3 Brothers, 4 Sisters

​Golly Gee, Jane, I seem to have been away a while! Life has its way of absorbing my energy and confining me to its chosen focal points. I’ve been reading: student essays, diagnostic writing (what the HECK are they doing), and test answers. I’ve been writing: college recommendations, report card comments, and reports on progress. I’ve been thinking about my own happiness and sadness and messes, which has resulted in the outpouring of many journal entries. Progress goes up, right? I need up. 
Here are the last two books I read, for your perusal. 

The World We Found, by Thrity Umrigar

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They’re not sisters by blood, but they’re bonded in a way that endures across the world. I don’t find Thrity Umrigar’s work particularly earth-shattering, which is a good thing. This is my second book of hers​ in as many months, and I find myself reading chunks of 40 or 50 pages at a time to relax. It’s not that the book is fluff; the​ four women it features are dealing with serious issues, and reading their rich inner lives and complicated outer worlds is satisfyingly complex. But there is something that makes this teading readimg easy…. maybe the way ​she thoroughly explains each character’s emotional journey, so that while there are difficult things discussed, I’m not left guessing. ​I am left with some really beautiful writing language, though.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWe the Animals, by Justin Torres

Three brothers live a feral and troubled childhood. There are moments of joy followed by a great unraveling. In terms of reading experience, this one was quite different from my usual way of being with a book. It was both beautiful and vicious…. I loved the writing but reading this book left me feeling raw. There is a great weight of trauma and disorientation that kicks in towards the end of the book, so I struggled with it a bit in that way. But I am intrigued to read more work by this author.

p.s. One of my reading challenges this year is reading more diverse books. My rule is 1/4 or more fiction books are by authors of color. So far this year I am at 2/3. Can you suggest more books about dysfunctional families and functional non-families by great diverse authors? 

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Adventure and Resilience

“I was to have one last night in the hills: another starry one, as you will hear, but with a moist hush to the air that was like something at full draw– a breath, an arrow.” –Peace Like a River, Leif Enger

I’ve always been drawn to stories of adventure– big weather, big stories. Voyages by ship or horseback are grand. So are gunfights and swordfights and fights against fear and loneliness. I decided to start my year off by reading about what the tough do when the going gets tough.

Current Reading

Winter’s Bone
Daniel Woodrell 

This book was handed to me on Christmas Eve with the directive, “drop everything and read this.” I didn’t, but the stack of books on my nightstand suddenly seemed less entrancing, so I did pick it up the next day. What a stunning book. Ree, a 16-year-old member of a clannish and lawless Ozark family, must find her fugitive father in order to keep the house he has put up as his bond. She’s tough and sensitive at the same time– loving, determined to be on the side of righteousness, yet unafraid of the darkness that surrounds her.

Peace Like a River
Leif Enger

I first read this book over Christmas vacation of my senior year of college. It was a hard time for me. I had mono, I was struggling to finish up my fall semester papers to hand in late, I was heartsick. That year was about to get far more difficult for me. I credit this book with my return to reading for joy and love. I had been reading only for work– I needed to return to true literary elation. This book did that.

The story is one that will hook you immediately– Reuben, an 11 year old asthmatic daydreamer of a narrative, witnesses his brother commit a double murder out of a sense of nobility. Then brother Davy goes on the lam, and the loyal family (including the prodigious sister Swede, a writer of epic cowboy ballad poetry) follows him off into the West in an Airstream trailer, apparently following the will of God and the miraculous leading of their father, a school janitor who wrestles angels. It is a journey towards hope and a complicated understanding of good and evil, and towards a fateful reckoning.

Past Favorites:

The Bones of Paradise, by Jonis Agee ~ A sprawling family saga set in the sand hills of Nebraska in the years after Wounded Knee. Beautifully written, hauntingly vengeful.

The North Water, by Ian McGuire ~ Takes naturalism to a dark conclusion in a world of whaling ships and ice and murder.

To The Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey ~ Explorers in Alaska encounter danger and a world of Native myths and power. Split perspective between explorer husband and homesteading wife.

Next on My List in Adventure and Historical Fiction: 

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger (Separate from Peace Like a River and quite different. I think I would read anything Enger ever writes.)
The Plover, by Brian Doyle (sequel to the stunning Mink River, but this one’s about a boat.)

What are your favorite adventurous books? What do you think I should read next? 


Friday Reading Rainbow

A glimpse at what I’ve been reading this week.

This first week of school, I’ve read letters from my students introducing themselves to me. I’ve read the first batch of poetry from my poetry seminar class. I’ve read poetry and essays out loud to my kids. It’s been a groovy week.

One of the pieces I associate most closely with teaching is this essay by Brian Doyle. I use it to talk about participation and effort and “joining in the game”
Getting Guys for a Game. 

Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy

First of all, is there a more perfect man than Gabriel Oak? I sincerely doubt it. I’m always interested in women characters who are “wild” and who showcase their freedom, so Bathsheba interests me in the same way as Eleanor does in This Side of Paradise (Fitzgerald). At times, though, I think that Hardy tries to spruce up his writing too cleverly, and I wish he would give in to his latent desire to write with sweeping romantic gestures. The “pastoral tragedy” when Gabriel loses his sheep, for example– how stunningly sad it would be to see him moved by anger to shoot his dog, but instead Hardy moves into passive voice and claims for the dog an ironic fate akin to a philosopher. Perhaps I’m just craving story and romance and adventure — just as Bathsheba is.

update: my copy of this book literally fell apart in my hands, so I’ll give you another update when I get my hands on a new(er) one. 

Two gorgeous sets this week, both to do with burgeoning love and bodies and youth:

“Magnolia Trees” and “Body” by Dani Janae

“Myth” and “Sunset”  by Tiffany Babb


Feel free to comment with what you’ve been reading and what I should read next! 



Friday Reading Rainbow

This week is the last week of summer, which means it’s the first week before school starts. To that end, I’m reading a giant garbled mess of texts to decide what wonderful, challenging things my students will get to read (and to catch up on the summer reading assignments that I gave them).

Here’s a partial list of the great things I’ve been enjoying:


Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne Lamott

Anne is a delightful person to spend time with, and I’m finding her advice on writing brilliant, lively, and life-affirming as I work on my own writing. I’ve also gleaned marvelous passages to share with my students as they develop their writing identity.

“”I’m the the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the kid does the digging. What is the kid digging for? The stuff. Details and clues and images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of people. I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t even know what the kid is digging for half the time– but she knows gold when she sees it.”

My AP students were assigned paired non-fiction texts to read. Each pair deals with a different subject area or field, and *ideally* we’ll discuss all of our non-fiction reading in terms of “writing to learn.” This particular pair was “Medicine and Culture”:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman


American Copper
Shann Ray

This has been a slow, simmering read for me, I think because it’s more poetic than novelistic, so I’m dwelling in the language but not moving as much as I need to through the narrative. The story takes place in early 20th-century Montana, and follows three young characters: Evelynne, an eccentric poetess and the heiress to a copper fortune; William Black Kettle, a Cheyenne Indian rodeo rider who dreams of bringing peace to his people; and “the giant” Zion, a figure of violence and loss who rides bulls. I’m interested in the intersections of culture, place, environment, and character.



I was absolutely floored by “Atang: First Altar” by Patrick Rosal.

Sarah Rose Etter strained my sympathy and heartache with beautiful Number Five.