Category Archives: Humanities

The Sea, The Sea

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I just finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. It’s a book I’ve been waiting a long time to read. She started it over 15 years ago, just after 9/11, but couldn’t finish it. In the interim, she wrote some other amazing books — The Keep and A Visit from the Good Squad. She wrote Black Box, a complete and unforgettable narrative made up of tweets. But all along, she was puzzling over what became Manhattan Beach, researching the time period — pre-war Manhattan — and revising the pages that, she says in a recent New Yorker article, made her sick to her stomach when she read them.

Egan holds herself to the highest standards. Manhattan Beach is a compelling mystery, a vividly depicted historical novel, a feminist bildungsroman. It charts the course of Anna Kerrigan, woman diver. Anna’s father, an affiliate of an underground crime network, disappears when Anna is young, and she spends her life balancing her grief and her certainty that he isn’t really gone.

The book opens on the day that Anna and her father visit a wealthy man at his home on the beach and Anna first sees the sea. Her response is to kick off her shoes and stockings, to put her feet right into the water. Like a young Edna Pontellier, Anna’s desire to dive into the unknown is a permanent fixture of her identity after that day.

Anna is ambitious to work in a time and a field where women were humored rather than appreciated. When she puts on the wetsuit that divers used to wear, to prove that she can withstand it along with the heft of the ocean, it literally and metaphorically digs into her body, pushing her down. And yet she persisted… 

Anna’s sister, Lydia, is a dependent who can not care for herself. Anna and her mother bathe and clothe Lydia in the sweetest smelling soaps and prettiest clothing. They make a sort of domestic altar to her and love her as feverishly as a child loves a doll. Anna’s ambition is tethered to her family as long as Lydia is alive. Her ability to advance her dream of diving is stymied as long as she lives in her mother’s house. Interestingly, it is the other women in Anna’s life who keep her, at least at first, from achievement. Is this a part of why Egan struggled so mightily with this book? This historical accuracy is important.

Although my favorite of Egan’s books remains Look at Me, which Egan wrote before becoming famous with The Keep and A VisitManhattan Beach will stay with me for a long time. Anna’s relationship with ambition and her fearless exploration of the ocean’s vast territories, as well as her willingness to plunge the depths of her own heart, put her in the rarefied air of other great female protagonists. I expect to see many beach-goers reading this novel next summer, if they haven’t already read it this winter as an antidote to all kinds of cold.

Get On Board

I know I’m late to this party. People have been talking about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for months, and it just won the Pulitzer. Even my husband has read the book, and he rarely reads fiction. But better late than never. Whitehead’s sixth novel is now one of my all-time top ten, right up with there other masterpieces like The Handmaid’s Tale, Station Eleven, and 1984. 

This may be because The Underground Railroad explores so powerfully a misunderstanding I had as a child. It began with a set of playing cards my mother gave me one holiday featuring famous American women — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dolly Madison, and my favorite, Harriet Tubman.

Tubman, so plain in feature and dress, was a spy, an abolitionist, a champion of women’s and human rights. She looked different from the other women in the deck, and for reasons I didn’t understand, I loved her immediately. I imagined her running a station of the secret railroad coursing beneath the surface of the earth to carry slaves to freedom. I didn’t stop to think that the railroad wasn’t real.

In his book, Whitehead explores this fantasy of a magical railroad to freedom through the story of a runaway slave, Cora. After escaping her sadistic master in Georgia, Cora discovers a network of subterranean train tracks leading up from slavery and into various cities on the way to the free north. Each time she emerges from an underground station into a different southern state, she experiences a different racial dystopia with completely different laws and perils. But Cora is a quick study who will use whatever means necessary to survive.

She is Harriet Tubman; she is Anne Frank; she is Wonder Woman. She is everyone who ever ran from a bad life in search of a better one. She is one of the lucky few to make it all the way to freedom, all the way home.  And as she makes her way “into northness,” she learns that the railroad doesn’t depend on station masters or trains at all. It is one’s own creation, a figment of one’s imagination, made real by hope and perseverance and luck.

The Underground Railroad reveals the many tough truths and mysteries of American slavery. Run, don’t walk, to catch a ride on this novel.

Literary Guides

I loved Nicholas Noyes’ recent NYT article with pop-up illustrations, “How to Use a Novel as a Guidebook,”  in which he describes following Oliver Twist’s footsteps in London to see the city through Oliver’s eyes.

With help from a map of 1830s London, Noyes was able to connect as a 21st century reader/traveler with a place and a time long gone, Dickensian London. “Names of roads have changed. Rivers have been redirected underground and 180 years of development and decay have changed a landmark or two,” Noyes writes. “But Dickens’s description of Oliver’s entry into London is easy to follow. And following Oliver’s journey connects London’s 19th-century geography to the modern city.”

I was thinking about this topic — what literature is good for — in light of the winter edition of Independent School magazine, titled “What’s Happened to the Humanities?” It’s a question I think about often, as an English teacher facing students who may still love to read, but don’t feel they have the time or focus they need to immerse themselves in reading. It’s a question I think about from the perspective of an administrator heeding the call to provide more STE(A)M experiences for students, which can be hard to balance with traditional ways of assigning and assessing literary texts and understandings.

The good news is I’m not at all alone. I found a lot of wisdom in Janet Alsup’s article, “Literature in the Age of Google,” in which she writes that reading fiction is still very important for learners, and the reasons are more varied and nuanced than the potential connection between a 21st century traveler and 1830s London. “Identifying with characters in fiction is a complex, reciprocal experience that leads to increased empathy and engagement with texts,” she writes, which leads to “increase[d] inference-making abilities, empathizing with others, and valuing diversity.”

Reading literature helps us to forge powerful, if imaginary, connections between people and places and, magically, encourages real-world caring. Given that, Alsup’s question, “How do we encourage reading in an age of surfing,” is an apt one. Thankfully, she provides a number of good suggestions for teachers and parents alike: expose children to literature, read with them, give them choices, ask questions that move beyond plot summary, help them to make connections between what they read and what they see/experience, and don’t assume that they will emulate the people or stories they encounter in books. 

I’m about to bring my seniors on a journey back in time to Victorian England where a little girl named Jane Eyre is tormented by a cousin in a grand house and argues her way right into a chilly school for orphan girls. With Charlotte Bronte’s novel as our guide, we will make our way through the byways of the 19th century and arrive at key understandings about Jane’s world and our own, understandings we can best gain from literature.

Malaprops & More

People often ask me what my favorite book is, and I always have a lot of trouble answering. There are so many books that have imprinted my heart and mind. Right now I’m loving Ann Leary’s The Children and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, but next week I’ll be touting some other titles, I’m sure.

Easier to answer is the question I don’t usually get about my favorite bookstore, which is Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe in Asheville, NC. I went there last weekend and was as excited as a kid in a candy store.

Malaprop’s is a down to earth place, just like the town it resides in — but has it all. Not just books, and interesting ones at that, but people on hand to talk to you about the books they have loved and you should read. My favorite thing there is the wall of books wrapped in brown paper with words written in Sharpie to suggest some of what lies beneath (see photo — “Blind Date With a Bookseller”).

The store’s name, taken from the word malaprop, alludes to that thing that happens when someone uses the wrong word for something and the sentence that results is highly entertaining. The most famous character to have this problem is Mrs. Malaprop from Sheriden’s 1775 play, The Rivals (Ex: “He’s the very pineapple of politeness”).

I have always loved malapropisms. I’ve certainly said a few of them in my lifetime (although never one so witty as the famous one from Yogi Berra, “Texas has a lot of electrical votes”). Students make them all the time without knowing, and it can be fun to talk through where and why we get the words wrong.

We all get things jumbled up from time to time. We hear things incorrectly, or translate what we hear to fit what we think we know (“The Sixteenth Chapel” instead of “The Sistene Chapel”). It’s part of being learners, of being human.

But even if we are not always aware that what we have said is not what we have meant, words matter. The best way to understand the words we say and know is to listen, question, and read. For ideas on what to read this holiday season, check out some of the best books of 2016.

The Play’s the Thing

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My favorite play in recent years, Hamilton, continues to grab headlines. Featuring our country’s founding fathers in their full (albeit imagined) humanity, Hamilton is worthy of continued attention, and not just because actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Vice-President Elect Mike Pence at a recent performance.

Dixon asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us” — a clear plea for the incoming Trump-Pence administration to, among other things, nurture and protect diversity, care for the earth and global relations, and remember that America is a story of immigrants. Dixon’s direct address to an audience-member was certainly dramatic. But was it unprecedented? Not at all. Actors, and through them, playwrights, have long made a habit of addressing their audiences, whether directly or indirectly, before, during, or after the show.

I have been thinking a lot about drama since the election — yes, about the dramatic events playing out on our national stage, but also about drama, the literary genre because coincidentally, my students and I have been reading and discussing plays for the last few weeks in school.

We started with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where we learned key terms like pathos, catharsis, and irony. Students worked in pairs on posters depicting Oedipus’ experience of coming to consciousness about his identity, actions, and position in the world. Their work cleverly used symbols like glasses, light bulbs, and magnifying lenses to illustrate Oedipus’ painful journey from ignorance to knowledge. We then read Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, published in 2004. Ruhl’s humorous play turns classical ideas on their heads — the Underworld is more Alice in Wonderland than land of shadows, and the chorus is made up not of esteemed elders but three grumpy stones that act like bratty children at a birthday party — to suggest that dramatic irony can be much more than one character’s realization of his worst mistakes. When Ruhl’s Eurydice chooses to dip herself in the River Styx at the end of the play — when she chooses ignorance over knowledge — my students were quick to note an ironic inversion of their own expectations given the outcome of the play we had just read, Oedipus Rex.

These plays are different in fundamental ways: Oedipus Rex is deadly serious and Eurydice provocatively humorous; Oedipus Rex conforms to conventions of classical tragedy while Eurydice breaks rules and subverts conventions. Hamilton, too, while serious and conventional in some ways, relies heavily on humor and rule-breaking. It also profoundly flips the conventional script by casting diverse actors of color into roles played exclusively in real life by white men and women.

They are the same, however, in how they perform the spectacular feat of illuminating key and timeless truths about the human experience. As importantly, they each cause audience members to sit still, observe, and reflect on meanings both ancient and new. Whether tragic or comic, theater creates and comments on community in essential ways.

Although President-elect Trump didn’t care for the unscripted moment in Hamilton, Dixon didn’t do anything so different from actors and playwrights of old when he used the stage as a platform for public commentary. And when Dixon asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us,” he continued the legacy of theater that goes back to ancient Greek times. Contrary to a tweet from President-Elect Trump, Hamilton the play is not overrated — nor is theater, in general. It’s the very thing to keep us all connected, optimistic, and engaged with timeless questions about who we were, are, and will be.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

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For many, Wednesday was a day of triumph. For more, it was a day of defeat.

Such is the nature of competition. But for me as an educator and a parent, the 2016 election was a shameful spectacle from start to finish. An experienced female candidate for president, the first our nation has ever seen, was unable to garner enough support to overshadow her (and her husband’s) mistakes. An inexperienced male candidate for president, the 45th our nation has seen, was ushered into our highest office despite failing to demonstrate preparedness, empathy, or character to this point. To get elected, he used words that stoked the flames of fear, prejudice, and phobia in neighbors and friends. And in the aftermath, it is a struggle to file those words away or write them off. They stung, and the sting lingers.

At times like these, I find myself stalking my library. I’m looking for something to make me feel better, and based on two very heartening articles, I am not alone.

Time magazine’s Sarah Begley writes in “Read a Novel: It’s Just What the Doctor Ordered” that reading fiction can be on par with other calming strategies. There is even a new profession, bibliotherapy, that has cropped up in England to offer soothing suggestions to those suffering from existential anxiety. At the School of Life in London, writes Begley, a group of bibliotherapists conducts sessions with clients that end with individualized prescriptions of six to eight books. Ella Berthoud, one of the bibliotherapists, says and I agree (although there may not be any science behind the idea), “a truly great novel gets into your subconscious and actually can change your psyche from within.”

It isn’t just fiction that can soothe what ails us — poetry, too, can be a balm.  According to poets.org, “more poems have been shared in the past two days than in any other forty-eight-hour period in the past four years. People are turning to poems seeking language, powerful and precise, to cope with this moment in our country when divisiveness has become so painfully clear.” For example, “since the election on November 8, Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” has been read on Poets.org more than 35,000 times.”

My offering to readers — my prescription for the day — is by Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet. My students know that I think this is one of her best, #314, comparing Hope to a little bird that sings courageously in the storm, and can’t be silenced, and asks for nothing in return for its efforts. If a little bird can continue to sing in chilly and strange places, then so can we.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Pop-up Bookstore(s)

During the past few days, I have handled hundreds upon hundreds of books.

I am the person who manages the book orders for the many classes we offer to our more than 500 high school students. I have a lot of help from department chairs, teachers, and the very patient representative at the online company that secures and sells the books we and our students use. But it’s still a lot to keep track of.

I like the challenge, though. Not just because I like books, which I obviously do, but because I like how they are still completely essential to who we are and what we do as a school. Historian Barbara Tuchman famously said, “Books are the carriers of civilization.” And, in many ways, books are still the lifeblood of education.

Last week, my office was transformed into a pop-up bookstore. There I sorted and distributed to faculty 70 copies of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure, 20 copies of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 12 of The Buddha in the Attic, and 14 copies of Netherland among others. In addition, I handled countless single copies of carefully chosen and dedicated books to be bestowed to our top scholars in an awards ceremony on Thursday and at graduation on Friday. The local pool just opened for the season but I haven’t made it there much at all — I have been swimming in books.

As if that wasn’t fun enough for me, my husband emptied out a huge bookshelf at our house. Lining the fireplace until last night were stacks and stacks of our children’s books, which I finally hauled upstairs into the study where there was, no surprise, no room for any more books. The books are sitting in somewhat neater piles now, waiting for me to find the time and the space to file them away. I’m anxious for the weekend, when I’ll have time to thin the stacks and organize things on to shelves. A patient pile of books in disarray exerts a subtle pressure: pick me up, read me, put me in order.

Yes, book publishers have had to reconceive their business models, and ebooks are likely here to stay. Some booksellers have unfortunately gone out of business. But it’s no accident that after all the fanfare of moving bookstores to online settings, amazon.com itself is considering buying 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores according to Greg Bensinger’s February 2 report in the Wall Street Journal. I can’t think of too many places as pleasant as a peaceful bookstore — only maybe the peaceful pages of a book.

Near the end of last week, I had a few extra copies of the books I had ordered, so I invited faculty to stop by and take what remained. The first two takers were math teachers, and the extra books were gone by the end of the day. My office is mostly back to normal; the pop-up bookstore is closed. Until the next time.

My Bitmoji

If I do anything fun with social media, I have my teenage daughter to thank. She’s the one who put the GIF app on my phone and helped me get an “avatar emoji” known as bitmoji. Without her, I would be helplessly uninformed about these and other features of communicating in the 21st century.

My bitmoji is definitely a little silly (she says “let’s taco about it!” with a taco in her hand) and I tend to be serious. But I have to admit that I like being able to respond to people with a funny cartoon that looks a little like me doing funnier things than I usually do.

A great article in the New York Times magazine this weekend about avatars by Amanda Hess asks a question, one I have been thinking about since getting my bitmoji: “Online, we present ourselves in ever-more-numerous guises across a variety of platforms. What does the ‘avatar’ we choose say about who we really are?”

Hess recounts the history of avatars from Hinduism to today. “In Hindu theology, Vishnu assumes various earthbound avatars — among them a fish; a tortoise; a half-man, half-lion — in an effort to restore order at times when humanity has descended into chaos. Now we’re the gods,” she says, “reinventing ourselves online in the hope of bringing order to a realm we can’t quite keep under our control.” When I paste a bitmoji image of myself into a text message, I don’t consider myself a god, but I see Hess’s point about wanting to participate in, if not reinvent, the world I’m living in.

Hess points out that we represent ourselves differently via different platforms and uses herself as an example: “On Facebook, I’m posed by a professional photographer, waist contorted into a slimmed line, eyes peering up out the window of a skyscraper. On Snapchat, I’m burrowed into my office chair, blankly blinking my eyes open and closed.” She is not alone. Although my bitmoji is my only cartoon avatar, I use different photographs of myself on Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook to communicate different things about myself, as do many others.

But I wonder, haven’t people always acted, and presented themselves, differently in different settings? At least to some degree? And isn’t it arguable that successful people know how to modify their affect or appearance to suit a given context? Don’t we all, for the most part, dress up for the opera, and down for the grocery store?

As I usually do when pondering these kinds of questions, I turn to literature. In response to Hess’s question about what our choice of avatar says about ourselves, I think about Jay Gatsby, a lower-class kid from the mid-west who could have won an Oscar for his performance as a monied New York blueblood. Gatsby’s charade didn’t last forever, and it cost him his life, but in my opinion it wasn’t criminal that he tried to be something that he wasn’t.

I probably owe my attitude toward human chameleons to another literary figure, Oscar Wilde, who was the subject of my undergraduate thesis and with whom I spent a good year of college. It was Wilde more than anyone else who helped me to understand and accept that identity is not a static state of being, but a fluid reality. He understood that better than most, given that it was illegal at the time for him to be who he was.

In our use of digital avatars today, we continue a long legacy of trying on different masks and seeing which ones fit.

Yes, It’s a Thing

I really loved a recent article by Alexander Stern in the New York Times titled “Is That Even a Thing?” I had started using the question myself (“Wait. Is that even a thing?”), but I hadn’t stopped to think about what I was really asking. Stern’s article made me think more about, well, this whole thing, the asking about what is and isn’t a thing.

Stern says that “we [ask] about a thing because we are engaged in cataloguing.” I agree that we have a deep and innate desire to put things in their places, to order our world. And we can’t begin to do so until we have decided what things are worth our attention, until we have tried to group those things that are in our grasp.

The work seems that much harder—perhaps even different—when there is nothing to actually hold in our hands. So many of the things we consider to be “things” today aren’t things at all—they aren’t tangible artifacts or touchable realities. They are literally ghosts in the machine, passing digital trends, fads, or phenomena. In Stern’s mind, ours is a world “gone to pieces,” where things are not always real enough or real at all, leaving us in a constant state of bafflement and ironic detachment as we try to cope with what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “unreal reality.” Still, we try to flag it or file it.

An antidote to some of this confusion came to me when I saw a student approaching my office on Monday morning with a laundry basket filled with, of all things, things. She had decided to use a laundry basket to transport her final project to school. Her final project was a collection of things that she had collected to pay homage to the Museum of Civilization featured in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Elevenwhich she had just finished along with Lily King’s Euphoria and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Two of these novels are distinctly dystopian, revealing the ways in which society is restructured in the aftermath of a cataclysmic break of some kind (pandemic in one case; culture war in the other). The other features a culture clash of sorts in which Western and aboriginal notions of civilization are put in dramatic juxtaposition. My student wanted to explore her own ideas about what constitutes her civilization and how it impacts her and she, it. So she collected meaningful artifacts, gathered them up, and brought them to school: her grandfather’s typewriter, which she frequently uses; a dream-catcher; one red Chuck Taylor high-top sneaker; a music box with a spinning ballerina and two black and white photographs of her parents when they were younger; a vinyl record that a friend made for her; an iPhone; a Rubik’s Cube.

It was more than fun to look at these things together. We spent time talking about how important the curator is to the exhibit, just as the author is crucial to the story that is told. We discussed the importance of historical context, and also how some things—jewelry, toys, cooking utensil—are as old as human time itself.

In this age of fleeting impressions and impermanence, I find myself challenged by the simple question of whether something is a “thing” to me or not. That’s probably why I got so much comfort looking at my student’s basket of things. In that moment, I felt that it was at least possible that the answer to this question is a lot simpler than the question itself.

To Writers Who Dare

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People close to me know that my favorite author is Virginia Woolf. The image featured here is from a gift my friend Vicky gave to me just today with a pink sticky note attached: “Dear Jess — I saw this and couldn’t resist getting a copy for you.”

I owe my mother for my appreciation for Woolf’s writing; an English professor, my mom was the one who encouraged me to read rather than watch tv and gave me my first real books — Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

I didn’t always understand Woolf’s political essays, but I always felt connected to her works of fiction. I wrote a paper in college on Between the Acts about the role of pauses in both theater and life, and a paper in graduate school on the importance of shopping in Mrs. Dalloway. I think I have read To The Lighthouse six times, each time more inspired (how did she create such a haunting, indelible text?) and depressed (when will I ever contribute anything remotely as worthy?) than I was the last time.

It was brave, then, for my friend Rachelle to give me her manuscript to read last week — she knows that I read a lot of pretty legit stuff. It’s a book about an older woman, her family and her circle of friends, and the simple but beautiful contributions she makes to her world. It’s about more than that, but I don’t want to give anything away. It’s a work in progress. It’s the product of two years of her time and more than a pound of her flesh.

I told her with some bravado that I’d be able to read it on the plane to and from Chicago and have feedback ready for her within the weekend. But even 5 pages in, I knew that I had not only overestimated my own abilities as an editor, but also vastly underestimated the weight — literal and figurative — of a real live author’s words.

Balancing her book on my thighs while I hunched over it on the plane, in my hotel room, and in my study at home upon my return, I thought about how indebted I am as a reader, a teacher, and a human being to writers everywhere who have dared. Especially those writers who, like Virginia Woolf, pioneered a space in their homes and in their societies despite commitments, subtle or overt resistance, or doubt.

For staking out a room of her own, and sharing her sometimes strange and always beautiful vision with others, Virginia Woolf remains the patron saint of writers everywhere.