At a Loss for Words: A Book Review

Lost for WordsYou know that feeling when you have a bug bite that has scabbed over and you pick at it and pick at it and make it bleed even though it is hurting and you know that you are making it hurt? That’s sort of the feeling I had while reading Stephanie Butland’s novel The Lost for Words Bookshop (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). I knew what I was reading was making me hurt but I kept reading and kept reading and kept reading, picking and bleeding along the way. In a good way. Really.

To be honest, I picked up this book off of the librarian’s choice shelf because of the cover, a bay window with a window seat and a bright red awning, and of course, the word bookshop was in the title. Right away, virtually from the first page, I was thinking about the voice of the protagonist, how it was edgy and young and “millennial” in nature. Curious about the author, about the person who created Loveday Cardew, I turned to the back flap of the book jacket…but no photo of the author there. Her short bio gave me no clue as to age so I googled her. I was shocked to see that she was not in fact a millennial, not someone who could be a contemporary of LJ, yet she had captured the essence of today’s 25-year-old, struggling with being an adult in a world that had been awfully cruel to her.

13093000I haven’t felt this way about discovering an author’s identity to be so different from the voice of her protagonist since the summer of 2012 when I read The Newlyweds (Knopf, 2012). I was so convinced (but oh so wrong) that author Nell Freudenberger had written the book under a pseudonym or under her married name as a woman, who like her protagonist Amina, had immigrated to America from Bangladesh. Fundamentally I understand that writers create worlds and imagine characters that they bring to the printed page with their literary talents, but I am not often left speechless by it being done in such a convincing way.

I read a lot of mysteries, and I watch a lot of British dramas, but I always do so with one eye closed. I don’t really want to figure out what is going on too early, unlike my husband who usually has sussed it all up and become bored with it by the first commercial break. This book, though, this book was different. As the pages flipped by, and the alternating time frames (1999, 2013, and 2016) moved me about, I was trying to figure out what was going on. I even remarked to my younger daughter in a phone conversation, “something happened to this girl, something bad, she’s holding it back but it’s coming out I can tell, maybe she was raped”. (Note: not a spoiler, just what I had imagined that could be in her history.)

Coast_path_near_Whitby,_North_Yorkshire_(22937616433)I loved this book for many reasons. I loved that it grabbed my interest right away and never let me go, even when I was feeling pained by reading it. I loved the talk of books by people who loved books, who put such value in books. As a literature teacher and lifelong avid reader, that made me very happy. I loved how Butland unfolded the story of Loveday layer by layer, like peeling an onion or tearing away the rind of an orange slowly in one long, continuous, curling strip. I loved that there wasn’t an overload of characters for me to carry along in the story, just enough to make the story work, sort of like the number of words in a good poem, just enough to make it work. I loved that it was set in York, England, with constant talk of the sea, of Cornwall, of Devon, places I haven’t been to but long to see. I loved Butland’s use of imagery to paint a tapestry of scenes in my head, “The water was the blue of inkstained fingertips.” I loved LJ’s vulnerability and the way Butland colored her in, with an armor of tattoos and a mask of contempt for all that makes “normal” people happy and content. I loved how even in her state of absolute fear and confusion, Loveday still tried to excuse Rob because of his mental illness. I loved how Nathan thought he was broken, until he met someone he loved who was more broken than he could ever imagine. I loved how Butland left me speechless and sobbing at the end, how it made me miss my mom even more than I do every single day. But, one of the things I really loved about this book is that I stumbled upon a new author to obsess over.

 

Girl Power

medieval times field trip

It’s mid-third quarter of this school year and I am knee-deep teaching two novels set in England nearly six hundred years apart. The 7th grade is reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the diary of a girl in medieval times during the reign of Edward I, covering the span of one year of her life, 1290-1291. My 8th grade literature class is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is set in 1889. Even though I’ve read both books many times, I was struck anew this year when the class discussions in both 7th and 8th grades turned to the roles and rights of women during those time periods. Inevitably the comparison was made to the roles and rights of women today, this being an election year with Hillary Clinton appearing to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. If that happens, and if she is successful, she will be the first woman president of the United States of America. In the year 2016.

catherineKaren Cushman used her research skills and knowledge of the Middle Ages to craft her first book, which was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1995. Catherine is the only daughter of a domineering country knight who has decided in September of 1290 that Catherine is of marrying age, although she is not yet fourteen, which always draws gasps from my 7th grade girls. She resists being betrothed against her wishes with all her might and successfully chases off suitor after suitor, until finally she must use the acceptance of a betrothal to someone she despises as a bargaining chip to win something she desires even more, the freedom of a bear who has been kept in captivity and abused for entertainment at a village fair.

fishing for vocab

7th grade girls “fish” for vocab from the Middle Ages

Throughout the book as she runs from being promised to a man that she does not love and does not wish to marry, she dreams of being someone or something else: a villager, a Jewish boy traveling out of England, Perkin the goat boy, her Uncle George the crusading knight, a sausage maker, a monk like her brother Edward who copies holy books in the scriptorium of the abbey. An old Jewish woman admonishes her, “Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” It is sound advice, for the time period, as it is not possible for Catherine to be “Catherine” because she does not wish to be the subservient daughter of a not-so-wealthy knight who has to spend her days spinning and sewing and doctoring, and in the end be married off to a stinky, smelly old man just because her father says so.

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles is set during the reign of Queen Victoria, who did much to expand her realm so that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. She made an enormous impact on almost every facet of British society from parenting to entertainment, from religion to fashion, from the etiquette of eating to the etiquette of mourning. Yet, the roles and rights of women had not progressed that far from Catherine’s time. The story revolves around an ancient curse against the heirs of Baskerville Hall, who all die mysterious deaths. The origin of the curse is the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who kidnaps a young maiden from her father’s farm on the moor and takes her back to Baskerville Hall. She escapes and he promises that he would “that very night render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake the wench” but instead he is attacked by a “giant beast of a hound” and has his throat torn out. The “coming of the hound” has plagued the family ever since, from the time of the Great Rebellion (1642-1651) until the present day setting of the novel, 1889.

manuscriptThe legend itself was documented in a manuscript dated 1742 and written by Sir Hugo Baskerville, a scion of the evil Sir Hugo. It contained the origin of the legend along with the warning to not go on the moor at night for fear of a reprisal of the attack of the hound of the Baskervilles. It was written specifically for his sons, Rodger and John, with instructions “that they say nothing to their sister Elizabeth”. Poor girl, my 8th grade students bemoaned, she was to know nothing of the family curse, she was not to be warned about going on the moor at night? I explained to them that a girl in 1742 would not have gone anywhere without a male escort, certainly not at night, and certainly not on the moor. She would not have had the freedom her brothers enjoyed, and she would not be the target of the curse as she would never be able to inherit anything of the Baskerville estate.

downtonAh, England, and their archaic rules of inheritance. Fast forward to 1912 and Season One of Downton Abbey (let us pause in a moment of silence as this majestic series comes to an end-in America, that is-next Sunday, March 6,  2016), where we learn that the future heir of Downton who is also to be the future husband of the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, dies tragically aboard the Titanic. Thus launches the conflict for the entire series: no male heir for Downton, no money for the three daughters to inherit as it is all part of an entail created when their American millionairess mother married Lord Robert Grantham and saved him from being an aristocratic pauper.

law school men to womenIn both 7th and 8th grade classes these discussions ran their normal course, talking about how girls today can grow up to be whatever they want to be, right? I noted that one girl’s dad is an architect but so is her mom. Another girl’s dad is a Ph.D. but her mom is a medical doctor. One of our career day speakers was a man who is a biomedical engineer but another speaker was a woman who is a chemical engineer. Times have changed. Women can pursue any field of study they desire. In 1980, I was a freshman at LSU Law School, and I was one of only five girls in my section of 75 students. Today the percentage of women to men enrolled in law school has increased drastically, 47.8% women to 52.2% men for the 2012-2013 Academic Year.

hillaryHowever, we have yet to elect a woman as leader of America, to serve as Commander in Chief. Will this be the year? Could Hillary Clinton in fact be the one to take a hammer to that glass ceiling of the White House? From all outward appearances, it seems that she has what it takes. She has been brutal in the debates, taking all the blows on the chin and returning fire. She has the right credentials: First Lady of both the State of Arkansas and the United States, Senator of New York, Secretary of State. She has a brilliant legal mind and is a compelling public speaker. She is not my candidate of choice, because I cannot stand by her pro-choice beliefs, I don’t think she has always been entirely truthful, and I don’t admire her “stand by my man” policies either.

girls at lunchBut, she has played the cards dealt to her each step along the way, and she has played them well; and even though she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she did not give up. She took full advantage of a great education and has used every single opportunity and life experience to further her own ambitions in pursuit of her goals. THAT is the lesson America’s young girls of today need to take heed of. Work hard. Study hard. Take calculated risks. Never give up. You are not Catherine or Lady Mary. You can be whatever you want to be. Girl power.

The Adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

speckled bandIt’s halfway through the second quarter of the school year and I’ve finally reached my favorite part of 8th grade literature, the beginning of an extended unit on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First we read his short story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, which serves as a warm-up to third quarter when we take on one of his four full-length novels featuring his glorious masterpiece of a character, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles never fails to intrigue the students, from the moment we find out the true identity of Miss Beryl Stapleton, to Sir Henry Baskerville’s tension-filled “solitary” walk across the moor, Sherlock Holmes’ plan to set a trap with human bait to ensnare the killer.

conan doyle bioSir Arthur Conan Doyle has fascinated me since my first year of teaching when I found “Speckled Band” in the 8th grade literature anthology textbook. I strongly feel that to study a piece of literature one must study the author first. So much can be gleaned from the author’s background, the time period in which he or she lived and wrote, who his or her influences were, and who he or she influenced in return. The two-paragraph bio of Conan Doyle in the textbook wasn’t sufficient for me to use for class so I did some research on him and learned more about his fascinating life, of which Sherlock Holmes was merely a chapter.

scotland vhsBorn and raised in Scotland, like my maternal grandparents, he studied medicine. After finishing medical school, he traveled to Africa in 1885 serving as a ship’s doctor, where he learned firsthand of the atrocities taking place in the Belgian Congo. Upon his return to England, he wrote what he called a long pamphlet on the situation to bring to the public view what he himself had seen there. He dabbled in political writings for a while, as well as writing for medical journals.

He later traveled to Vienna for additional medical training and became an eye doctor. After setting up shop with another doctor, and later a private practice, he found himself bored while waiting in between appointments for patients. He had written some fiction before, but with the extra time on his hands he began to write more and more. One idea he had for a protagonist was based on a professor he had in medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose uncanny powers of deductive reasoning gave him the ability to sometimes diagnose patients from a cursory glance rather than an extended physical examination. deerstalker hatConan Doyle transferred these nearly-super powers to his character Sherlock Holmes, making him a private detective, albeit a slovenly and disorganized one, which brought to Conan Doyle more fame and fortune than his floundering medical practice ever would.

Conan Doyle later wrote to Dr. Joseph Bell and thanked him for serving as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes; however, scholars have long thought that Conan Doyle may have also been influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a detective who appeared in three of Poe’s short stories. The first appearance, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, is considered by many to be the first example of the sub-genre of detective fiction, one of my favorite for my own leisure reading.

the reigate squiresSherlock Holmes’ first appearance in published work was the novel, A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and Holmes’ career as a private detective continued until 1927, just three years before Conan Doyle’s death at the age of 71. In total, Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four full-length novels featuring the great detective and his side-kick, Dr. Watson. Writing story after story about Sherlock Holmes, however, became boring to him, so in 1893 he chose to end it with Holmes plunging to his death in the story “The Final Problem”. Public outcry stormed down upon him until he relented and brought him back to life in his grand novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

columboThe creation of Sherlock Holmes sparked the captivation of many, a captivation that grips audiences to this day. Conan Doyle also managed to influence many creative minds with the conception of characters bearing Holmes’ extraordinary powers of deduction, many of whom grace the small screen on a daily basis: body of proofHercule Poirot (created by another literary genius, Agatha Christie), Perry Mason, Lieutenant Columbo, Adrian Monk, Sean Spencer from Psych, Dr. House, Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, bonesand many others.  While not as apparent as the others, both medical and police dramas offer glimmers of Sherlock Holmes: Rizzoli and Isles, The Mysteries of Laura, Criminal Minds, Castle, Bones, Law & Order, and Body of Proof, to mention only a few. Even the great Walt Disney chose to honor Sherlock Holmes with his 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective.the great mouse detective

In 2010 while taking an undergraduate summer course on world literature that I needed to complete course work for my certification as an English teacher, the assignment for the final project was a presentation on any piece of literature or author studied during the course. One of the things we had been assigned to read was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I was not a fan, to say the least, but it did make me revisit the research I had once done on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his time spent as ship’s doctor traveling to Africa. I chose to do a presentation on the similarities between the two authors based upon this small connection. After my power point and presentation about the two authors and the subject of the Belgian Congo, I served my professor and classmates a traditional British cream tea, complete with freshly made scones, strawberry jam, and clotted cream, as well as piping hot tea made from my electric kettle right there in the classroom. It was a success, and while I don’t think I passed on to any of those community college students (all of whom were young enough to be my very own children) my love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, it did make my reading and study of Heart of Darkness much more enjoyable.

social-class-and-values-in-the-victorian-era-1-728Teaching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works to my 8th graders is something I look forward to each year. It gives me a chance to introduce them to the Victorian Era and the many ways in which Queen Victoria’s reign impacted the entire world. During the third quarter, they research and write a paper on a topic of their choice, from anything having to do with the Victorian Era. Over the years I have assigned this project, I’ve had many interesting papers on very creative topics from that period: Victorian mourning clothing, prisons and jails during the Victorian Era, child labor, Victorian entertainment, and of course, Victorian literature.

In a day and time when etiquette, social graces, and standards of proper attire have all but vanished from society, it is important for these teenagers to realize that, with all the advancements in science, medicine, technology, education, women’s rights, equal rights, civil rights, and so much more, we seemed to have lost much in the process. While I am not advocating for the rigid social class system or the many limitations placed on women and minorities of the Victorian Era, we are not amusedI would be in favor of a return of some modicum of manners and social graces in today’s society, including the recognition that clothing choices for the day should be based upon the activity of the day, not just whatever pair of sweatpants or leggings (which are not technically pants, see The Harsh Reality of Truth for my thoughts on this) are clean enough to wear. Until that happens, I will escape the trials and tribulations of 21st century life by reading a Sherlock Holmes’ story and having a nice cup of tea.

Read ‘Em or Weep: A Cautionary Tale

summer readingAll over the country grade school, middle school, and high school students are scrambling to finish their summer reading assignments and projects. Some have put off reading a 300-page book to the very last minute and now finishing it in time to complete the assignment seems a daunting task. In the coming week, which is the week before school starts here in Montgomery County, Maryland, I anticipate many emails asking for clarification of the writing assignments and art-based projects for the books I require my rising 7th and 8th graders to read. Of course, the emails will be fraught with typos, grammar errors, and the ever present “texting” language.  After taking a deep breath, I will respond cheerfully to the questions and point them to the detailed instructions for the projects and the rubrics for grading them, which I posted on the school’s website at the start of the summer.
procrastinateWhen these emails begin flooding into my mailbox, I inevitably want to say, “Why did you wait until the last minute to start this?” but I won’t. They most likely have heard it from their parents, or it may already be obvious to them, and if not, this lesson may or may not be learned by them in the future. Some never learn this lesson at all. Well begun is half done, right? aristotleThis famous quote is attributed to Aristotle’s Politics, a work of political philosophy. If ancient Greek philosophy is not your style, how about the 1964 classic Mary Poppins? She also quoted this to her young charges when enticing them to clean up the nursery. For many, however, procrastination rules the day. I must admit, I am guilty of this myself…although never for anything having to do with reading.

At the end of each school year when I go over the summer reading assignments with the soon to be 7th and 8th graders, I always advise them to start their summer reading the very next day. Finals are over, the sun and sand of summer awaits; get those books and start reading, a few pages a day. Summer reading is just that: reading over the summer, the whole summer. alarm clockIt is not meant to be binge reading, condensed into a few days’ time, with the loss of freedom and the promise of scheduled wake-ups and bedtimes looming in the near future.

During the first few days of school each year we always discuss what we each did over the summer. As I teach in an affluent neighborhood, the responses from my students include family vacations abroad or somewhere tropical, weeks at their beach houses, elite sports camps, and swim team practices and meets at their country club pools. My summers growing up were quite different. During my pre-teen and teenage years, my father was self-employed as a soft drink distributor for the 7-Up Bottling Company. Taking a week off was not an option as he would have had to pay someone to take his routes for him for that week. That, combined with the expense of a family vacation for the five of us, simply wasn’t in the cards. So, my early summers were spent at the public library, where I devoured large numbers of books, many of which were read sitting on the cool, 800px-Terrazzo-normalterrazzo floors between the stacks in the fiction or biography sections. Reading about far-away places was my vacation. During high school, my mornings were spent at the local public pool teaching swimming lessons and working as a lifeguard in the afternoons. My first “vacation” was at the end of 8th grade, when my aunt and uncle took me on my first airplane trip to see my cousin graduate from college. We only crossed the state of Louisiana on that short 45-minute airplane ride but I was in heaven. I remember every detail from that trip, including the Plum Nuts Cake I had at the home of my cousin’s roommate. A foodie in the making, I asked Mrs. Ory for the recipe so I could make the cake for my mom when I got home. I still have the 3×5 index card with the recipe on it, and I still make that cake today-it is always a smash hit.

Why is summer reading and other independent reading important? I’m not really asked that by the parents of my students. They know it is important, but somehow, reinforcing that at home is difficult in today’s fast-paced society. sportsSports is part of it. Summer sports camp is required to maintain and improve their skills so they will make the teams in the fall and spring. If they make certain teams, they will be noticed by high school coaches. High school coaches from the private and Catholic schools sometimes have the ability to influence admission decisions. Playing and winning in high school means being noticed by college coaches. And, college coaches can influence not only admission decisions, but offer scholarships as well.

But, what if a student gets injured and can’t play that sport any longer? What if they aren’t really good enough for college sports? During a difficult parent meeting about a 7th grade student who was struggling with reading comprehension and writing in my class during my early years as a teacher, the father of this young boy told me his son would be playing basketball in high school and college, and given his height and prowess at the sport, he didn’t need tutoring or additional support in language arts. In fact, the student himself had told me that he was going to play in the NBA and then be a sports attorney after he retired from professional basketball. I’m not sure how he thought he was going to make it through college and law school if he couldn’t read and understand a short story in a 7th grade textbook. I’ve quietly tracked that student over the years, and I am sad to report that it didn’t actually work out the way the father (or the student) planned it.

summer readingA quick Google search will bring up many studies about the pros of summer reading to combat the “summer slump” and loss of skills as well as the importance of independent reading in the middle school years. In a short two page report, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction stated the following bullet points:

  • Numerous studies have shown that reading over the summer prevents “summer reading loss.”
  • Summer reading loss is cumulative. Children don’t “catch up” in fall because the other children are moving ahead with their skills. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer are two years behind their classmates.
  • Reading 4 or 5 books over the summer can have a significant impact for middle school readers.

weepingSo, in response to the question “Why is there assigned summer reading?” I say, “Read ’em or weep.” In other words, read now or pay later. The statistics are clear.

When selecting the books I assign for summer reading for my students, my goal is one classic and one more contemporary work. My rising 7th graders read Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea and Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a work of realistic fiction, albeit historical to these young pre-teens, set in the 1960’s on Long Island, New York. The protagonist in Schmidt’s book is a 7th grade boy who is left behind on Wednesday afternoons when half of his class is dismissed an hour early to attend religious education at the Catholic church and the other half of his class heads to the temple for Hebrew lessons. Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian in the class and the principal looks down his chart of teachers and their planning periods and assigns Holling to Mrs. Baker, the middle school English teacher, for that hour. As any teacher can imagine, Mrs. Baker is not happy about losing her planning period to be saddled with one student in her room. At first she attempts to make his life miserable by having him clean her classroom. As any normal 7th grade boy will tell you, cleaning the blackboard and erasers is infinitely better than having two periods of English class in the same day! Once Mrs. Baker figures out that Holling is not miserable enough with the cleaning tasks, she assigns him Shakespeare plays to read. shakespeareThat should do it, she thinks, he will be miserable! However, Holling, who is a good-natured young man even though he can’t attribute this to the saints or the Torah, begins to see the deeper meaning of the Shakespeare plays and how he can apply them to his own life, which is complicated by his parents’ lack of involvement in his activities and accomplishments. The Wednesday Wars is a great coming of age novel, with lots of sports, middle school pranks, and early adolescent stirrings mixed in with a very clever introduction to Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

My rising 8th graders read Steinbeck’s classic The Pearl and Agatha Christie’s well known mystery Murder on the Orient Express. As the protagonist in Orient Express is the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the novel is filled with French phrases and utterances. The summer before, these same students will have read The Old Man and the Sea, which takes place in a fishing village near Havana on the coast of Cuba. This novella is filled with Spanish phrases and utterances. This is not by accident. Our school is fortunate to offer two foreign languages: French and Spanish. Students are introduced to both languages in first grade and then in second grade they choose the language program they wish to pursue through middle school where they will have foreign language three days a week. We are also fortunate that the faculty members for both languages are native speakers, which is an enormous benefit to the students in learning proper pronunciation. As a result, many of our students test out of either freshman Spanish or French.

A secondary goal in my choice of literature for their summer reading, as well as during the school year, is to broaden the world view of my students and to help them associate important literature and authors with world events and time periods. Studying the Medieval era in social studies while reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman in literature brings the students to a richer, deeper meaning of this important time period and how it shaped England and the rest of the world. medieval era pyramidBecause we are a Catholic school, it is easy to bring religion into the literature classroom with this award-winning novel which features heavily the importance of the Church and the lives of the saints in the daily life of all classes of people in Medieval England.

My 7th graders have one project each for the two summer reading books: an artsy project for The Old Man and the Sea, a travel brochure for Havana, Cuba; and an essay for The Wednesday Wars. In the first person narrative they are to write about what would be their own Wednesday war, which subject would they hate to have twice a day like the protagonist in the novel. As you might expect, a lot of students choose math as the one subject they would hate to have twice a day each Wednesday. A few say science, although not many given how much they love our science teacher at my school. A few say foreign language, but this is more about the lack of self-confidence they feel in having to deal with either Répétez, s’il vous plait or Puedes repetir eso, por favor in their respective classes.

Only a brave few, however, dare to say literature. That essay is their first introduction to me, as I will be teaching them for the first time. They obviously don’t want to start off on a bad foot with me, so they hide the fact that they secretly hate reading for several weeks into the school year, when I begin to notice a distinct reluctance to read aloud or shoddy work on reading comprehension questions. If only I could “flip the switch” on these students, change their minds about reading, turn them into lifelong readers who enjoy reading for leisure. perfumeIf only I could liquefy and bottle the feelings I had as a middle school student, sprawled on the cool, terrazzo floors of the Port Sulphur Public Library, as I read my way through book after book, constantly learning new words, experiencing new places, meeting new people, tasting new cultures. I would spritz them all with this eau de lisant if only I could.

Source:

Evers, Tony, PhD, State Superintendent. “Why Public Library Summer Reading Programs Are Important.” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.