Dodge Poetry Festival 2014

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Poetry is not my comfort zone. It never fully clicked with me. I could read it and interpret it for class, but I rarely enjoyed it as a student. The exception was epic and narrative poetry that told stories, which is where I’m at home. So when I decided to attend the Dodge Poetry Festival this past week, well, I don’t know what I was thinking.

Actually, I do. I wanted a jolt, a kick in the pants to push me to both appreciate poetry better and use it in my classroom more. And what a jolt it was! Dodge brings in the best poets in the entire country for four days of readings and discussions. And part of what makes Dodge special is the both the diversity and level of the talent that is brought in.

The day began with a “sampler” of fifteen poets reading one or two of their poems. Of course not every poem clicked with me, but a few of them gave me visceral reactions. I actually jolted back in my seat at Brendan Constantine’s “Dementia, My Darling,” a poem imagining his mother’s mind unraveling with dementia. Saeed Jones and Rachel Wiley read pieces that also gut-punched me.

The first session I attended was a panel of four poets who were also actively teaching. This session had a mix of useful suggestions for engaging students with poetry, entertaining stories, and a few utterly impractical perspectives. By this I mean I was reminded how different teaching an undergraduate poetry workshop is from teaching general education 7th grade language arts. Simply telling students there are no rules and to do whatever they want might work with really, really advanced students, but not for squirrely 12 year olds.

Then I attended a panel on women in poetry. I was one of 5 or 6 men in a crowd of about 75. I was pretty uncomfortable, especially when the session began with Jan Beatty’s “Shooter,” a poem about shooting all the men who ever harmed her. But I think it’s okay to be uncomfortable. After women spent centuries being the object (rather than the subject) of dominant white male poetic culture, I think I can sit in a poetry reading for an hour and a quarter and feel marginalized. It was a good perspective-shifter.

Maybe the best session was with Robert Pinsky, who I saw back in 2004 or so when I was a college student. His advice was practical and honest for teachers, and his sense of fun and gravitas was perfectly balanced. . He also created the Favorite Poem Project, a site of videos with  people reading their favorite poems aloud.

The final reading was by Yusef Komunyakaa. He is a brilliant poet who thinks about poetry and sound a lot. As far as being able to use his advice in the classroom, well, it was all rather abstract. A lot of “I think of sound…and tone… and beauty” type commentary. Still, it was a pleasure to sit two rows from one of America’s preeminent poets and hear him read.

The Dodge Poetry Festival only happens once every two years. It brings some of America’s most beautiful words to the heart of Newark, one of America’s ugliest places. I hope to go again in 2016, and in the meantime, become better engaged with poetry.

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6 Things You Thought You Knew About Teaching

Ah, fall! School is back in session. Retailers are shoving 3-ring binders in your face at low, low prices, children are groaning about their free public education, and the sky is bright with the colorful opinions of people who know absolutely nothing about education, but think they do.

Every teacher experiences it. At dinner parties or holidays. In online forums. At the gym or in line at the grocery store. You tell someone you are a teacher, and the other person nods knowingly. They can’t wait to pass some wisdom to you about education. Maybe you’ve heard these before.

1) “Boy, it must be great to work from 8 to 3.”
I don’t know a single teacher that does this. At all. Not even the very worst scum teachers on the bottom of the teacher barrel can pull off these hours. Demands on teachers have become so intense, and the requirements so elaborate, that in order to simply get the bare minimum done, teachers often arrive at school an hour before or stay an hour after. Their weekends are filled with grading papers and tests. The 8-to-3 teacher is a myth.

2) “Teachers have it great with their paid summers off.”
Is summer break great? Sure. But it isn’t paid. Teachers are paid for ten months of the year in most public schools. This means two months of unemployment, for which they cannot collect unemployment benefits from the Federal government. Teachers have two choices: squirrel away money during the year to survive July, August, and the first half of September, or find seasonal work.

3) “Teachers are paid great. Why, I know one who is making $95,000 a year!”
First of all, it should be “paid well.” Adverbs, guys, come on.
It’s true, teaching can provide a stable, predictable middle income salary. But for the amount of education, training, and specialization that teaching requires, teachers are underpaid relative to other occupations and relative to teachers in many other countries. And secondly, most districts pay teachers on a step salary guide, locking them into an incremental pay level. In the business world, an ambitious and talented employee could double his or her salary through promotions in five or six years of service. A teacher might see an increase of a thousand dollars a year in that time. And that 95k teacher? He or she probably has 35 or 40 years of experience and an advanced degree. That salary is the culmination of a lifetime of work, not a sweet ride on the backs of taxpayers.

4) “I pay taxes, so technically you work for me.”
Great. So when I talk to a firefighter, I’ll tell him to let your house burn down. Since I’m a taxpayer, too, technically he works for me.

5) “All you need to do is _______.”
Make class fun. Show them who’s boss. Keep their attention. Speak to them in a way they can relate to.
There is no one key to successful teaching. Teaching is complex and constantly shifting. In a class of twenty-five students, there are twenty-five minds that learn differently. For some, making class fun and talking like a gangster (or is it “gangsta” now?) makes you relatable. For other students, it makes you a buffoon. There is no one thing that is “all you need to do.”

6) “You should really teach them about _________. I loved that when I was a kid.”
People not in education fail to understand that teachers have very little control over what and how they are allowed to teach. We can’t teach the books, perform the lab experiments, or introduce the mathematical concepts we want to. We have limited control on how we teach, and that is heavily observed and scrutinized. So just because you had a great experience making a baking soda and vinegar volcano in third grade, or you loved reading The Lord of the Flies, don’t assume I can do that, too.

People who are not in education think they know better than teachers. Breaking a bone does not qualify me to be a doctor. Eating in a restaurant does not qualify me to be a chef. So having been a student ten or twenty or fifty years ago does not qualify you to be a teacher. The next time you hear someone is a teacher, keep the helpful advice to yourself.

Instead, just tell say “thank you.”

Or, “God bless you.”

Or, “Here, have a drink. I bet you need one.”

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Ten Books that Stuck With Me

I apologize for the lengthy delay since my last post. There are no excuses. Actually, there are many excuses, but no one wants to hear them. But I am back, my faithful dozen readers.

I have been issued the “Ten Books that Stuck with You” challenge. I was going to just post to Facebook, but the blog allows me a little room to ramble. So please, indulge me and enjoy. This may contain some mild spoilers.

If you don’t know this book, you don’t know me. I’ve read it probably a dozen times. What stuck with me: Brian finding the pilot’s body. Gave me nightmares then and still frightens me now.

I would like to list all the Roald Dahl children’s books, but this one was always my favorite (close second: Fantastic Mr. Fox). What stuck with me: It’s okay that burps and farts are funny.

Technically a trilogy. Having gone back and reread it as an adult, I can see the flaws in these books, but I read it when I was in their audience sweet spot: 13-15 year old male. What stuck with me: Tasslehoff Burrfoot was always my favorite character.

While I wouldn’t list this as one of my favorite books of all time, it stuck with me. When I read it as a teen, I was amazed at the alternate history concept: what if racist time travelers brought AK-47’s to the Confederacy to ensure they won the Civil War? Wow! Also, I was a sheltered and prudish young fellow, and the level of violence and (relatively tame) nudity was high enough to make me uncomfortable. What stuck with me: machine-gunned bodies stacking up into a wall.

The film Gettysburg got to me first, but the novel resonated with me powerfully, as well. From here, I didn’t learn about the Battle of Gettysburg. I learned about friendship, loss, honor, heroism, and pride. What stuck with me: Little Round Top, of course. Also the brutal speech by Buster Kilrain about the worthlessness of man, perfect counterpoint to Chamberlain’s lofty ideals.

Do we read because of who we  are, or are we who we are because of what we read?

 

When you are a fifteen year old boy and you read a book about a cat who dies of happiness (that isn’t a spoiler; look at the title), you know you are different from your peers. A beautiful story founded in Buddhism, but accessible to everyone. Jeez, I’m getting a frog in my throat just thinking about the book. What stuck with me: Extreme catharsis from a book that can be read in an hour.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest gets all the attention, and it’s a great novel, but a tidier, better contained one. Kesey pulled all the stops on SAGN. The atmosphere is intense. You will put down the book feeling soaked with Pacific rain, smelling of sawdust, and hearing the roar of the river. What stuck with me: The atmosphere.

Warren won Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry, and it is evident here. ATKM tells an archetypal story about how the ends never justify the means. Using unethical methods to achieve noble goals does not indicate that you are noble; it actually transforms you into the evil you were once combatting. The prose sings. What stuck with me: the whole, crushing, Greek tragedy inevitability of the book from the first page.

Most people stop reading it because they figure the rewards of the novel can’t be worth all the hard work that goes into understanding it. They are wrong. This is a high input/ high yield book. Joyce literally writes about everything, and after reading it, the world will never be the same for you. What stuck with me: Many parts, but the talk with Deasy, the teacher, still haunts me.

Reading this book was a distinct turning point in my life. I went from being someone who likes to write to being a writer. And King doesn’t glamorize the writing life, either. Succinct, honest, supportive, funny, and revealing, anyone who writes should read King’s memoir, as should anyone who enjoys his writing. What stuck with me: It’s tough to pick one part. My copy has a dog ear or post it on every page. But his “writer’s toolbox” was revelatory to me—here is a professional, successful author, laying out the groundwork for good writing and editing habits.

Honorable Mentions (is that cheating?):

Anything by Ursula K LeGuin (probably my favorite author, but I can’t choose one book. Maybe Lavinia). Anything by Tolstoy (same problem as above). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (so badly wanted this in the Top 10). The Giver by Lois Lowry. The Odyssey by Homer. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. The Worm Ouroboros  by E.R.R. Edding. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer (a kid drowns and another kid uses the word “hell.” Both stunned me in 4th grade). Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The Dead Zone by Stephen King.

This exercise had me thinking a lot. What makes a book “stick” with us? It isn’t always (or usually) about literary quality or merit. On the path to my Master’s degree, I read dozens of books whose titles I can’t even recall. And on my Top 10 are some books of dubious quality. I think most of it has to do with reading the right book at the right time. Read a book too early, and it won’t register with the reader (or in my case, shock him). But read a book too late, and its magic may be lost. I know several people who worship David Eddings’ Belgariad Series. But they probably read it as teens, who are the intended audience. When I read it as a twenty-something, all I saw was a juvenile parade of fantasy tropes. I had read too much fantasy by then to be impressed. And I wonder, too—do the books resonate with us because they speak to values we already have? Or do the books cause us to foster certain values that, later in life, we recognize as important?

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The Passing of Dina

It was with great sadness yesterday that I learned of Dina Jacobson’s passing. She died Thursday at home with her family at her side. Her life had been so full of pain and triumph: growing up on a farm in Poland, surviving Auschwitz, meeting her future husband in a Displaced Persons camp, then coming to America without any job and knowing no English. Then, for twenty-five years, she shared the stories of her experience with students, all in the hope of preventing another Holocaust. I had the privilege of meeting her in 1998, when I was a freshman in high school. For the last year, I have been interviewing her, researching her past, and imagining all the gaps in between. The courage and generosity she showed in reliving her trauma every year for the benefit of young people will be greatly missed.

 

 

 

Lessons from the Holocaust Denial Essay Disaster

Auschwitz-BirkenauA school assignment came into the news recently regarding a controversial essay. 8th grade students in California’s Rialto Unified School District were given an essay assignment in which they had to argue whether the Holocaust was a real event or a hoax. The students were given documents on each side of the argument to use in their case’s defense.

Understandably, this assignment has created an outpouring of anger and disgust from the public. The Anti-Defamation League has voiced its objection and contacted the district. Parents and advocates are outraged. The superintendent has even received death threats. The assignment is being called everything from foolish to dangerous and anti-Semitic. The Board of Education has acknowledged the inappropriateness of the assignment, apologized, and returned it back to the teachers to rewrite.

The topic:

When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page.”

I’m going to go into this with the assumption that the Rialto Unified Board of Education is not a pack of raving anti-Semites with the insidious goal of turning students into raving anti-Semites. If they are, well, then reason goes out the window. But having worked in education, I can reasonably predict that what happened was a gross misjudgment, a seriously bad question written with good intent but terrible delivery.

The intent of the assignment is, I would think, to lead students to see that the Holocaust Denial movement is ill-founded and false. The essay itself, though, is inappropriate for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that Reality vs. Hoax is not a legitimate debate. The Holocaust happened. It is real; there is nothing to debate. But to conspiracy theorists, any evidence in their favor is touted and any evidence against them is declared to be fabricated. How could anyone win an argument against someone like that?

For an argumentative essay topics to be fair, the two sides must both have equal weight. In an essay about whether or not students should wear uniforms, for example, arguments both logical and emotional could be made for either side. But Holocaust Reality vs. Hoax is not a debate. There IS no debate. If you give students two documents supporting and two opposing a claim, but don’t tell them that in fact there are millions of photographs, videos, personal testimonies, physical scars, embedded tattoos, and missing loved ones as proof of the Holocaust, it sets up an artificial equality for the grounds of debate.

Compounding this is the fact that most 8th grade students lack the critical skills to engage this topic meaningfully. In many cases, 8th grade is their first exposure to the Holocaust. Give them a debate and they will accept uncritically the grounds for that debate.

In my own class of 8th graders, students are reading Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a standard text for this age. To ensure the students would appreciate Frank’s testimony, I spent nearly two weeks sharing with them information about anti-Semitism, the causes and events of the Holocaust, individual stories of different victims, and a broader exploration of how prejudice leads to discrimination which leads to violence and genocide. For most of my students, this was their first engagement with the Holocaust, and they craved to know more.

A few of my students did “independent research” on Google and came across a number of Denial websites. They tried to argue with me about the compelling evidence they saw. They said it made a lot of sense to them. I attempted to explain to them how conspiracy theories work, and that these loonies explain away any evidence against them. They seemed unconvinced, and the exchange has left me troubled.

Back to the Rialto Unified fiasco, I won’t try and relieve the administration of responsibility. The essay assignment was terrible. But as an educator, I can make a few guesses as to what happened. First of all, the essay is surely an attempt to create a Common Core-aligned essay. For those not in education, the Common Core is a set of nationalized educational standards that nearly every state has adopted. Every state, district, supervisor, and teacher is being pressured (professionally and financially) to implement them. And the Holocaust Denial essay was designed to be in alignment with Core standards, specifically regarding critical thinking skills and use of primary source documents.

More than likely, here is the scenario that occurred: the district mandated that the Language Arts department develop a document-based essay question for all 8th grade students. A group of teachers, likely already overtaxed and harried with responsibilities, formulated the question in question. How they came up with this prompt, I can’t say. Maybe they dashed it off, just another item on a to-do list that wasn’t given appropriate consideration. Maybe they thought they were being bold and provocative. Maybe they thought that this essay would help students see the futility of Holocaust Denial. In any case, the question is bad. Which happens. No teacher bats 1.000.

But then the prompt was surely rubber-stamped by supervisors, principals, and Board of Education members, all of whom had more pressing duties than discussing middle school essay questions. By the time someone looked up and said, “What the hell?”, news and social media had already done that for them. And by the district’s own acknowledgement, the problem was a lack of internal checks and balances.

What can we learn from this?

What I have learned is that teaching students about Holocaust Denial might be an important component of teaching them about the Holocaust itself. If I don’t address that some of the “information” out there is actually garbage, they might stumble on it and believe it.

And what can the field of education learn? Perhaps the lesson is that without taking a little time to check each other’s work, bad ideas can be greenlit and taken too far. Perhaps the lesson is that without giving students context, their learning is at best hampered and at worst entirely misguided. Or perhaps the lesson is that when contrived and artificial questions are created for the sole purpose of assessing students by some arbitrary standards, bad things result.

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Book Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, one of my favorite authors, is a comic master at putting a twist on old tales and themes. He has a trilogy of vampire novels. His novel, Lamb, is the story of Christ’s youth told from the point of view of Biff, his childhood pal. A Dirty Job makes the Grim Reaper a mild-mannered secondhand shop owner. His novel, Fool, tells the story of King Lear from the point of view of the king’s fool, a short-statured, sharp-tongued, well-endowed jester named Pocket. Pocket’s apprentice is a dimwitted giant named Drool, who doesn’t understand basic human interaction or any nuance of language, but has a good heart and can perfectly mimic voices.

Moore’s most recent novel, The Serpent of Venice, follows Pocket and Drool again. This time, Moore doesn’t just tackle a Shakespeare play. He tackles two, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and mixes in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” It is an ambitious novel, which makes its success all the more thrilling.

Beware: Moore doesn’t hesitate to alter the original storylines. Most notably, several characters are killed off that do not die in the original plays. Whereas Fool kept the plot of Lear but told it from a new point of view, Serpent is more original.

Another element that carries over well from Fool is the written voice. Moore employs a mixture of excerpts of text from the source material, a sort of faux-Shakespearean that uses Elizabethan language but is entirely original Moore writing (he does this with the whiz-banger insults, especially), and plain-old modern anachronism. It seems like these three elements: authentic old, fake old, and contemporary– would make a horrifying, clanging mess for the voice, but actually it works well. Thus it comes across perfectly believably when Shylock asks “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and one of the Sals (Salanio or Salerino) whines “I didn’t know there was going to be a bloody quiz!”

One of Moore’s greatest strengths as a comic writer is that he also dips into heartfelt territory, too. The funny parts are funny, but even more so when set against the truly moving parts. As funny as Pocket is, he starts out as a grieving widower being tortured by a maniac. To me, this elevates Moore above the label of “comic writer,” a term I associate with writers who make me giggle but little else.

Moore also does “character management” well, knowing just how much of each character to use. I felt that in the vampire trilogy, the character Abby Normal made a great side character, but became tiresome as a protagonist. I worried about this when I read Serpent, that the highly entertaining Drool would take on such a prominence that his voice would overpower the story. But Drool is kept in reserve until the second half of the novel, and when he appears, it’s great. One can almost hear the resounding cheers of fans around the world.

In fact, Serpent might be one of Moore’s greatest achievements. Between the technical mastery of juggling multiple storylines and characters, the brilliantly blended styles of old and new, and the harmony of shenanigans and earnest emotion, The Serpent of Venice is a smart, fun, funny novel.

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Every so often, maybe once every couple of years or so, I come across a book so engrossing, so compelling, that it takes on a drug-like quality. Whenever I’m not reading it, I’m wishing I was, and when I am reading it, I never want to stop. If life permitted me, I would have read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in one, well, unbroken sitting. The most amazing part of this book is that it is nonfiction. As a piece of storytelling and as a piece of history, it is a stunning achievement.

Hillenbrand first established her reputation by writing Seabiscuit, the basis for the film. In Unbroken, she tells the story of Louis Zamperini. In the opening of the book, we learn about Louie as a child– fractious, wild, untamed. It isn’t until he is directed towards athletics– track and field, specifically– that he harnesses that energy into something productive. And productive he is. In a few years he goes from local troublemaker to college star to Olympian in the 1936 Berlin games. At the outset of World War II, he becomes an officer in the Army Air Corps and works as a bombardier. When his plane crashes and he is forced to survive on a life raft with two other men with little chance of rescue, his trials are only beginning.

The book is a testament to the strength of human spirit and the will to survive. There are numerous others around Zamperini who cannot endure the brutal challenges he survives. Some give up, some fall apart, some run away. Yet Hillenbrand is careful to not overly glorify Zamperini. His shortcomings and struggles are also portrayed, and in the end he comes across as simply a man whose desire for life was so intense that nothing could steal that life from him, though his suffering exacts a toll on his spirit.
Hillenbrand’s book is meticulously researched. In the acknowledgements she lists pages of people and databases she mined to get her information. In fact, she held seventy-five interviews with Zamperini alone, until he even joked that she remembered more details of his life than he did. Beyond that, she interviewed family, friends, Army buddies, even Japanese relatives of those he fought against in the Pacific Theater.

Yet part of what makes this book so remarkable is how readable it is. Though there are passages that are saturated in historical facts, but every bit of research is used to give the readers context, so the story matters more. I think this is a shortcoming of many nonfiction books, and what turns some people off to history writing. When the writer becomes so enamored with the details and facts that they insist everything is shoved into the book, the story dries up. But when the history is used to give meaning to the story, the story comes alive.

For instance, in Unbroken, there is a lengthy section about the actions of Japanese officers and their vicious treatment of prisoners of war. At that point in the story, Zamperini was just starting to fly his bombing missions, so the information about POWs might seem out of place. Instead, it builds tension, causing the reader to see just what was at stake if a plane went down and its crew captured. So when– spoiler alert– Zamperini is captured, the reader is already terrified about what was in store for him.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rare is the book that is both so rich in history and research– I feel like an expert on the WWII Pacific Theater now– and also so compelling a story that I could swear it was the work of a master novelist. For anyone with an interest in World War II, the psychology of imprisonment and survival, and in taut storytelling, read Unbroken.

And P.S. it has been made into a film directed Angelina Jolie, due out this December. So there’s that to look forward to, as well.

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Reading Outside the Comfort Zone: Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent

It’s always a pleasure to read a book that will be a sure thing, a guaranteed delight, perhaps in a favorite genre or by a favorite author. However, it’s also important to read outside of one’s comfort zone. Whether the book is for a different age range or in a different genre, readers and writers can learn a lot by sampling writing that they don’t often encounter. It expands one’s definition of what to expect or how a story can be told. It breaks down biases about certain types of writing or certain authors. This experience can be a great growing experience for a reader. But that doesn’t mean it will always come easily.

Such was my experience reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. I had heard of the book, of course. It spent many weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and won widespread acclaim and appeal, both by critics and readers. I also love when an author explores a minor character in a famous text and gives readers new insight into that character, that world, and that text.

The Red Tent is the story of Dinah, who in the Book of Genesis is the youngest daughter of Jacob. She receives very little attention. All we know of Dinah is that she is violated by a man from another tribe. Diamant’s novel tells us the story of Dinah.

I am not the intended audience for the novel. When I saw the novel classified somewhere as “women’s fiction,” I didn’t give the label much credence, figuring that it was a marketing label applied to the book because a woman wrote it. However, within the first chapter, Dinah addresses the audience directly, using “us” to mean women and “them” or “they” to refer to men. I immediately felt shut out, an outsider, a non-participant in the text. Still, I read on, willing to accept my outsider status to a text outside my comfort zone.

But Dinah’s direct address is only the beginning. The novel is loaded with scenes, descriptions, and references that are meant specifically to bond the female narrator and her female audience. Descriptions of undulating motions, the sway of the earth, the rich, sensual touch of this or that, pervade the narration. Even the title refers to the menstrual hut in which women are relegated once a month, and where Dinah finds the greatest companionship and her entryway into womanhood. Over and over again, the descriptions in the novel celebrate women celebrating women, and I was left to watch without being able to share the experience.

I was further distanced from the story by the depictions of men, which might have been the most off-putting and uncomfortable part of the book for me. Nearly every male in Dinah’s story is either a brute or an idiot. There are exceptions; she does experience love for about ten minutes, and she has positive relationships with a few of her siblings. But for the most part, the men in her life are cruel patriarchs who destroy, burn, rape, and pillage, or laughable dolts who trip over themselves. There are even scenes in which the women laugh at and mock penises. The best male in Dinah’s story comes across as a semi-decent guy.

 

Over and over again, the descriptions in the novel celebrate women celebrating women, and I was left to watch without being able to share the experience.

All of these factors added up to make me feel unwelcome in the story. Yet I forged ahead, partly because I was interested in the story, partly because I stubbornly refused to be shut out, and mostly because a book has to be dreadfully awful or boring for me to set it aside. I finished the book, and yet waited almost a month before reviewing it because I wasn’t really sure how I felt. Nor was I sure I wanted to expose my thoughts and feelings about it. I’m still not really sure. But here I am.

I have contemplated the way this book made me feel diminished, an outsider, marginalized. Dare I say, objectified. It wasn’t pleasant. But I think, too, about all of the hundreds of years of literature that have done the same thing to women and other marginalized groups. Is the way I felt the same way women have felt reading male-centered narratives? Is it the way black readers have felt reading white-centered narratives? How about gay readers who read stories of “true love” where every man ends up paired with a woman and everyone is happy? Maybe what I learned from this novel was how demeaning it can feel to be actively shutout of the narrator’s story. In my writing, I always strive to be equal and fair and to keep my characters complex, but maybe I will give just a little more pause in the future to consider how someone other than a middle class, white, straight male reader would feel when reading one of my stories.

Maybe what I learned from this novel was how demeaning it can feel to be actively shutout of the narrator’s story.

After reaching that conclusion, I was able to move forward and critique the book itself. I think it’s a mixed bag. At times, the descriptions are vivid and the action compelling. Diamant really does evoke a complex, intricate civilization from the hazy Biblical setting. However, the first half of the novel suffers from a passive narrator and no apparent conflicts. As a little girl in a patriarchal society, Dina has little voice, but she is my narrator. I need her to have some sort of voice, yet halfway through the book, I knew almost nothing about her as a person. It wasn’t until the second half of the book, when her trials and adventures really begin, that her character takes shape. I don’t demand violence and action to keep me entertained (though I am male), but the first half of the book was exposition, really, with nothing to move the story forward. Diamant’s powers of description were compelling enough to keep me reading, but it was still a flaw in the novel that no character faced any challenges until half way through.

Overall, the novel strives to do something unprecedented, and ends up doing something remarkable but flawed. For readers interested in a similar concept using Virgil’s Aeneid, try Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia. Lavinia in Virgil’s text is a mere prize, a bride for a triumphant warrior. The novel brings her to life, both as a child and as a woman, and creates a much more concise, vivid world in doing so. Additionally, LeGuin adds a layer of the fantastic to the novel, in which the dying Virgil is communicating with Lavinia, his character, through a fevered dream. It is an approach that is both fresh and imaginative, and a pleasure to read.

Holocaust Survivor Documentary

The tattoo Dina received upon entering Auschwitz

The tattoo Dina received upon enterin Auschwitz

On Friday, April 25 at 6 PM in Vestal, New York, you have an opportunity for an event that you may never get again.
When I was a freshman in high school, my history teacher invited a friend of his, a Holocaust survivor, to come and speak about her experiences at Auschwitz. Dina Jacobson’s talk made an impression on me, but I did not realize that our life paths would cross again.

Fast forward to fifteen years later. My history teacher is retired, I myself am a teacher and writer, and Dina is 92. My former teacher, with whom I have kept contact over the years, comes to me with a proposal. He wants to write a book about Dina’s life. Or rather, he wants a book to be written. So he comes to me. A few enthusiastic discussions later, and I’m on board. From the moment I heard the idea, I knew it was an opportunity I could not pass up. It immediately leapt over all other writing projects in priority. So for the last year, I have been interviewing Dina, writing, and revising the story of her life.

But this post isn’t about me. The book is far from done, and I dislike talking about works in progress. As Robert Frost once wrote, “Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second.” So I’ll keep the water pressure up and my lips sealed. This post is about the event on April 25.

I am not the only one on whom Dina has made an impression. Folk artist Joe Crookston met her and wrote a song titled “Blue Tattoo.” Later, filmmakers Rich Kellman and Marty Kerker were inspired to create a documentary about that journey, also titled The Blue Tattoo. The documentary will premiere on Sunday, May 18 at the Buffalo Jewish Film Festival. However, there will be a special preview showing for people in the Southern Tier on April 25, at Vestal High School, the site of so many of Dina’s talks. This event is free to the public. I will be there (for what it’s worth), and of course Dina will be there with her family, too.

Local News Story about the Preview

Dina’s hope is to spread awareness and her story to prevent future genocide. If you’ve never had the experience of speaking with a Holocaust survivor, taking advantage of this event might be one of your last opportunities. She is a witness to history in a way few living today can understand.
As for the book project, I will update as updates are needed.

Book Review: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Are you looking for a young adult novel founded in wholesome values and featuring admirable young characters who display exemplary behavior and end up being rewarded for their good choices?

Then don’t look at Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky.

Under the Empyrean Sky

Wendig, aside from having written a number of novels and nonfiction books, runs a terrific blog called Terrible Minds. It is always insightful, always frank, frequently funny, and occasionally offensive. In a good way. Definitely worth checking out.

The novel can be called a dystopian future. It has been labeled “cornpunk,” which I think is a very cool term. In The Heartland, corn has become the primary crop for the entire world. It has been so genetically modified that it is like a weed, but a weed that has driven the world into a sharp division of the “haves” and “have nots.” The haves live in a giant flotilla in the sky, the Empyrean. All the other losers live on the ground, scrounging out existence while developing cancer and tumors from the toxic, malnourished soil.

Of course the young protagonist, Cael McAvoy, is one of these ground dwellers. He captains a salvage ship, scrounging out a meager life. He’s in love with Gwennie, his shipmate, but is facing Obligation Day, when the Empyrean arranges marriage for people of the proper age. Without giving away any spoilers, Cael refuses to passively accept the decrees from above, meanwhile trying to navigate the crummy time we call adolescence.

This is not a neat, tidy book. It features teens who: (1) swear, (2) have sex, (3) smoke, and (4) are mean to one another. They make the tough-guy characters of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders seem pretty tame, and they were shocking in their time. Some prudish readers out there might be dismayed. Let them be. Because guess what? These are things that real teens do. Though the setting is fictional, Wendig’s characters reflect real-life people. Above all, however, these characters reflect deep values: friendship, trust, love, and most importantly, fighting for freedom, autonomy, and equality. They’re rough people, for sure, but their hearts and minds are devoted to admirable principles.

In the numerous choices of YA novels, Under the Empyrean Sky stands out for being rough, fun, and thought-provoking. Other novels also present edgy characters, but lack the moral core present here. Still other novels are fun, but not substantive—fluff. And there are other novels that present warnings about environmental damage, too, but do so in a heavy-handed and unpalatable way. Wendig deftly creates a world that is frighteningly plausible, yet fully realized in its own, rather than just a cardboard backing for a moralizing tale. Although I am not really the target audience (too old by about fifteen years), I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and recommend it to all fans of dystopias, environmentalism, adventure, and high fructose corn syrup.

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