“Nothing’s Where You Think It Is”

Hubby and I are big West Wing fans. We own the DVDs and have watched them straight through multiple times. It’s not even about the politics; it’s about the writing and the characters. Every episode is just awesome, and often in a blow-your-mind kind of way, giving you new things to think about.

I showed this clip from Season 2 to my students last night as we talked about providing reasons and evidence for your position. But what I really love about the clip is (a) the quote “nothing’s where you think it is” and (b) the fact that you really can turn the world upside down — and blow people’s minds — just with an idea.

Think of the famous times throughout history: the sun rather than the Earth as the center of the galaxy, the Earth being round instead of flat.

A few years ago I found out that what I’d been taught about dinosaurs as a kid was wrong because it turns out the Brontosaurus never existed. That blew my mind for a minute. I mean, it was everywhere! There were like twenty Land Before Time movies starring a Brontosaurus. And then suddenly it not only wasn’t there, but they tell us it never had been. Weird.

But I must like having my perceptions shattered frequently, because I adore reading books that blow my mind. Most recently it happened with What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell. It’s set in post-WWII America, and the character and her family go down to Palm Beach, strike up a friendship with a husband and wife, and then the husband and wife are thrown out of the hotel for being Jewish.

It’s one of those times where you go, “Wait a minute! That was the Nazis, not us. The Nazis were the ones persecuting Jews. We went over there and fought against them! How could we be doing something so Nazi-like right here at home?”

The world is complicated, isn’t it?

We chip away at Truth a little at a time, figuring out the lay of the land, the globe, the galaxy, the universe. But there’s always something we’ve gotten wrong and have to relearn.

Something will go wrong in my vegetable garden, like me planting something at the wrong time or in the wrong way, and I’ll think, “Well, I’ll get it right next year.” And with society, it feels like it takes a generation at a time to fix things. I grew up not having any clue when someone’s last name was Jewish or Italian or whatever and certainly not thinking that it mattered. Maybe there’s hope that my kids won’t be bothered by homosexuality and some of the other prejudices we’re still dealing with now.

Maybe sometimes it’s good for us to see the world upside down for a minute, to flip-flop our perceptions of top and bottom, black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. Keeps us open minded.

It’s good to keep learning, keep forming new connections in our brains, and keep thinking that there’s always a chance we’re wrong about everything. Yeah, there’s some insecurity with that, the way C.J. says, “You’re freaking me out.” But again, if we flip things upside down, maybe insecurity isn’t so bad. Especially if it keeps us questioning the world and our own perceptions of it.

Can you think of anything that’s blown your mind recently, whether a book or a news article or whatever?

Leave a comment!

Young Feminists in Historical Fiction

This is one of those posts that has the potential to get me into trouble with people who know more about this topic than I do. But that’s okay. Maybe it’ll turn out to be another interesting discussion in the comments!

I’m currently 200 pages into Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, one of the Newbery Honor books for this year. It’s historical fiction set in Texas in 1899, and the main character is the eleven-year-old only daughter of a wealthy family (“her daddy’s in cotton”). And partly because she’s the only girl among six brothers, Calpurnia spends a good chunk of the book questioning gender roles.

I’ve heard many times the argument that too often historical fiction places a heroine with a modern feminist perspective back in a time period when people didn’t have the modern ideals that we do now, thus invalidating such historical fiction by making it anachronistic.

For me, I just wonder where the line is. How do we know when a character is too modern in her sensibilities? Weren’t plenty of women in history far beyond their time in picturing rights for women that would take many more lifetimes to come about?

I use a speech from 1851 every semester with my beginning comp class as we learn about rhetoric, and it’s a speech that was given at a women’s rights convention by an emancipated slave self-named Sojourner Truth. She says at one part,

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?

I do wonder: If women were talking about suffrage in these ways, what’s so wrong with having a feminist main character in a historical setting? When does the character cross the line into being too modern?

I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve read about Calpurnia, and I think for me the line is that the questions the character raises about gender roles have to make sense for her situation. Calpurnia hangs out with her grandfather, who is a naturalist, and learns to love it so much that girly things like knitting (for example) become a nuisance because they get in the way. The more time she’s forced to spend on traditional women’s work, the fewer daylight hours are left for exploring their 600 acres with her grandfather. It makes sense that she would wonder why she should have to do certain things simply because of her gender.

The way she questions the world seems natural to me, and maybe that’s the difference.

What do you think? Have you read historical fiction on both sides, both where the feminism felt too modern and where it felt right for the time? What makes the distinction for you?

Leave a comment!

Going Digital

Six or seven years ago, I got bitten by the family history bug. The symptoms include a burning desire to chart your pedigrees, burning desire to acquire all old family photos and documents, and burning desire to share all this with everyone else in the family.

For me, I’m lucky enough to be in a family where most of the grunt work has already been done. The pedigrees have been charted, the names put in place, the dates verified.

I’ve spent six or seven years working hard at what I consider to be the next step: going digital.

First, I bought a portable scanner and dragged it with my laptop to all my relatives’ houses across two states, asking them to take photos out of albums and frames so that I could copy them. Then I collected stories, whether from journal entries or personal histories or just talking to grandparents. All of that I synthesized into phase one of my personal digital quest: the digital album.

The beauty of the digital album is that anyone in the family can have a copy. You can flip through the pages on the computer or print it out and have your own history book on the coffee table.

As my cousin Melissa said, “Wow. You got the cry gift this year.” The grandparents shed tears when I handed them their albums for Christmas. Phase one = success.

Now I’m embarking on phase two: global accessibility.

I want family members I’ve never met to have access to these photos and stories, too. So I created a family history site, and this weekend I began the tedious project of uploading stories and photos. My great grandmother’s type-written personal history was five pages long, and it took me hours to retype it onto a webpage.

I’ve got hundreds of pages — many of them on legal-size paper — left to retype into digital format. For the album, I only included excerpts, maybe 1% of the written material I’d collected. Now it’s time to go all-out.

Don’t worry: I don’t actually plan on retyping them. Right now I’ve got Office Max scanning them into pdf format for me, and I’ve spent this morning trying to figure out the most feasible plan for converting pdf files to editable text. One option is $199 — to purchase OmniPage 16 software. We’ll see what else I can finagle.

The point is this: Stories are valuable. As I mentioned in my post called Identity Stories a few months ago, reading through all these hundreds of pages of history as I made the albums was an incredible experience for me. I loved finding out about the lives of my great and great-great grandparents. I loved learning what things I have in common with them. And I want other members of my family around the world to have the same chance. When they Google the names of our ancestors, I want them to find a gold mine.

I don’t think names and dates are enough. For me, it’s stories that make people come alive. And a few photos along the way help, too.

Maybe this is a stretch, but today is Martin Luther King Day, and part of that — part of any holiday like this — is remembering history and honoring the lives of those who shaped its course. If you get a chance, think about asking an older person in your family for a story: about meeting their true love, about what life was like, about whatever they want to tell you. It’s just a thought, and I can tell you that it’s made a big difference to me.

Stories really are valuable.

Leave a comment!

Frost-covered Trees and Arabian Deserts

Our snow hasn’t hit yet, but this morning we woke up with one of those cool fogs that obscures even the neighbors’ houses across the street, completely shrouds the mountains that normally rise behind those houses, and lines the trees in frost. I only wish the pictures did justice to the feel of it.

Lacy-looking trees and foggy backgrounds

The snow in the photos is the super crunchy kind, leftover from more than a week ago. Fresh inches are supposed to hit us tonight through Wednesday.

I don’t have anywhere to go this week — no travel plans, no work (since we get three weeks off between semesters), no last-minute shopping, no obligations — so I guess that leaves me free to just look out the window and apprecite frost crystals and snow storms from the comfort of a couch and a mug of cocoa.

These fishing lines are normally pretty invisible, but the frost made them triple thick

But for anyone who’s feeling under the weather and hating snow, I have a Christmas read recommendation for you that’s a little unusual and definitely does not involve snow.

I read this a couple years ago and loved it. Actually, the Christmas connection surprised me about halfway through the book, so hopefully that’s not a spoiler. But I also didn’t clue in that Ella Enchanted is a retelling of Cinderella until three-quarters through that. Sometimes I’m not the quickest.

Anyhow, Alphabet of Dreams follows the wise men through the desert from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old Persian princess orphaned and disguised as a boy. On top of that, she’s taking care of her younger brother whose dreams have put them in danger. If I’m remembering right.

It gave me a historical perspective on the Christmas story that I adored. Plus the writing is as beautiful and poetic as frost-lined trees.

(This picture on the left is the hardcover jacket. The paperback on the right hints at Christmas a little more with the Star of Bethlehem and all that. Click on the paperback for a larger view.)

What Christmas books would you recommend? What are you reading this week?

Leave a comment!

10 Writers I’m Thankful For

I’m sure this isn’t an original idea. There are probably plenty of bloggers pursuing this kind of topic for their Thanksgiving-week posts. But I liked the thought of narrowing it down to a list of ten and thinking of how the ten had impacted my thinking and my writing in profound ways.

Of course, the challenge is limiting it to ten. At first I thought about doing ten books, but that would be even more impossible for me. Besides, I don’t want this to end up being a list of favorite books but a list of writers who have somehow changed my worldview. So here goes.

  1. C. S. Lewis — for perspective. Like millions of other people, I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia. The first novel I tried to write, as a fifth grader, was a spin-off of those books, with a portal to another world. As an adult, I am blown away by Mere Christianity. “It is no good asking for a simple religion,” he says in one part. “After all, real things are not simple. . . . Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.” I also read Till We Have Faces as an adult and savored the new perspectives he offered in fictional form about religion and the new angle he gave the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
  2. Megan Whalen Turner — for twists, subtleties, and complexities. Her Queen’s Thief series is one you could read over and over. The twists made me gasp the first time around — and cheer. The subtleties made me fall in love because of the quiet moments where she gives you just a hint of what’s happening, because more than a hint would ruin it, because quiet moments can be that fragile and beautiful. The complexities made me think, like when Eugenides confronts the gods so often with hard questions about why. I learned from Megan Whalen Turner that these are key ingredients for masterpieces of fiction.
  3. Susanna Clarke — for storytelling. Who else do you know who can produce an 800-page novel — in a tiny font size, no less, with footnotes that often take up half a page or more in an even smaller font size — and have it be a bestseller? Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell taught me about storytelling. Each little footnote is a story unto itself, and every one of them is captivating. You have the option, even on the audio tracks, to skip the footnotes, but I don’t, even when listening to that book a second or third time, because the little stories are just as fascinating as the main ones. That, to me, is masterful.
  4. David McCullough — for breathing life into facts. When I was in middle school, we had to read a biography, and oh how I wish I knew about David McCullough then! He hadn’t written John Adams yet, and I have always loved John Adams because I grew up on the musical 1776. So I chose some random biography, and it was boring. Because biographies used to be that way. I could be wrong about giving McCullough all the credit for this, but it seems like he’s the one who brought storytelling to history and decided to tell it with all the uncertainty and tension it deserves.
  5. Billy Collins — for accessible poetry. I’ve always loved poetry in small doses. I started subscribing to The New Yorker just for the two-to-three poems per issue. But Billy Collins wrote the first book of poetry I read from start to finish and couldn’t put down. He solidified my love for it and proved that the modernists didn’t know everything. The Washington Post says it better than I can: “[Collins] takes the mundane thing and shows you its mystery. And he takes the mysterious and strips it naked.”
  6. Marilynne Robinson — for beauty in simplicity. Her books require an unhurried mood, but you get rewarded for that patience by a hundred gems like these in Gilead
    • “Grace has a grand laughter in it.”
    • “Love is holy because it is like grace — the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”
    • “In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”
    • “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.”
  7. Yann Martel — for the power of ideas in story. In Life of Pi, when the interviewers refuse to believe Pi’s story, he has so many great responses like this: “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.” Life of Pi is the opposite. It’s a book that does make you see higher and further and differently, and I love it for that. It’s a story full of insight.
  8. Shannon Hale, Orson Scott Card, and Laini Taylor — for magic. I didn’t consider myself a fan of fantasy until I read The Goose Girl, Enchantment, and Blackbringer. These books converted me to the kind of richness of detail they have in common. They make magic seem like something real because the worlds of their books are so real.
  9. Aaron Sorkin — for passion about intelligence. He makes “smart” look good. He says no to the standard dumbness of television. The West Wing is still our favorite TV drama of all time, and miraculously, I know both republicans and democrats who love it. Somehow, Aaron Sorkin managed to create a successful political drama that captivated audiences thirsty for an intelligent look at the complexities of both sides of politics, avoiding simplistic stereotypes. We loved his brief season of Studio 60, too, which brought the battle of intelligent television right into the show.   
  10. Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and Kristin Cashore — for page turners that made me fall hard. My sister and I often get asked how we can be fans of Stephenie Meyer as English majors who know what “good writing” is. Well, for me, it’s because I can appreciate all sides of good writing, and these three authors taught me about creating characters that you cling to and pacing that holds you tight. I read Twilight in November 2005 based on my thesis chair’s recommendation. I started it at 7pm and finished at 2am. The Hunger Games and Graceling were similarly all-nighters for me. I had to keep turning every page, and I think there’s a lot to learn from that about what makes a good story.

What about you? What writers are you thankful for? If you’re doing a similar blog post, feel free to put the URL in your comment. I’m excited to hear whose writing has influenced you!

Leave a comment!

YA as Diversity Course?

How cool would it be to fulfill one of your general ed requirements at your community college by taking a course in young adult lit?

That’s what a fellow teacher and I are trying to make happen. SLCC requires every student to take a diversity course, and we’re thinking, “What better way to explore diversity than through literature–particularly YA lit?”

Of course, there’s tons of work still to be done with researching requirements, gauging feasibility, designing the course, submitting it for review, etc, but naturally the first thing I wanted to do was make a list of potential books for the course!

What do you think of these?

American Born ChineseMake LemonadeThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Beyond the diversities of race in these ones, I also like that American Born Chinese is a graphic novel, Make Lemonade is written in verse, and The Absolutely True Diary is journal-style–complete with doodles. So there’s that diversity of style, too. That makes me most certain about these first three choices.

It also helps that American Born Chinese won the Printz award and was a National Book Award finalist, The Absolutely True Diary won the National Book Award, and the sequel to Make Lemonade–True Believer–also won the Printz and was a National Book Award finalist.

True Believer deals with sensitivity toward homosexuality in a very honest way, which is probably part of the reason for the two awards. Since it’s also told in verse, it’s a quick enough read that it might be possible to do Make Lemonade and True Believer together.

Mississippi Trial, 1955

Mississippi Trial, 1955 gives a historical perspective on African American rights issues, and I think historicity is one of the requirements of the course.

The Chosen OneA Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life

The Chosen One is a frightening look at the extremes religion can be taken to, and that makes me a little wary. But of course, I wouldn’t want students to think any of these are representative of a whole race or religion, so maybe this book would provide an opportunity to discuss fictional portrayals of people.

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life is also about religion, among other things, and stars a main character who was adopted and raised as an atheist but meets her birth mother, who is Jewish, and has to decide what meaning that heritage will have in her life.

Those are just the ones that I’ve read. Some others that I want to look into include The Possibilities of Sainthood by Donna Freitas and The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson.

The Possibilities of SainthoodThe Day of the Pelican

What YA books have you read that have enhanced your perspective on the diversity in America? Which would you recommend?

Leave a comment!