Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Blogging 12 Years

This blog is 12 years old today. I'm sitting here in class, waiting for students to filter in from the really terrible traffic, and I'm looking for the angriest, fiercest poem I can find because Donald Trump is still going after the National Endowment for the Arts and just about everything else that so many of us don't want him to go after.

I'm stewing with "Lady Lazarus":
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

I'm mad as hell and just trying to funnel that feeling into positive action.

I'm not reading much on paper, but I'm listening to Lincoln in the Bardo, and I love it. I'm stretching it out, savoring every word. I'm not usually much for old white guys who play with form, but I'm into this.

I love you all for being awesome. I'm glad I'm still here, limping along, knowing you good people, after more than a decade. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

#OwnVoices: If I Was Your Girl Resists the Single Story

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo is the story of Amanda, a trans high school student who moves to a small, rural Tennessee town in order to start her life over after her transition. She quickly falls in with a popular group of girls who are evangelical Christians--some of whom are from very strict, controlling families. She also befriends a young woman from her art class, Bee, who is a bisexual artist, and who keeps that part of her identity to herself. Finally, Amanda feels, she has something in common with a friend because even if their situations are different, they are beholden to their secrets. She also falls for Grant, a fairly geeky, endearing football player, and they begin dating.

Interspersed with Amanda's experiences in her new school and in getting reacquainted with her father, we learn about her background--how her parents coped (or didn't) with her wish to transition, some aspects of her medical experience, and how her friends and acquaintances treated her or, in some cases, were violent toward her.

I have to admit, I was scared out of my mind for Amanda coming of age in a small southern town. I kept waiting for something gawd awful to happen because that seems like it's usually the case in books that approach this subject matter, but Russo's handling of Amanda's story was much more balanced than that, though there were hard moments.

More than anything, I appreciated Russo's note at the end of the book with explanation about how she chose some of Amanda's characterization and how that allowed her to take specific paths within the story. She points out that there is no one experience--no single story--of being trans, and Amanda's experiences are relatable though also idealized in specific ways. I won't say much more than that, but I felt it was a really important disclaimer for the YA audience, and for anyone reading the book, in fact.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Octopuses, Not Octopi

The audiobook streak continues. Or it did until I ran out of Scribd credits. I was nothing but pleased to trade the last one in for The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery.

I got a lot from this book. More than ever would've imagined, in fact. First, and perhaps most important, it was explained to me that the plural of octopus is in fact OCTOPUSES rather than octopi. Something about Greek words and Latin endings not jiving together.

Now that that's out of the way, the meat of the book. Montgomery,
equal parts naturalist, philosopher, poet, and scientist, fell in love with octopuses. The genesis of the book was a 2011 piece she wrote for Orion magazine about her relationship with an octopus named Athena. Montgomery had a connection with the animal, a deeper one than she thought could exist, and the rest is history.

As she becomes continually more fascinated with octopuses, she begins spending significant amounts of time at the New England Aquarium. Not only does she observe and handle the octopuses--several over time as they have fairly short life spans--they're fond of reaching tentacles out of the water to taste the visitors to the tank, she befriends the aquariasts who take care of them, the myriad individuals who volunteer for the institution, and their family members beyond the watery walls.

As Montgomery observes and falls deeper in love with octopuses, she forges personal relationships with the animals and begins to grasp the breadth of their decision-making skills: from choosing the best camouflage to protect themselves from predators, to their deft escape artist tricks, and their love of tinkering to stave off boredom.

I am doing this book no justice, but it is a winning combination of memoir, journalism, and science. The research Montgomery presents, and the way she wears her love of animals on her sleeve, is absolutely charming. It won't be long before I listen to another of her books.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Sula: Myth, Mirror, Warrior

I've been thinking and thinking of how to write about Sula by Toni Morrison. Some novels are so thick with meaning, even when they're slim on pages, it can be hard to process them.

Nel Wright and Sula Peace grow up in the Bottom, an all-black town set on a hillside overlooking the all-white town of Medallion, Ohio. The fastest of friends, they grow up close--two parts of a whole?--and then they diverge. Nel marries, has children, and runs her household, while Sula disappears on the night of Nel's wedding only to wander back into town to cause a stir 10 years later.

From the start, the girls are fast friends. Morrison writes, "because each had discovered years before they were neither white nor male and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden them they set about something else to be."

It's tempting to say that Nel and Sula are the "good and bad" halves. That they're the yin to the other's yang, but all of those things would be cliche and too damn easy. Nel and Sula have things in common, but they are also vastly different. They grow apart, they come back together, they grow apart again. There's joy, and disbelief, and sorrow in their relationship. They felt real.  

I loved this book. Mostly, I loved Sula. I was a little shocked, upon reading the Goodreads reviews, that my opinion is the minority in that space. I adore and admire Sula in a way that's similar to loving Estella, Charles Dickens' antagonist and the namesake of this blog. Sula does some shockingly "bad" things in the novel. She accidentally (wasn't it?) drowns a young boy. She stands aside and watches while others come to tragic ends. She's an adulteress and a pariah. When she arrives back in town after living an uninhibited life for 10 years, her behavior makes the townsfolk feel better about themselves. They take care of each other better until she's no longer a threat, and then they can slip back into their old habits of ignoring and devaluing each other without their righteous indignation to spur them along.

Sula, in all her messy individuality, exposes the people around her just by being. Among other things, she's a vehicle for Morrison to examine small town life in all it's ridiculous hypocrisy and small-time beauty. Jackie Kay writes of Sula, in a review for The Independent, "Sula is part myth, part woman, part mirror, part warrior."

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