Tuesday, October 18, 2016
paperback, 387 pages
Descent is every hyperbolic adjective a book reviewer ever fell back on: riveting, compelling, enthralling, achingly lyrical. I'm almost at a loss for words to explain why I think this book is so good and why you should read it--but I'll try.
Tim Johnston takes a situation and a premise that is naturally compelling: the Courtlands, an ordinary family from Wisconsin, are visiting the mountains of Colorado in one last family vacation before oldest daughter Caitlyn heads off to college. Caitlyn, a gifted runner, goes off with her younger brother Sean in the early morning hours to explore the mountain roads and paths: Caitlyn is running, and Sean is riding a mountain bike. While their parents are back at the hotel room, a sinister stranger in a jeep runs over Sean, injuring him severely. He then persuades Caitlyn, against her instincts, to get into his jeep to go for help. It is as if she disappeared into thin air.
What makes Descent more than just a thriller (although it is thrilling) is all that makes literary fiction literary. Johnston creates a sense of place that is artful, and adds so many layers of meaning to this beautifully crafted novel. He captures the beauty, the danger, and the isolation of the mountain landscape. And his plot turns not just on the mystery and absence of Caitlyn's disappearance, but also the fissures that develop into chasms within the family that is left behind.
Angela and Grant Courtland are trying to rebuild a damaged marriage when their daughter disappears. The distance that opens between them after their daughter's kidnapping is both geographic and emotional. Grant gives up his contracting business and moves to the Colorado mountains to continue the search--even after three years pass, he is no closer to healing, closure, or acceptance. Angela goes back home to Wisconsin with Sean, who never fully recovers from the injury to his knee and leg. Eventually he becomes a restless nomad, haunted by guilt and anger.
There is absolutely nothing predictable in the resolution to this book. Caitlyn, while victimized, never becomes a victim. She's one of my favorite characters in this layered and subtle book: she is fierce, smart, and totally believable. Johnston achieves something really special in Descent: he creates a page-turner that is also a sensitive meditation on families, chance, and fate.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
On October 4th I was having a normal school day, more worried about grading deadlines than the hurricane that was apparently barreling toward us all along. The next morning I was on the highway, headed toward the Charlotte, North Carolina area, having hastily prepared to be away from home for a few days.
I brought school work, my computer, and plenty of books. As it turned out, I spent much of my "hurrication" glued to social media, getting updates about the hurricane. Waiting and wondering was definitely the most stressful and difficult thing. I spent time with my friends and family, and tried to take my mind off the threat of Hurricane Matthew, but knowing that a hurricane is hurtling toward your home is not a good feeling. Especially since my husband had decided to stay home.
What happened: on Friday night and into early Saturday morning, Matthew slammed into Hilton Head Island, where I live. The complex where I live (everything in Hilton Head is called a "villa" but our home is part of what looks like a very ordinary apartment complex) was nearly unscathed. We didn't have electricity or water for about a day, but there was very little damage, not even flooding. Other parts of the island were not so lucky. Parts of the island were totally devastated, and the dock where my husband earns his living was completely destroyed.
The evacuation order wasn't lifted for our country until Monday, and Hilton Head Islanders didn't get the okay to return until Tuesday afternoon. I left on Wednesday morning, a full week after I first evacuated. I can't even begin to express the relief I felt on getting home and actually seeing for myself the totally intact building where I live. And my totally intact husband.
Our island is a beautiful place, and part of the beauty comes from the many, many trees--some of them gigantic, ancient live oaks. Now there is a symphony of chain saws as workers cut up the many fallen trees. My overall feeling is a sense of gratitude: things could have been so much worse.
Tomorrow I will see my students for the first time in almost two weeks. Some of them may have lost their homes, or had their homes damaged. Some of them may have lost clothing, furniture, or school supplies in the hurricane or flooding. Some of their families may have taken a financial hit from the expenses of evacuation. It's going to be a challenge to get back to work and pick up where we left off.
What did I read during this time? Not as much as you might expect. I finally finished my reread of Crime and Punishment. What an emotionally and psychologically intense book! It is definitely one of my favorite classics, but it took me a long time to read. Part of that was due to teaching and reviewing responsibilities. But I also think that Crime and Punishment requires a level of attentiveness and focus that not all books demand.
I did get a chance to delve into Jim Burke's book What's the Big Idea? It's really difficult to find time for professional development reading when I'm in the midst of teaching, so it was nice to have time to read this excellent book. I got lots of great ideas and instructional strategies for my teaching.
After Crime and Punishment, I thought I would try Descent, which is billed as an "enthralling thriller." So far I'm really liking it, and the writing is very good.
Back to school tomorrow....this should be interesting. How was your week? What are you reading?
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
How It Started
Last Tuesday I was having a fairly normal school day. Hurricane Matthew was well out on the periphery of my consciousness. I was thinking about planning, grading, deadlines, and delivering instruction. In between teaching and duties, I started to hear rumors about mid-morning. Hurricane Matthew was on a course that would possibly impact our area. Several people came to tell me that they had heard South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was going to order an evacuation of coastal South Carolina, and that school would be cancelled for the rest of the week. I started texting my daughter (she's living upstate on her own) and making plans. By third block we still hadn't heard anything official, but there were rumors flying about. Some of my students were scared or worried, and some of them were texting their parents. I teach all seniors this year, and many of my students had never had to evacuate for a hurricane. The last evacuation we had in this area was in 1999. By the end of third block we were openly discussing the possibility that there wouldn't be school for the rest of the week, and I was pleading with my students to bring their copy of Frankenstein if they had to evacuate. We were kept in suspense literally until the last minute: Nikki Haley had her press conference at 3:00, and at 3:30 the information that we were under evacuation order was public. Our school day ends at 3:40, and the announcement was made over the school loudspeaker at 3:39.
I live on an island, accessible by a single bridge, I had texted my husband, but when I called him at the end of the school day, he was in the midst of preparing to secure the boats he's responsible for: he works for a small, family-owned company that offers boat tours and dinner cruises. My first job was to secure a rental vehicle, which wasn't easy, even though I had reserved one earlier in the day. My daily commute is made in an Acura that has 203,000 miles on it---not the car you want to take on a long and arduous journey. The car rental place was in a state of panic, with the phone ringing continuously. Somehow I drove away in the last available car. I give my mother all the credit for this one: she taught me tenacity and a certain kind of authoritative attitude. When I left the car rental place there were more than a dozen island visitors or residents waiting in line, hoping that a car would be returned before the place closed.
When I got home I started to pack because Matthew was a category 4 storm, and I wasn't going to hang around to see what it would do to our little island. It was a surreal experience, and looking back I don't think I was thinking all that clearly. I remembered my medication, books, and phone chargers, but I didn't pack a single pair of shoes. I walked out wearing an old pair of flip-flops that I wear around the house. At the last minute I ran back in and grabbed one sweater.
My husband was already committed to staying the next day to work. They have a very small fleet (five boats) and he and a few other employees spent most of that day (evacuation day) moving the boats from the commercial dock to a spot between two small islands. They secured the vessels, removed electronics, dropped anchor, and hoped for the best. That took the entire day (mandatory evacuation for the area started Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.). Miraculously, the boats are apparently okay. A local captain did a post-hurricane trip around the area and reported that the boats look good.
Wednesday morning I left Hilton Head at 8:00 a.m. It was a horrible feeling. I hated leaving my husband behind. I knew he had to work, and I knew he still had a vehicle and could leave if he wanted to. But my husband is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where there is no place to evacuate: there is no bridge! He's been through a major hurricane there, and he's physically strong and a survivor. Still, it was a bad feeling leaving him behind.
Because I left so far ahead of the official evacuation order, I avoided much of the traffic. I did hit a big traffic jam on I-26, as this is where all the Charleston evacuees were. A drive that should have taken less than four hours took five, but I count myself lucky. I reached the Charlotte, NC area by 2:00 p.m.
My Word of Advice
Evacuate. If you possibly can, leave. There are no material belongings that matter more than your safety and your life. Leave as early as you can, preferably before the official evacuation time. Traffic will only get worse. I think one reason people don't leave is that they dread being caught in the evacuation traffic, or they are afraid they won't be able to get back when they want to. But if you don't leave, you may be stuck in place for days or even weeks. There will be no power, no water, and no access to food or water. Every gas station in my area was out of gas by Thursday. Many stores were out of water. Then, after the hurricane hit, there was no electricity to run gas pumps or stores anyway. ATM machines were empty.
The Worst of It
The worst part was the waiting. My husband was alone in our apartment. He didn't want to leave and kept assuring me that he would be fine. Horrible images ran through my head, and I became instantly addicted to social media. I watched the hurricane move toward our coastline, and it was excruciating waiting and wondering. I was on the phone with my husband constantly quizzing him about who was still there at our apartment complex, and urging him to leave.
When the Hurricane Hit
The hurricane made landfall on our island on Friday night through the early hours of Saturday morning. At about 4:00 a.m. it got intense, but somehow our building made it through the storm intact. I think this is because we are on slightly higher ground, and because our building doesn't have any trees right next to it. Hilton Head has a natural beauty that comes from an abundance of vegetation, including beautiful old live oaks and other tall trees. But our trees are all well away from the building.
The Next Day: Silence
Thank goodness my husband kept cell service throughout the ordeal. The community where I teach, a few miles inland, is just getting some cellular service. My husband had no water, no electricity, and no contact with the outside world. The fire stations had evacuated the island on Thursday. He was truly on his own. Since I had internet access, I became my husband's contact with the outside world. I was on social media constantly, and locals formed an informal network that was really kind of amazing. A surprising number of people stayed on Hilton Head, and they were sending videos out relatively early. I was giving my husband reports about when fire and rescue personnel returned to the island, where one little grocery store was open on the island (they had no power, but brought locals in a few at a time--shopping by flashlight, cash only). There was no power or water on the island the first day, but by that evening, my husband had power. I still can't believe it, but I'm so relieved. If I was unable to talk to him it would have been awful, and he had no way to charge his phone. Note: get an extra phone battery and a car charger.
It takes time for things to return to normal.When a hurricane lands on your community, things aren't going to return to normal right away. Fortunately, we had no loss of life in our area. Things can be replaced.
There were trees everywhere on Hilton Head. Roadways were entirely blocked throughout the island. A few intrepid islanders posted videos that showed the destruction.
It's been a week since I evacuated. They only started letting people back into our county a couple of days ago. I still can't go home. The roadways had to be cleared, and fire stations and the local hospital had to be restored. Tomorrow afternoon they will begin to let people back onto the island. From what I understand, cars started lining up on the bridge yesterday. I'll wait one more day.
Firefighters Are Awesome
As soon as the firefighters returned to the island they started going door to door checking on people. They stopped by on Sunday, and were back again yesterday. They chat with my husband and offer him water and food. They'll be back again tomorrow.
People Love Their Normal Lives
My friends and colleagues ended up everywhere: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio. Lots of people went to Augusta, Macon, Atlanta. Charlotte is full of evacuees. My sister and her family were in Charlotte, having evacuated from Charleston. I got to have lunch with my Charleston family, and dinner with Hilton Head friends all in one day. But everyone is ready to get back to their normal lives. People are anxious about their homes. Those who are able to get back cry tears of reliefe.
Evacuation is Expensive and Strenuous
Have a plan. Really. If you live paycheck to paycheck, evacuating can be incredibly stressful. It can hit you so hard in the wallet. I was lucky: lucky to have a regular paycheck, lucky to have a safe vehicle to use, lucky to have a place to go.
Fun Stuff I Did During My Evacuation
I watched Netflix (don't have time for that during the school year). I caught up on Luther, watching two seasons in two days. I read, but not as much as I expected to. I'm almost finished with Crime and Punishment. I bought a book (one!) because a trip to the bookstore was inevitable. But mostly I was on my computer, anxiously looking for news of how things were going back at home. I was on the phone with my husband constantly. If his phone had gone out it would not have been good. If there is a next time, I hope we will be together, because being separated for this amount of time is not good for either of us.
What I Learned
It's the people in my life that matter. I wasn't worried about my stuff. Well, okay, I worried about my books. I'm happy that the library I accumulated over decades is intact. The rest of it--just doesn't matter.
The friendships and family relationships I have sustained me through this ordeal. I kept in constant contact with friends and family, and that is what kept me going.
I really hope I never have to evacuate again, but I learned a few things about how to do that, too. And next time I will pack at least one pair of shoes.
I hope to be going home on Wednesday. I may kiss the ground.
We are so fortunate to live in a place with the resources and infra structure to handle weather emergencies when they happen. Haiti was completely devastated by Matthew, and had a horrifying loss of life. Friends of ours were part of the recovery operations after the earthquake, and the schools they helped build after the earthquake are gone. It's heartbreaking. We are lucky, lucky, lucky. Our actions need to reflect that. We should give from our abundance.
Nikki Haley handled the evacuation and public safety issues from the hurricane amazingly well,
My students and I will be back in the classroom next week, Together.
How did Hurricane Matthew affect you? Have you ever fled a natural disaster?
Thursday, October 6, 2016
hardcover, 224 pages
A review copy was provided through TLC Book Tours
Barnes and Noble
Paulette Jiles is best known as the author of Enemy Women, but I have the feeling that News of the World will gain Jiles even more attention. The National Book Foundation just announced the finalists for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction, and News of the World is on the list.
News of the World is a historical novel, a meditation on the strange phenomenon of Indian captives who return as changed people, and a love letter to the power of story. The narrative follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who travels Texas reading the "news of the world" from newspapers, to paying customers. Kidd is stoic, wise, a messenger (his most cherished memories are from his Army years when he was a solitary messenger, carrying essential news). He is traveling and reading the news in Wichita Falls, winter, 1870, when he makes a strange bargain For a single gold coin he will take a strange and wild girl, once held captive by Kiowa Indians, back to her only living relative in San Antonio.
Johanna is ten years old, and was taken captive by the Kiowa at six. Her immediate family was murdered; her only living relatives are an aunt and uncle she probably can't remember. She has forgotten English, and wants desperately to be returned to the Kiowa and her adoptive Indian mother She wants no part of dresses, shoes, or Captain Kidd.
Jiles creates the feel of post-Civil War Texas--a state with dangerous raiders, violent political disagreement, and criminal gangs. It is through this dangerous territory that Kidd must transport a distrustful and unwilling child.
This is one of those rare novels with a central character who is convincing, complex, and yet uncompromisingly moral. As Kidd gets closer to his destination, he and Johanna begin to build trust and understanding--just as he is about to hand her over again to unknown and perhaps untrustworthy strangers.
News of the World blends artistry and beautiful prose style with gritty humor and cultural insight. As I read, the contemporary writer I was most reminded of was Cormac Mcarthy: Jiles has a similar style (fluid, seemingly effortless sentences), but with a slightly less portentous touch. I thought about the wonderful novel True Grit too; rarely has a novelist created a believable, unsentimental, and realistic relationship like the one between Johanna and Captain Kidd.
Jiles also writes with sensitivity and insight about the strangeness of the returned captive; forever changed by life among the Kiowa, unimpressed by houses and things, and with the courage of a warrior.
This is one of the best historical novels I have read; it wears its learning lightly, but the book is steeped in history. Fans of Cormac McCarthy, or readers interested in Texas history will find much to love in News of the World, but so will those who love story, or who simply want to be reminded that there is good in the world.
Monday, October 3, 2016
The October selection for the Social Justice Book Club is Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Click on the link to join up.
Jesmyn Ward is the author of Salvage the Bones, and the editor of the recently released The Fire This Time.
I'm hurriedly posting this at the end of a long school day. I'm a high school teacher in Bluffton, South Carolina, and I'm interested in the intersection of education and social justice. For two years my colleague and I team-taught American Literature (me) and U.S. History (her) with a focus on civil rights and social justice issues. I proposed the course when I realized how little my students knew about the history of the civil rights movement.
I've already read Men We Reaped once, but I never feel as though I've really read a book until I've read it twice. I wanted to participate in the Social Justice book club before, but I could never quite get my act together. I'm hoping to be active on twitter and this blog as we read this gorgeous and devastating book.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
August and September were a little too busy for me. I read, and I read a pretty impressive number of pages, but I felt pressured.
In October I want to try to read slowly and deeply. I want to refresh and reset my intentions for my classroom practice; worrying about and stressing over deadlines, duties, and grading kind of sucked all the joy out of my life, especially in the last month.
Here's my teacher mini-rant: sometimes grades feel like a false currency. Why should we trust the currency of grades when they don't seem to reflect real learning? Look at the increase in the number of As awarded at all educational levels, including college. Does this increase in the number of As awarded to students reflect an increase in learning? Are students demonstrating that much of an increase in mastery and proficiency? Just asking.
Here's another thing: why are we still reflecting the factory model in schools? John Frederick Taylor was the inventor of "Taylorism" a so-called "scientific" method of managing workers in which tasks were broken down into small increments. Taylor prized efficiency and speed, and there is no room for collaboration in his methods. That's where I feel we still are in education. My school day is managed for me, and nearly every minute is controlled by administration, leaving little to no time for me to collaborate with colleagues.
In reading: I'm still working my way through Crime and Punishment, teaching Frankenstein and Lord of the Flies.
I think I have one more review scheduled. Then I really want to pick something for sheer pleasure....Maybe something by David Mitchell, since I loved The Bone Clocks so much.
Social Justice Book Club:
Kerry of Entomology of a Bookworm has started a Social Justice Book Club, and I'm so excited for a reread of Men We Reaped. This is one book I feel really deserves a rereading. The prose is beautiful and heartbreaking; the memoir is devastating, gorgeous, truthful. The kick-off is tomorrow, but I encourage anyone interested to get on board with this book club. I was so disappointed that I didn't get to participate in the last selection, The New Jim Crow.
Interested in signing up? Here's the link for the sign-up: Social Justice Book Club: Men We Reaped.
Are you reading anything amazing right now? How was your September?
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Hardcover, 336 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Barnes and Noble
There is a loaded gun at the center of Mercury. As writer Anton Chekhov famously warned, a story that contains a loaded gun must eventually allow the gun to be fired, or the gun has no place in the story. Margot Livesey does not violate Chekhov's rule in her newest novel.
Livesey, author of many other novels, including The Flight of Gemma Hardy and Eva Moves the Furniture is originally from Scotland, although she has lived and taught in the United States for many years. In Mercury, one of the narrators is a Scottish immigrant; Donald is an optometrist and former eye surgeon who has settled into a seemingly happy life in a suburb outside Boston. His wife, Viv, is American, an optimist and dreamer, who believes that she can still do something big with her life. After a career in finance, Viv has settled into a less demanding job managing her best friend's stable, and the couple seem to have a life that works: two young children, liberal values, an egalitarian marriage. The only grief in their lives is the sadness and loss that Donald still feels after the death of his father, who suffered from Parkinson's disease.
Yet into this happy and almost complacent life come secrets, silent yearnings, and distance. Donald has donned what Viv calls his "astronaut's suit" and she feels shut out from his emotions. And Viv has fallen in love with a beautiful powerful horse--named Mercury--who she fancies will redeem her youthful dream of success in the world of horse shows. As Donald and Viv slowly orbit away from each other, the little secrets they keep from each other become betrayals.
The novel is divided into three parts, with the first and last sections narrated by Donald, while Viv tells her own story in the middle section. The theme of blindness (spiritual, moral, actual) is introduced through Donald's profession, and through the character of Jack, a blind classics professor who is Donald's close friend. Livesey is especially good at depicting friendships--both the friendships of Donald and Jack, and Viv's friendships with female friends (her best friend Claudia, Mercury's owner Hilary). Livesey also captures the odd dynamics of friendship among couples. The network of friendships and work relationships is artfully drawn, and Livesey creates fully realized characters who are sympathetic (some more so than others). Donald, despite his reserved nature and obvious flaws, turns out to be almost entirely sympathetic, even when he is making horrible decisions, The same can't always be said of Viv, although Livesey gives Viv her say.
Mercury turns out to be a novel about moral decisions, and finding out that right and wrong are not always as obvious as we might have thought. What happens when you must choose between two people you love? What happens when you discover that you are not as morally correct as you once thought?
Mercury doesn't provide easy answers to these questions, but it does offer very human answers. I appreciated this novel for the moral complexity of the situation, and because the characters and situation were quite believable and real. I'm not sure this book qualifies as a thriller, mostly because it is more character driven than plot driven. But the narrative does push toward an act of violence that can't be taken back, and both the event and the aftermath are complex and devastating. There are no easy answers in Mercury but the questions are ones that most readers will find compelling.