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December 16, 2014

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell, starts out with one of those pregnancy-scare conversations every girl has with a girlfriend at some point, occasionally when one or both haven’t even had sex yet. What if, is the litany, from wondering if it will be a “fetal alcoholic” to constructing elaborate fantasies of the child in daycare and the husband’s eye beginning to stray from the sleep-deprived mother. In Rowell’s version, though, this conversation is as amusing as the other person always thinks it is, culminating with the friend getting to give advice based on the fears the maybe-mother has been sharing with her.

This is Rowell’s first novel, and in it we can see the seeds of the good character-building and amusing dialogue-creating that she will go on to in novels like Eleanor & Park and Fangirl. The place where the hero, Lincoln, works is described as “it had been a darkroom about five years and two dozen fluorescent lights ago, and with all of the lights and the computer servers, it was like sitting inside a headache.”

The story quickly evolves into a wished-for romance between Lincoln and one of the two girls from the opening conversation, Beth, who works in his building and whose e-mail he is directed to spy on in the course of his work for a company facing the threat of the “millennium bug.”

During one conversation about goals with his sister, Lincoln ends up sounding like Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she wishes that the “learning” part of her education could happen in a montage: “’If I were in a movie,’ he said, ‘I’d fix this by volunteering with special-needs kids or the elderly. Or maybe I’d get a job in a greenhouse…or move to Japan to teach English.’”

The girl with the pregnancy scares, Jennifer, gives the reply I always use when told that “being miserable about some bad thing that might not ever happen won’t do you any good.” She says “I believe that worrying about a bad thing prepares you for when it comes. If you worry, the bad thing doesn’t hit you as hard. You can roll with the punch if you see it coming.” When the bad thing does happen, however, we see that while these are brave words, sometimes nothing can help a person roll with certain punches.

Jennifer and Beth’s e-mail conversations are the best parts of the novel. I particularly enjoy her description of a group of bridesmaids at a family wedding: “they all wanted ‘smoky eyes’—‘you know, like Helen Hunt at the Oscars.’ I’m pretty sure that my sister Gwen and I are the only ones who won’t look like domestic abuse victims in the wedding pictures.”

When Beth and Lincoln finally meet, near the end, she asks him “do you believe in love at first sight?” and he replies “I don’t know….Do you believe in love before that?” It’s sweet, and they’re right for each other, and even his over-protective mom comes around eventually.

Like the apartment Lincoln lucks into, the novel is cozy and old-fashioned. It’s not demanding, but entertaining; good for a comfort read. Do you need one about now?


December 15, 2014

Every once in a while it sounds like fun to dip into the rushing waters of the Sherlock Holmes fanfiction river and see what’s new. Anthony Horowitz, author of The House of Silk and the Alex Rider YA series and screenwriter for Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, is the newest author to try his hand at writing Sherlock Holmes-type fiction, and he’s not bad at it. HarperCollins publishers sent me an advance copy of his newest novel Moriarty and I enjoyed the way he gets some of the language, the feel, and the Sherlock-Holmes type clues right. The one thing he doesn’t do all that well is to allow readers to indulge their own clue-following prowess. Although his readers may guess the twist, they aren’t allowed enough of the clues to put very much of it together; it has to be doled out to them in tiny spoon-fed bites by the very last chapter.

The author of the piece, who identifies himself as Frederick Chase, an agent of the New York Pinkerton Detectives, asks some of the questions readers have been asking ever since the Reichenbach Falls episode was published: “What on earth is [Colonel Sebastian Moran] doing there? Was he present when Holmes and Moriarty fought and, if so, why didn’t he try to help? Where is his gun? Has the greatest marksman in the world accidentally left it on the train?”

Chase and Athelney Jones, of Scotland Yard, work together to solve the mystery of the body recovered from the Reichenbach Falls and the coded message they find in the lining of its coat, one that leads them to pursue a criminal named Clarence Devereux across London. Jones “has read everything that Mr Holmes has ever written. He has studied his methods and replicated his experiments….He has…made Sherlock Holmes the very paradigm of his own life.” Jones uses Holmes’ methods throughout the story, identifying Chase as a Pinkerton’s agent from a symbol engraved on his watch casing and revealing a man who seemed to be a barber as a member of the Red-Headed League:
“What we were presented with here was a barber’s shop that had been expressly designed to put off customers. Not only was the room filthy, but the barber’s own hair has been quite hideously cut. It would be a foolish soul who would allow the razor to come anywhere near their head in such a place or, for that matter, to purchase a hair tonic whose principal ingredient would appear to be glue. Why! I would be more comfortable at Sweeney Todd’s.”

Chase’s revelations capture some of the tone of Watson’s story-telling in descriptive passages like this one:
“Two wooden chairs had been set on either side of a fireplace but it was hard to imagine anyone wishing to sit in them, even for a moment, in this gloomy place.”
The exaggerated menace of statements like “I have heard his name mentioned and I have felt his presence” also adds to the general nineteenth-century atmosphere, as does the curious declaration, when Chase meets Jones’ intelligent wife, “it made me think that even Sherlock Holmes might have been a lesser detective had he chosen to marry.”

In the end, little is what it seems. Although the end of the story does not descend to the level of explaining that Sweeney Todd himself was working for Moriarty, it does tie together many of the questions Chase raises at the beginning all together for the reader in a tidy bow.

Send Off

December 11, 2014

Ron has gone off to a conference in Washington D.C. and to see some friends we met when we lived there, in the Maryland suburbs. I was wishing I could go, but it’s the penultimate week of the semester and I have a class to meet and evaluation questions to think up, litter boxes to scoop, and dried and broken fern fronds to sweep from the floor of the bathroom where the fern hangs, sulking in brief gray daylight from the window and central heat from the floor vent.

We talked about poems we know by heart over Thanksgiving, and I recited my old standby, Yeats’ “That the Night Come.” I was thinking about Larkin’s “Home is so Sad,” though I didn’t want to recite it on a day that everyone was there. Afterwards, of course, everything remained “shaped to the comfort of the last to go” for a while, although today I finally took the sheets off the bed and washed them, in anticipation of December 20, when both kids will be home again.

We were playing a card game we’ve all played together for years, and while we play it we remember things my dad used to say, like that you don’t have to shuffle before dealing the last hand (one card each), which always infuriated my mother and Ron, or that he was getting so good at the game he’d have to go on the “professional Rage circuit.” This was especially funny because, like me, living with a very competitive game-player, he’d learned to let go of some of his own competitiveness, making jokes about it in the process. Now sometimes I picture the afterlife with him playing professional Rage, a kind of Monty-Python-esque Liberace-style piano player in the background playing “Ain’t She Sweet.”

It was after sending everyone off after Thanksgiving that I found Kathleen Aguero’s poem “Send Off” at Come Sit by the Hearth, and it struck me as finding just the right tone, the same one I try for while texting my mother about the bridge games she is playing at the retirement home while I trudge off to work through a bit of nasty freezing drizzle.

Send Off

The dead are having a party without us.
They’ve left our worries behind.
What a bore we’ve become
with our resentment and sorrow,
like former lovers united
for once by our common complaints.
Meanwhile the dead, shedding pilled sweaters,
annoying habits, have become
glamorous Western celebrities
gone off to learn meditation.

We trudge home through snow
to a burst pipe,
broken furnace, looking
up at the sky where we imagine
they journey to wish them bon voyage,
waving till the jet on which they travel
first class is out of sight—
only the code of its vapor trail left behind.

First class. I’ve never flown first class; have you? And isn’t this an attractive picture of what comes next, that people get to do frivolous things they could only imagine while on earth?

Station Eleven

December 9, 2014

Everything almost—well kind of, nearly, so close to completely—comes together in the brave new world at the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s gloriously inter-woven novel, Station Eleven. The title comes from a science fiction comic drawn by one of the characters, Miranda, whose life and work have intersected with others in ways and with repercussions she could never imagine and never sees, since she succumbs to the flu pandemic that leaves the world changed. How does one’s own life—one imagination, one set of aspirations, one memory of what is good and beautiful, one book, one performance of a lifetime—leave imprints on others, and for how long, and in what ways? These are among the big questions this novel explores.

A character who doesn’t live to see the ending of his world but dies onstage playing King Lear, Arthur Leander, has a conversation early in his career in which someone says to him “You love acting, don’t you?….What a wonderful thing, to get paid for doing what you love.” The poignancy of this, in the context of knowing his world ended with him, has the effect of making the reader stop to appreciate the extent to which he or she makes a living above the level of pure survival. Beginning the book with a performance of King Lear has the effect of letting readers see the stories of those who survive the flu pandemic as wanderers on the heath, people who might say, with Lear, that “where the greater malady is fix’d/The lesser is scarce felt.”

The main characters of the post-flu-pandemic world are with the travelling symphony, who perform Beethoven and Shakespeare but whose motto is drawn from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” The loss of so many of the things that form the foundation of modern life—the ability to call someone anywhere around the world or to look up everything on the world wide web—might make it seem that survival, by itself, would take most of a person’s time and attention, but the travelling symphony, like Arthur Leander before them, make a living doing what they love. Their bravery comes from daring to raise their heads from the immediate tasks before them in order to enact ritual and find meaning, even in acts like looking at old cell phones or killing another person. The bravery of a character confined to a wheelchair, who survives the flu but has no good way of getting out of his high-rise apartment building, is given no less notice in this novel, something I particularly appreciated.

Taking clothes from a house that has never been looted before, with the corpses of the former owners still in their beds, is transformed into costuming by Kirsten, a child actor in that opening performance of Lear, who thinks “what the Symphony was doing, what they were always doing, was trying to cast a spell, and costuming helped; the lives they brushed up against were work-worn and difficult, people who spent all their time engaged in the tasks of survival. A few of the actors thought Shakespeare would be more relatable if they dressed in the same patched and faded clothing their audience wore, but Kirsten thought it meant something to see Titania in a gown, Hamlet in a shirt and tie.”

Life is not better because it’s simpler in the new world. The keeper of “The Museum of Civilization,” Clark, turns out to be a former “corporate assessor,” someone who would come in to a corporation and attempt to improve the performance of one of their executives who had been perceived as not performing up to his or her potential. Some of these, he found, were people who had “done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped.” The end of civilization does not mean the end of such “high-functioning sleepwalkers,” although now they function in a different way. One of them is “the prophet,” who lives by the Bible his mother gave him, and whose backstory, when revealed, is one of the saddest parts of the novel.

One of the most wonderful parts, though, is the arrival of one of the two surviving copies of the Station Eleven comics at the Museum of Civilization. Civilization has changed, with a new one built on the ruins of the old, but the meaning of it still comes from individual human experience, sometimes from disappointment in love, ridicule of pretention, and the impulse to get to know another person. Clark, the museum’s curator, ends the novel thinking about looking out to sea, a solitary Prospero with hopes of “ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.”

I loved reading this novel so much that it’s hard to say why. I think the biggest reason is the way the stories of the separate characters begin at what seem to be opposite ends of a pattern and are gradually woven closer together until a recognizable picture is revealed. The individual lives have meaning, but it’s impossible for those individuals to see it. Finally the reader is left; Oberon or Ariel has untied the spell and we can see only what is before us.

Were you anywhere near as entranced, reading this novel, as I was?  My gratitude to the three bloggers who made me realize I could not wait any longer to read it–Jenny at Reading the End, Ana at Things Mean A Lot, and Stefanie at So Many Books.



December 2, 2014

The students at my college get an entire week of vacation over Thanksgiving, so I took the week off, too. I invited my mother to fly from St. Louis into Columbus and come to our house to stay for the week. Ron took off on Wednesday afternoon so he could chop up the onion and celery for cornbread dressing and pick up Eleanor at the airport while the rest of us waited for a friend to bring Walker down from Oberlin.

I made frozen fruit salad and pumpkin pie ahead of time, Ron made pecan pie, and then we roasted a turkey, mashed both white and sweet potatoes, and made green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and french fried onion rings. We had our feast midday, so then Walker and Stephanie could go to her family’s evening feast and do it all over again, with slight variations (“we have actual salad,” she told us, eyeing our frozen fruit salad and cinnamon applesauce molded salad).

Everyone stayed until Sunday; we had big meals and went to the movies (Mockingjay and Interstellar) and played games of Rage and Telephone Pictionary. I was determined not to talk about work for a week, and I succeeded. The college students told us about what they’ve been studying and doing outside of classes (we got a reprise of the best songs from Walker’s recent starring turn as Georges in La Cage Aux Folles).

Inevitably, events in Ferguson, Missouri made their way into our conversation and we discussed them from across our wide range of the generational spectrum–18 to 83—which made us think about what was happening in a historical context and made me think of Tony Hoagland’s poem “Parade,” with its echoes of the tag at the end of the parade in The Laramie Project, the sign-correcting militantism recommended by the authors of Eats Shoots and Leaves, and my long-ago realization that the crowds beside me on the sidewalk during our small-town Memorial Day parade–in which my daughter marched with the high school band–included people who advocated teaching creationism in our middle school. Walker and the other kids would be trading candy after the parade, and I would see a pamphlet discarded, picking it up to see a cartoon featuring a person and a dinosaur in the same wooded scene.


Peter says if you’re going to talk about suffering
you have to mention pleasure too.

Like the way, on the day of the parade, on Forbes Avenue,
one hundred parking tickets flutter
under the windshield wipers of one hundred parked cars.

The accordion band will be along soon,
and the famouse Flying Pittsburgettes,
and it’s summer and the sun is shining on the inevitable flags—

Something weird to admire this week on TV:
the handsome face of the white supremacist on trial.
How he looks right back at the lawyers, day after day
–never objecting, never making an apology.

I looke at his calm, untroubled face
and think, That motherfucker is going to die white and right,
disappointing everyone like me
who thinks that punishment should be a kind of education.

My attitude is like what God says in the Bible:
Love your brother, or be destroyed.
Then Moses or somebody says back to God,
If I love you,
will you destroy my enemies?
and God says—this is in translation–, No Problemo.

Here, everyone is talking about the price of freedom,
and about how we as a people are united in our down payment,
about how we will fight to the very bottom of our bank account.

And the sky is so blue it looks like it may last forever
and the skinny tuba player goes oompahpah,
and everybody cheers.

In the big store window of the travel agency downtown,
a ten-foot sign says, WE WILL NEVER FORGET.

The letters have been cut with scissors out of blue construction paper
and pasted carefully to the sign by someone’s hand.

What I want to know is, who will issue the ticket
for improper use of the collective pronoun?
What I want to know is, who will find and punish the maker
of these impossible promises?

Everyone in my family got home just fine on Sunday night. Eleanor’s flights from Columbus to Chicago and Chicago to Des Moines, and then her shuttle bus ride to Grinnell all went about as well as they could on such a busy holiday weekend. Walker’s ride back to Oberlin was without incident. My mother’s flight back to the St. Louis airport, next to Ferguson, went fine, as did her shuttle bus ride back to Cape Girardeau. I didn’t have to worry much that anyone would mistake one of my tall children or my elderly mother for a person they should be afraid of. Other mothers have to worry more, I guess, until they get that last text telling them that all their loved ones have made it safely home.

Alias Hook

November 21, 2014

I like retellings of Peter Pan, the way they get at the motives of different Neverlandish groups. I love the stage play and the Disney movie, and I like Hook and Finding Neverland and even Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter and the Starcatchers, and Return to Neverland. So when I first saw it, I signed up right away for a giveaway of Alias Hook, by Lisa Jensen, over at Reading the End. And then I won a copy of the book! I was so excited to read it that I made time in my all-work-and-no-play semester.

Since Annalee Newitz at io9 brought it up, I’ve been waiting to see Nathan Fillion as Hook. But Lisa Jensen has managed to make Peter Pan a bad guy. She has Captain Hook tell the story:
“Every child knows how the story ends. The wicked pirate captain is flung overboard, caught in the jaws of the monster crocodile that drags him down to a watery grave. Who could guess that below the water, the great beast would spew me out with a belch and a wink of its horned, livid eye? It was not yet my time to die, not then nor any other time. It’s my fate to be trapped here forever, in a nightmare of childhood fancy with that infernal, eternal boy.”
Hook’s crew are former Lost Boys who have made their way back to Neverland, only to be killed in the battles.
“Are they sorry to call Pan their enemy? Certainly not. None of them remembers exactly that they were ever his creatures. They’ve simply been bred to follow a leader, and any leader will do, so long as their thinking is done for them.”

Hook himself, formerly an eighteenth-century nobleman named James Hookbridge, has been sent to Neverland by the spell of an Obeah woman. His big adventure begins when an adult woman named Stella turns up in Neverland. They argue about Peter Pan:
“’What is the fascination for Pan in your world?’
‘He is youth and joy and innocence, all the things my world now craves,’ she rhapsodizes.
‘He is sorrow, guile, death,’ say I. ‘You venerate a phantom.’
She peers at me quizzically. ‘No,’ she insists, ‘an ideal.’”
For a while, neither of them is sure how she got to Neverland, and whether Peter knows about her or not. One of Hook’s guesses is that “the Scotch boy” might have sent her.
“He got it all wrong, of course, wrote about Pan as if he were a product of his own era, newly run off to the Neverland, although this place is eternal and Pan has been here so much longer than that. Always trumpeting about that he would never grow up, the Scotch boy, that he would never forget.”
They do mention the name “Barrie” in the course of their conversation, in case anyone should miss that he is the “Scotch boy.”

The real horror of Hook’s situation is brought home to Stella, and to the reader, by hearing his version of what happened when he tried to escape Neverland by inviting Pan to join his “company of brigands.” Pan figures out that he wants to escape and calls his boys to hold him down:
“Half of them fell on my flailing arm as I roared for my men. Pan had a grip on my other hand; he’d shaken out the quill and was waving my hand like a prize.
‘By this hand you would have sworn falsely to me!’ he cried. ‘You would have tricked me out there, made me grow big, made me grow up! But I will never live in the grown-up world.’ He drew a raspy breath, and I saw more malice in his glittering eyes than I’d ever seen in any pirate. ‘And neither will you! Never ever! And this is so you won’t forget!’
Three of the little beggars pinned my hand to the barrelhead, while another who’d been flitting all over the deck brought something back to the Pan. I couldn’t see what it was, for all the boys shrieking in my ears and cuffing me about the face as I tried to duck and bob. It wasn’t until he brandished it over his head that I recognized one of our boarding axes.
It took both his hands to manage it. I saw the downward course of the heavy blade and I struggled desperately, lunging and writhing, but my limbs were sandbagged with squirming bodies, and I could not twist away.
The pain was exquisite, a perfection of white-hot agony so consuming, I couldn’t hear my own shriek for the thundering in my head. The children were all shrieking too, giddy in their triumph and whooping as the axe came down again. Of course, he couldn’t do it all at once. Flesh and bone are more resistant than you think; the blade was old, and he was not experienced. It took several good whacks to break down the skin and pulp and sever the bone within.
….The shock of it was not so much that I had been overmatched by little boys….No, it was the glee with which they did it, the jeering, jabbering Lost Boys. We were not in a battle. No lives were at stake. They mutilated me for the sport of it. For the fun.’”

Hook protects Stella from his own men, from Peter and his boys, and from all of the other inhabitants of Neverland, and they begin to tell each other about their worlds.
“In the stories, you know, when Captain Hook swears, it’s always ‘ and she affects a basso profundo comic opera voice, ‘Brimstone and gall! Hammer and tongs!’
May harpies rip out my liver did I ever utter such nonsense,’ I reply and nod her back to her seat. ‘They are entirely fabrications of the Scotch boy. In real life I am no stranger to oaths….in my day it was considered quite reckless to refer to God’s hooks or God’s wounds.’
‘Gadzooks!’ she titters. ‘Zounds!’
My mouth twitches. ‘Aye, it loses a little something with age,’ I agree. ‘To actually name the deity or any part of his anatomy was a terrible blasphemy, and the more intimate, the better.’
‘God’s gallstones!’ she chirps.
‘By God’s putrid bile,’ I counter.
‘God’s cods and tackles!’ she cries.”

Eventually Hook and Stella tell each other all of their stories. Stella reveals that she lost her husband to WWII and her baby to an early labor brought on by the news of his death. After that, she says, she began to dream of Neverland, “a haven of childhood innocence, a place undefiled by war and poverty and hatred, where children might need a mother, where I might finally do somebody some good.” Telling the stories makes her realize that Neverland is not the ideal place she imagined and him understand that boys can grow up and learn compassion.

After that, of course, all it takes is faith and trust, a little bit of fairy dust, and Stella’s feint at kissing Peter Pan for them to get the chance to grow old together, free of the Neverland but not of the dreams they engendered there.  It’s a decent retelling for those of us who have already grown up.

Fostering International Student Success in Higher Education

November 19, 2014

It seems appropriate that since my part-time job has turned into a work-full-time-but-get-paid-for-half-time job this fall, I should tell you about one of the books I’ve read for work. I know it’s terrible how I’ve been letting work cut into my time for writing about books. I’ve been trying to post at least once a week and I have hopes of re-establishing a better part-time-work/life balance in the future, but any mother of two college students thinks twice before backing off from paying work.

I heard about Fostering International Student Success in Higher Education because one of the authors, Shawna Shapiro, participates in discussions on my e-mail list for selective liberal arts college writing program administrators. When I heard about the book, I asked her for a copy, and she obliged, even though I told her that the most likely venue for a review was here.

My small college has an increasing number of international students (77 out of about 1,600), so part of my job is to give the students–peer editors–who work for me guidance on how to provide the kind of specialized writing help the international students need. We had a staff meeting today, and I handed out copies of two pages from the book, one a discussion of the “dialogic approach” that we take in the Writing Center (because peer editors should be engaging in dialogue with writers rather than telling them what to do) and another a chart showing the ten most common grammatical issues in the work of second-language writers, in order of “severity” or how much they interfere with a reader’s understanding. I found those two pages to be the most specific about what to do in order to give the most help to international students on their writing.

Because, as the book points out, a U.S. student’s cultural frame of reference can be very different from an international student’s, I arranged for two students come to the staff meeting and talk about a few of the cultural expectations they’ve faced. The Nigerian student pointed out that citation is more important in the U.S. than in her home country because we have free access to more sources, and the Palestinian student admitted that he was so overwhelmed with information about intellectual ownership and how to avoid plagiarism (or what the book calls “unconventional source use”) when he first came to college that he had nightmares about it.

One of the interesting things about the chapter entitled “The Role of Culture,” by the way, is that it introduces the subject by way of a metaphor which has a very specific place in Kenyon culture, since David Foster Wallace used it in his “This is Water” commencement speech in 2005. This is the metaphor: “A frog sitting on the bank of a river sees a fish swim by and asks ‘How’s the water?’ The fish looks up and replies, ‘What water?’” When you’re submerged in it, you’re not aware of it.

The two students at my meeting mentioned cultural issues that the book brings up, such as “arriving to class on time, keeping oral presentations short and succinct, and being concise in written work.” In particular, being expected to present the main idea at the beginning of an academic paper was a stumbling block for the Palestinian student early in his U.S. academic career, as he remembers being told he had to explain more up front and thinking “what, are they stupid?”

We talked about learning strategies for writing by English language learners, mostly those identified in the book as “’metacognition,’ or awareness of one’s own thinking and learning” and about “self-mediation,” which can be like talking to yourself or can be prompted by someone else’s questions in a writing center (for instance, asking “how do you know that?”).

The Nigerian student mentioned how helpful rubrics have been to her, and to her friends from other countries; the book has a section on rubrics, with guidelines for creating and using them.

Although the book is addressed primarily to instructors, I found it useful for organizing some of the issues for the students who work for me, those who are often on the front lines of international student education. Like all books of its kind, the more specific it gets, the more helpful it can be. That the specific is most helpful, of course, also applies to the broad category of “international students.” As a student from Cameroon once said to Ron, gratified that he could name a specific city in that country, “some Americans think all of Africa is one small village.” What works for a student from Nigeria may not work as well for another from Beijing. I think working in the writing center, however, is an advantage, since most of the discussion takes place one-on-one and can therefore be tailored to an individual.

The specifics mean little without a general overview, however, and this book provides that. I thank Shawna especially for sending it to as general a reader as me to share with even more general readers like you. That’s why, despite the aggravations, I work at a liberal arts college—I like trying to learn (and pass on) a little bit about everything.

What did you learn today?


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