Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Making People Read Books

Being a teacher has its perks. Occasionally (when it works with what we're studying), I can assign an amazing text to my students and just watch what happens. Case in point: the excerpt we're reading now from Dave Cullen's Columbine.

When I read it almost two years ago, I read it one sitting. All four hundred pages. I couldn't even put it down to go to sleep, it was so compelling. It is written so well, too, that despite the difficult subject matter, it's one of the most readable things I've ever come across. (And you probably all know this already, because if you know me in real life, I've already made you read it.)

This year I'm teaching 11th grade. American Literature. I knew I wanted to incorporate more creative nonfiction into the curriculum; in the last five years there has been a heavy emphasis on bringing more nonfiction into the classroom, but my kids see primarily informational texts. Until now there has been less emphasis on the craft of nonfiction, unless we're talking about rhetorical strategies. That has value, absolutely. But I think many kids graduate without ever seeing nonfiction that's beautiful or haunting. (Which is too bad, right? Real stories make up a significant portion of the market, and I think for some of my kids, reading great nonfiction in school could be what gets them hooked on reading. Or at least a little book-curious.) This year I set a goal to bring them more  of memoir, the personal essay, and literary journalism.

It's been fun to choose texts for a creative nonfiction unit, drawing from works I studied at UCR.

This week we're reading a bit of Columbine. We've been talking about truth. About the space in the Venn Diagram that fiction shares with nonfiction. About the different obligations and motivations that writers have to represent truth on the page. About different situations and the kind of truth they require. About why and how a writer might tell a true story.

So yesterday we started looking at Columbine, and they're hooked. I've had two of the best days with my kids. They're engaged and awake in a way I haven't seen all year. It's the kind of learning that doesn't feel like learning, and the kind of teaching that doesn't feel like work.

Yesterday as I was starting class, one kid asked me what he missed the day before when he was out.

Before I could answer, another girl in the class said "We read a really good chapter of a really good book."

Multiple kids asked if this book is in the school library so they can read the whole thing.

It just doesn't get any better than that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


This year:

Egg jokes.
Hiding the green one in the guacamole.
Avocado and grapefruit salad.
Uncles popping rose petals.
Nephews finding a squirrel skull.
Sleepy Dad.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

This Week

No more using the restroom whenever I want! Back to school!

Easter festivities have drawn to a close; visits were made to households on each side of the family. As usual, the four of us arrived home Sunday night and (after folding and hanging that pile of laundry I've been avoiding for a week) collapsed onto our bed for the night. I'm positive that we all ate enough calories in candy, alone, to last through at least August, so the skipped meal didn't even matter. Both kids were allergic messes from being out in the wind for two days, and neither of them really mustered up any energy, either. Easter, as usual, left us exhausted just in time to head back to school.

So, school. That's where I am today, or where I'll be soon if you're reading this early. I opened my calendar last night to plan out my week and my week was surprisingly free of obligations. Of course, once I added time for reading, writing, grading and prepping my classes, I now have a standard Heather week of crazy. If I can work really hard and write during my weekday breaks, though, I shouldn't have much to do next weekend.

What I'm saying is, I dug having time off, and I'd like to do it again. My goal is not to work next Saturday or Sunday. We'll see what happens.


This week, I'm:

Reading Paula Bomer's collection, Inside Madeleine. Next in line (I'm ever-hopeful I'll find more time!): Dept. Of Speculation.

Listening to Dubliners, still. I didn't drive or walk much last week, so I didn't make a lot of progress. But today it's back to walkin' and back to work; I should make a dent. And I'm still spending time in search of a new Pandora station (Pandora usually only helps me reinforce my weird music habits, which are mostly about movie scores, awful 90s music pop music, and things that sound like Moby's "Everloving." I know). Lately my hunt for new music means I bounce back and forth between the Indie and Lorde stations... I know, I know. Someone tutor me.

Watching something I never thought I'd watch. In fact, I've been refusing to watch it for three seasons. But E loves it, and I love E. So I promised him I'd watch another E show. (After all, I did get weirdly hooked on Sons of Anarchy, our last together-watch.) I'm watching Game of Thrones. I tried when it premiered and I gave up before the first episode was over. Too many names, too much brother/sister sexytime, and everyone saying winter is coming every flipping five minutes. But. I'm trying again. I'm about five episodes in (he's rewatching with me) and I'm trying to keep Evelyn Napier and the Klingon-looking guy and Barbie with the dragon eggs and the prince who looks like Kes from Star Trek Voyager* all straight from each other and I have to ask questions every five minutes. It's a slow process.

*Apologies to everyone who is not a nerd. I took that last one a little too far.

Making time to walk. My body is an out-of-shape wreck and there are no traces left in me of anyone who used to dance. My muscles ached so badly yesterday from two hours of yard work that I needed round-the-clock ibuprofen. Walking, I can do. (Plus, Hurley Dog needs it.) I'm setting the bar low.

Eating homemade granola with full fat organic yogurt from grass-fed cows. I bought it to compare to my usual Fage, and I am a fan. Also I feel like the health benefits of happy cow yogurt might balance out all those Icees I drink during baseball season. No?

Spending my time at Henry's baseball games and E's softball games. I am pretty sad that I have yet to develop an affinity for baseball, bleachers, leaving my house, or other people. (I thought that might just happen by now?) But apparently you can't undo everything about being a girl who spent all her time in a dance studio. I like to watch my boys play, though, even if the standard sports mom interaction gives me the willies. Go team.

Counting down the days until summer. (Spring Break was so nice!) 38 to go.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Recent Reads

Reading for reviews is pleasure reading. It doesn't feel like work. But sometimes scheduling and commitments mean I have to put my personal reading list aside. Of course I can't help myself and often I'm reading two or three things at a time. Here's what I've been reading for me, lately: the things I sneak in between review books.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

I don't read thrillers. I'm too much of a fraidy cat. But if all thrillers could be this good, I might have to change that rule. Night Film had me hooked from the first chapter.

The book follows journalist Scott McGrath as he tries to investigate the possible murder of the Ashley Cordova, daughter of Stanislaus Cordova, a horror film producer and legendary recluse. Cordova's daughter is found dead of apparent suicide. As McGrath and his two research assistants begin to investigate her death, it's hard to sort fact from rumors about the mysterious Cordova family. McGrath uncovers evidence of the occult, as well as horrifying secrets behind the walls of the family compound. There are elements of the typical detective story here, but they're used creatively and described in Pessl's beautiful language.

Night Film kept me in suspense, particularly as I neared the end of the book. The night I finished it, I could not stop reading, nor could I turn out the light. I had to find out what happened. Completely enjoyable and different from what I normally read.

10% Happier by Dan Harris

Dan Harris, journalist for ABC, writes this account of dealing with his personal demons (drugs, anxiety, and a stressful career) through meditation. This book was a nice mix of science, personal history, and honest skepticism.  Harris describes how he came to his practice and the many paths he tried along the way. There's nothing prescriptive, here, only what feels like a journalist's inquisitive eye on a subject that has a reputation for ineffability and sentimentality.

I really liked this one, too. But I listened to this one while I walked the dog, and Harris' voice began to grate, a little. Small nitpick. It was a worthwhile and easy read.

The Object Parade: Essays by Dinah Lenney

What if your life was defined by the objects you own? That's the premise of Dinah Lenney's essay collection, The Object Parade. Lenney writes of everything from a metronome to an old dog collar, and each offering is a beautifully written meditation on what kind of meaning we give to things. Of course, it's not the things that take center stage, it's Lenney's life, family, losses and ambitions. She ends the collection with an essay about the objects she didn't choose, and it is as compelling as the things she did.

I loved, loved, this book. (Full disclosure: Lenney is my editor at LARB. But I would have loved it anyway.) This is the kind of collection that uses specificity to speak to the universal. Lenney writes with crisp prose that is easy to enjoy. I found myself so conscious of the objects in my life once I read it. Much like I felt about the media we consume over a lifetime telling a story when I read John Leonard's Reading For My Life last year, this book made me consider what my legacy of things will be. I can't stop thinking about it, in fact.

You should read this book. That's all I'm saying.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

I read this book because it won the Tournament of Books over at The Morning News. And I read it as an homage to my 11th grade self, who wrote a single-spaced ten page research paper for AP US History about John Brown and Harper's Ferry. Because what's more fun to a teenage girl than John Brown?

I kid. Learning about John Brown during that project taught me a lot about history, and writing the long paper over Spring Break, 1996 was part of cutting my writer's teeth. But I wasn't sure McBride could make the story compelling for a modern reader. Here's the thing. I get why McBride has won so many awards. He manages to take the serious story of John Brown and tell it through the eyes of Onion, a young boy (posing as a girl) traveling with Brown and his men. It's about the voice.

At times this book felt over-the-top to me, but in a way that jives with what I know of Brown, himself. Even in the days immediately following his failed raid on Harper's Ferry, he became a figure of legend. McBride would have you believe that he saw the creation of his legend as his primary goal--maybe even more so than success in his raid.

It's been so long that I didn't remember everything that happened at Harper's Ferry. But McBride's novel had me wanting to know more, and Onion is a superb narrator. I enjoyed it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Tiny Life

Right now there are two boys on my front lawn blasting each other with NERF darts. They're alternately singing songs from Frozen and Miley Cyrus.

I'm in the house, being kind of sad.

Spring Break is all but over. It wasn't enough. I wasn't careful about how I let myself slip into my home self--my real self--this week. I didn't keep an eye to next Monday or the remaining six weeks of the Mrs. P Show that I have in front of me and I didn't stay in school mode. I just surrendered. Exhaled. Forgot about responsibility looming. I was so happy to pretend this time at home with the monkeys was permanent--that we wouldn't all hop back on the crazy train in just a matter of days. It's not that I don't want to go back to work. I do. But I'm so fulfilled by this simple, tiny life at home that I don't want to let it go, either.

Tiny espresso cup realness.

I haven't done much this week. I've barely ventured out. I gave myself permission to not walk, not grade, not hang up that pile of clothes that's been on the end of my bed since I got home from LA. My focus was family and writing, and those two things more than filled my days. For the first time in months I've had a quiet string of days to sit and type. No distractions, no obligations, no reason to not give in to the stories I've been carrying around in my head (or mulling over, in the case of reviews) for the past few weeks.

Tuesday, E and I had our 14th anniversary. An insignificant number (even more so since we needed a do-over about five years ago), but a significant week. I didn't write about Tuesday right away since it seemed almost too precious to share. We had dinner at a fantastic small restaurant in Elk Grove, and--more importantly--a week of putting work into our relationship. Not work that feels like work, but work that feels like an affirmation. Care, I suppose, is a better word. The kind that says to the person sitting across from you: you're worth my effort.

Yesterday Addie had a ticket to meet her teacher at the movies (100% Homework Club gets to do that, I guess), so Henry and I dropped her off and went to see Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Since I generally spend my time fretting about where I'm supposed to be or what I'm supposed to be doing, it was amazing to just go and enjoy myself without guilt.

#sunroofMy handsome date to see Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

Today Henry invited his friend over and I spent my afternoon on the patio finishing Bonnie ZoBell's What Happened Here. I made a brie and turkey panini for lunch. I sipped espresso and talked to my mom on the phone. I tried to be thankful for this quiet life. With our over-committed schedule, I often forget it exists.

Cat fight. A test of will.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Last week was Book Week for HSP, a week of testing myself to see if I could make it to as many events as possible.

Wednesday afternoon Dorothy and I got in my car and drove to San Francisco to see Gina Frangello and Kate Milliken in conversation with Michelle Richmond at Books, Inc. Gina is my editor at The Rumpus and is also a nonfiction professor in my MFA program. Her new book, A Life in Men, is out right now from Algonquin. I wanted to see and support Gina, and I was hoping I'd also get to meet the two other fabulous authors at the event, Kate Milliken, who wrote If I'd Known You Were Coming, and Michelle Richmond, who wrote Hum. Each of these ladies wrote fabulous short story collections (prize-winning, in fact) which I loved when I reviewed them for The Rumpus and The Coachella Review, respectively.

Books, Inc is a cozy bookstore on Chestnut in the Marina, and Dorothy and I had dinner nearby at The Tipsy Pig. We noshed on a bunch of delicious small plates, but of course I didn't snap any pictures... I was too busy cramming pork sliders into my face and washing them down with a Paloma.

The event was intimate and the readings were fabulous. I can't wait to read Gina's book.

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I did get to meet Kate and Michelle, too. I am humbled by the quality of writer whose work I get to review and meet. It was a pleasure to tell them in person how much I admired their books.

Somehow I made it through teaching on Thursday without much sleep. By Friday morning I was on Hwy 99 headed toward LA, listening to James McBride's The Good Lord Bird. I was staying again with my friend Eileen and MFA besties Maggie and Lizi and so we could attend the LA Times Festival of Books together. The view from Eileen's house does not disappoint, and Eileen is the most generous hostess.

I sleep pretty well there. The sound of the waves is magic.

Friday night we had dinner at Son of a Gun with our dear friend, Emile, and walked to Literary Death Match at Largo. The authors reading were: Geoff Dyer, Andres Du Bochet, Rachel McKibbens and Dana Goodyear, while Walter Kirn, Tymberlee Hill and BJ Novak judged. It was hands-down the most entertaining and hilarious reading I've ever been to. Most readings are stuffy and too long. Not this one. I laughed all night and it was over too quickly.

Saturday we headed to the Festival. LATFOB takes over USC for one weekend a year, and there are vendors, lit mags, signing tents and food trucks everywhere. There are panels with every kind of author imaginable. There's actually no way to make it to everything, but we put in a valiant effort.

I really wanted to meet my editor from LARB, Dinah Lenney, in person, and she happened to be speaking on a nonfiction panel with Leslie Jamison, Pico Iyer, and Leo Braudy. There's a nice write-up of it here from The Times. After it was over, we headed over to the signing tent so I could introduce myself and ask them to sign my books. I was humbled again. It still isn't lost on me, small town girl from Northern California, that I have access to people who write books. Really great books. Does it make me sound provincial to say how much this affects me? I don't care. Getting my MFA changed my world.

Anyway. We did not see John Green interviewed by David Ulin, although based on the line around the auditorium, it seems like he was seen by every teen and tween girl in California. We attended a panel with Jeff Jackson, Fiona McFarlane, and Kevin Moffet--moderated by my fiction professor, Tod Goldberg. We giggled as Tod dropped F bombs and parents with children went running out of the room. We also saw Gina Frangello again -- on a fiction panel along with Natalie Baszile and Michelle Huneven. It was only a moment into the panel before I realized I'd purchased Natalie Baszile's book, Queen Sugar, at City Lights when I was in San Francisco having lunch with Pia. Small world. We finished out the day by seeing Geoff Dyer and Ruth Ozeki in conversation with David Ulin. I didn't want it to end.

After the last panel we got to say hi to David and the inimitable Elizabeth Crane, who included us in her selfie photo series of the Festival.

Betsy Oscar selfie.

Eileen hosted a party Saturday night for folks in the program. We played that game where you stick a tag on your back and you have to ask questions until you get it right. We played with famous characters as our people. And I learned that I am terrible at that game, even when I am the one who writes all the tags beforehand.

Lucio, having a hard time figuring out that he's Jane Eyre.

Still, fun to hang out and eat my weight in blue cheese dip and gummy bears.

Sunday we had wristbands for the green room, so we had access to tiny caprese sandwiches in between each event. You better believe we took advantage of that. On one of our sandwich runs, I ran into Paul Tremblay, who it is always nice to see. I did my share of gawking as I waited by the soup station, too. So many authors all in one place. Tod calls it the Living Barnes and Noble, and it was exactly that.

Sunday's panels: Adrian Todd Zuniga interviewing Lillibet Snellings, Annabelle Gurwich, Anna David and Pamela Ribon (hilarious, all), and Tod's second panel, a group of noir writers including Kem Nunn, Richard Lange, Mark Haskell Smith (another professor at UCR), and Adam Sternbergh. Our final panel of the day featured my fiction professor Betsy Crane, Jennifer Gilmore, Jenny Offill, and Mona Simpson. By the time the panel ended and I bought Jenny Offill's book, Dept. Of Speculation, so she could sign it, I was worn out. But happy worn out.


Last year the Festival made me think for the first time about belonging to a community of people from my MFA program that still existed (magically!) beyond the walls of Rancho Las Palmas. It was the first time I'd spent any time with my peeps outside of the forced interaction at residency, and I think it was the first time I realized that this is for real. This year, while none of it had that same newness, it all had a lovely comfortable quality to it. I know who my people are, and they're my people whether we're all stuck posting on Blackboard together or not. And now the people who are a part of my book reviewing life are coming to be as much a part of my real life, too. I enjoy the FOB for its joy. All of the authors seem to be having such a great time, and everyone is so generous in their interaction with those of us who attend. Just like last year I came home with more books that I have time to read, but a fullness in my heart.

My one disappointment: I did not remember to pick up a Ray Bradbury face fan to go along with Joan Didion. C'est la vie.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

This Week

My school doesn't break until the week before Easter*, so I've been biting my nails as I wait for some time off. Just kidding. I haven't been biting my nails; I've been biting off people's heads. Because I just can't anymore. Literally, I can't even. When Easter falls this late and the break falls this late (just like when any number of insignificant other things happen, including but not limited to my not eating enough), I'm Crankypants McGee.

*We've decided that separation of church and state ain't no thing, yo. Breaking after the 3rd quarter is for suckas. Or, you know. For many, many people in academia.

But anyway, I'm not supposed to be anywhere today. So I'm in my sweat pants, and I DO NOT look like this:


But this is the couch next to me:

The Jenny Offill book is wishful thinking. There are two ahead of her in line.
I couldn't sleep, so I spent the hours of 1:30 AM to 4:30 AM planning. I'm sure you think this is super nerdy and gross, but in Me World, quiet time to plan one's week is rare and special. When I'm all planned out I'm uber happy. It means I don't have to hold all that worry in my head. In fact, I think the reason I couldn't sleep last night was that I had been writing a new story and making a list of things to do (in my head) as I drove home from LA, and I was so excited to write it all down so I could start doing.

It worked out. The dog missed me while I was in LA and my being up last night gave him three prime hours to stare at me, uninterrupted. His undying affection for me and me only is the topic for another post.

Speaking of love, it's also my 14th wedding anniversary today.

Yes, on Tax Day.

Here's what I'm doing this week:

Reading Bonnie ZoBell's What Happened Here and Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine, both for reviews. I'm excited about each. I'm even more excited that I have days at home to read. If I have time, I might sneak a peek at Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, mostly because I'm dying of curiosity and FOMO.

Listening to Dubliners by James Joyce while I drive around in my car. I'll be in Dublin this summer, so when I can I'm trying to fit in some related literature. Unfortunately I bought the audiobook when I was on the road yesterday so I made the critical mistake of not listening to the voice-over artist's voice before I downloaded it. He has a ssss in his letters that makes me want to tear my skin off, so I might be listening to this one in small chunks. Even though so far I like the stories.

Watching The Good Wife, RuPaul's Drag Race, and all those episodes of Chopped on my DVR. And maybe some Law and Order when I need a little murdery background noise.

Making everyone I know read Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams. When I picked it to review for Bookslut, I had no idea how big a sensation it was going to become. Leslie Jamison is the new it girl, and she deserves every moment of it. I can't stop thinking about that book.

Spending my time with the monkeys. At home. We have a week free of commitments, mostly, and this morning Henry told me that he has plans to not wear his pants very often. I support this, as it coincides nicely with my desire to sit on the couch, write words, and pause only to nap or eat.