Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What I Read During My Thanksgiving Vacation

One of the things I love about getting away from my house and computer is the time to read.  Why is it hard to find time to read at home?  Well, there are things like work, both the kind I do for money and the chores of daily living, to take me away.  When I'm at home (Freudian slip--I first typed "work"), I feel like I should spend my free time writing.

Thanksgiving was wonderful because I didn't have an Internet connection.  Oh, blessed isolation.  And I was surrounded by children, most of whom were delighted to gather round and read a book.

Below, here we are, reading one of the books about Anansi the Spider, that mischievous imp!

We read books about what happens if you give a pig a pancake or take a mouse to the movies.  We read about Dora the Explorer as we helped her find her maracas.  We read about the baby llama in his red pajamas looking for his mama, having all sorts of drama.

I love that if I started reading to one child, others would gather.  What a treat to read out loud.  What great books.

I also read books for grown up people.  I'm usually awake and up before everyone else.  When I'm at home, I blog or read the blogs of others or write.  When I'm away, I read.  In many ways, my reading life was a tribute to Alternate Life Kristin.

I began with the latest by Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller.  What a great book.  It has all sorts of insights into the Holocaust, but along the way, we learn about the life of a woman who bakes for a living.  I've always loved the idea of being a professional baker, so this aspect of the book fascinated me.  But the rest of the book is just as compelling.

Yes, I've read the sneering reviews of Picoult's earlier books, and I just don't understand.  Is it because her books are hard to put down?  Do we see that as the mark of someone writing to the lowest common denominator?

When I was in grad school, the MFA students sneered at John Grisham.  Later, post grad school, when I had time to read books by living writers, I read his books and wondered at their condescension.  Was it jealousy?  I suspect a fair amount of it was.

With both Grisham and Picoult, we have well-crafted characters, great plots, complete with twists, evocative settings, and some amount of figurative language.  Sure, it's not the same as reading Flannery O'Connor, but it's not fluffy cake reading either. 

Not that there's anything wrong with fluffy cake reading.

I also devoured Lauren Grodstein's The Explanation for Everything.  This past summer, I read her book, A Friend of the Family, while I waited for it to be time to go to our house closing--it was compelling in all sorts of ways, and I could hardly wait for her soon-to-be-published next book.

That book, The Explanation for Everything, is wonderful.  It's about a non-believing biology professor at a small, liberal arts college and what happens when he meets a student who makes him doubt his atheism.  I loved the clash of ideas, but I also loved the view of the various academies where scholarly sorts might find themselves.  Grodstein does a great job of showing the imperfections of them all.

And then I finished by reading Mark Edmundson's Why Teach?  The Defense of a Real Education.  For those of us who have been teaching a long time, this book is both a breath of fresh air and a punch of melancholy.  I remember advocating Edmundson's ideas, the idea of a solid education for the sake of that education, the idea of going to school to become a better human, not just a human with more job opportunities.  I remember requiring more rigor.

Edmundson is a bit sneery about the modern ways we might teach.  He's very dismissive of having students create websites instead of deep, philosophical inquiry.  I'm weary of this debate.  If creating a website means that students wrestle with the text in similar ways to the way that I did when I wrote papers as a student--who is to say which way is better?

Well, in this book, Edmundson is the one to say, and he'd say that I'm helping the fall of civilization--or at least the fall of the humanities.  He's also very dismissive of popular culture of all sorts, waving them all aside as having no depth.  I'd disagree, but my disagreement didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book.

I've always wanted a career at a place like the University of Virginia, Edmundson's home.  But he does a good job at showing how even those schools, the public Ivy League, aren't utopias.

So, here I am, back at home, with lots to do, always, lots to do.  Still, I will look for some pockets of time.  My spouse has a rehearsal this week-end for their Broward Chorale concert on Saturday.  Maybe I'll sit in the sun and read.  I'll think back to this scene and smile.

Yes, a snow-covered rocker, not what I'll be experiencing this Saturday as I read by the pool.  I love the idea of a rocker on the porch, but the Thanksgiving holiday reminded me of some of the drawbacks to living further north.

But, oh, how much I will miss this kind of opportunity:

Above, that's my cousin Steve, reading a Dora the Explorer book, to his 2 boys.

Happily, I'm never far away from that opportunity, although it's not always with family members.  Today I head to the elementary school where I'll be a Reading Pal to the 3rd grader who is just as enthusiastic..

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