Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


My car engine blew up last week, and I still don't know if it can be fixed. That's the car I just bought with the insurance check, after my old car was totaled. My paycheck is the same as it was in 2008, and I was struggling then. I've been watching the news too much, and its been breaking my heart. So I had to do a gratitude list.

First, I am grateful for every student I have ever taught, and most especially for the "bad" ones. After all these years I've realized that I'm usually the problem, or that it is a teaching problem and not really a kid problem. But I have learned vastly more from my students than they could ever learn from me.

I've learned that kids have big hearts, that they want to learn, and that they are as broken as I am.

I've made so many mistakes, as a teacher and as a person. Teaching has made me more human and more compassionate.

I've learned to love, or try to love, every student that comes into my room. There is something to like about each one of them, and I start from there.

I'm grateful for the wonderful, innocent decision I made to have children. My daughters are a gift.

I'm grateful for my sweet husband, who makes me feel loved and cherished every day.

I'm grateful for books. Books have given me countless hours of immeasurable pleasure. I wouldn't be the same person without books. I am that woman who always has a book in her hand, and there are times when, if I couldn't bury myself in a book, I would have gone to a very dark place.

I'm grateful to these brothers: Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, James Alan McPherson, Kiese Laymon and others who speak the truth about their experiences in this country.

If you are reading this, I'm grateful for you, dear reader. It still cheers me that my words and ramblings are read and sometimes responded to.

Here's hoping that each one of you will enjoy love and happiness and the comfort of companionship, wherever and however you celebrate tomorrow. Peace.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Coffee: Random Observations

I have reached that time of year when the impossibility of my job is deeply impressed upon me.

Simply put, it is impossible to do everything I want and need to do.

Every teacher knows this, but somehow we always begin the school year with an untamed optimism. We think that this will be the year: the year we do it all.

It never happens.

I will admit it: I am hanging on by my fingernails. Our fall break is Thanksgiving week, and I am looking forward to a week of family love. And a vegetable feast on Thanksgiving Day, since we are vegetarians.

A few notes on what I've been teaching and reading:

My Creative Writing students have been working on poems and stories based on myths and fairy tales. This gave me the opportunity to read some tales and myths to my high school students. We read fairy tales from the Annotated Fairy Tales collected by Maria Tatar, and my students loved hearing about the various interpretations of their favorite stories. Many students told me that they had never been read to as children, or that they had never been read fairy tales (insert sad face here). They loved hearing the original stories for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. We had some interesting discussions about the differences between those stories and the Disney movies. We also read some picture book versions of myths, such as the story of Persephone. Then we read poems by Anne Sexton (her version of "Snow White" from Transformations) and Eavon Boland's beautiful poem "The Pomegranate." While this was going on in my classroom, I delved into Maria Tatar's The Hard Facts of the Grimm's Fairy Tales.

In my English III Honors class, we read an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. I decided to read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which I found fascinating--even if it does stop more than ten years before the American Revolution. What I found most interesting was the very structured and disciplined approach that Franklin took to life; it was also deeply interesting to learn how Franklin became a learned and wise man entirely through self-education.

Since we will be reading works from the American Romanticism period, I expect there will be more Thoreau and Emerson in my future. I'm planning to read Why Read Moby-Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick, after which I will undoubtedly reread Moby-Dick to see whether I agree with Philbrick's assertion that it is the greatest American novel ever written.

On my immediate list of books to read:
Hand of Fire, a novel of Briseis and the Trojan War by Judith Starkston. Judith has a book blog (Reader in the Wilderness), and I can't wait to read her novel.
Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry

Mostly I'm looking forward to some unstructured time, time with family, and time to read.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Like to Reread

Top Ten Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

I love reading, but I love rereading even more. Any book that I love cries out for rereading, because I really feel that you have to read a book at least twice to truly experience it fully. There are books that I have read and reread (George Eliot's Middlemarch, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God) but I won't put those on this list. What follows are books I have read just once but know that I will read again.

1. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. Mieville creates a spectacularly detailed and convincing universe that is entirely strange, and yet familiar. This is a book I think I need to experience at least once more.

2. Passion by Jude Morgan. I absolutely loved this novel of the Romantic poets.

3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This vast and complicated novel is definitely in my top ten favorites.

4. My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain. The author died far too young, and this was her only novel.

5. Anoher Country by James Baldwin. Heartbreaking and riveting.

6. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It took me forever to read this shattering and compelling book, but I will definitely do it again.

7. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

8. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

9. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

10. The Crosssing by Cormac McCarthy.

Cormac McCarthy insists on breaking my heart, and he does it so beautifully. Also, everything Bonnie Jo Campbell has ever written should be on this list.

What books do you want to reread?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday Coffee: Teaching and Disillusionment


The first nine weeks of school are over, we've entered first quarter grades, and I've reached the phase of disillusionment. I started the school year out with passion and drive and barrels of optimism. Now I am dragging myself through the week and running on fumes.

I'm afraid this is normal.

There are many good things to say about this school year:
I have put the right book into the hands of many students. If I have any evangelistic impulses, they are all channeled into one simple idea: get the kids to read. The one phrase that guarantees I'm going to haunt you: "I don't read." It will become my life's mission to hook you on books if you say that to me.

I have spent hundreds of dollars of my own money on books for my classroom in the past three months. This despite the fact that my paycheck actually gets smaller every year. 

Right now the books that are "working" for me in my classroom:
* the Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi
* Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
* The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
* anything by John Green
* The Maze Runner series by James Dashner

I could use more suggestions for realistic fiction or good non-fiction that appeals to male readers, especially the reluctant readers who read at or a little below grade level. I've had good success with authors Gary Paulsen and Watt Key, but I need more suggestions.

Teachers, how do we dole out our energy for this job? How do we teach with passion and not run out? How do we deal with recalcitrant students, disillusioning experiences with district and school administrators, and the general hostility toward teachers these days?

I do find reading to be a continual escape, and I'm almost finished with Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. This fantasy novel is unlike anything else I've ever read, and the first hundred pages went slowly as my brain tried to wrap itself around the completely alien universe Mieville creates. But now I am grateful for the alternative universe where I could lose myself when the world of work was making me lose my mind.

I have to remind myself to keep my expectations reasonable and to count my victories, Most of my students are reading. My plan of allowing students to read books of their own choosing has seemingly lit the fire for many of my students, and many have read five or more books already. When I lie in bed at night or in the early hours of the morning, and my mind is running like a gerbil on one of those little metal wheels, I need to come back to this fact.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: What Is Found, What Is Lost

What Is Found, What Is Lost
Anne Leigh Parrish
She Writes Press
paperback, 253 pages
Publication Date: October 14, 2014

I first read Anne Leigh Parrish's debut novel over the summer, and it is striking to me that the characters and the atmosphere of the novel have continued to stay with me. I first read Parrish's short story collection Our Love Could Light the World back in January, and really loved the way Parrish built her characters. The characters in Parrish's stories were just so real: flawed, yes, and not always thoroughly likable. But oh so real.

In What is Found, What is Lost Parrish again creates real and convincing characters, who seem to have stepped out of life and on to the pages of her novel. What is Found, What is Lost is a complex, multi-generational story that tackles life's most mystifying questions. In particular, Parrish shows how four generations of women grapple with questions of faith.

The novel begins with Freddie, a recent widow, looking back over her life with her late husband, Ken. Her daughter, Beth, soon enters the story and we begin to see the layers of conflict between Beth and Freddie. Eventually the reader finds out that Freddie and her sister Holly had a very unusual upbringing in a Baptist revival camp, and that their mother Lorraine was both a religious zealot and a seriously neglectful mother. In part two of the novel we get even more of Freddie's back story when we learn about her grandmother, Anna, who emigrated from Constantinople. Anna is a complex woman, and in some ways the core of the book. Her first marriage to Paul, and then her relationship with Olaf, for whom she leaves Paul, inform all of the intricacies of the other relationships in the book.

I suppose this is what I love most about Parrish's writing. She somehow creates the intricate context for understanding everything her characters do, and she does it all while maintaining a compelling sense of story. Parrish is unafraid of the most contentious topics: her novel explores the intersection of faith and doctrine within the context of Judaism, Catholicism, the Baptist faith, and Islam. Her characters include a convert to Islam, a Catholic priest involved in an extramarital affair, and a placid atheism that is not without a spiritual aspect.

I loved the way that Freddie looked back on her life with a sort of distance and wisdom, and the way that her relationship with Beth, who has worked as a stripper, contains both parental guilt and acceptance. In fact, there are no characters in this book who arrive at any sort of perfection: every character is entirely believable because each has thoroughly human flaws.

It is difficult to really do What is Found, What is Lost justice in a short review. I will just say that this is writing of the highest quality. Anna, Lorraine, Freddie, and Beth are still so vivid and alive to me. The novel is a beautifully woven tapestry that brings to life multiple generations, showing how their lives are interwoven. Highly recommended.

Anne Leigh Parrish has a website here:

The novel is available on-line and in bookstores, and can be ordered through Barnes and Noble, as well as the author's website.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Diversiverse: Men We Reaped

#Diversiverse is hosted by Aarti at Book Lust

A More Diverse Universe

September 14-27

Men We Reaped: A Memoir
Jesmyn Ward

We saw the lightening, and that was the guns, and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.
--Harriet Tubman
      Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, oldest daughter in a family fractured by divorce. She attended a mostly White Episcopalian private school, starting in the seventh grade, sponsored by her mother's White employer. After high school, Ward attended Stanford University, and then University of Michigan, where she received a MFA in Creative Writing.

     In this raw, visceral memoir, Jesmyn Ward asks why so many Black men die, why their lives are "nothing" in this country, why the history of Black lives is a history of loss. Ward delves deep into her own life and the lives of her family and those in her community. She looks deeply into Black lives, including her own, exposing the forces that lead to substance abuse, suffering, death. The memoir goes back and forth in time, and Ward focuses on the loss of five young men, including her own brother Joshua, who died violently.

     Every sentence in Men We Reaped leads inexorably to Joshua's death. Ward is unsparing in her examination of the lives of people, young and old, in her community. She builds her narrative patiently, showing how all the forces of systematic racism and deep-seeded hatred lead inevitably to the devaluing of Black lives, the impossible, devastating power of White privilege and power being used to deny the existence of Black lives.

     In one scene, Ward and her family and friends are enjoying a day at the beach, Blacks separated from Whites, each group ignoring the other, when a boat flying the Confederate flag chugs past. The White people cheer, and Ward suddenly wants to leave:
....and suddenly I wanted to leave these White people to their beach, their stars and bars, their glances, the howl that said what so many of the White politicians in Mississippi have said in coded language, one time or another: You're nothing.

This message of black lives as "nothing" recurs throughout the book. In another passage, Ward writes of a secret cellar she and her brother find in the woods behind their house: someone has dug a perfectly square hole in the ground, and then covered it with boards and pine straw. The deep hole in the earth comes to signify something dark in Ward's consciousness:
If my mother knew, she'd be angry I left my two younger siblings alone, but I wanted to see that cellar again. I needed to see if it still gaped in that small clearing. I didn't fully understand that it had taken on a symbolic importance for me, a physical representation of all the hatred and loathing and sorrow I carried inside.

     Ward's writing, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, is aching it its beauty. Men We Reaped is gorgeous, lyrical, devastating, visceral, and should be required reading for every American.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Diversiverse: Another Country

#Diversiverse: A More Diverse Universe is hosted by Aarti at Book Lust

September 14-27

Spoiler Alert...This review does reveal some plot details (paragraph two)

Another Country
James Baldwin

Another Country, published in 1962, was James Baldwin's third novel. Baldwin was born in New York, and grew up in Harlem with a deeply religious, and deeply bitter, father. A child preacher at age fourteen, He was influenced by Countee Cullen, who was advisor to the literary club at his junior high. Baldwin attended a prestigious high school, but never attended college.

What is stunning about Baldwin is simply his excoriating, incisive, and razor sharp brilliance. Baldwin records the inner lives of his characters with an insight that is nothing short of uncanny. In Another Country, he examines love in all of its permutations. Rufus, a jazz musician, is the catalyst who brings all of the other characters together. When the novel opens, Rufus has just reconnected with his friend Vivaldo, after having disappeared for three months. His sister has been frantically looking for him, and Vivaldo tries to persuade Rufus to stay with him. But Rufus is too far gone--he commits suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge.

The rest of the novel circles around the idea of Rufus and what he meant to the other characters, an assortment of writers and artists: Vivaldo is an aspiring writer, Ida (Rufus's sister) is a singer, Cass is married to Richard, a writer, and Eric is an actor.

Another Country has interracial relationships, relationships between men (romantic, sexual, friendship), married relationships, extramarital relationships, and on and on. Its as if Baldwin is compelled to ask whether and how people can truly love each other, and what boundaries can lovers cross or trespass without breaking one another.

The emotional pitch of Another Country is so intense that I was just glued to this book. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone write so honestly and so deeply about sex and love.The sexual scenes are extended, intense, and deeply sensual. Its as if Baldwin poured something of his own soul into these scenes.

And the writing is beautiful. Baldwin likes long sentences, and the pages are filled with passages that create a mood--the mood of a city, the mood of a woman, the mood between two lovers. Much of the book focuses on the relationship between Ida and Vivaldo, and Baldwin explores the distance between two worlds: Ida's world, in which skin color determines fate, and Vivaldo's world of white privilege. Baldwin captures moments of euphoria and hope, and moments of total disconnect. Here's a scene from the novel where Baldwin's writing soars:
    There was a high, driving, wind which brightened the eyes and the faces of the people and forced their lips slightly apart, so that they all seemed to be carrying, to some immense encounter, the bright, fragile bubble of a lifetime of expectation. Bright boys in windbreakers, some of them with girls whose fingertips caught the light, looked into polished delicatessen windows. the windows of shops, paused at the entrances of movie theaters to look at the gleaming stills, and their voices, which shared the harsh quality of the light which covered them, seemed breaking on the air like glass splinters.
     "I've never seen such a day," he said to Ida, and it was true. Everything seemed to be swollen, thrusting and shifting and changing, about to burst into music or into flame or revelation.

James Baldwin was poor, African-American, and gay. He spent much of his adult life in self-exile (he lived in Paris, Southern France, Switzerland, and Istanbul (where he completed Another Country). I would recommend Baldwin for his essays (Notes of a Native Son is a good place to start), his stories, or his novels. Baldwin's brilliant intellect and his emotional honesty have made him one of my favorite authors.