm up their muscles and ready them for coming combat. That sweat, that lather, was called their agonia.

Luke is telling us that Jesus does an agonia to get ready for his passion. In essence, Luke is saying, we don’t move from being self-pampering to dying on a cross without some preparation. The Agony in the Garden is the warm-up, the readying, the agonia for the Passion that follows.”

As an athlete, this speaks to me. I don’t walk into the gym, start putting weights on the bar, and attempt my max back squat before I’ve even taken off my sweatpants. Agonia = warm-up. Check.

It goes on:

“Remember the old translation of the Our Father? In place of “and lead us not into temptation,” we used to say, “and do not put us to the test.” What is the test? We’re telling God something like, “God, in my life I know you can test me the way you tested Jesus. I know you can make me sweat blood, but cut me a little slack. Make these things a little easier for me in my life so I don’t have to taste that complete darkness.” See, though, that darkness is the test of the moral athlete, inside of our moral loneliness. It’s not the test of our physical capacity to withstand pain.

…The Passion is not about the blood and the ropes and the whipping and how much Jesus endured. It’s about something we’re meant to imitate. It’s about our moral and emotional athleticism the next time we have temptation. It’s about the test inside of love, and it happens in a garden.”

Again with this idea of athleticism… elite athletes fuel themselves well and train accordingly in order to push themselves to a physical limit and beyond. So for me this begs the question of how might I be fueling my moral and emotional strength to prepare myself for great tests. Part of that is certainly in how I take care of myself physically (healthy body, healthy mind) but also in the people I allow to be close to me and become my models. If I want to be morally and emotionally strong, then I have to surround myself with others who are also trying to “train” in the same way, or who are already strong in that way. Thankfully, I am privileged to have these relationships in my life.

What I think is incredible, as I have written previously, is that once we move through agonia to acceptance of whatever hard test we face, in the end we get to the light. Even when it seems like the light will never return or is going to take its sweet time, it does. So even while this past week has been difficult in its own way, the only path to the other side is through. Watch me pump my emotional muscles.