Archives for posts with tag: books

So, I have really vivid dreams.

Full-color, plot-intensive, backstory-including dreams.

Often I’ll dream, then dream that it is the next morning and I’m telling the dream to someone (most often at my mother’s kitchen table), and then re-dream the dream, this time edited for improved dialog.

I’m not always myself in dreams. I’ve been King Arthur, an evil spirit, and even a dog. But the most interesting is when I dream up scenes from novels that don’t exist.

I write them down, because what else should I do? But I’m not a fiction writer. I have zero sense of plot. There’s basically nothing useful I can do with the opening chapter of a science fiction novel, aside from give it to my sister to write. I keep telling the dream world to send these things to her instead, but it never listens.

I have four opening chapters to novels that will never exist, because I dreamed them.

Last night was a little different. I didn’t dream up a new opening chapter. I dreamed up the climax. When the hero (a fourteen-year-old girl) and her father take on the bad guy (a giant evil thing that eats peoples’ souls).

And for the first time, I have something to work with. Because I know exactly where this is going. A showdown in a grassy area that looks suspiciously like the one next to the B-W Conservatory.

(Who am I kidding? It looked exactly the same. This lawn is basically the generic backdrop to my entire childhood.)

So … it appears that I’m about to be writing a YA fantasy novel. I’ve never, never, NEVER written fiction before. I’m a pretty strictly nonfiction and poetry kind of gal. But I know Point A, and I know Point Z, and I’ve got a pretty clear picture of why it has to happen that way, if not all the details of how.

Any tips from those who know how to do this sort of thing are very welcome! It will be an interesting adventure, to say the least.

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I first discovered author Nnedi Okorafor as I was skimming the science fiction shelf at the Lakewood Public Library a couple of months ago. I saw her name printed in bold letters on the spine of a yellow hardcover and stopped in my tracks. Nigerian sci-fi? I thought, I’m totally reading that. I grabbed it off the shelf without even bothering to read the jacket. That novel, Who Fears Death, was somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, and altogether gorgeous. It’s rare to find a book that deals with such dark themes without being cynical. Who Fears Death blew it away.

Later, I found out that Okorafor had also written a few young adult novels. If you know me, you understand that this made me CRAZY excited. I’m such a sucker for YA lit!

So I went back to the library and picked up Akata Witch. Now, in addition to having a passion for good writing (which I knew Okorafor would deliver), I also spend a LOT of time volunteering with middle school students. So when I read young adult fiction, I’m not only hoping to get sucked in, I’m hunting for books I can recommend. I’m looking for lessons to ease my young friends’ transition into adulthood. As you might guess, Akata Witch definitely delivers. Here are four important messages I gleaned from this (really great) novel.

1. Sexism, racism, and prejudice are alive and well in the world, but individuals can make a difference.

Main character Sunny is called the derogatory term akata by her classmates at school because although she has two Nigerian parents, she was born in the United States. Once she discovers her magical nature and enters into Leopard society, prejudice doesn’t simply disappear. Some look down on her for being a free agent, one without Leopard parents. Others don’t want to play soccer with her because she’s a girl. Even her friends bicker about which tribe or nation has the strongest juju. Those with magic haven’t necessarily grown out of their outdated prejudices. But Sunny, and others in her world, are able to make small dents in assumptions and injustice, just as in the real world.

2. Knowledge is its own reward.

Currency in the Leopard world is chittim, metal rods that appear whenever one has learned something important. Sometimes, chittim fall when you have worked a new kind of magic for the first time. Other times, they might come when you use the knowledge you have to ask a wise question. While Lamb (non-magical) money can be earned by cheating or stealing, a Leopard person can only become rich through knowledge and understanding.

It’s important to note that Okorafor makes the distinction between intelligence and character. While some seek knowledge for the good of all, others seek it for their own ends. While you can’t fool chittim into raining down on you through dishonesty, the knowledge you have gained is still a tool, which some might choose to use in dishonest ways.

3. The world will go on without you … but your life is still important.

This is a tough lesson for Sunny to swallow. She and her friends are regularly sent out into serious danger by their teachers and elders. They are not the first Leopard people to attempt to stop an evil from occurring. Others have died in the attempt. And if Sunny and her friends die, others will be sent after them and the world will spin on. No one is so privileged that this is not so. And yet … each person has the chance. To make a difference. To learn. To teach. To contribute to the world. Your death is simply one of those contributions. It’s a strange balance, one that Sunny finally comes to grip with as she stands to face mortality on her own terms.

4. Your imperfections are your gifts.

This stood out to me as one of the most important lessons in Akata Witch, simply because it’s rarely articulated in novels at all, much less young adult books. In Leopard society, individuals all have a natural ability. This ability is often closely tied to a trait that makes the person unusual or unique, often viewed by Lamb society as an imperfection. Sunny, an albino, can become invisible. Sugar Cream, who can turn into a snake, has severe S-shaped scoliosis. Imagine having parents like Orlu’s, who became very excited when they learned their son was dyslexic, because they knew he would have a wonderful and unique ability. Wouldn’t that change how you thought of your own worst faults?

While fantasizing about what my natural ability would be (of course I did this, wouldn’t you?), it suddenly occured to me that this is true in our world as well. While my ligament disorder hasn’t allowed me to work magic, it has given me spiritual powers. Because of the pain I deal with, I am more compassionate. Because of my inability to run, I am more patient. My physical limitations as a teen drove me to books, which in turn gave me a gift for the written language. (And there’s always the great party trick of being able to turn my hand 360 degrees!) No, we don’t live in a world where people with skin rashes can control the weather and those who are abnormally tall can read the future in the stars, but each of our weaknesses has the possibility of growing into a strength, if we let it.

So, Baha’i Publishing found out I’m a blogger, and sent me a copy of Abdu’l-Baha in America, by Robert Stockman. Of course, I’m not obligated to say nice things about it, but it’s definitely pertinent to what’s going on in the Baha’i community at the moment, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts.

I’m not in a big Baha’i history phase right now. When I was living in Malawi, I went through about a year when I read the biographies of as many of the Hands of the Cause as I could get my hands on, but lately not so much. I’m significantly more likely to pick up a timely analysis of what’s happening in the world now, or activities that I’m engaged in: community development, or the environment, or education, say. But with the centenary of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit on my mind, I sat down to read Abdu’l-Baha in America anyway. I’m glad I did.

I was given The Promulgation of Universal Peace (a collection of Abdu’l-Baha’s public talks in the United States and Canada) as a graduation gift when I was 18, and started reading it straight through. I stopped about halfway through, because I found the themes to be repetitive. Abdu’l-Baha in America gave me the context I needed to appreciate this work. Each talk was given to a specific group of people, with a specific purpose. Where an everyday reader sees similarities between talks, a historian notices the differences between them. I’d never go through the trouble of tracking the development of an idea over a series of months, but Stockman has done it for me. It brings these old talks to life.

And it also connects these talks to my current experience. Abdu’l-Baha is an example of how to manage things I struggle with on a regular basis, like how to balance outreach into the community with the consolidation of those efforts, or building a sense of unity in a diverse neighborhood. Justice and equality for all races, sexes, and classes are emphasized with a degree of love and tact that I can only dream of developing, without shying away from the truth. If Abdu’l-Baha could praise Muhammad in churches and Jesus in synagogues while still maintaining an atmosphere of union and love, I can certainly find a way to share those truths I hold dear in any social space!

As always, Abdu’l-Baha’s life is the embodiment of the Covenent, one of the most unique features of the Baha’i Faith. The lack of sectarian divisions and strife didn’t just magically occur; it took work, endless work on the part of Abdu’l-Baha. It’s amazing to read about his efforts to create this foundation of unity to bring us the community that we have today.

To those readers who are not involved in or familiar with the Baha’i community, this is a book for the history buffs among you. It is a fascinating insight into a brief moment in American history, when religious ideas of all sorts spread and flourished. It looks at this period through a unique lens: the travels of one individual from Persia through the cities of North America. It is not, however, a story book. Those in search of a narrative would best be served by other choices.

In the Baha’i community, I highly recommend it as a complement to the study of Ruhi Book 8, for those who are involved  in planning observances in honor of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit, and to anyone wishing to understand the development of the Baha’i Faith in America. Local Spiritual Assemblies and Auxiliary Board Members and their assistants would also be well-served by the example of unity in our midst.

All in all,Abdu’l-Baha in America was readable, well-referenced, and gave me insights into my own work. I couldn’t have asked for more.

I started a book club.

There are four members right now, and our focus is pretty narrow. We read only Newbery Award and Honor books. Basically (for those who aren’t familiar with the Newbery), we only read the best quality American juvenile literature ever written.

Sometimes I feel guilty for taking time in my schedule to do things like sit around a table, drinking hot chocolate and discussing children’s lit. I could be teaching, or organizing, or writing. I could be doing a hundred useful things.

But building community means having meaningful and distinctive conversations with people. And a lot of the time, meaningful conversations look an awful lot like fun.

Right now, we’re reading My Side of the Mountain, a 1960 Newbery Honor book by Jean Craighead George. George just passed away last month, and we wanted to honor her. And since all of us already read Julie of the Wolves in around 5th grade or so, this was the natural choice.

George’s books nearly always have one thing in common: a courageous youth who spends time in the wilderness, finding inner strength and a keen appreciation for the natural world in the process.

So I imagine we’ll spend some time during our next meeting discussing things like

  • moral and personal development
  • ecology
  • the personal effects of one’s environment
  • children and youth
  • nontraditional learning
  • self-reliance
  • good writing

Let’s face it, these are subjects I wish I could bring up with everyone. But I don’t get to walk up to people on street corners and ask, “Hey, what do you think about the psychological effects increasing urbanization might be having on children, and how can we remedy that on the local level?” But now I get to do it over cocoa. With books!

Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s not  important. Bringing former strangers together for any positive reason, even if it’s just to play a game or share a meal, isn’t going to devolve into a life of meaningless chitchat. More likely is the possibility that the social bonds created will give my work of community building further reach and deeper meaning.

So what if it looks like fun?

That’s because it is. The world I want to live in contains people who talk about really good books.

I’m already one step closer.

First, a note: I quit updating rather abruptly about a week ago. I hurt my wrist, and things like giving massage, typing, and buttering toast all cause varying degrees of pain. Naturally, I decided to save my hands for the things that pay the bills and keep me fed, but I’m going crazy enough that updating this blog seems to have slipped into the Necessary For My Health category without my noticing. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

During my time off, I read the Hunger Games trilogy. And saw the movie. And thought a lot about it. And discussed it with others.

Here are some of my thoughts:

As a trilogy, these books are an important piece of anti-war literature for young adults. They deal with very pertinent issues like PTSD, substance abuse, and mental illness in soldiers and others who have been directly affected by large-scale violence. They directly address some of the moral and motivational ambiguities of war. They also focus on the institutional nature of war, and the role that the media plays in its propagation. It’s good stuff.

But you won’t get any of that just reading the first book.

I’ll get some flak for this, but on it’s own, the first book is worthless.

Not that it’s a bad book. It’s a good read, significantly better than the third book in some respects. But if the first book were all there were, I’d still be where I was two years ago, determined not to read it because it seemed to be a babyish, watered-down version of Battle Royale. I believe the author when she says she’d never heard of the book before writing The Hunger Games, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t comparable. Where Battle Royale was one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read in my life (up there with Lolita, which was disturbing in a totally different way), The Hunger Games was, at most, amusing.

It was an interesting thought-experiment on the dangerous and seductive nature of reality television.

It takes Mockingjay to bring the message home.

After I finished all three books, I couldn’t help comparing it to another set of novels that explored the intersections between youth, innocence, the search for truth, and war: Ender’s Game and the books that followed. Card’s vision is a more hopeful one than Collins’, putting much more faith in the ability of individual human beings to influence society for the better, make peace with one another, and (perhaps most importantly) to heal. Ender quickly recovers from the childhood nightmares, moving on to a relatively well-adjusted life as a peacemaker, truth-teller, and (eventually) family man. Peeta (who strongly resembles Ender in charisma and his inherent nobility, if not in brains) and Katniss don’t make it through their futures so easily, and neither does their world.

I feel like this is a pretty natural extension of the times in which these books were written. In the 1980s, the anti-war message aimed at young people in the US was primarily, “They are just as good as we are, and we can talk things out.” In 2010, the message had shifted tone: “Ugh, we’re only going to make things worse if we invade.” The public acknowledgement of the massive amount of PTSD and mental illness among returning soldiers has changed the way we think about the cost of war. And the impotence of the protests that emerged before the US even entered Afghanistan or Iraq served as an inoculation against the sort of hope that might lead a Valentine or Peter to truly believe the voices of young individuals might make a difference in the affairs of those wielding political power.

So the edge of cynicism that so disturbs people about The Hunger Games trilogy makes sense, in context. The message is both for and of our time.

Now, are there problems with the novels, particularly Mockingjay? Of course. Having your main character fall unconscious so often, only to have major advancements in plot explained by other characters is pretty annoying. And my sister, a military officer, couldn’t stand the author’s lack of understanding of tactics. Funky one-off booby traps in residential neighborhoods is okay for an arena, but useless defense in an actual war. And it is a bit heavy-handed, even if I think it was necessary in order to make its point to those young readers who aren’t that used to reading between the lines.

The ending, for all people hated it, was exactly right, the only way it could have ended. Not perfect, not happy, not “fixed,” but livable. Everything is changed, but there’s enough hope to continue on.

I’ll be interested in how Mockingjay will affect the rising generation of anti-war activists and writers. I hope they learn to think long and hard about the complexities of institutionalized violence, and the ways in which individual transformation can (and cannot) instigate meaningful change. I’d like them to learn to play “Real or Not Real” in their everyday lives. And I hope they show compassion to those who have difficulty unraveling the knotty bits of truth in the world around them.

I hope that the odds will be ever in their favor.

And I hope they come up with some great new books. I’m already looking for my next engrossing read …

 

The most empowering book I’ve ever read was a cookbook.

Specifically, Vegan With a Vengeance, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz.

When Jef and I first went vegan, he was a homemaker while I worked during the day and went to school at night. I’d wake up at 5:15, go for a walk, get dressed, make myself breakfast, fix a salad or leftovers for lunch, and wake Jef up just in time so he could find his glasses and drive me to work at 6:40. At 4:00 he’d pick me up, drive me home, and fix a quick dinner while I changed into my scrubs and passed out on the sofa. I’d wake, eat lunch, then take the 45 minute trip north to school in rush-hour traffic. Study from 6:00-10:00, then arrive home around 10:35. Wake up the next morning. Start over.

And this worked, partly because Jef is an amazing cook. We played with all kinds of crazy recipes. He knows how to improvise with spices, makes the best spaghetti sauce known to humankind, and chops vegetables so well you’d think they were bred to fall apart in perfect little cubes.

Then we moved.

And suddenly, I’m the one with time to spare. I’m an okay cook. I can stir-fry with the best of them, and my salad dressings are great. But I’m not a wonderful cook. Not innovative. Not confident. I burned some things. Undercooked others. We found ourselves eating out just a little too often. And it was starting to show, in our bodies and our bank accounts.

Enter Vegan With a Vengeance.

Here was a cookbook that spoke to me. Literally. Isa chatted to me like she was sitting backwards on my kitchen chair, telling me her theories of pizza crust making, the trick to getting flavors to stick to tofu, and laughing about the trans-fatty days of being vegan before Earth Balance was in every grocery store in America.

She didn’t take her recipes too seriously. She gave multiple variants on dozens of dishes (wasabi mashed potatoes, anyone?) and encouraged you to try your own. So when she laid down the law about something (prunes are great in chocolate cake, but not in chocolate chip cookies), you trusted it wasn’t because of some kind of celebrity chef ego trip, but because she really did know best.

We talk a lot about empowerment, getting people from a place of passivity and fear to one of leadership and personal responsibility. But we don’t always look around and identify empowerment when we see it, and learn from what works.

Vegan With a Vengeance turned me from “Oh no, it’s really sizzling a lot, I hope I don’t burn it, why don’t I turn down the heat?” to “I know it’s unconventional, but I really think this sauce could use some maple syrup.” I’m still not the best cook on the planet, not even half as good as my husband, but now I’m in a posture of learning, not paralysis.

Who or what has empowered you?

What can you learn from it?

How can you do the same?

P.S- yes, I have Veganomicon now too. Trying out a new soup this weekend!

I’m working through What Color is Your Parachute? this week, because I’m going to graduate in May and it seems like a sensible thing to scrounge around for extra clarity before panicking about licensure exams, transitioning into a completely new field, and probably moving to a new city.

And it’s something to do besides review the structure and purpose of the lymphatic system yet again for Monday’s test. I’m nothing if not a productive procrastinator!

I’m on Step 2 of the flower exercise, in which you examine the knowledge that you already have and identify what you want to use in your life and work.

There’s a handy little chart with five columns to fill in all the random bits of knowledge that you’ve acquired over the years from

  • studying in school
  • learning on the job
  • conferences, workshops, and seminars
  • learning at home through reading, the internet, etc.
  • your hobbies and volunteer work

Then you put them in a lovely little matrix, identifying

  1. Subjects for which you have lots of enthusiasm AND expertise.
  2. Subjects for which you have lots of enthusiasm but little expertise.
  3. Subjects for which you have little enthusiasm but lots of expertise.
  4. Subjects for which you have little enthusiasm or expertise.

Clearly, those from category #4 will not have much of a place in your dream life/career.

So here’s where it gets interesting.

Nearly everything in category #1 (like blogging, grassroots community development, and windowsill gardening) was gained from volunteer work and hobbies.

Nearly everything in category #2 (like urban agriculture and education reform) was gained through reading and the internet.

Nearly everything in category #3 (like Ohio childcare licensing regulations, oh joy!) was gained on the job.

Nearly everything from category #4 (MLA guidelines for writing papers, Mohs Hardness Scale) was gained in school.

There were, of course, notable exceptions. I’m a massage therapy student right now, and I’m learning all kinds of useful things that I actually enjoy using too. But since I’m learning by giving massages as well as by studying my butt off, this has effectively become a part of my volunteer work.

Some parts of my work (past and present) have become things I adore. Writing newsletters, public speaking, and keeping portfolios to document children’s learning and development? I’d do them for free, given the time. The first two I have done as a volunteer, although I originally learned them on the job.

Reading seems to be an intermediate stage for me. Many times I read about a subject before involving it actively in my personal life. Veganism was like that, and walking for fitness, and growing my own kitchen herbs. Other topics I study compulsively for a time, then let them fade into the background static of my general knowledge to called on only at parties with well-read people I want to impress.

But despite these, the pattern stands:

  1. I learn best by doing what I like.
  2. I learn passibly by doing what I don’t like.
  3. I learn a little by reading about what I like.
  4. I learn almost nothing by reading about what I don’t like.

Somehow, I doubt this is an isolated pattern.

I don’t regret: dropping out of college, moving to new places, painting half a dozen murals, working at low-paying pink collar jobs, dumping too much apple cider vinegar into food, hanging around smart people in coffeeshops, blogging my evenings away, trying my hand at stand-up comedy, volunteering as a safe sex education teacher, competing in poetry slams, learning over 150 kids’ songs by heart, hosting tea parties (the kind with actual tea and biscuits, not the political rallies), or exploring Adventureland. How could I regret the fabulous education I’ve received?

But I do regret that my “good” school district provided me with little more than a babysitting service, a very basic understanding of grammar, the (truly appreciated!) opportunity to play in an orchestra, and a bad attitude.

Maybe we need more Parachute in the classroom, and less force-feeding.

But what do I know? It’s not like I’m an expert. I don’t even have a higher education.

Right?

The 10th of December was Human Rights Day. For anyone working with kids (or grown-ups), I can’t think of a better introduction to the topic than We Are All Born Free: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures.

Developed by Amnesty International, each article has been worded simply and illustrated by a different author.  For little people, the book itself is a lot of knowledge about the concept of human rights.  Be warned, however: imagining that this a good book just to “have around” without being prepared to discuss it could lead to disaster.  Concepts like slavery, asylum, and religious coercion aren’t easy for anyone to absorb without lots of compassionate listening and open conversation.  Despite this, it’s a hopeful book, full of beautiful images of a world in which all our rights are honored.

Check your local library for a copy, or purchase it as a gift for a family whose rights you hope will always be respected.  There are no easy answers to the dilemmas of the world, but We Are All Born Free provides a wonderful first explanation of where we should be directing our important questions.

Preview some pages from We Are All Born Free, or watch a related video.