what i read, what i thought

It must be the twilight zone!  How is it possible that I have read two books for fun in the first month of school.  How unheard of! I can almost guarantee that this will not happen again this school year as we ramp up on course content, grading, and technology integration. But somehow, magically and perfectly, I found myself with the gift of time and filled it with a second novel. It probably also helped that I was flying to Las Vegas and would be trapped on a plane for 5 hours each leg of the journey.

When packing for the trek out West, I brought along Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. I am not going to lie. The book’s cover art drew me in.

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 10.00.55 AMThe simple design and the starkness that is illustrated is seductive. What could the pages of this neat novel hold? Curious and intrigued, I read through the story of Eleanor and Park on the flight to Vegas not knowing if judging a book by it’s cover would prove a folly.

The novel’s structure is unique and surprising. Each chapter is broken into short sections that take on the perspective of either Eleanor or Park.  They each tell their version of the event or emotion allowing the reader the unique opportunity to look out into the high school occurrences that each protagonist experiences through their eyes. Eleanor is introduced to us as a “big” girl with red hair, lots of curves, and an offbeat fashion style. Set in the 1980s and sprinkled with various references to music and culture from that time period, we learn that Eleanor’s situation at home is rough. It is the definition of rough and the reality of having to manage a house like that with high school is heart-breaking. At yet, despite every reason to complain, Eleanor pushes through each day. She cannot afford new clothes, pencils, real food, or a toothbrush. Her family struggles with their poverty and with an abusive stepfather in silence. And as a result of this, Eleanor is tagged as “other” by her peers.

Park is not quite popular but neither is he an outcast. Operating on the fringes of the popular group, his high school experience is quite typical. His family is not broken, he has access to trends, music, and fashion, and he has friends. Unlike Eleanor, Park has lived in this town his whole life and get its. He enjoys comics and alternative music and even dabbles in a little “guy-liner” to present the rockstar side of him. But, He has the poor fortune of sitting next to Eleanor on the first day of school. In the beginning, he stresses and worries about how she will drive down his social capital. And, yet over time they begin to bond over the comics and music he loves so much. His small kindnesses leave Eleanor love sick. This bus ride bonding becomes so much more as Eleanor begins to break down her many layered walls. Park represents safety, security, and good clean fun, all things that Eleanor is not given permission to even hope for.

Their burgeoning love though cannot hold back the world. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “Park’s parents — two of the best-drawn adults I can remember in a young adult novel — serve as evidence that sometimes love conquers the world, and Eleanor’s family is a reminder that sometimes it doesn’t. As for Eleanor and Park . . . well, I won’t spoil it.”

what i read, what i thought

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I didn’t pick this book off the shelf. It probably would never have been my choice when perusing the bookstore. But, I found it on the first day of school in my desk. It had been left on the last day of school by a student as a thank you gift and it sat in my desk all summer long waiting to be read. Pulling the draw open and finding this bright red book staring up at me was quite surprising.  Finding out that a student had chosen it for me was touching. Sadly, I thought when would I have time to sit down and read this? Then, Labor Day weekend had been a complete and utter wash out. It rained incessantly in Boston and the temperatures dipped low enough to put on cozy sweats. Under these conditions, I curled up on the couch and found myself with just enough time to read Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. 

I started the book out of a sense of obligation. A student had been thoughtful and purchased me an adventure in writing. It was my responsibility to read this novel so that when I thanked the young man, I could do so with the ability to share and discuss the plot of the novel. I was utterly surprised by how taken into the story I became. I pushed David away when he tried to interrupt my reading. I needed to know exactly what happened between Lou and Will. Set in the present, the novel follows Louisa (Lou) as she is searching for a job in a sleepy town in England whose main attraction is an old castle.  There are not too many prospects for Lou and she finds herself going out to job interviews that are quite lacking and/or disgusting. After a number of factory jobs, Lou finally discovers a care-taker position for a quadriplegic man that pays quite a lot more than the going rate. Intrigued and really unable to let this opportunity pass her by, she responds to the add.

Will Traynor has spent the last two years confined to his wheelchair and trapped in a body that no longer allows him to experience his fast paced, high stakes lifestyle. Forced to withstand daily humiliations and degradations, he has tried to take his own life. His parents, though icy and distant, aren’t prepared to let Will give up on this new life even if it is one that he never imagined for himself. Hoping that they can convince him that life as a quadriplegic can be more, they are given six months by Will to prove it.  In steps Lou, who unbeknownst to her is not being hired for her experience in adult care (since she doesn’t have any) but is being hiring for her attitude. Perhaps surrounding Will with the right people will change his plan of action and convince him not to take his life. Isn’t six months quite a long time after all to change someone’s outlook?

As the New York Times article noted, “Lou has never fully lived; Will has, but no longer can.” This odd duo embarks on a normal routine of life, love, pain, opportunity, loss, regret, doubt, and fear. The friendship that builds between these two unlikely individuals is poignant and endearing. Lou’s determination to impress Will and change his perspective forces her to also challenge herself to live outside of the expected life she planned for herself. As Schillinger reflected, “Moyes’s heroine, if Lou can be so styled, may not be heroic; her male counterpart may be nobody’s idea of a leading man — and yet with Lou and Will she has created an affair to remember.” As the months tick by in their story, it became my signal most important objective to read to the end of the novel to find out if Lou was “successful” in changing Will’s mind. Was Lou enough? Would Will still end his life? What would I do if I were in Will’s place?  The final page of the novel left me…..

what i read, what i thought

I have seen this book on the shelves for quite some time. Yet, I never reached for it. Not even to read through its little synopsis on the back. I have this thing against reading a book whenever everyone else is reading it and raving about it. There is no real justification for this behavior, it is just a part of my reading practice. But I am so glad I finally made my way to it. It was the best way to end my summer of non-school related reading. And, it truly warmed my heart.

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As a puppy mom, I admit to believing that my dogs, Buster and Bella, are special and unique. I admit that I have at times felt like they were humans reincarnated. That their eyes reflected a wise soul within and that they not only understood everything I was saying to them but that they also had the capacity to respond. Obviously not vocally, although sometimes they do bark, but through their gestures, touch, and cuddles. If I was not married to David, I would absolutely be a dog lady and I would take pride in it. Buster and Bella are members of my family not just family pets.  For this reason, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein truly resonated.

From the very first paragraph I was completely hooked. I devoured the novel and its story of Enzo and his family. It beautifully wove the life cycle of the dog, Enzo, into the fabric of the family.  Told from Enzo’s perspective, it created hilarious moments as Enzo explained what a dog does each day when owners leave, how dogs see their place in the family, and how this particular dog soaked up each life experience as a part of his education for the future when he would one day be reborn a human (as he saw on a TV documentary about ancient dogs in Mongolia). Dogs are observant, clever, and loyal. These beautiful qualities were reflected in Enzo. He was often present when no other human was for his owners. He watched Denny, his owner, go through life from a bachelor, to a married man, to a family man, to a man seeking solace and redemption after a series of heartbreaking events. But, Enzo is always there providing touching commentary, reflection, presence, and tons of comic relief.

One of my favorite moments from the novel is when Enzo is going to stay over night at a friend’s house as Denny will be away.  Denny tells Mike, the friend, to bring Enzo to the house to collect his things, in particular to get Enzo’s toy stuffed dog by asking Enzo, “Where is your dog?”  You see Enzo loves this stuffed dog, it is his best friend and he hides it during the day so that the little girl in the house, Zoe, doesn’t acclimate it into her own stuffed animal collection. It is a reflection that you could only hear from Enzo. From the human’s perspective, Enzo hiding the dog is a quirk but to Enzo it is a strategic tactic! Enzo’s narrative throughout the novel demonstrates love, fear, danger, redemption, courage, and, for me, he explained exactly what Buster and Bella must be thinking each and every day!

The end of the novel is inevitable. I read the last pages out loud while lying in bed with David. Our puppies slept quietly on the sheets between us as Enzo’s story concluded. Despite the tears I shed, I truly enjoyed the novel. It made me laugh and cry and it was a fantastic ride which in the end is exactly what racing in the rain is all about…

“He died that day because his body had served its purpose. His soul had done what it came to do, learned what it came to learn, and then was free to leave.”

beach babies?

In approximately 192 hours the school year will commence. Gosh this is a cliche but the summer flew by! I feel like I just got settled into a routine I enjoy (which includes iced coffees most mornings with Laura) and finally shook off the post-school year fatigue and now it is time to head back in. Yes, I know that the majority of Americans do not have the luxury of a summer vacation like a school teacher and believe me I am so grateful and appreciative of the time I do get off. But, it is always a little sad to say goodbye to the long summer days. As soon as I see the students and get settled into my classroom, it will be second nature and hard to imagine ever not being in the classroom with those particular students. The only really difficult part of the school year starting is the inevitable loss of summer’s sunlight that will be exchanged for winter’s snow.  Therefore, Laura and I set out on Monday to hold onto summer just a little longer with a full day at the beautiful Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester. At the end of the day, we packed up our little campsite and bid the sand and surf adieu until next year.

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Welcome to Good Harbor!Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 7.17.49 PM

Despite being a random Monday in August the beach was PACKED but we still enjoyed ourselves even though we had to share the shore 😉
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The obligatory feet in water shot. The water was freezing cold.  So cold that I felt my shin bones freeze and Laura and I dared each other to dive into the waves. Which we did three times. Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 7.18.24 PM

See those two mansions out there on the cliff?  Yes, that is where we live.Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 7.18.41 PM

Laura reading at our campsite for school.Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 7.18.58 PM

I brought The Art of Racing in the Rain and have fallen in love with this story. It is funny, poignant, and makes me want to snuggle my puppies ever closer. I am devouring the novel as my last summer read.

what i read, what i thought

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Each year David and I take a road trip from Boston to Ohio for Christmas and every other year we drive from Boston to Florida for Thanksgiving. While I am not a fan of driving long distances, I seem to always have such a great time with David on these epic trails. We listen to music, play with the pups in the back seat, make stops here and there, eat tons of junk food, and just watch the landscape fly by. Beyond these trips it never dawned on me to take a cross country road trip. To be honest the idea seemed a bit repulsive.  One or two days in the car was fine but did I really want to spend more then that just driving and driving and driving?

After reading Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson, I absolutely do!!  The story is told beautifully. Amy and Roger, two relative strangers, need to drive Amy’s family car from California to Connecticut. We learn early on that Amy’s father has died and the remaining family members are transplanting to start fresh out on the East Coast. Throughout the road trip, chapters are interwoven of life three months earlier right before the “accident” that took Amy’s father’s life and changed her family.  Overcome by grief yet overwhelmed by the move, Amy has not had time to process the loss really. This road trip which was planned out by her mother to be quick turns into an adventure as Roger and Amy take a variety of detours. Each brings with them a series of walls that surround them from the outside world. Yet as the trip takes on its twists and turns and lack of gas and crazy times, both Roger and Amy begin to break down these walls, live life, love, and move forward. What makes the book even more appealing are the personal touches sprinkled throughout.  Amy keeps a scrapbook on the trip collecting receipts, playlists, doodles, state mottos, and anecdotes that are hand drawn in the book. It made me feel as though I had somehow joined them by getting a glimpse into their collection of artifacts along the way. You later find out in the author’s notes that Matson had done this exact road trip herself stopping along the way at the characters’ rest stops.

What I liked most about this novel is its touching portrayal of loss. I read this book on the flight down and back from West Palm Beach where David and I visited with his family. And, as I read this on the plane, so many lines truly resonated:

“Tomorrow will be better.”
“But what if it’s not?” I asked.
“Then you say it again tomorrow. Because it might be. You never know, right? At some point, tomorrow will be better.”

I blinked them back, hard. I had a feeling that if I let myself start crying, there was a very real possibility I would never stop again.”

“A man on a quest. A Don Quixote searching for his Dulcinea. But keep in mind my good friend, Don Quixote never found his Dulcinea, did he? He did not. There sometimes isn’t much difference between a knight’s quest and a fool’s errand.”

“I’d found out that when you’re never going to see someone again, it’s not the good-bye that matters. What matters is that you’re never going to be able to say anything else to them, and you’re left with an eternal unfinished conversation.”

This last quote about goodbyes resonated with me the most. I dog-eared the page and sat there thinking about why this line about loss was having such an impact. I closed the book not knowing why but liking that it did nonetheless. The next morning, I found out that my grandmother passed away. I did not have the opportunity to say goodbye to her. And I felt the sentiments of this quote rush over me. The loss of my grandmother is painful and raw. Being left with our eternal unfinished conversation is making me feel as though there are not enough tears to express this deepest loss.

what i read, what i thought

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 12.15.51 PMHave you ever felt used by someone?  You know what I mean.  Have you ever felt as though some one was being your friend merely to gain access to your home, car, vacation spot, food, connections, lifestyle, advice, etc.?  I am guessing that the sensation of feeling “used” is quite universal. Perhaps the user is intentionally abusing your kindness, generosity, or naiveté, but probably they are seemingly unaware of how their behavior is coming across. While reading the book Prospect Park West  by Amy Sohn, I kept coming back to this idea of how we constantly use those around us. David has recently been reading How to Make Friends and Influence People  and, from what he shared, it seems the user-usee relationship is the integral relationship of human interactions. According to author Carnegie, the best way to interest someone is to compliment them in a genuine fashion and/or ask them about themselves or something/one they love. His advice stems from his belief that everyone is self-interested and that in being self-interested, we therefore use those around.  How to manipulate, control, or shift this primary occurrence is what is key to “success.”

In the book Prospect Park West, the characters are highly interesting. Each has a quirk, a compulsion, a fun side, and, quite frankly, a selfish side. As the book progressed, I was wrapped up in their trivial daily dramas but found that the characters are not likable people. Each character is using someone for their own personal or professional gain in overt ways. Rebecca uses Lizzie to feel loved since her “meanness” repulses her husband while Lizzie uses Rebecca to explore her sexuality until Rebecca put off by the affection Lizzie shows is then repulsed by Lizzie. Karen uses Melora as a crutch for social anxiety while she also uses her husband to gain access to premium property in the coveted Brooklyn neighborhood. None of the characters truly express love or genuine affection for any of the others and yet they are connected through their constant need to self-promote. While I cannot say that I liked the book and its variety of messages, it did get me thinking about the purpose of relationships, friendships, and made me more aware of how I and those around me self-promote or use in order to advance or get their way. While this is all part of human nature, I am hoping that this chick lit can be a breaking point for me. I truly want to try to avoid being like these women in this novel. Yes, their stories are sensuous, suggestive, and fun but the content of their character left me wanting. I can see some of those baser traits in myself and I want to do more to not only be aware of them but to shift them to something more positive. In the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald describes Daisy and Tom as “careless” people.  I would describe many of the characters in Prospect Park West as similarly careless.  But, hopefully with this in mind, I can avoid a similar description.

what i read, what i thought

You can’t just make me different and then leave. Because I was fine before, Miles

I go to seek a Great Perhaps,  Rabelais

-She loved mysteries so much, that she became one, Miles

How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? Straight and Fast, Miles and Alaska

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After reading John Green’s The Fault in our Stars and being completely swept up in its beautiful tragedy, I decided to try out another of his books for my flights to and from Florida. Remembering a student’s recommendation this time, I selected Looking for Alaska. Immediately I was intrigued by the novel’s structure. Many people define their lives as before and after.  For example: life before cancer diagnosis and life after or life before horrendous car accident and life after. Clearly this novel’s structure suggested this from the beginning.  Each new section of the novel was counting down “100 days before,” “88 days before,”…..I found myself caught up in trying to figure out what exactly are we counting down to? For the longest time I was convinced it was the fall-out from the protagonists’ “school prank” but I was woefully inaccurate. On the other side of the “event” the novel counts again “30 days after,” “100 days after,”….

Speaking of which the protagonists are a dynamic group of misfits who are cooped up in their teenage angst at some prep school in the middle of nowhere. Here they flirt and experiment with life but most often this comes in the form of drug abuses (primarily alcohol and cigarettes), pranking the more wealthy members of the prep community, and testing the waters of sexuality. Much of these dilemmas were real and believable. Pudge (Miles), the Colonel, and Alaska drive the story forward and then turn it in on itself. Pudge is a likable tall, thin, and young Junior who is a bit bookish and not popular. He moves to a boarding school where he meets his roommate the Colonel, a short and pugnacious young man who grapples with his self worth and the meaning of poverty in funny and, at times, sentimental ways. And then there is Alaska. Alaska is the pulse of the novel which is erratic.  The girl who Pudge is consumed by, the girl who is mysterious, sexy, sad, and tragically destined to be the “star” of the fulcrum event of the novel.

At the end of the novel, I found myself googling another title by John Green and then asked myself why?  Why read yet another John Green novel? According to New York Girl for the Guardian, “There is no doubt that John Green is a good writer, and this is why so many people like his novels. He writes what teens want to read, and what he writes is well written. Looking for Alaska does deserve the awards that it’s won, as it deals with some very prevalent topics from young adults, such as self discovery and loss. It is definitely a book which delves into what teenage life is all about, young love and the stupid things you do to impress someone.” And, perhaps because I work with this population everyday and because in the end I am not THAT far away demographically from them these books still remain exciting. Or, perhaps, it is just because they are very well written. Either way, John Green and Looking for Alaska is a book that should be added to one’s summer reading list.