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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Summer Book Club Week 9: Asterios Polyp

This week’s Book Club post is a quick one, as I am recovering from minor surgery and would rather be reading than writing.

Asterios-polyp-bookcoverLast week, commenter Kathleen recommended the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli; I immediately grabbed it from the shelf of my local library and read it in an afternoon.  I have a feeling it will be following me around for the rest of my life.  It is much, much smarter than me, so I feel ill qualified to comment on it.  It’s the story of a “paper architect” (none of his buildings have ever been constructed) whose life has slowly come apart and who is trying to put it back together by leaving everything behind and starting again as a pseudo-car-mechanic in the middle of nowhere.  The book floats between past and present, dream and reality, narrative and abstract philosophical musing.  Loved it.  If you like graphic novels, I think you will love it too.

I hope have more books to tell you about, and more energy to write about them, next week.  In the meantime, what are you reading?

Summer Book Club Week 8: The Saga Series, Vol. 1

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.

sagaBrian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man is my favourite graphic novel series; in 2010, one of the installments made my list of top books of the year.  If you like graphic novels at all, even if you’re not a fan of the superhero/dystopia/apocalypse genres, you need to read Y; I’ll wait here while you go do that.

I’ve been meaning to read more of Vaughan’s work, but have feared disappointment.  Recently, some podcast or other mentioned the Saga series (by Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples), and this inspired me to order Volume One from the library.

I was not encouraged by the first panel, a close-up of a woman’s sweating face as she says, “Am I shitting?  It feels like I’m shitting!”  However, the next page shows that we are in media puerperio: our heroine, Hazel, is being born, and the face is that of her mother; Hazel’s father is the sole assistant to the delivery.

They aren’t alone for long.  Hazel’s parents are star-crossed in a more-literal-than-usual sense: they are from opposite sides of an intergalactic war, and they met when one was guarding the other in prison.  Their escape, and the discovery that they’ve borne a child, has sparked the outrage of everyone in charge, and soon battalions from their home planets, princes with TV monitors for heads, and the scariest bounty hunters you’ve ever seen (one complete with a sidekick  in the form of a giant cat who knows when you’re lying and says so) are involved.  Hazel’s parents are no longer their own first priority: their main concern now is keeping their baby alive, and fortunately, they seem have the physical, magical and tactical skills to do so, along with the requisite all-conquering love.

Like Y: TLM, Volume 1 of Saga is funny, smart, sexy and action-packed.  I don’t usually care for “comic book serial” style graphic novels (as opposed to “sensitive literary fiction/memoir” style graphic novels, which I love).  I’m not crazy about fantasy, science fiction, or action/adventure stories, no matter what the form.  Yet as soon as I finished Volume 1 of Saga, I went straight to my library’s website and ordered Volume 2.  This is good storytelling.  Even though Hazel’s just a few days old, I love her, and can’t wait to find out what happens to her, and to everyone else who loves her too.

*

Also read this week:

  • Oishinbo A La Carte: Fish, Sushi and Sashimi by Tetsu Kariya (story) and Akira Hanasaki (art).  This was also a podcast recommendation, by one of my favourite podcasters: Glen Weldon of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.  The Oishinbo  series is a fictional tale about a journalist, Yamaoka Shiro, who has been tasked with developing the “Ultimate Menu” for his newspaper’s 100th anniversary.  This volume is a series of stories about his pan-Japanese search for the absolute best fish dishes.  He is accompanied by his assistant/love interest, and he frequently clashes with his main competitor in the world of food expertise, who also happens to be his father.  It’s a great premise, the individual stories that make up the volume are fun, and it made me both nostalgic for the years I spent living in Japan (and eating Japanese food) and intrigued by how little I still know about the country and its culture.  That said, the characters are, for lack of a better term, cartoonish: I haven’t done a lot of manga reading, but I recognized the types – sour but attractive anti-hero, demure yet steely lady-love, overbearing bullying father figure – a little too easily.  I closed the volume feeling no need to follow these characters further, so I won’t be ordering the rest of the series.
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling).  I resisted this book for the first 200 pages, but, despite my summer vow to drop anything that didn’t grip me after 50, I felt an obligation to go on, and was eventually glad I had.  (I had much the same experience with the Harry Potter series, so maybe it’s not surprising.)  I was then a bit disappointed by the ending, but despite all that, I plan to follow P. I. Cormoran Strike and his assistant and sidekick Robin (yes, really) through the rest of the series. Robert Galbraith/J. K. Rowling can be irritating, not least when she insists on unnecessary phonetic renderings of dialect, renderings that seem appropriate in a fantasy world full of multi-ethnic wizard children, but less so in today’s real London (transcriptions like “lotta”, “outta” and “forra” change nothing for the ear and serve only to suggest class and cultural background in ways that make me suspicious of whoever’s writing.)  Nevertheless, our hero is a human-sized Hagrid, his sidekick is a real-world Hermione, and I am therefore charmed.

Have you read the Saga series, the Oishinbo series, or The Cuckoo’s Calling?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club Week 7: Why Libraries Rule

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.

starrI began and tossed aside a number of books this week.  The only one I read through was Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead.  I wrote about Shipstead’s Astonish Me two weeks ago, so I won’t elaborate on Seating Arrangements, except to tell you that one of the biggest problems in my life right now is that Shipstead has published only two novels.  I will also share two snippets with you.  Snippet One:

“I understand why hippopotamuses spend so much time in water.”

“Hippopotami,” corrected Livia.

“You can say hippopotamuses, can’t you?” said Daphne.

“You’re the bride,” Livia said. “You can say whatever you want.”

Daphne eased down into her chair.  “Dominique, don’t they have hippos in the Nile?”

“They do.  I believe the plural is ‘scary fuckers.'”

Snippet Two:

“It’s so cold in this restaurant.  I don’t know why you chose it.”

“I didn’t choose it,” Winn said.  “Dicky and Maude did.”

“They wouldn’t have.  They know I don’t care for the cold.”

“Maybe,” Winn offered, “you’re feeling the chill of approaching death.”

She gave him a long, gloomy squint.  “This family is falling into the middle class,” she said.

Dear Maggie Shipstead: please write another novel soon.

*

Abandoned after considerable investment: The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb.  I know that the reader’s antipathy toward the narrator is part of the point.  I soldiered on for 100 pages, and then I was like, Sorry, man, I cannot spend one more minute in your self-righteous enraged company.  I’ve made a bunch of attempts at Wally Lamb’s novels on friends’ recommendations and it’s just never taken.  He’s a very good writer, but not for me.

Abandoned after minimal investment: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.  I’m sure this is a good book.  However, I started reading it with a sick cat sleeping on me, and a kitten dies in the first chapter, so that was that for that.

Abandoned before investment set in: a bunch of well-reputed murder mysteries.  Something in me really wants to love reading murder mysteries, and I almost never do.  I write a lot about my love of simple, invisible prose; this is usually a problem because I want to enjoy novels that critics/all my literary friends are raving about and then I find myself yelling “WILL YOU PLEASE STOP WAVING AROUND ALL THE WORK YOU DID ‘WRITING’ THIS AND JUST TELL THE DAMN STORY”.  However, I also have the opposite problem: I get a few lines into a book and start yelling “OH GOD THAT IS A TERRIBLE TURN OF PHRASE” and “YES I KNOW WE NEED TO KNOW THIS INFORMATION THAT YOUR CHARACTER IS SO BALDLY LAYING OUT IN UNNATURAL EXPOSITORY DIALOGUE BUT I JUST CAN’T.”  I know; my life is hard.  But summer is short, and I’m not going to waste it reading books that get on my nerves even for a second.

*

Epiphany of the week: my longstanding habit of buying piles and piles of books is actually detrimental to my life as a reader.  It means I try to joylessly plow through books I don’t like because I’ve spent money on them, instead of saying Screw you, book I don’t like, and moving on to something I will love.  This summer, I’ve rediscovered one of my greatest childhood joys: the public library.  Free books!  And what’s more, it’s way better than my childhood public library because I live in Montreal now so I have a city-wide network of public libraries and they will send me any book they have.  The time I used to spend searching for books on Amazon (and then buying them, and then maybe not liking them) can now be spent searching the Montreal Public Library network for every book that’s ever been on my Amazon wishlist and reserving them all and then receiving awesome telephone calls telling me that my book is waiting for my just up the street.  GO TO THE LIBRARY, PEOPLE.  YOU WON’T BE SORRY.

Have you read Seating Arrangements, or any of the other books I attempted this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading?

Summer Book Club Week 6: Still Life With Bread Crumbs

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.

Cover Image - Bread CrumbsDon’t get me wrong: Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs is a good book.  The prose is beautifully invisible, just as I like it.  The characters are, with one exception, convincing, and the structure is odd enough to keep things interesting.

In terms of plot, though, my alarms started going off early.  Still Life With Bread Crumbs is a middle-aged-lady romantic fantasy, and my antipathy to such fantasies may be a symptom of my own self-loathing.  I am, after all, a middle-aged lady.  I am in good health and of relatively sound mind, and some people find me pleasant and/or interesting company.  However, I feel quite certain that, if my husband runs off with … whoever, men twenty years my junior will not be mooning around about my extraordinary mouth, or whatever my equivalent is to Rebecca Winter’s odd sixty-year-old embouchre.

Maybe I’m wrong about this – what do I know about men and what they moon about? – and, if so, I apologize to Anna Quindlen, and men, and middle-aged ladies everywhere, for my incredulity.  However, the character of Jim Bates is a classic romance novel hero, and I’m not a fan of the genre.  Of course we middle-aged ladies would like to believe that men like he exist, men who can fix the roof AND survey local wildlife in their spare time AND  bring us packets of their fresh-killed venison because they sense we might need it AND still find time to be a bit distracted because there is something about us that they just can’t shake free of.  I have less life experience than Anna Quindlen or her heroine; also, if Quindlen’s bio photo is any indication, I am considerably less attractive at forty-four than she is in her sixties.  So maybe she knows things I don’t.

Nonetheless, the passages from Jim Bates’ point of view prompted me to say, “Oh, come on,” more than once.  Out loud.  Lines like “every time Jim Bates looked at her lower lip he had an impulse to take it gingerly between his front teeth” would be interesting if they were complicated by some sort of ambivalence or even menace, but instead, they seem to be expressions of a tender manly (read: Harlequinesque) desire for a woman old enough to be his mother that I just can’t swallow.  Do I think men in their forties can be sexually attracted to women in their sixties?  Of course they can.  Do I think that attraction manifests itself the way Quindlen portrays it?  I don’t, and she didn’t convince me.

That said, I held my nose and kept reading, because there’s so much else going on here.  Rebecca isn’t a straightforward Mary Sue; she’s difficult, bruised, and mostly realistic in her assessments of herself, particularly her fall from art stardom to poverty and mediocrity, and the demise of her pretty nasty marriage.  Her portrait of her relationship with her ex-husband is delicious, full of observations like

Rebecca forgave him nothing.  She told herself that this was not because he had betrayed her but because he had betrayed his son.  This was one of those statements that sounded sensible until you compared it against actual human psychology.

or – and this one just kills me:

Peter would do something…and she would gather up her shreds of dignity and respond with the silent treatment.  Except that Peter liked the silent treatment – he found it restful.

I mean, that is one beautiful line.  There are more.  I kept considering tossing this book aside, and then something like that would come up, and I’d think, Wow, and I’d keep reading.  I’m not sorry.  I’m not able to suspend my disbelief enough to truly enjoy  traditional romances, but Quindlen’s exemplar is an impressive one.

*

Also read this week: Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, while I wait for The Fever to be available at my library.  I took a stab at Abbott’s Dare Me a few years ago, and felt like if I could get past the demanding prose at the beginning, I would probably find it riveting.  (I’ve said it before: i like my prose invisible.  Anything showy puts me off.)  Being short on time, I didn’t push on. Bury Me Deep gave me the same trouble, but it’s summer now, and I made the effort, and was rewarded.  It’s a wonderfully rich little pot-boiler, and I can’t wait to get Abbott’s other novels.

Abandoned this week:

  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.  I wanted to be charmed by this book.  It’s clear that Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, one of my favourite books, is an important influence.  However, about 1/4 of the way in, I began to suspect that The Rosie Project is about how someone with Asperger’s syndrome can learn to be a delightful romantic hero by just trying harder, and my gut reaction was “No thanks.”
  • Delicious! by Ruth Reichl.  I probably didn’t give Delicious! a fair shot.  I love Reichl’s memoir Tender at the Bone; I teach it in my memoir class, and a lot of my students like it too.  It became apparent after a few pages that Delicious! is nothing like Tender at the Bone, and the exposition contains a lot of clunky dialogue, so I moved on.
  • The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. See above re: showy prose.  Don’t like it.  This is my third stab at The Rehearsal; I keep being seduced by the cover and the promise of a story about high school sex scandals and precocious artistic teenagers.  People keep telling me I should read The Luminaries instead, but seriously, look at the size of it.

*

Have you read Still Life With Bread Crumbs, or any of the other books I read/attempted this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading?

Summer Book Club Week 5: Astonish Me

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.

astonish-meAccording to the jacket flap, Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me is about “the nature of talent, the choices we must make in search of fulfillment, and how we square the yearning for comfort with the demands of art.”  To me, though, this is a novel about unrequited love.  It is not about one particular unrequited love story, but many: about the myriad shades of unrequited love, and the way it shapes all of us and makes us do both foolish and tremendous things.

I loved this book.  LOVED IT.

Like a lot of little girls, I was obsessed with ballet.  I took classes, and dreamed about going to the National Ballet School, but mostly, I read books about ballet.  I loved Veronica Tennant’s On Stage, Please, about a girl’s first years in the dance world, and must have read it ten times. When I was a teenager, I compulsively read and reread a pulp novel called Ballerina.  This story of two friends following their ballet dreams is a big pile of garbage, but I wanted to live in its pulsing, backbiting, sexy world all the time. (I didn’t imagine I’d be able to confirm the title, or even the existence, of this book, all these years later – it seems like something that should have vanished long ago into the mists of trashy book history – but check out this wonderful review by someone who was similarly bewitched by it.)

Astonish Me has all the intensity and glamour of those books, but it is masterfully crafted literary novel for grownups.  In 1975, Joan, a member of the corps in a New York ballet company, helps a gifted premier danseur defect from the Soviet Union.  She loves him, but it’s clearly never going to work.  Things unfold from there: Joan’s roommate, Elaine, loves the gay artistic director of the company; Joan’s high school best friend loves Joan and eventually marries her; their son Harry loves their next-door neighbour’s daughter Chloe;  everyone knows how everyone else feels and just muddles along, taking what they need when it is offered, and offering what they can in return.

This central theme – that relationships are never balanced, that devotion is never equal, but that we can connect with each other anyway – unfolds through beautiful, convincing dialogue and a series of quiet yet disquieting events.  The characters are intelligent and self-aware – they know themselves, but in a way that seems entirely real and not precocious.  The teenaged Harry, for example, sitting next to Chloe in a dark theatre watching a musical, “imagines how one day he will be the best dancer and Chloe will want to dance only with him.”  How many of us, watching someone do something astonishing on a stage or a racetrack or a screen, have imagined ourselves into the body of the star we are observing, and have imagined the love we would inspire in someone we can’t seem to reach in any other way?  The title of the book calls out to this yearning.  “Astonish me,” we imagine the other is thinking.  “All you have to do is astonish me, and then I will love you.”

I wanted this book never to end.  I can’t wait to get my hands on Shipstead’s earlier novel, Seating Arrangements.  If you have ever been in love with ballet, or the idea of ballet, or any other art, or a person who didn’t love you back, or the idea of a person who was really someone else entirely, I hope you’ll read this book.

*

Also read this week: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This is a spooky little romp; I read it in an afternoon.  The choppy semi-stream-of-consciousness style is not really my thing, but it’s a good story and I was T-boned by the ending.

Abandoned this week: Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage.  I try again and again to read Oates, and I just can’t do it.  Her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of my favourites of all time, but I have found that I can tolerate about a short-story’s worth of each her novels before I’m overcome with despair and have to go watch a sitcom to pull myself together.

*

Have you read Astonish Me, or either of the other two books I attempted this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading?

Summer Book Club Week 4: The Other Typist

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.

theothertypistI had issues with Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist It appears that I liked it, because I finished it.  I have no compunction about abandoning books if I don’t feel more driven to finish them than I do to, say, watch another episode of House.  I was driven to finish this book, but all along the way, it bothered me.

I was bothered by the occasionally on-the-nose dialogue, by the broad everyone’s-a-villain characterization, which is equally broadly complicated by our early understanding that our narrator, Rose, is not reliable. Characters burst out with proclamations like

Now, Rose, that’s not called for.  Best to mind your own business, else people might get the wrong idea about you and the Sergeant.  Don’t tell me they neglected to impart a proper sense of professionalism to you at the typing school…

or

I can assure you, Rose, no one will give you trouble about your breeding here.  I can see that even though you are just a woman, you know very well how to make yourself useful, and your industriousness will not go unappreciated in this office.

To be fair, there are clues that not all the dialogue is truly taking place. Rindell uses quotation marks in some spots and yet italicizes dialogue in others, as if to show us that the italicized dialogue might or might not be in Rose’s head.  (Or it might just be that dialogue in flashbacks is italicized to distinguish past from present.  I still hadn’t figured this out by the end of the book, and this also bothered me.)

Rose herself is sometimes exasperating in her attempts to win us over.  The seams in the author’s craft are visible, as though she wants us to notice how cleverly her narrator has been constructed.  For example, Rose shows us bits of her diary, an effusive and painstaking list of the charms and foibles of Odalie, the titular “other typist.”  These snippets are full of superlatives and exclamation marks, like a twelve-year-old’s descriptions of  her crush, but Rose then insists that there is “no great anomaly in my interest, only in my methods.” The story is full of these moments that fairly scream “I am self-deceptive! Look how self-deceptive I am, and how aware I am of my own self-deception!”, and they were jarring to me.

It wouldn’t be difficult to render these thoughts and conversations more artful, and therefore more satisfying.  Rindell does so elsewhere.  For example, in an early memory, Rose reports an overheard exchange in which the milkman describes why he doesn’t flirt with her as he does with all the other girls in her residence: “There’s something not right about that one…Can’t put my finger on it exactly, but it’s like the milk: Even when it’s not yet spoiled, you just know when it’s getting ready to go off.”  Not subtle, but nicely put.

Enough about what I didn’t like.  (I won’t get into the ending.)  The fact is, these moments of awkwardness bothered me because they pulled me out of an absorbing story.  It’s 1923.  (I’ll stop saying I’m not a fan of historical fiction; this clearly is no longer true.) Rose is a typist at a police precinct, and when Odalie is hired to join her, Rose becomes obsessed with her.  Odalie becomes her “friend,” and draws her into an unfamiliar world: speakeasies, lavish hotel rooms, beach holidays at grand estates on Long Island.  Of course, Odalie’s motives are suspect, not only to us but also to Rose, who can’t extricate herself despite her doubts.  What will become of them both?

When I found out…well, like I said, I won’t get into the ending.  (I’m not sure whether the problem is with it or with me.) Nevertheless, it’s a good ride, and I closed the book wondering if I should reread it someday to see if I can understand its story and techniques better.  This would suggest that I trust Rindell enough to doubt my own criticisms; in fact, I wish I could write such a compelling story.  My nit-picking may be jealousy.

I’ll read Rindell’s next novel.  If you like a fun, creepy, plot-driven thriller, you should probably read this one.

*

Also read this week: Drama by Raina Telgemeier (a graphic novel about a middle school theatre production; lovely) and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (loved it; might write about it later, so won’t say too much.)

Have you read The Other Typist, or either of the other two books I read this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

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