Monday, June 30, 2014

Summer Reading--Esperanza Rising

Fifth or sixth grade teachers looking for a good book for students in their classes to read over the summer should pick up a copy of Esperanza Rising (Scholastic, 2002) by Pam Munoz Ryan.  The book follows the adventures of the main character, a twelve year old Mexican girl who must flee to the United States after her wealthy ranchero father is murdered by vaqueros while out mending fences on his property.  It is a tragedy with far-ranging consequences.  It is also a powerful story that is perfect for students in intermediate grades because the author focuses on character development and poetic language.  Ryan creates a realistic world and does not shy away from the dangers and difficulties faced by migrant workers in the central valley of California.

Esperanza’s father is a wise and important presence in her life who first teaches her to love the land.  He tells her the earth breathes and is alive, like a person.  On a grassy hill, they lay down on their stomachs to feel the earth’s heartbeat.  By being still and quiet, Esperanza senses the living land.  When she displays the impatient attitude of a child who desperately wants to grow up, her father tells her, “Wait a little while and the fruit will fall into your hand.  You must be patient, Esperanza.”  Additional lessons come from the roses her father has so carefully cultivated, one he names for her and the other for a son of his ranchero worker.  The son, Miguel, and Esperanza, although in separate classes within Mexican society, are linked together in the plot and face the dangers and uncertainties in the new world of America.  Before the tragedy of her father’s death, Esperanza picks a rose and pricks her finger on a sharp thorn, a harbinger of the bad luck to come.  Throughout the story, Ryan laces in the folklore and traditions of Mexican culture, to which many students will be able to relate and appreciate.

The story is set in the 1920s parallel to the time and place of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The journey to the U.S. for Esperanza and her family is fraught with danger, and not much different from the perilous journey of Latino immigrants today.  The story is interesting for the point of view it presents alongside that of the Okies in Steinbeck’s work.  Those white migrants from the Dust Bowl are peripheral to this story, as are the Filipino and Japanese workers who occupy similar camps in the valley as the one where Esperanza and her family stay.  All of the migrant farm workers faced incredible hardships and challenges, and Esperanza’s story presents yet another side to that period in California history.  Throughout the novel, the sense of political upheaval is present.  In Mexico, Esperanza’s mother tells her, “Change has not come fast enough, Esperanza.  The wealthy still own most of the land while some of the poor have not even a garden plot.”  Later in California, some workers want to strike for higher wages while others, like Esperanza and her family, value their jobs and do not wish to make waves.  This conflict results in violent and bloody consequences for the workers.

The ending of the book is a little too easy and neat.  There is definitely room for more story or a sequel, but the plot as a whole is satisfying and enlightening.  Ryan manages to maintain the poetry of the Spanish language, which she translates whenever she uses a phrase.  It flows naturally without seeming to be too pedantic.

Teachers are always on the hunt for works that offer a good story and well-developed characters that will interest young readers while also challenging them to improve their reading skills.  Since they are reading these books on their own over the summer break, they require works that do not need a teacher’s guidance as the students read.  Good literature demands readers, and Esperanza Rising will certainly connect with intermediate grade level students.  Pam Munoz Ryan does an excellent job of pulling together an interesting and wise story.  It is perfect in scope and content for intermediate grades, and would offer many opportunities for cultural insight and exploration of folklore and traditions.  It is a part of “Hispanic literature,” but is readily accessible for a multicultural audience.  It would make a good addition to any summer reading list.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The American Scholar

A magazine I’ve fallen in love with recently is The American Scholar, currently edited by Robert Wilson.  The title comes from an essay/speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the magazine aspires to the Emersonian ideals of “independent thinking, self-knowledge, and a commitment to the affairs of the world as well as to books, history, and science.”  Published quarterly since 1932, (Summer, 2014 is on newsstands now), The American Scholar is the literary magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

What drew me in was the article in the Spring number written by James McWilliams entitled, “Loving Animals to Death.”  He takes us through the hypocrisies and hysterics in the Food Movement, “a loosely organized but powerful coalition of progressive interests” that aims “to localize, downsize, and decentralize the North American food system in order to usher consumers ‘beyond the barcode’ and into a world of wholesome whole food.”  Specifically, what does “free range,” “organic,” or “humanely killed” mean?  McWilliams writes, “It seems not only reasonable but essential to ask:  How can a movement claim to care so deeply about farm animals that it wants to restructure all of animal agriculture to ensure their happiness but, at the same time, turn those same animals into an $11 appetizer plate of fried pig head?  What moral principle could possible accommodate such a whiplash-inducing shift in practice?”  The bottom line:  is there any humane way to kill and eat animals?  McWilliams would say no, and those who argue otherwise are guilty of hypocrisy.  The entire issue is fraught with complications, and McWilliams argues that “what the Food Movement should envision—is a radical shift in agricultural practice initiated by a radical shift in what consumers agree not to eat.  This transition would primarily favor far more diversified systems of production focused on growing plants for people to consume (right now, 75 percent of the world’s calories in food production comes from corn, rice, wheat, and soy, and the bulk of all corn and soy goes to livestock).”

A second article in the same issue, “What Killed My Sister?” by Priscilla Long focuses on the disturbing questions about mental illness in our society, most specifically schizophrenia.  In her search for the reasons for her sister’s death, Long questions the causes of the disease, its treatments, and its growing impact on Americans who live with it, deal with family members who suffer from it, or who encounter people on the street who walk around each day without treatment to ameliorate their symptoms.  It is a fascinating article that explains the nuances of the illness and sheds light on some of the stories we have seen in the news in the last few years, many of them tragic, regarding those who are touched by the disease.  Long’s personal story and the case of her sister Susanne add a poignant and deeply-felt intensity to the need for better understanding and treatment of this horrific disease.  In the end, she offers a ray of hope:  “Recovery from schizophrenia is possible,” she writes.  “Living a meaningful life with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is possible.  This is the message I wish to leave.  I only wish Susanne could have heard it.”

An essay on loneliness by Edward Hoagland, a reflection on old age and dying by Doris Grumbach, and fiction by Jerome Charyn round out the issue.  There are book reviews, poetry, and an end feature called Back Talk which explores word meanings and origins in the form of a contest.  The Spring issue’s focus was on euphemisms.  Readers were asked to suggest some euphemisms for “eating heart-hostile food,” “living with one’s parents after college,” “putting on weight in middle age,” and “gossiping.”

An added bonus with subscription is full access to the magazine’s website.  This includes the archives plus The Daily Scholar and several blogs.  A beautiful piece by Simon Winchester entitled “Keep Wonder Alive” was the highlight of my Thursday morning reading.  In the essay, Winchester cites the best advice he was given about writing from James Morris, writer and adventurer.  Morris tells Winchester “If you ever do become a will visit many places, encounter many strangers, experience countless things.  Through it all, however, keep true to one single mantra:  never, ever lose your sense of wonder.”  The words came at a time when Winchester was working as a geologist in a “lonely corner of East Africa,” feeling “by no means a success at [his] work, performing tasks quite evidently not [his] calling.”

In the archive I found a series of essays posted by my favorite literary essayist, Michael Dirda, entitled The Complete Browsings.  Although Dirda no longer writes the column, his work here is timeless, fun and insightful.  Dirda, of course, wrote and edited The Washington Post book coverage for many years.

What I like about the magazine is that the writers and editors inspire thinking and conversation among readers.  Questions don’t necessarily have clear answers, but the act of asking on the part of the writer makes the reader rethink his or her beliefs, such as in the piece about food.  I will use the articles about the food issues and schizophrenia in my writing in the sciences course in a few weeks, mainly because readers are not only informed about an issue, but are left to apply what they have learned to their lives.  At the end of the day, I want my students to embrace those Emersonian ideals.  Emerson was a man who demanded much of his readers, a collaboration even between writer and reader that would lead to epiphanies and with greater thought, to resolutions of timeless conflicts, internal and external.  The American Scholar continues the tradition, and for that reason, I highly recommend subscribing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Summer Reading--Daily Rituals

While at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara recently, I picked up a delightful little book called Daily Rituals:  How Artists Work (Knopf, 2014) by Mason Currey.  I have to admit, I’m a sucker for anything about writers’ lives.  I’ve thrilled to the pictures of their libraries, the Jill Krementz photos of their desks, and here in Currey’s book, the details of their writing practices.  Although the author himself calls his work a “superficial book,” the creative process is so intriguing that one cannot separate the life from the creative act.  How we live is how we create, as we are creating our art and life each day when we get up out of bed.  It’s all art and it’s all good.  So Currey’s work is well worth the trip through the pages.

What comes through immediately is how thorough the book is researched.  Currey takes great pains to include voluminous notes and bibliography so the reader can delve more deeply if necessary, but what he has done so successfully here is pull together all the disparate fragments of writers and artists talking about how they work, the schedule they keep, the little games they play to create.  The easiest place to find such information is the Paris Review interviews, but Currey also draws from other sources, like autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, journals, newspaper and magazine interviews, and the writers’ and artists’ work.  That is the best part of the book:  Currey draws in such a wide variety of creative people.  He does not just examine the creative lives of writers, but includes painters, architects, musicians and philosophers.

The other startling thing about the creative types profiled in the book is the rampant drug use.  The writers and artists on these pages utilize drugs, both legal and otherwise, to stimulate creativity, maintain creative focus, or to come down after the creative act.  It’s all here:  valium, amphetamines, opiates, even a mixture of uppers and aspirin called Corydrane, “fashionable among Parisian students, intellectuals, and artists (and legal in France until 1971, when it was declared toxic and taken off the market).”  Who used this?  Jean-Paul Sartre, of course.  Alcohol was popular, including absinthe, that green-tinted, anise-flavored drink preferred by early twentieth century writers and artists.  Many of the people profiled here had tremendous trouble sleeping.  Almost every artist was an insomniac, and therefore, required medication to get a few hours’ sleep.  Many slept less than four hours a night, or in some cases, worked for 24 to 36 hours straight before sleeping for 15 or twenty.  For all the different rituals and procedures the artists went through to get to the creative state, it is also interesting how much in common they all shared in the search for the creative spark.

We also learn about the artists’ day jobs.  Commonly known occupations like T.S. Eliot’s bank gig are fleshed out here, but we also learn that George Orwell couldn’t get anything written until he started working at a book store.  Only then could he carve out time to write.  Anthony Trollope wrote 24 books during his 33 years at the Post Office, the very epitome of time management.  Edmund Wilson was obsessed with having sex and recorded his encounters down to the most minute detail in his journals.  Does that qualify as a day job?  It’s interesting, nonetheless.  Currey tells the story of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and how their relationship had a “creepy sexual component.”  They had agreed early on to have an open relationship, but they had to tell each other everything about their encounters with other lovers.

The book is not great literature; it is gossipy and filled with tabloid fodder.  But that also makes it a good read.  In criticism, there are those who believe the work should be examined on its own without consideration of the author’s life or milieu.  However, the atmosphere in which the work germinated, the place, time, date, and history of when pen struck paper, all give valuable clues to the author’s work.  What was he or she reacting to in life?  How did world events impinge on the creative process?  These are good questions to ask, and therefore, Mason Currey’s book adds juicy details to the writer or artist or intellectual’s creative life.  I also found comfort in my own rituals for creativity.  For those of us who procrastinate, who suffer depressions and discouragement, who need fourteen cups of black coffee to pick up the old fountain pen, validation can be found between these covers.  That reminds me:  time for another hit of CafĂ© Verona.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Summer Reading--Lightman Explains the Multiverse

One of my favorite writers is Alan Lightman, author of the novels, Einstein’s Dreams (Pantheon Books, 1993) and Good Benito (Pantheon Books, 1994), just two of the many books the MIT professor of physics and humanities has written.  His current book of essays, The Accidental Universe:  The World You Thought You Knew (Pantheon Books, 2013), is an absolutely splendid exploration of the multiverse of our existence.  I have taught Lightman’s work for many years now, and I plan to add his latest as suggested reading for my upcoming class on science writing.

Lightman divides his book up into seven sections, each devoted to a version of the universe.  He incorporates physics and quantum mechanics, and offers the best explanation of these difficult subjects that I’ve read.  His writing is insightful and stunning here, and I found myself many times putting the book down after a particularly beautiful paragraph and contemplating the ideas he presents.  It is that kind of book.

In the first section, “The Accidental Universe,” Lightman portrays theoretical physics as “the deepest and purest branch of science.  It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy and religion.”  This is the blending of humanities and science that Lightman lives every day at MIT, and he deftly links the two and explores the ideas of God and Man without denigrating either.  He tells us that he is an atheist, yet he leaves room for the possibility of a larger power in the universe.  This is not a polemic text promoting science exclusively; Lightman objectively presents what science can prove and what also might exist beyond the simple laws of nature.  He explains that most now believe we exist in a multitude of universes, and they are hard at work to find what they have called “the Theory of Everything,” the grand interlinking of all the laws of nature and this multiverse.

As for the religious component, Lightman writes that “Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis.”  He quotes the Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley who “argued that the entire cosmos is a construct of our minds, that there is no material reality outside our thoughts.”  In short, we are, as Poe wrote, just a dream within a dream.  There is room in the multiverse for such theories, according to Lightman.  He leaves room for the wonders of the visible and invisible world, explaining that the “full electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye is miniscule.  All of the other wavelengths of light are constantly careening through space, flying past our bodies, and presenting strange pictures of the objects that made them—the glow of a warm desert at night, the radio emission of electrons spiraling in the Earth’s magnetic field, the X-rays from magnetic storms on the sun.”

The real strength of Lightman’s writing is his poetry.  The man can write, and he is an academic scientist as well, a powerful combination for which the reader is the beneficiary.  As I read, I marveled at the science, the clear and concise explanations, and his wonderfully poetic prose.  That is what first drew me to his work, and why I continue to buy his books when they are published.  I can think of no better science writer currently at work in the world.  His words have power and nuance, and he never loses the reader in jargon nor does he condescend to non-scientists like me.

I am always a little nervous when I hear President Obama or Education Secretary Arne Duncan talk about how American schools should be focused on science and math.  They fail to mention the importance of the humanities, and often, reading and writing seem almost an afterthought in current trends in education.  Alan Lightman’s work would be the perfect bridge between the sciences and the humanities.  His essays, collected together in several volumes, should be required reading for high school and college students in both disciplines.  As Lightman makes clear in his work, everything is connected, and therefore, we cannot afford to simply focus on a single area.  We must see, like the quantum strings that theoretically run through the multiverse, those intricate connections in our  own existence.