Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reading Update (plus three books I keep re-reading)

Book #129 of the year was Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.  This is riveting World War II spy fiction with twists you won't see coming.

I can't link you to book #130, because it isn't yet published.  Little Flower was written by a friend, Ted Oswald (here's his Amazon author page).  Ted is in my writing group, and he shared the beginning of this book with us a few weeks ago.  We wanted more, so he sent us the manuscript.  The story is set in Calcutta, and, to quote Sister Immaculata, one of the Missionaries of Charity living there, it is "a mystery, simple yet boggling: Of untold Joy wrapped in staggering Sadness; Of Weak Lions and Crafty Lambs; Of Miracles - approximately 141.  I mean, 142; Of Deaths - approximately 5, few natural; Of the Sacred and Profane laying down side by side, often several times a night, always for a pittance."  As soon as this is available, I'll update this post with a link so you can get it, but in the meantime, read some of Ted's other work.  Most of his books are about Haiti, and they are atmospheric and full of the experience he's gained from living in this country.  (Update: You can now buy the book, Little Flower, here, so go buy it!)

Book #131 was Emma: A Modern Retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith.  If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know I can't resist Jane Austen retellings, sequels, and all forms of fan fic.  They are pretty well always a bit of a disappointment, but I can't stop reading them anyway.  This was just okay.

Book #132 was A Watershed Year, by Susan Schoenberger, a touching read about loss and healing.

Book #133 was the third of historical romance novels published by a grad school friend.  Tempting the Earl, by Rachael Miles, contains some of the same characters from the previous two novels, Jilting the Duke and Chasing the Heiress.  All three books have independent-minded, entertaining heroines, and twists and turns galore.  There's a lot going on in these stories, and it's fun to read Miles' author notes at the end detailing some of the research that went into them.  Her blog is also very interesting.

Book #134 was The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano, the story of the friendship of Mattia and Alice, both of whom have suffered trauma in childhood.  None of the characters is very likeable, but somehow I found this book compelling, and the lives of quiet desperation it describes believable.

My reading speed has, of course, slowed down considerably in the fall, now that I am back teaching full time.  Part of the reason I've been reading less is that I have been re-reading some books.  Here are three of them:

Life of the Beloved, by Henri Nouwen, was book #8 of the year.  I reviewed it here.  I received a recommendation for this book in a blog comment, and since I read it that first time, I've probably read it five or six more.  It has been a huge gift to me in the struggles I've faced this year.  Nouwen says that "Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make."  He discusses four words: "taken," "blessed," "broken," and "given," to explain how we can learn to live in the truth of our belovedness and believe that we are beloved by God even when we are rejected by human beings.

How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, by Rob Bell has been another touchstone this year.  I know that Rob Bell is controversial, but there's something about the way he writes that has spoken to me deeply.  It was book #34 of the year, and what I wrote about it then wasn't so much a review as an expression of my intention to re-read it.  I've done that at least three times, plus dipped into it several more without reading the whole thing.  I don't know that there's anything brand new in the book, but for whatever reason, it has kept me going many times when I wanted to stand still.

How to Survive a Shipwreck, by Jonathan Martin, got a bit better treatment from me when I first read it back in October - my review is in this post.  It was book #128 of the year, and I'm only on my second time through it, but I know not the last.  This is so beautifully written and so very accurate in its depiction of what it's like to go through crisis.  Like both of the other re-reads, this book reminds me again and again that the answer to difficult times is to go on, to be in this present moment and do the next thing.

"God can only be known and experienced in this moment - right here, right now," Martin writes.  "If we will attend to this moment, God will attend to us.  Trying to find a way to attend to the moment myself, in that season where every step in every direction felt excruciating, I wrote this prayer as a way of tethering myself to the grace of this moment.  I hope it can help you find the grace in whatever moment you're in right now:  
I do not ask 
for some future bread.
I do not ask
for some lofty thing.
I ask for nothing more,
I ask for nothing less,
than primal provision.
For this, and this - only this.
I do not ask for then.
I do not ask for there.
I do not ask for that.
Only this meal - this moment.
For this day, only
for this, and this - only this."

Friday, November 25, 2016

Poetry Friday: Endings


I talk to my eighth grade students about endings. 
I teach them about Deus ex machina
In ancient drama, a god would often be lowered onto the stage
To deal with complications and make messes turn out okay. 
In their case, this refers to plot devices such as “it was all a dream,”
Or “and then a bomb fell, and everyone blew up.”

No, they say,
Sometimes it is just a dream,
And you wake up and it’s all gone away.
And sometimes everything really does blow up.

I introduce the concept of Chekhov’s gun,
Which says that if there’s a gun hanging on the wall in chapter one
it needs to go off in chapter two or three.

They don’t argue this one.
They’re all for guns going off.

You need to write a story this time, I say,
Where there is a resolution. 
It doesn’t have to be happily ever after,
But you have to wrap things up,
Instead of writing “to be continued”
When you lose interest in your plot. 

No, they tell me, I don’t understand. 
The best endings are “to be continued.” 
On TV it’s always “to be continued,”
There’s always another episode.
Then you know something else is coming. 
It’s not over.

Maybe that’s one of the differences between 14 and 48:
They want another episode,
Excitement and plot twists,
“To be continued.”
I want everybody home safely in time for dinner,
A wedding,
Peace and quiet:
A dénouement.

Of course on this one they’ll get what they want
And I won’t.
The action doesn’t stop.
The characters and settings keep changing.
Until you’re dead,
It’s always “to be continued.”

Ruth, from

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Poetry Friday: Unraveling

This morning I was working on lesson plans on this day off to celebrate the Battle of Vertières, the definitive battle in which the Haitians saw off the French and won their independence.  Next week is Thanksgiving, and I've blogged before on past Poetry Fridays about how I always do odes with my eighth graders for Thanksgiving.  We read Pablo Neruda, and I encourage the kids to write their own odes about things that they love.

I'm very glad Thanksgiving is here; with all the depressing stories in the news, this is an important time to focus on the blessings of life and to thank God for them.  I've posted many of Neruda's odes on this blog, and I'll link them at the end of the post, but today I wanted a new one, so I was looking through my copy of Neruda: Selected Poems, given to me by my daughter (one of my greatest blessings). I found this one, "Ode to the Clothes."  (Here's the whole thing in a different translation from the one I have.)

I've been thinking quite a bit about clothes recently.  I lost a lot of weight in the past year, and most of my clothes are too big for me now.  I have been wearing some oversized things, belting them and feeling ridiculous with the extra fabric, and I have a few clothes that fit my new size perfectly.  I'm hesitant to get rid of the bigger stuff because I am afraid once I do, I'll start gaining weight back.  So I've been contemplating the fate of many garments in my closet, and so far, not doing much about it.

This passage in the poem (Merwin's translation) struck me:

I ask
whether one day
a bullet
from the enemy
will stain you with my blood
and then
you will die with me
or perhaps
it may not be
so dramatic
but simple,
and you will sicken gradually,
with me, with my body
and together
we will enter
the earth.
At the thought of this
every day
I greet you
with reverence, and then
you embrace me and I forget you
because we are one
and will go on facing
the wind together, at night,
the streets or the struggle,
one body,
maybe, maybe, one day motionless.

Thinking of the fate of clothes reminded me of a video my daughter sent me earlier this week.  She watched it in her anthropology class.  It talks about what happens to some clothes (100,000 tonnes a year) thrown away in western countries.  It's called Unravel.  What actually happens to the recycled clothes is saved to the very end of the 14 minute video, but in the meantime we hear from the Indian women who do the work, and it's just fascinating to hear the conclusions they have come to about western people from going through their discarded clothes.  Watch all the way to the end: you'll be glad you did!

Have you felt that things were unraveling, this past week?  I have.  In some strange way, this poem and video gave me hope that new things may be made out of changes, whether welcome or unwelcome, and that in spite of everything, I am surrounded by blessings.

Here are some other Neruda odes I've shared in the past:

"Ode to Laziness" in 2012
"Ode to Broken Things" in 2011
"Ode to a Box of Tea" in 2014
"Ode to Life" last year
"Ode to the Onion" in 2013
"Ode to the Lizard" in 2011
"Ode to the Tomato," in 2013
"Ode to the Present" in 2010
"Ode to Scissors" in 2008

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Poetry Friday

"I think all times are turbulent—it’s just that they’re turbulent in different ways, and for different people. Poets are always swirling around in the maelstrom, whenever there is one, and in a way we know there always is one. Take everything going on, for just one example, in Syria. Poets have been writing about that forever. And our problems in this country, long before they entered the debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton—the poets were writing about what goes on in Flint, and in Detroit. A poem we published a couple of years ago, Jamaal May’s 'There Are Birds Here,' was saying that what the media show us is often the bad side of something, but poets are here to say, 'There’s beauty here, there’s life here, there’s brightness, redemption, love for the landscape here—there’s potential here.'"

Don Share, in this article from the Atlantic, "Why Poetry is Viral in the Aftermath of Trump's Election."

Jama has the roundup here today.  I can't wait to see the beauty, life, brightness, redemption, and love for the landscape that everyone is sharing today!

Friday, November 04, 2016

Poetry Friday

We had conferences today, and somehow I just never got my act together enough to do a Poetry Friday post.  But fortunately many other people did, and here's the roundup