Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books I Read This Year

I only read 40 books this year. That's not even one a week. I hope to make it to at least 52 next year. The links in the list below are to my reviews. (I messed up the numbering in my posts; I think the list below is accurate.)

1. Crazy Love, by Francis Chan
2. Night Over Water, by Ken Follett
3. The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway
4. Fire, by Kristin Cashore
5. Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way, by Shauna Niequist
6. The Dreamer, by Pam Muñoz Ryan
7. Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
8. Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
9. Someone Like You, by Sarah Dessen
10. Walking, by Henry David Thoreau
11. Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault
12. The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault
13. Funeral Games, by Mary Renault
14. My daughter's 2010 NaNoWriMo novel
15. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding
16. Scat, by Carl Hiaasen
17. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson
18. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
19. Flies on the Butter, by Denise Hildreth
20. Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières
21. Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer
22. The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory
23. The Last Time They Met, by Anita Shreve
24. Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle and High School, by Randy Bomer
25. Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt
26. Shooting Kabul, by N.H. Senzai
27. Red Kayak, by Priscilla Cummings
28. Truth and Consequences, by Alison Lurie
29. Leo and the Lesser Lion, by Sandra Forrester
30. Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, by Lizzie Skurnick
31. The Glorious Ones, by Francine Prose
32. Private Practices, by Stephen White
33. A Theory of Relativity, by Jacquelyn Mitchard
34. The True History of Paradise, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson
35. Mothers and Other Liars, by Amy Bourret
36. Surviving the Applewhites, by Stephanie S. Tolan
37. The Nine Rights of Every Writer, by Vicki Spandel
38. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, by Edwidge Danticat
39. Love, by Marie Vieux-Chauvet
40. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell

As always, it was fun for me to go through this list and remember what was going on at the time when I read each of these books, as well as how each of the books affected me. But really, this was a bit of a lackluster reading year. Here's to more literary delight in 2012!

Reading Update

I'm getting ready to compile my list of everything I read this year, but there are several on my list that I've never blogged about.

Book #40 was The Nine Rights of Every Writer, by Vicki Spandel. I had read this one before and I think it is a wonderfully encouraging book for anyone who is using the Writer's Workshop method of teaching writing. Spandel reminds me why I do what I do.
"Our goal as teachers should not be to fill the world with perfect text, or even acceptable text. Our goal should be to take students to such a place of comfort with writing that they will persist through three pages of random thought to an emerging clarity on page four because they have not one shred of doubt they will get there. After all, only nonwriters fear failure. Writers know clutter and roadblocks and random thinking are all part of the process."
This is the kind of book I want to read every year, as long as I'm teaching.

Book #41 was Edwidge Danticat's Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. This is a series of essays about reading and writing as a Haitian. This is another book that needs to be read many times. Here's a piece that stuck with me particularly. Danticat is talking about where she gets material - like any artist, from her life. In this passage she's having a conversation with her aunt about a family scandal.
"'People talk,' Tante Zi went on. 'They say that everything they say to you ends up written down somewhere.'

Because she was my elder, my beloved aunt, I bowed my head in shame, wishing I could apologize for that, but the immigrant artist, like all other artists, is a leech and I needed to latch on. I wanted to quote the French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé and tell her that everything in the world exists to end up in a book. I wanted to ask her forgiveness for the essay that in my mind I was already writing. The most I could do, however, was to promise her not to use her real name or Marius's."

One of the things Danticat does in Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work is to write about Haitian literature and how it has affected her. One of her recommendations is the three books contained in one volume called Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy, by Marie Vieux-Chauvet. Book #42 was the first of the trilogy, Love. I found it way too intense, and while I intend to go back and read the other two books, I need a break first. This scene from the first few pages of the book gives an idea of the kind of fevered atmosphere that pervades it:
"Jean Luze held my chin and looked into my eyes. I'm afraid he'll hear the disordered beating of my heart. He is tall and I barely reach his shoulder. I would like him to lean and take me in his arms to carry me very far away. Such is the incurable romantic that slumbers in all old maids!

We offer some cake to Augustine, the maid. The house is festive.

'Put on a record, Jean,' Annette proposes. 'The screaming just ruins everything.'

The screams waft from the jail. Horrible, unsexed droning.

'Calédu is having a bit of fun,' M. Long exclaims with a jowl-shaking chortle. (His accent adds a childish note to his cruel remark.)

'A peculiar way to have fun, don't you think?' Jean Luze asks him with a strange, almost hostile, smile.

'Oh, you know, I say to each his own. And anyway, you would have to be insane to try to change anything around here.'"
I will blog more about this trilogy after I finish reading the second and third books.

Book #43 was Rob Bell's controversial Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I really like Bell's preaching but liked the book less. The warm, discursive way he speaks doesn't work as well in print, especially when he's trying to build an argument. I read this book with a friend, whom I shall call Reading Buddy (hereinafter, RB). We wanted to see if we agreed with what we were reading, that Bell was a heretic, in relation to traditional, orthodox (small o) Christianity. RB did use the H word more than once as we read. It turns out that I have a higher tolerance for heresy than RB does. I read lots of this aloud and there was much lively discussion, which is probably the way the book is best experienced. I found a great deal to love in the book, and RB, less so. I loved the poetic way Bell approaches scripture; RB didn't love the enormous leaps of logic and snorted frequently as I read certain passages. I read on my Kindle, but RB's paper copy was full of highlighting, large flocks of exclamation marks and question marks. Conclusion: I am not willing to call Bell a heretic. He's asking questions which many Christians have asked through the ages. RB is also not willing to call him a heretic, but feels that some of his statements border on heresy. And both of us liked the last chapter. Here's how it ends:
"Love is why I've written this book, and love is what I want to leave you with.

May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones, that love wins."
Amen. Love really does win. Rob and I, and RB and I, might not agree on all the details, but love wins. Praise God for that.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Poetry Friday: Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks

I am joining Poetry Friday late today because we have been driving home from the beach (where, by the way, we had such a great time). In honor of the beach, and also because my daughter gave me a book of Pablo Neruda poetry for Christmas (I read some of these poems aloud while we were at the beach and we joked about how many of them contained the word "naked"), I offer this mermaid poem, followed by a video with Ethan Hawke reading the poem. The text and video have two different translations. I believe the one on the video is the same as what I have in my book, by Alastair Reid. I don't know who did the other translation.

Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks
by Pablo Neruda

All those men were there inside,
when she came in totally naked.
They had been drinking: they began to spit.
Newly come from the river, she knew nothing.
She was a mermaid who had lost her way.
The insults flowed down her gleaming flesh.
Obscenities drowned her golden breasts.
Not knowing tears, she did not weep tears.
Not knowing clothes, she did not have clothes.
They blackened her with burnt corks and cigarette stubs,
and rolled around laughing on the tavern floor.
She did not speak because she had no speech.
Her eyes were the colour of distant love,
her twin arms were made of white topaz.
Her lips moved, silent, in a coral light,
and suddenly she went out by that door.
Entering the river she was cleaned,
shining like a white stone in the rain,
and without looking back she swam again
swam towards emptiness, swam towards death.

Pablo Neruda

Mermaids in Haiti have vodou connections, but the one in this poem is simply a beautiful, ethereal being who is not understood by the boorish people around her. Like many of the poems in my new book, Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems, this one is mysterious but lovely.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Poetry Friday: Messiah (Christmas Portions)

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I went to a performance of parts of the Messiah. The music was so beautiful and reminded me of how artists can show us realities of which we aren't normally aware. I loved the way this poem expressed that idea, and also how the music can transform the performers into something more than they were. Follow the link at the end of my excerpt to see how that happens.

Messiah (Christmas Portions)
By Mark Doty

A little heat caught
in gleaming rags,
in shrouds of veil,
torn and sun-shot swaddlings:

over the Methodist roof,
two clouds propose a Zion
of their own, blazing
(colors of tarnish on copper)

against the steely close
of a coastal afternoon, December,
while under the steeple
the Choral Society

prepares to perform
Messiah, pouring, in their best
blacks and whites, onto the raked stage.
Not steep, really,

but from here,
the first pew, they’re a looming
cloudbank of familiar angels:
that neighbor who

fights operatically
with her girlfriend, for one,
and the friendly bearded clerk
from the post office

—tenor trapped
in the body of a baritone? Altos
from the A&P, soprano
from the T-shirt shop:

today they’re all poise,
costume and purpose
conveying the right note
of distance and formality.

Here's the rest of the poem. And here's today's roundup.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Read This

I just read this beautiful post about the incarnation. An excerpt:
"The divinity of God is on display at Christmas in beautiful creche scenes. We sing songs of babies who don’t cry. We mistake quiet for peace. A properly antiseptic and church-y view of birth, arranged as high art to convey the seriousness and sacredness of the incarnation. It is as though the truth of birth is too secular for Emmanuel, it doesn’t look too holy in its real state. So the first days of the God-with-us requires the dignity afforded by our editing.

But this? This creating out of passion and love, the carrying, the seemingly-never-ending-waiting, the knitting-together-of-wonder-in-secret-places, the pain, the labour, the blurred line between joy and “someone please make it stop,” the “I can’t do it” even while you’re in the doing of it, the delivery of new life in blood and hope and humanity?"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best YA Books of 2011

I always enjoy reading the best-of lists that come out at the end of the year. Here's one from NPR, the best YA books of the year. I haven't read any of them, and only one has shown up in my classroom during self-selected reading time. I'll have to look into these...

Christmas is Coming...

Here's what Shauna says here:
"The irony, of course, must not be lost on us: a season that is, at its heart, a love story, a story about faith and fragility, angels, a baby, a star--that sweet, simply beautiful story gets lost so easily in a jarring, toxic tangle of sugar and shopping bags and rushing and parking lots and expectations."
This is really not something I have trouble with; this is why I love Christmas in Haiti. There's no pressure. It's a time to relax, to hang out with friends and family, to go to the beach. And tomorrow is the first day of vacation!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

This is Absolutely None of my Business...But Here's What I Think

No, it's not my business that Michelle Duggar had a miscarriage. But I always feel a pang of sadness when I hear about a woman miscarrying, however early or late in pregnancy. I lost a baby to miscarriage very early in my second pregnancy, and was shaken by it in a way that surprised me with its intensity.

You could say that the Duggars have made their business our business by conducting their lives on television. I have never watched their show, spent any time on their website, or paid much attention to them. I have a friend who watches the show and she informs me that Michelle is a very patient and calm mother who never yells at her kids, even though she has nineteen of them. I have two kids and I highly doubt anyone would describe me that way, so I have to respect Michelle's character for that reason alone. All of this to say that I don't have any opinion on the Duggars or their lifestyle.

I read this blog post first, in which Rachel Stone writes:
The Duggars will always have their critics. But they are people—not a circus, not a freak show, not an ideology. So while I may work out my understanding of Christianity very differently from them, I refuse to believe that there’s nothing I can learn from them; that their concerns and griefs and joys—their stories—are so very different from mine.
I very much agree with this.

Next I read about the Duggars having a funeral for their baby and distributing photos that they had taken. A headline suggested that there was some criticism of them, and Google helped me find a nasty article, which perhaps is only what one could expect from a website called Gawker. (I was going to include the link, but decided not to, because it's unnecessarily rude and uses abusive language. If you want to read it, Google can help you find it, too.) It says that it is not normal to take pictures of a miscarried child (it uses the word "fetus," of course), and recommends retroactively that the Duggars should have stopped having children a long time ago. You can't miss the difference between the horrible tone of the Gawker article and the tender love expressed here, in a letter Michelle wrote to her baby and read aloud on her website.

But the real impetus for this post was reading Katie Allison Granju's take on the story here. Katie herself lost a child recently; her eighteen year old son died of complications from a drug-related assault. Katie has been criticized too, like Michelle, for dealing with her grief in her own way. Her post talks about the way Victorians grieved and about how our culture doesn't have rituals for grieving a lost child. The whole post is very much worth reading. Here's one little snippet:
The fact that those photos of Jubilee Duggar’s little foot and hand might make other people uncomfortable – people who didn’t just have their child die – isn’t the point. Memorial rituals and grief traditions are about helping the parents whose child has just died feel comforted and supported. They’re not about pleasing the rest of us, or about conforming to how we would do it, or about conforming to funerary rites that we would prefer. In fact, expressing our own preferences or tastes in criticizing the way another parent chooses to memorialize her recently dead child strikes me as being in far worse taste than anything the bereaved parent might have done.

I wrote in the first paragraph about how I lost a baby to miscarriage very early in pregnancy. I chose to tell people about it. Many women and even some men shared with me about their own experiences. My brother-in-law wrote me an email saying that he imagined their miscarried children playing in heaven with mine. (Michelle expresses a similar idea in her letter, linked above.) Do you find that creepy? It comforted me. I felt supported by people who had been through miscarriage and come out on the other side. I also chose to name my baby, though I haven't shared the name with very many people. I didn't know the sex of the baby but I thought of her as a girl. I had seen her beating heart on an ultrasound and she was very real to me, a child who was already part of our family. I grieved for my baby for a long time. A few weeks after her due date I started to come out of the fog but thinking about that experience still makes me sad.

Of course, not every woman grieves as intensely as I did for an early miscarriage. That's fine, too. Everyone is different. After the earthquake, I felt a lot of impatience with myself and even shame for the way I grieved, and I have come to accept that it's not wrong or weak to feel what you feel (can you tell I went to counseling?). Grief is not predictable, and it's very personal.

I'm very sorry for Michelle Duggar's loss. I find it completely normal to want to take a picture of her baby. I don't think the pictures are in bad taste. (Tweeting them probably was, but that's another issue. Katie's post says that after a teenaged relative Tweeted the pictures, the Duggars chose to post them on their own site. Apparently they were intended just for the family and for those at the funeral.) And I think both Rachel Stone and Katie Granju are right, that we all just need to be a whole lot kinder. Surely everyone can agree with that.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Planning for Next Year

I'm writing lesson plans for next year, and feeling unexpectedly weepy, and then realizing that it shouldn't be unexpected. Here's what I wrote this time last year as I struggled to plan for January, one year after the earthquake. I'm looking at last year's plans, and I see how I followed my friend's advice; instead of writing the dates, I wrote "Week 1" and "Week 2." This year is much easier than last, but perhaps those first weeks of January will continue for a long time to have special, terrifying significance for me, and for all of us here in Haiti.

Poetry Friday: Madeleine L'Engle

Christmas is coming. I'm not ready, but as Madeleine L'Engle reminds us, neither was the world.

First Coming

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace
He came when the Heavens were unsteady
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He died with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
He came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Poetry Friday: Keats and Me

Yesterday's Poem of the Day from the Academy of American Poets was Keats' "In Drear Nighted December." (You can subscribe to the Poem of the Day email here.) Thankfully I don't live in a cold climate. I have been cold enough with our temperatures dipping down into the lower seventies the last few nights. Brr. But what interested me most about this poem was the last stanza.

In drear nighted December
by John Keats

In drear nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne'er remember
Their green felicity—
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne'er remember
Apollo's summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would 'twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy—
But were there ever any
Writh'd not of passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

I liked Keats' suggestion that this feeling - the idea of forgetting and simply not missing times of happiness in the past, the way nature seems to do - is one that hasn't ever been expressed in poetry. He says that's because human beings are always missing the past. "The feel of not to feel it." What a great line. That made me think about other feelings that poetry may not chronicle.

I have often had experiences that felt as though they were unique to me, something that nobody could ever express in writing. One of the delights of reading, whether prose or poetry, is finding kindred spirits who have expressed those thoughts and feelings I thought were mine alone.

Not much has been expressed by me in writing lately, since I'm knee-deep in grading. Yesterday, though, I wrote this poem:


Sometimes you're trying to sleep
And there's a poem buzzing around the room,
Whining in your ear,
"Get up and write me,
You know I won't be here any more if you wait until morning."

And sometimes you're trying to read your students' papers
And there's a poem jumping up and down
Shouting, "Write me now,
Put that down and pay attention!"

And sometimes you're trying to wash dishes
And a poem bubbles up from the water,
Splashes your face,

And sometimes, you sit down to write a poem,
And those poems that have been bugging you
All night and all day,
Whining, shouting, giggling,
Are quiet.

They have nothing to say now
That you have turned your attention to them.
But - quick! Look out the corner of your eye
And sometimes you can see one
Playing hide and seek.

Ruth, from

I'm looking forward to the Christmas vacation for many reasons, and one of those reasons is that I'll have the chance to do some writing. Meanwhile, I soldier on, grading and grading and grading.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Poetry Friday: Heart to Heart

I love how Rita Dove plays with cliches in this poem, and how the heart is in some ways altogether tougher than we thought, and in others just as vulnerable as we supposed.

Heart to Heart
By Rita Dove

It's neither red
nor sweet.
It doesn't melt
or turn over,
break or harden,
so it can't feel

It doesn't have
a tip to spin on,
it isn't even
just a thick clutch
of muscle,

Here's the rest.

And here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

December, with Lots of Links

I have all kinds of windows open on my computer, things I've read and thought I should blog about, so today I'm going to link you to a bunch of random stuff I think is interesting. Hope you enjoy at least something here.

First of all, it is, of course, the first day of December, which means it's Theme Day for the City Daily Photo blogs. Today's theme is Action Photos, and you can see thumbnails of the participants' photos here.

NPR had this fascinating post about sounds that no longer exist, sounds that were part of my childhood and that of my contemporaries. Listen to the YouTube soundtrack of the 20th century, and then there's one for the 21st century, too.

Turns out that Derek Webb is one of the founders of NoiseTrade. I didn't know that. Here, he explains in a blog post how giving away free music makes sense for musicians. So interesting. I didn't know that either.

Speaking of music, my daughter found some on the web that a fan has written to go with the Hunger Games books. Here's Rue's Lullaby, from the first book; the lyrics are part of the story, and Zoe Johnson has set them to music. They Don't Own Me (Berries) is an original song inspired by the book. And The Hanging Tree is from the last book in the series, Mockingjay.

Doesn't this look yummy? I sent the link to my husband with the subject heading, "Mmmmmmm" and he took the hint (he's the cook in the family). He wrote back promising to make these. Can't wait!

I'm always interested to read pieces about middle school. In this post, Jon confesses that reading Facebook sometimes makes him feel envious of others whose lives appear to be way more fun than his. This, he claims, makes him "like a seventh grade girl." In a weird sort of way (and not at all what Jon intended), this is encouraging to me. I'm seeing my kids at what for many of them is one of the times of their lives when they are least appealing; ask anyone what he or she was like at thirteen if you don't believe me. Life is tough for them right now. And yet they are pretty cool anyway.

And last, here's a Prayer for the Christmas Season. An excerpt:
"But, Lord God, I want to stay for a while in Christmas where hope is something I can cradle to my chest. I want to dwell here where music sings the promise of love, reminding me of those Mary moments in my life when it seems truth and love are about to burst forth from within and change the world.

Let me hearken to Mary’s song and hear it as a radical claim awakening me for the sake of revolution, to grab hold of the Kingdom of God already present amongst us.

Let me look into the face of the clearest revelation of your love and let him transform me so that when the 'Slaughter of the Innocents' comes again upon this world I will stand up and say, 'NO MORE.'

Let me dwell here in the incarnation of your love and let it change me so that materialism and consumerism are a distant clamor that has no claim on me."