Nellie Returns

Nellie and the Coven of Barbo is back! After a hiatus of a few weeks to wrap up the school term, I have returned to the regular publication schedule.

In today’s chapter, we pick up where we left off: kids have disappeared, other kids are concerned, strange conversations have been overheard, and now two classmates have run into one another down by the river in the middle of the night…

You’ll find the latest chapter here.

If you’d like to start at the beginning, go here.

Happy reading! And if you haven’t yet, please subscribe; chapters will appear once or twice weekly for the rest of the summer.

Time to Catch Up With Nellie

If you’ve been postponing reading Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, my YA adventure novel about preteen angst, new beginnings, and witches, now would be a good time to get caught up on the first 15 short chapters. 

Nellie will return on MONDAY, MAY 18, after I’ve plowed through all this test preparation, essay grading and research proposal writing.  While you’re waiting, check out the shenanigans of Nellie and her friends as they try to work out where two of their schoolmates have disappeared to, and why.

Let me know what you think!

Ten Chapters In: Thoughts on Online Serial Novel Writing

What are you going to do with your long weekend? Maybe you’d like to read the first ten short chapters of a serialized novel about a twelve-year-old girl who suspects something funny is going on in her small town of Gale Harbour, Newfoundland.  If so, you will find this novel, Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, over here.

So far, the process of serializing a novel has been 1. inspiring and 2. discouraging, in about equal measure.  I’m considering taking a break from the serial in order to reassess my decision to self-publish in serial form.  Here are some of the considerations.

1. Publishing in installments, giving myself deadlines, and knowing that someone is reading what I write as I write it: this is an approach that works very well for me.  Having struggled with long manuscripts throughout my writing life, I know that I become easily bogged down and demotivated. A slow and steady pace, out where people can see me working, is ideal. Blogging here on Classroom as Microcosm taught me this, and for some time now, I’ve been wondering if blogging a novel would have the same effect.  It has.

2. It is hard not to be a bit disappointed with the lack of response that an online novel receives in contrast to, say, a blog about education and pedagogy.  To give some perspective: when I was publishing posts weekly on Classroom as Microcosm, hits averaged at about 10,000 views a month; even now, the blog receives about 300 random views of archived posts per day, despite the fact that new posts are rare.  This is a drop in the bucket in the blogosphere, but it’s enough for me to feel that the blog is meaningful to others and not just me.  In contrast, when I publish a new chapter on Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, it receives about 30 hits that day, and a sprinkling in the days following.  The novel has 30 subscribed followers, most of whom are family and friends.  I am extremely grateful for these views and followers, and for the occasional encouraging messages I get through email, Facebook and face-to-face conversation.  At the same time, I feel that there MIGHT be other people out in the world who would enjoy this little story, and I have no idea how to get it to them.  Yes, I’ve built Classroom as Microcosm over many years and I’ve been blogging my novel for only a couple of months, but I realize now that I was expecting a bit more cross-pollination.

3. This leads to the question of promotion.  I am not comfortable with self-promotion, and I know I need to just suck it up and do it.  I share the links on StumbleUpon, Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve tried listing the novel with curators of serials, like Muse’s Success, WebFictionGuide, and Tuesday Serial. Some friends have kindly shared and retweeted links to the novel, and this has brought in some new readers, but none of these methods have been successful in increasing readership very much.  I have searched in vain for blogs that review self-published online serial fiction; they must be out there, and I’ll keep looking.  I’m even toying with the idea of starting my own, but I can only stretch myself so thin.

4. For the above reasons, I’m considering moving my online novel to a platform like Jukepop or Wattpad, forums that exist exclusively for publishing, promoting and communicating about serial online fiction.  It’s fantastic that sites like this exist, and I know a lot of writers get a huge boost from them. Here’s the catch, though: I have explored these platforms and browsed their offerings, and a lot of what is published there is…just not my thing.  I click on book covers and summaries and I have not yet felt the impulse to read more; when I’ve made the deliberate decision to read a first chapter, it’s felt like a duty rather than a pleasure, and I’m struck by how different the aesthetic is from mine.  I’m not sure my story fits in these places. On the surface, there’s no reason why not: it is, or will be, a genre novel, a YA/middle-grade adventure novel with a fantasy bent – but it’s quiet, slow and character-driven, in contrast to the most popular Jukepop and Wattpad stories, which seem to be big on plot and not so concerned about, say, the quality of the prose.  I’m SURE there are stories I’d love on these platforms, but I haven’t found them yet, which suggests that they may be…hard to find.

5. On a similar note: I should be reading lots of serialized online fiction, to get a sense of that community, but as a writer, I can’t invest my hours in reading fiction unless it’s really good, and finding the really good stuff seems to take an enormous amount of time.  I have a coffee table and a Kobo full of awesome library books; I need someone out there to put all the terrific online fiction in one place so I don’t have to waste my reading hours combing through everything ever published online.  Again: if I were a better person, this would be me. It probably won’t be me.  Has someone else done it?

6. Why don’t I just submit the novel to a traditional publisher, you ask? Don’t even get me started.  Well, do, if you’re really interested; I’ll be happy to get into it in the comments if you want.

7. One response to all this could be: why are you so concerned about who is/how many people are reading? Why not just write because writing is fun, and audience be damned? Well, that’s a good question.  The answer is: I have spent many years writing stuff and putting it in a drawer, and it is NOT satisfying, it is NOT fulfilling, and it is killing my desire to write fiction at all.  As I tell my students sometimes: the tool of writing did not arise so that people could indulge themselves in self-expression in their own little isolated caves. We learned to write so we could communicate.

8. Of course, it’s possible that the novel is just not all that good.  The positive feedback has mostly been from people who know me, and anyone who makes art knows to take “Great job!”s from loved ones with big grains of salt.  That said: my friends and family are intelligent, discerning and artistically accomplished people. I take their good opinions seriously. This novel is flawed, for sure; I would love to have a professional editor polish every chapter before it goes up.  That said, I think there’s something there. If you read some of it and you agree, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  If you read some of it and decide it’s a big pile of garbage…well, my skin may not be thick enough to take that kind of commentary right now, but I’ll let you know when it is.

Do you have advice? If you’ve self-published online, or know something about that process, or have any thoughts at all about what to do with a novel like mine in the bizarre world of publishing today, or know of terrific online fiction that is well worth the investment of my and your precious reading hours…please give us your thoughts on any of this. Even if you have read some of my novel installments and think they’re terrible (again: please don’t tell me), I’m sure there are other fiction writers struggling with these questions who would like to hear your ideas. I feel like there are terrific opportunities about to open up in the world of online fiction, but they aren’t quite there yet, and I want to know which direction we should all face so we can see them as soon as they blossom.

To read Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, go here.

 

 

My Other Blog is a Novel: Introducing “Nellie and the Coven of Barbo”

Dear readers:

Where have I been? I’ve been writing a little novel. It’s about half done. I’m going to post it, as a serial, on a blog. If you’d like to read it, it starts here.

The working title is Nellie and the Coven of Barbo. It’s an adventure story about being a twelve-year-old girl.  There will be some witches.

Here’s the (temporary) blurb:

Cornelia (Nellie) Pike has always believed that she’s an extraordinary person meant to accomplish important things.  As she begins seventh grade, she’s haunted by the feeling that something’s not right with the world, especially with her friend Lake – and that maybe it’s her destiny to make things right. But one strange event follows another, and Nellie begins to wonder if her friends, and not she, are the extraordinary ones. What’s a girl to do if she suspects that she’s nothing special, and that this might be her greatest gift?

Chapter One is just a few pages long; I hope you’ll go read it.  If you like it, I hope you’ll subscribe, and send the link to other people you think might like it, and “Like” the post, and then read Chapter Two.

The story will progress by a chapter or two each week until summer vacation, when I’ll pick up the pace.

I’d love to hear what you think!

My Top 10 Books of 2014

sigofallthingsIt’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2014, but they were all a part of my 2014 experience.

This year’s list is compromised slightly by the introduction of the Summer Book Club, a totally fun summer project in which I posted about the best books I read each week.  Accordingly, I have linked back to reviews of Summer Book Club favourites, rather than repeating myself.  However, there are a few new entries here – I got a little bit of reading done even when I wasn’t on holiday!

1. The Signature of All Things: Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster manages to be a thrilling 500-page adventure story about a 19th-century moss expert.  It is amazing.  Full review here.

2. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaz has written and drawn one of the finest graphic memoirs ever, about her struggle to care for her aging and loony parents.  Will make you cry; will also make you laugh until you fall off the couch.  Full review here.

3. Astonish Me: On the surface, a book about ballet, but really a book about the many manifestations of unrequited love.  Full review here.  Maggie Shipstead is my best discovery of the year; Seating Arrangements also blew my socks off.

4. The Middlesteins: Jami Attenberg’s family saga about how hard it is to love people, especially when they’re intent on destroying themselves.  Full review here.

thesecretplace_us5. The Secret Place: I was surprised not to see this book get more attention – it did not, for example, show up in the NY Times’ top 100 books of the year – but I may be a bit blind when it comes to Tana French.  As I’ve said before, I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but she is a consistent exception. This book is one of my favourites of hers, although that may be due to some of my other biases: I love stories about cliques of teenage girls, and have been a sucker for boarding-school stories since I was a child reading Enid Blyton.  In this installment in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, Holly Mackey – whom we first met as a six-year-old in Faithful Place, which I reread immediately after finishing this one – is now a sullen teenager, and she shows up at the police station with information about a year-old cold case, the murder of a boy her age on her school grounds.  The Secret Place unfolds over a single day of interrogation, replete with lots of flashbacks.  The thing to love most about French’s books is her characters: Holly, her friends and enemies, her father, the police officer she turns to and his belligerent partner are all seductively drawn, and the atmosphere of menace that hangs over the school is due in large part to the very real teenagers within, and the lengths they will go to to be themselves, regardless of what it will do to others.

6. Asterios Polyp: A dreamlike graphic novel about an architect who floats out of his unraveling life and into a job as a car mechanic in the middle of nowhere.  Mysterious and moody, it has haunted me ever since.  Full (if brief) review here.

7. The Property: I love Rutu Modan’s graphic novels, and this one is no exception. Her bright, colourful, meticulous panels and her sharp sense of humour illuminate challenging subjects: in this case, a woman and her grandmother visit Warsaw on a mission that turns out not to be what the granddaughter expects.  Full review here.

the-dinner8. The Dinner: I sometimes say that I’m no longer capable of enjoying a book that doesn’t have a sense of humour.  I’m not sure whether The Dinner contradicts me or not.  If it does have a sense of humour, it’s a very bitter one.  It’s difficult to talk about the book without giving too much away, and it’s difficult to put my finger on just what’s so wonderful about it, aside from the easy, clean, yet unsettling narrative voice.  Perhaps its greatest strength is its ability to tap into the most unappealing thoughts we’ve ever had.  For example: imagine you walk into the only ATM in your neighbourhood, to find your path to the cash machine blocked by a sleeping homeless person and the air to be filled with an odour so vile you have to back out the door.  What is your first emotional response, the one you then tamp down because you are a good and empathetic person?  What if you were the sort of person who didn’t tamp down this response?  That’s what this book is about.  It’s impossible to put down.

bark9. Bark: If you’re a reader and also a writer, you already love Lorrie Moore and don’t need to hear too much more about her.  Birds of America is for my money the greatest short story collection of the 20th century.  Bark is also great.  The conceit – that of the various meanings of the word “bark” – was a bit thin to me, but it doesn’t matter; I kept falling over because of her turns of phrase and wry asides, gems like “My brain’s a chunk of mud next to hers” or “It wasn’t he who was having sex.  The condom was having sex and he was just trying to stop it.”  (I found those by just opening the book open to random pages.  It’s astonishing.)

nathp10. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: I picked up this book in bookstores a couple of times and put it down again because I thought, Really?  We need more books about self-important young male writers dating in Brooklyn? Then I had to go into the hospital for a bit, and for some reason, it struck me as exactly the book I wanted to read.  I read the first 100 pages lying in bed waiting for surgery.  Then, when I got home, I didn’t pick it up again for several months, until one day I finished a book and didn’t have another new one handy; I plowed through the remainder of it in no time flat.  It is the classic problem of the unsympathetic narrator who is revealing truths that may or may not be important – if nothing else, anyone who’s ever been a young heterosexual female artist will recognize Nathaniel and be impressed by Adelle Waldman’s ability to render his inner life so convincingly.  I had to admit, once I’d put it down, that I’d really liked this book in spite of myself.

What books did you love this year?  Tell me so I can read them!

A Book Blog For Teachers

Friend and reader Tara Warmerdam just pointed me to her wonderful blog, A Reading Corner for Teachers and Writers. I’m so glad she did: she writes about books in a way that is meant to be helpful to teachers, and it  really is.  Some recent posts discuss

If you are a teacher interested in using books in the classroom – whether you’re a literature teacher or not, and no matter what your grade level – I think you’ll get a lot out of Tara’s blog.  Go check it out!

Fail Better: Blogiversary Final Post

If there’s one thing we need to teach our students, it’s how to make use of failure.

For  the final instalment in my series celebrating seven years of blogging here at Classroom as Microcosm, I give you my most shared post ever.  This response to Paul Tough’s article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” (a precursor to his wonderful and deservedly celebrated book How Children Succeed) was chosen by WordPress as a “Freshly Pressed” feature and attracted 246 insightful comments and exchanges.

It’s also my favourite post, one I return to over and over to remind myself that when my students are panicking, the best thing I can say to them is, “You can’t do it? That’s fine.  Do it anyway.”

(I might also show them this, because it is awesome.)

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Last week, my students were preparing for their first in-class essay, and they were freaking out.

We’re writing commentaries.  In a commentary, you read a short text you haven’t seen before and then comment on the themes or effects that the author has produced, and explain how he/she has produced them.  Commentaries are hard, but we’ve been working on them for weeks now, and they’re mostly getting the hang of it.  Now that they know they’ll be graded, though, they’re panicking.

In one class, a handful sat paralyzed during our final exercise, unable to write anything at all on their paper.  I visited each of them periodically, asking them probing questions and nudging them to put something, anything, down.  They scratched a few notes, then stared at the page, their faces immobilized.

“Is this ok?” Octavia asked me repeatedly.  “Does my thesis statement make sense?  If I want to talk about the point of view, can I do that?  What should I say?”

“Just write it down,” I said.  “We’ll discuss in a few minutes.  Just write it down.”

At the end of the practice class, I asked all the students to share what they had come up with, and some seemed to have a handle on things.  Others who’d been floundering looked more and more relieved as I wrote thesis after thesis on the board and said, “Yes, this is what you’re after!  Please explain!  You see, it’s not easy, but with a bit of thought, you can get started.”

I went directly to my other section of the same course, and there, things went south much more quickly and noisily.

I asked them to do the same individual exercise, to be discussed together at the end of class.  It was clear that a number of them had no idea where to begin.  For a few, this wasn’t surprising: they’d missed classes and previous practice essays and were only now realizing that it was catching up with them.  Nevertheless, the instructions were clear, they had a rubric with all of the criteria in front of them, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS SO FAR THIS SEMESTER has been preparation for this essay.

Some students were working diligently away, but most, after a cursory reading of the assigned text and a few moments of simmering silence, began talking to their neighbours.  They were on task – they were asking for help, comparing notes, all things that would normally be par for the class.  But the noise was growing louder, and the purpose of this exercise was to do the work alone.

I reminded them of this.  “Next class, you have to write this essay by yourself.  Your neighbour can’t help you.  Why aren’t you taking advantage of the practice time right now?”

The grumbles began.  “Miss, can we have, like, a five minute discussion after we get the text next class, so we can share our thoughts?”

“No.”

“But miss, it’s hard!”

“Of course it’s hard!” I cried.  “If it were easy, there’d be no reason to study it in school!”

But I paused.  Something was happening here that I wasn’t acknowledging.  What was it?  I let them buzz a little longer, and then I marched to the front of the room.

“Listen to me,” I said.  They stopped talking.

“I am VERY CONCERNED,” I said.  “But it’s not because I don’t think you can do this.  I’m concerned because YOU don’t think you can do it.  You’re panicking and throwing your hands in the air and not even trying.”

“We’re like the girl in the passage!” Jamila piped up.  “She can’t do what she wants, so she just gives up doing anything!”

“You see?” I said.  “Jamila and I have been talking for twenty minutes and she’s been saying she doesn’t understand.  But see?  She understands SOMETHING.”

“But it’s not enough, miss,” Jamila said.  “What else am I supposed to say?”

“Listen to me,” I said.  “I guarantee you, if you come in next class believing you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.”

“Guaranteed!”  Zack nodded and pointed through the air at me in a “sing it, sister” gesture.

“But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong.  If you sit there for two hours and write a bunch of notes and come up with a thesis statement or a literary device or anything, you’ll get any points I can give you.  Then, when you take it home later to revise, you’ll have something to start the next draft with.  You might fail this essay.  But if you fail the essay, THE WORLD WILL NOT END.”

Zack raised his hands to the sky.  “Thank you miss!” he yelled.  “I need to hear that.  I do.”

“Just do it.  Even if you think your ideas are ridiculous, just write them down.  If the draft you do in class doesn’t make any sense, we’ll work on it, and you’ll do it again at home, and maybe next time it will be better.  Honestly, guys, if you get out of college not knowing how to write a perfect literary commentary, it’s not a big deal.  But if you get out of college knowing that now you can sit with a random text for a couple of hours and come up with some things to say about it, that will be an accomplishment.”

I let them go.  I came home exhausted.  My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched.  I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are.

Tough writes much of his article about the American KIPP schools, charter schools for students in difficulty.  KIPP graduates an impressive number of its at-risk students, but followup studies have shown that these students don’t always thrive once they get to college, and a large number don’t complete their degrees.  According to one of his subjects,

 the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically [at the KIPP schools]; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…

Another researcher tells him,

…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that

the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students…

According to Tough and some of his subjects, the key ingredient is grit, the ability to persist in the face of obstacles and even failure.

GRIT! I thought.  This is what I’ve been saying all along!  If I can face down my limitations, if I can labour to be, not perfect, but better – I will be … happy?  Is grit something we can learn?  If so, how can we teach it?

Two days later, my students were still labouring to be perfect.  In my first class, I had to visit Octavia several times.  “STOP SECOND-GUESSING YOURSELF,” I told her.

“I know, miss,” she said.  “I always do that, always.  I don’t know how to stop.”

I don’t know how to help her stop, either.  But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down.  She filled a couple of pages.  I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.

Teaching them how to write a commentary is all very well, but what is it for?  Maybe the main thing is for is to help them practice grit: Yes, it’s hard.  Just keep going.  If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.

We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.

Image by shho

What’s the Use of the Academic Paper?: Blogiversary Post #9

I’m still asking myself this question – “Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?” – three years after publishing the original version of this post.  In the interim, I’ve listened to the audiobook of Now You See It (discussed below), and I’m still not sure whether I’m onside with Davidson’s perspective.  It seems to me that the academic paper has got to go, but something just as rigorous needs to take its place.  Do you have thoughts on this?

When this post first appeared, it was chosen as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” feature and received 178 very interesting comments.

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Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?  Will learning to write papers help students develop the skills they will need later in their lives?

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson asks “whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”  Davidson examines the roots of our contemporary education culture and suggests that we need to look back to pre-Industrial-Revolution models and forward to the murky future.  As Virginia Heffernan explains, in her review of Davidson’s book (“Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade“) in the New York Times:

The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.  That curriculum represented a dramatic departure from earlier approaches to education. In “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson cites the elite Socratic system of questions and answers, the agrarian method of problem-solving and the apprenticeship program of imitating a master. It’s possible that any of these educational approaches would be more appropriate to the digital era than the one we have now.

This is old news – education needs to be skills-based, collaborative, constructivist, blabla.  However, Heffernan focuses particularly on Davidson’s discussion of the academic paper.  After reading insightful, well-written student blogs and then being appalled by the quality of the same students’ research papers, Davidson began to wonder whether it was the form, not the students, that was at fault.  After some research, Davidson concludes that, in Heffernan’s words,

Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

I’m not, at first glance, convinced by this argument – we’ve all read the “work” published every day on the Internet, and in many cases its “prolificness” is one of its many problems.  That said, I have students keep blogs in some of my courses, and I love them – you can SEE the learning happening as students wrestle with course topics and literature and relate them to their own experiences.  I don’t do blogs in every course because a) I’m required to have them write a certain number of papers, and it can all get to be a bit too much for me, and b) the majority of my students have not received the time-consuming training in digital communication that Davidson says they need.  However, if more space were made in the curriculum for online forms of writing, and we could limit the number of formal papers and make them an outgrowth of the online work, we might be on our way to something resembling “authentic learning tasks.”

I’ve been saying for a while that the research paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that we need to develop viable academic approaches to the blog and other online forms so that students can learn to write things that people actually read.  (The fact that no one reads academic papers isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, but now we have an alternative that gives researchers a real potential audience.)

What is the place of the formal academic paper in the future of education?  Should it continue to look the way it does now, or is it time to ask students to do something new?

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Tomorrow: my all-time #1 most shared post, on succeeding through failing.

Image by kristja

Summer Book Club Final Week: The Middlesteins

This will be the final installment of this year’s Summer Book Club!  I’ve enjoyed this project a lot – both the incentive it gave me to read a lot of books, and the comments from all of you about what you’ve been reading. My intention is to hold a blog book club again next summer.  Thanks for your participation!

I hope you will continue to follow Classroom as Microcosm throughout the year.  Starting tomorrow, in celebration of the blog’s upcoming SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY (!!!), I will be re-publishing, with commentary, the blog’s top ten shared posts.  These are the posts that readers have liked (or, in some cases, hated) enough to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues.  Tomorrow, look for a reprise of a post that addresses a question on many teachers’ minds as summer vacation draws to a close: what if one of my classes is really, really bad?

Today, summer book club guidelines still apply: if you’ve read the books I’m reading, please tell us what you think, either here in the comments, or with a link to your own blog.  If not, please tell us what you’ve been reading this week.

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middlesteinsIn the opening chapter of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, we meet five-year-old Edie and her mother.  They are on the four flights of stairs leading to their apartment, and Edie doesn’t want to walk any more; she wants to be carried.  Her mother’s arms are full of big grocery bags, and Edie is not a small girl; a power struggle ensues.  Within a few pages, we learn a lot about Edie.

She just wanted to be carried.  She wanted to be carried and cuddled and fed salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread.  She wanted to read and talk and laugh and watch television and listen to the radio, and at the end of the day she wanted to be tucked into bed, and kissed good night by one or both of her parents, it did not matter which, for she loved them both equally.  She wanted to watch the world around her go by, and make up stories in her head about everything she saw, and sing all the little songs they taught her in Sunday school, and count as high as she could possibly count, which was currently over one thousand.

A few days ago, I read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker essay “The Scourge of ‘Relatability'”.  In it, Mead explains that our need for stories that are “relatable” is relatively recent, and that it is stunting us and degrading the experience of reading.  She draws a distinction between “identification” and “relatability” that I like very much.

The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.  But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

When we meet Edie many years later, in the second and third chapters, is she “relatable”? (Note: I hate the word “relatable,” and have told students that it is not a word, that it grammatically indefensible as a word, and that they are forbidden to use it.  The New Yorker has now explained its etymology and grudgingly accepted it, so I guess I must give up this fight.)  For me, Edie is not relatable according to Mead’s definition.  She is not a “flattering confirmation of [my] solipsism”: she weighs over 200 pounds, and will gain more than 100 more before the end of the novel; she is dying of complications from diabetes, and yet continues to ply herself with three-sandwich dinners at McDonald’s and enormous multi-course meals at her favourite Chinese restaurant, despite the gentle protestations of her family.  She is hard-edged and full of denial; she is also very smart, very sure of herself, and not prepared to take anyone else’s crap.  Everyone around her is out of their minds with worry about her, and she absolutely refuses to change.

It’s hard to relate to someone who is loved and cared for yet defiantly killing herself, but I identified with many things about Edie; anyone who has struggled with emotional eating, or any other bad but delicious habit, probably will too.  There is a beautiful exchange with her little son and daughter that shows us how our human minds can move from resentment to the grip of love to self-hatred to optimism in the space of seconds:

in theory, she should be happy to spend time with her children, but sometimes she found them a little dull.  Playing with them was boring, and it wasn’t even their fault.  It was just the notion of playing itself….[Benny] pulled from his pocket a string of orange and pink beads on a long, narrow rubber thread and held it up in the air.  “It’s for you.”  He smiled – oh, he beamed! The beam that could break your heart.

I’m a shit, thought Edie.

“It is the most beautiful necklace I have ever seen in my entire life,” she said.  She took it from his tiny hand and then tied it around her neck.

“You look pretty,” he said.

She did not look pretty, she thought.  She did not believe she had looked pretty in a long time.  Her business clothes no longer fit her right, not her jackets, not her shirts…but she could not bring herself to buy a new wardrobe.  Maybe if she gave Weight Watchers a shot this time.  There was always the vague promise of that lingering in her future.

That last paragraph is more or less the exact monologue that went through my mind about half an hour before I read it, as I was standing in my closet wondering if I’m going to have to buy myself more new pants than I can afford before school starts, or can tough it out in the stuff I bought myself last year at least until winter comes and I have to start packing long johns under things.  So yes, there’s a certain amount of “relatability” here, but it’s not the type that makes you feel good about yourself.  It’s the type that makes you feel real about yourself.  Uncomfortably, importantly real.

What’s more, there are plenty of other characters to identify with, whether we relate to them or not.  It may be difficult to forgive Richard, Edie’s husband, for abandoning her, but it isn’t difficult to identify with the suffering and helplessness he feels in the face of her abuse and her disorder.  Her daughter-in-law Rachelle may be an uptight little control freak, but she also really wants to do something for Edie, to fix this situation before Edie destroys herself.  The bratty granddaughter, the angry daughter, the son who’s too high to do anything but ask his wife to deal – we may not really “relate” to anyone, because their foibles are so prominently displayed that it’s hard not to judge them and get pissed off with them and wish we could smack them around the head a little until they wise up.

But I didn’t meet a single person in this novel – including the elderly Chinese restaurant owner who falls in love with Edie, and the gay dance teacher whose drawer full of bar mitzvah “save the date” gift magnets signals that everyone wants to be his friend but he has better things to do – that I couldn’t identify with in some way.  Every character is totally infuriating and totally sympathetic.

It’s quite a feat, and it’s a wonderful book.  I’d read it if I were you.

*

Here are some books that I’m working on but won’t get a chance to write about, unless I love them enough to put them in my Top Ten Books list at the end of the year.  So far, they’re all really good!

  • Katrina Onstad: Everybody Has Everything. After a car crash, Ana and James find themselves guardians of a little boy, perhaps permanently.  They quickly learn a lot about themselves and their relationship.  I’m about halfway through this and loving it.
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Death in the Family (Book One of the My Struggle series).  Any serious reader living today has to at least attempt this six-volume autobiographical “novel” series.  So far, it’s slow and demands a lot of concentration, but is also stunning.  I’m only a few pages in; it’s my bedside book, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading before sleep.  I suspect it will be my subway reading once school starts.
  • Jeff Lemire: Essex County.  This collection of three graphic novels was, like Asterios Polyp, recommended by commenter Kathleen.  It is wonderful, but melancholy; I’m reading it in short instalments.
  • Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  I started this book while I was in the hospital, in the hours before surgery (afterwards, I was able to do nothing but fall asleep over and over while listening to podcasts.)  I have read about 100 pages.  It is an easy and biting little satire told from the point of view of an incorrigible ladies’ man.  I was enjoying it a lot, but, because I own it, I put it aside when I got home in order to tackle the books that will eventually have to go back to the library.
  • Tin House: The Writer’s Notebook I and II.  I would really like to look back, once the summer is over, and feel good about the amount of fiction writing I got done.  I am finding these two volumes of collected essays on writing craft to be extremely helpful.  If I’m feeling resistant in the morning, I choose an essay that seems to tackle a writing problem I’m having and I read it over my coffee.  If you are a writer who needs some guidance, I’d recommend these books; I ordered them as part of Tin House’s Writer’s Series.

*

Have you read The Middlesteins, or any of the other books I’m working on?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Thanks again for reading, commenting and following along!  I look forward to dedicating next summer to reading more awesome books and hearing about what you’re reading, too.

 

Summer Book Club Week 10: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

chastI am by nature a worrier, and one of the things I worry about is what will happen to me as I get old.  I have no children, and no intention of having any; I have a husband, but we’ll be getting old at more or less the same pace, if we’re lucky.  I have good friends, but no one I would expect could look after me if I got seriously ill or had my mobility permanently compromised.  I live in a part of the world where winters are so harsh that even for the able-bodied, getting up and down the street on foot is a major physical challenge for a couple of months of the year.  My financial affairs are only minimally in order; once it’s time for me to receive my small pension, I will not have a lot of stray cash lying around for luxuries like, say, a residence with in-house care.

I have worried a bit less about caring for my parents, as they are both still young and in good health and have partners considerably younger than them, but as the years pass and I see my friends’ parents become infirm, and as my parents themselves bring up things like funeral costs and end-of-life decisions, I find myself faced more and more with questions about how they will be cared for.  I hope they will live to be very old, but I never thought much about what that would mean until I read Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Chast’s parents have not just her but each other; however, they are in their nineties and are becoming less able to live without constant care.  They have never been easy or reasonable people, and as they age, and as she needs to be more responsible for them, she finds herself under almost unbearable strain.  On top of the medical emergencies and the deterioration of their mental capacities, the biggest burden is financial.  Her parents have considerable savings and she earns a comfortable living as a long-time New Yorker cartoonist, but she is still bowled over by the costs that fall on them: for example, a place in an assisted living facility starts at $7500 a month, and once they require more regular care, the price skyrockets.

Not only does she have to worry about these things, she has to wrestle with her own guilt over her inability to be an angel.  Chast sincerely wants to be the best daughter she can, but finds herself panic-stricken and resentful; time and again she steps up to the plate only to turn tail and flee back to the relative calm of her home and family, hoping that everything will be ok while she hides from the chaos. Part of this is the simple weight of the responsibilities, but part is also due to her parents themselves, especially her mother, with whom she has always had a troubled relationship.  And the major complication is that Chast has tried throughout her adult life to have conversations with her parents about death and money, and they have always brushed her off with the rejoinder of the title; now, when the decisions really do need to be made, they are not being any more cooperative.

While never undercutting the painful realities of this story, Chast makes them funny.  Difficult people make wonderful characters, and her parents are a handful.  To illustrate their preposterous frugality (for which she is now grateful), Chast relates an incident in a department store in which her mother creates elaborate plans to buy reduced-price pantyhose in bulk; none are her size, and the colours are ridiculous, but she could sew small ones together, or cut up big ones to make smaller pairs, and dye them.  Or she could make a vest for her husband out of them.  None of her daughter’s sane arguments will dissuade her.  The scene captures so much about their relationship and about her mother that it’s heartbreaking, but it is also fall-off-the-couch hilarious.  The book is like this from one end to the other: sobering, eviscerating, and hugely entertaining.

My strongest response at the end of this book was gratitude: I live in a country with universal paid health care, my parents are not insane, and if I’m lucky, the struggles Chast illustrates here are some years away.  The greatest gift this book gives, however, is a clear-eyed and searingly honest look at a trauma most of us will have to go through.  The fact that Chast’s humour extends not only to her parents and to the unimaginable situation they find themselves in, but also to herself, makes this one of the best graphic memoirs I’ve ever read.

*

Also read this week: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff.  Ancient Chinese tradition dictates that when Deshi’s brother dies, he needs a corpse bride to accompany him into the afterlife.  Deshi is tasked with finding one.  Thus begins this beautifully illustrated and haunting graphic novel.  Deshi sets off across the countryside, but soon finds that his assignment is a difficult one, and it is made no easier by the appearance of Lily, who would be a perfect corpse-bride candidate if only she were dead.  The story is great; the visuals are stunning.

Abandoned this week:

  • Megan Abbott’s The Fever.  I was laid up for most of this past week recovering from a medical intervention on my uterus.  Despite this, I did not feel averse to reading a novel about a mysterious ailment targeting sexually blossoming young women.  I did, however, feel averse to reading a novel with no sense of humour.  Under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed this book.
  • Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. One complaint that workshoppers have often made about early drafts of my fiction is that these drafts contain long swaths of uninterrupted dialogue that seem mechanical in their desire to advance the plot and characters.  Joel Dicker also has this problem.  It does not seem that he had helpful workshopppers, or editors, to aid him in remedying it.  I was intrigued by the premise: a bestselling author crippled by writer’s block is called upon to investigate, and then write about, his mentor’s implication in the death of a teenage girl over thirty years ago.  I forgave the bald dialogue and ascetic but not very elegant prose for 99 pages, reminding myself all the while that this book is a translation from the French and therefore deserves my indulgence where the language is concerned.  In the end, the prospect of 539 more pages of the same defeated me.

Have you read Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, or any of the other books I attempted this week?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

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