Friday, October 14, 2016


You’ve all seen the hashtag. The kid didn’t get into the gifted program. The furnace is on the fritz. Her vacation will be in Miami rather than Paris. The housekeeper quit.

Enter Eleanor Flood.  In Maria Semple’s new novel Today Will Be Different, a once-upon-a-time animator of a popular TV show is now writing her graphic memoir and shuttling her 8 year-old son from private school to make-up counter. She and her surgeon husband (with a side gig on the sidelines at Seahawks games) have agreed on Seattle for 10 year for him and then back to New York for 10 for her. In the meantime, her mantra is “today will be different.” And the day of this novel is. 

With her customary wit, quirky flourishes, and uncanny depiction of the familiar, Semple has created another character, like Bernadette, that will stay on your mind long after you’ve closed the book. Despite the (first world) problems Eleanor encounters, her desire to do better and be better resonates with thrilling (and depressing) accuracy.  

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Play's the Thing

When my daughter was three and my son an infant, I realized that when I was driving, I could not easily understand what they were saying from the back seat. This, along, with my husband’s frustration of always having to repeat himself, sent me to an audiologist, who strongly recommended my getting hearing aids. After a short period of adjustment in sorting out important sounds from un (no, the click of the car lock should not be as loud as the ambulance siren approaching), now it is usually just a matter of remembering not to get them wet and having batteries on hand. Although the world is not louder, it is much, much crisper.
Despite that, I still prefer to turn down the sound and turn on the Closed Captions when I’m watching a TV program or movie. I don’t lose any of the nuances of the dialogue, and I’ve noticed most captions tone down the profanity.  Are those of us reading CC considered a gentler folk?

Therefore, I thought this week’s challenge of reading a play would be familiar. Not being in tune with the theater world, I first referred to this list.One of the only plays the library had from the list (in book form) was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

The play features one set and two casts of characters from separate time periods. In earlier scenes, the characters appear only in their own time periods, but as the play progresses, they soon cross paths with each other.  

In addition to contrasts in period, the action plays off contrasts in math versus literature, Newton
versus Byron, and experience versus research. The cast of the 19th century looks to the future in creating a legacy. The cast of modern times is preoccupied with looking back to uncover the mysteries of the past.

Since I probably haven’t read a contemporary play since my Neil Simon phase in high school, I had forgotten how much I enjoy reading the stage directions, both in setting the scene, and in instructions to the actors.

Stoppard delights in both the lines his characters say and how they are directed to say them. I loved his stage directional asides (see the scene in which Hannah interrupts as her rival and critic Bernard reads from his lecture) almost as much as his word play. He frequently creates scenarios to amuse the audience whereby lines such as “Oh, no! Not the gazebo!” allude simultaneously to sex and landscape design.

Having read this play, I’m curious about actually seeing it performed live. However, unless the actors are mic’d, I might have to stick to the book. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Women In Revolt

When I began working for a new college this year, I was sent the familiar email from HR informing me that I must complete the online training courses for privacy, safety, and sexual harassment. Although such trainings are routine these days, we are only about a generation out from those women who first stood up in the workplace and said enough, already, when it comes to sexism in the workplace.

Enter The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich. Povich worked for Newsweek magazine in the 1960s. At the time, most women were relegated to the pool or researchers while men with the same education and experience were assigned writer positions. In March of 1970, when Newsweek published a cover story on the feminist movement, a group of women employees from Newsweek women sued the magazine for discrimination. Following their lead, women at other major news publications and outlets soon followed suit.

Povich recounts the excitement and trepidation of early attempts to organize, the fears of being fired, and the initial agreements with management that were subsequently ignored.  In frustration, the ACLU was consulted again and another round of negotiations began. By the mid 1970s, after management finally began to hire more women writers, the magazine also began promoting women to editor positions.

Despite their victory, the book opens with the story of young women journalists in the 2000s who are still fighting for equality in salary and promotions. The need for training persists.

If you like the book, you might check out the series being developed from the Newsweek women’s story. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

All Creatures

So, I’m that lady. The one with poop bags (unused) in jacket and jean pockets just in case. The one dragging a reluctant dog around the block when it’s raining. The one jogging down the street trying not to trip over the leash because she is late for school pick up…again. The one waking up at 2 a.m. to let her out (and back in). The one cleaning out the crate if she doesn’t.

Being a new pet owner drew me to James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. Published in 1972, this book also fits the Reading Challenge category “Read a book originally published in the decade you were born.” When I picked up this book I was expecting something along the lines of Carson’s Silent Spring or Thoreau’s Walden. It is not.  Instead, imagine Bill Bryson writing in 1930s Yorkshire.  

Herriot recounts his misadventures as a new vet. Ranging from middle of the night births to mid-afternoon visits to treat dogs with indigestion, each chapter is a new case. Herriot wryly admits his mistakes and modestly summarizes his victories. He revels in the countryside on spring afternoons and curses it on frigid winter nights. His attempts to convince stodgy farmers to accept his modern treatments may be hit and miss, but always amusing. This book is a comfort read in all senses of the word.

So, I’m that lady. The one content to curl up with a book while the dog naps at her feet. Even though I’m not the one buying Halloween costumes or baking homemade dog treats, it may only be a matter of time.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Sympathizer

Back to the challenge. This week’s task was to read a book by an author that is from Southeast Asia.

The Sympathizer by View Thanh Nguyen is not for the faint of heart. I’ll admit that I skimmed parts of the book due to graphic narratives of torture or battle. However, in the end, the novel gives important insight into war, its aftermath, and its displaced peoples.  

The narrator of this novel is a self-described man of two faces and two minds. He is a communist sympathizer working for the South Vietnamese army. The son of a European priest and a Vietnamese mother, he is also fluent in American English (and culture). He makes it out of Vietnam on one of the last transports and finds himself, along with his commanding general, in Los Angeles. His connections lead him to work as a consultant on a movie about the war, and he soon travels to the Philippines to oversee the casting of the Vietnamese extras in the film. Meanwhile, the General suspects someone is leaking information to the enemy. To detract attention from himself, the narrator blames an innocent man and commits himself to the General’s call for another mission to liberate his people from the Viet Cong. When the narrator is captured by the communist camp, he reveals the novel’s previous pages to be his coerced confession.

More than just a confession, the pages become a reflection of his attempt to live a life as two men. It gives the reader insight into not only the conflict, but the aftermath. Those left behind are driven to extremes to survive. Those who have fled must figure out how to start over in a foreign culture.

To paraphrase one of the book’s final passages, tomorrow we too may find ourselves among strangers. If we do, will we cling to the past? Assimilate to the new? Or try to do both. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Smart, Modern Women

Not since reading the Flavia de Luce mysteries, have I been so intrigued by the amateur sleuths that crop up in Emily Arsenault's books.

In What Strange Creatures, Theresa Battle writes copy for a candle company catalog by day and procrastinates writing her dissertation by night. When her brother is arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, she tries to prove his innocence.  By seeking out the girlfriend’s current and former acquaintances she often draws inspiration from her dissertation subject, Margery Kempe. Weaving Kempe’s story with Theresa’s, Arsenault ventures to ask us to examine our own vocations.

Miss Me When I’m Gone centers around Gretchen Waters, the author of Tammyland, a memoir of the author’s love of female country music stars. When Gretchen turns up dead after a reading, everyone is shocked, including Jamie, her best friend from college. Gretchen’s mother asks Jamie to be her literary executor and turns over the journals, files, and notes Gretchen was working from for her second book. Originally intended to be a book about the men of country music, Jamie discovers that this second book is actually Gretchen’s attempt to find out more about the identity of her father. As Jamie pieces together the notes left behind, she travels into Gretchen’s past and finds out more than the murderer bargained for.

The Broken Teaglass follows two young dictionary editors as they start finding random citations from a  mysteriously quirky story called The Broken Teaglass.  As the excerpts turn up out of order, they intriguingly reveal a corpse, a guilty conscience, and a love affair all set in the very dictionary offices from which they are working. What could be better than a novel that combines unrequited love, murder, and words? Arsenault builds up the suspense with each excerpt, and helpfully puts them all in order in the later chapters revealing that context matters.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Write about...

When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband and I joked about how our children were destined to be dorks. When your father is a former “mathlete” and your mother’s nickname in middle school was “Nerdstar,” there’s really no escaping it.

One of the “dorky” things we’ve started doing as a family is “Writing Night.” With a little help from a book called unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston, we choose a prompt from the book, set the timer for five minutes, and all produce a short piece which we then read out loud.

From the prompt, “Write a sentence where each word starts with the letters of the word sentence,” our son wrote this:“She eyes nuts too eagerly, now cowardly eats.”

When the prompt suggested we write a paragraph using as many words we could that rhyme with blue, our daughter produced this:
“Sue bought new blue shoes. She wore them to her Aunt Coo’s farm. When she got there, she heard the cow moo and the sheep boo. And then her Aunt Coo called, “Watch out!” She turned, but it was too late. “Choo Choo.” The blue train swept her away, and poor Sue, was never seen again!!
(Her Aunt Coo was very blue. Boo hoo! Who knew??!!)”

Dorky, but cute, yes?

My husband found another book for our preteen to use on her own. Rip the Page by Karen Benke

alternates word lists, writing terms, writing prompts, and advice from writers. This activity book kept my 11-year-old happily busy this summer. And it will double nicely as a go-to resource for writing warm-ups for my own students this fall.