Friday, October 21, 2011

baking and poetry

Thanks to Katie for passing along this article about Emily Dickinson's great love of baking. Roughly 10% of her poems mentioned food--the famed reclusive poet is a little closer to my heart knowing that we share a common subject (and love). Her original recipe for cocoanut cake is included here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

book review: Forest of Hands and Teeth

Last spring, or perhaps it was the year before that, I attended the Loft Literary Center's wonderful weekend convention for writers of children's and young adult novels. The editor from Delacourte Press spoke lovingly about this book. Fast forward to the most recent issue of the Williams alumni review, which featured an interview with Carrie Ryan. Okay, I get it: the book was tracking me! And I'm so glad it did.

This book is hard to put down. It takes place several generations after the zombie apocalypse, though Ryan wisely avoids either of those words. 16 year-old Mary is growing up in a small, traditional village tightly run by the Sisterhood. Their world is surrounded by a fence, and beyond that, the Forest of Hands and Teeth, filled with the Unconsecrated who never sleep and wish only to infect. Mary dreams of seeing the ocean, though everyone else thinks it's a fairy tale. They believe they are the only survivors on earth, and that beyond the fence only death can await them.

I don't know if I would necessarily have picked up this book based on the above plot synopsis, certainly not based on the word "zombie." But, this book is so well written. There's something about the language that is just richer than many of the YAs I've been reading lately, and the action and suspense kept me turning the pages. Ryan's world-building abilities are fantastic. I feel that I'm in the hands of someone very capable, who has imagined every aspect of this world dating back for the last 100 years. This and her sequel The Dead-Tossed Waves are rare YAs that I did not read in a day, partly because they are a bit longer, and partly because I was savoring this world. While I prefer the main character in this book to the sequel, both are very good, and the sequel has so many more surprises that just keep making this world more wonderfully complex. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Point of View Challenge

One of my mentors from the Loft Literary Center teaches an entire graduate course on point of view, and I can see why. It’s one of the big challenges my students in fiction deal with. If we are reading a story through Anna’s point of view—say it’s first person, meaning we’re reading a lot of “I”—we would expect to hear her thoughts, her physical and emotional reactions. If we suddenly get a paragraph of Johnny’s thoughts, and there aren’t two narrators in the story, then that’s a slip in point of view.

Philippa Gregory does this in all three of the novels I’ve read. I know, I bashed The White Queen pretty thoroughly, but I was waiting for other books to come in at the library, and the historical period was so interesting, that I picked up The Red Queen. I liked it better. The narrator is a childish, devout woman who spends much of her life separated from court and lives with the singular conviction that she is right: God is on her side: and that means the House of Lancaster, for which her only son is heir, must be king. There are fewer characters to keep track of, and those characters have more space to be developed. Dialogue is more natural, and the huge span of years that weighed down the White Queen for me, works here, because we are forever waiting for the great crowning of her son.

But, Ms. Gregory has a fascinating point of view challenge. She is writing history through the point of view of the famous women who lived it, whose voices we so rarely hear. Through their eyes, we are perfectly placed for court intrigue, scheming, secret messages, and all that great behind-the-scenes stuff. But, the ultimate test of who would be king is determined on the battle field, where the women could not go. This is why we hear so little of their voices in general. They did not fight. They did not publicly advise the king, if they did at all. They were not allowed to be involved in any of the important processes we focus on in history, other than producing sons. Both of the female narrators spend large portions of their stories in hiding; one has sought sanctuary in the church, and the other is under house arrest. We have messengers, yes, but how on earth does one write the battle scenes from their point of view?

If they can’t witness the battle, then in order to stay within first person point of view, the women have to either imagine the battle, which takes away the historical accuracy, or be told about it. But who would tell a woman an account of the battle, in the kind of detail we want to hear? And even if someone did, he could only tell what he saw. We would not get the strategy of troop movement that is so fascinating. Other than breaking the laws of history and placing them on the battlefield, there is no way to keep the women’s point of view and describe the battle scenes, which are my favorite parts. Her solution? Switch point of view to omnipotent for those chapters only. Structurally, it seems kind of an unfortunate decision, but how can we blame the author when what binds her are the unfair rules that bound women throughout history?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Emily recommends

I have a new book on my must-read list. Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I read it in three delicious gulps, then wandered around for two days complaining of being bookless and wishing for more. It’s an epistolary novel, not a form you see often now, and the author pulls it off beautifully. The story begins in 1945 in a bombed-out London, recovering from the Great War. Juliet, who has written a lively, morale-building column all through the war, is looking for a new topic. She receives a letter from a man named Dawsey on the island of Guernsey, who obtained one of her old books from a used book store and is writing to say how much it cheered his heart during the occupation. I did not know that England owned a series of islands in the English channel, close enough to see northern France on a clear day. Said islands were occupied for five years by the Germans. Dawsey mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which a group of islanders founded to keep themselves sane during the occupation. Intrigued, Juliet asks to learn more, and she soon begins a correspondence with a number of the members. This is a delightful, heart-warming book about the joys of reading, and each of the characters is unique and wonderful and fully real. Part of what kept me reading is that, as the letters continue, you learn more and more about the occupation: the lack of food, the small defiances, the forced laborers brought from Poland, the intricacies of life on a small island where one sees the occupiers daily and not all of them are bad. Those who love history and literature will love this book, and as the story continues I spy I hint of Pride and Prejudice in there. But what keeps me thinking about this one, a week and a full book later, is the sense that I have seen full, real lives lived out in this book, and I miss hearing their voices now.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

book review

I picked up Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl for some light summer reading. I’m quite drawn to the current trend of retelling history from the perspectives of women who lived them, though I wasn’t sure how historical this would be, and how much it might be, well, a bodice-ripper, as they say. I was very pleasantly surprised. Ms. Gregory is known for her historical research—she has a PhD—and it was clear that great study had gone into realizing the food, dress, and landscape of England. The story was hard to put down. We know of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, mother of Queen Elizabeth, beheaded to make way for wife #3 (of 6). Less known is that Anne’s sister Mary was the king’s lover first. Mary had two children by the king, one of them a boy. Ms. Gregory delves into this story of intrigue as the family schemes to capture and keep the heart (and power) of the king. The sisters are a tenuous alliance, often pitted against each other but tied by the bond of blood. At any given moment in time, either of them might be reduced to being the Other Boleyn girl, as the title so aptly names them. The political backdrop is fascinating, as is the decadent life of court. I found myself, out for Korean food with my husband, expounding on the fascinating details of the Tudor court. An example: Anne Boleyn began to fall out of favor with her husband the king when they had been married for a few years sans son. Anne always dressed in the French style, having grown up at French court, with a particular headpiece to match. The king’s new favorite was Jane Seymour (daughter of another powerful scheming household, who would eventually be queen and die in childbirth giving him a sickly son.) Jane adopted the religious house-shaped hat that the former Spanish Queen Katharine had worn. And so now the ladies in waiting were torn: which style to choose? The style of hat indicated loyalty, and loyalty would be rewarded or punished based on which woman won out. Fascinating.

I have to say, her first book of the next series on the Plantagenets, The White Queen, is nowhere near as good. The political backdrop remains fascinating: the book is set during the war of the Roses, when cousins battled for kingship while England suffered. Beginning in 1464, the novel is written in the voice of Elizabeth Woodward, who married secretly across battle lines and wound up queen of England when her husband won. She is best known—and this is the most interesting part of the book—as the mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London—a mystery that has never been solved. But, 20-year time period that the book spans results in a slow middle, and this book lacks that emotional center and tension of The Other Boleyn Girl’s battling sisters. The writing itself is not very strong. It’s rather repetitive, as though Ms. Gregory is afraid the reader has forgotten what happened two chapters ago. Some of the repetitiveness is necessary: there seems to have been about 5 male names spread among all the characters. Elizabeth had TWO sons, a brother, and a brother-in-law all named Richard. (Yikes!) To keep us on track, Ms. Gregory wisely always refers to characters by their relationship and title, but given that no one would ever say to her mother “my brother-in-law George of Clarence,” the dialogue is (for this and other reasons) stilted, even fake. I do have to say that I still read the whole book, and after doing so I certainly want to look up this fascinating historical period that the author has imagined so well.

Ah, the joy of books.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Thanks to Brent and Joyia for recommending this fabulous video, "Validation." Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

book review

This is the book that got me interested in comic books and superheroes. Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay follows two Jewish cousins in the comic book industry, beginning in the late 1930s. Joe Kavalier, a talented artist who trained as an escape artist as well, has just escaped Prague with his life and is desperate to earn enough money to get his family to the safety of America. He comes to stay with his American-born cousin, Sammy Clayman, shortened American-style to Sam Clay, who has grown up feasting on comic books. The story follows their creation of the character The Escapist and several others along a deeply researched, vividly written tour that brings them through a war and into the 1950s. The popular and national history of America shifts into context as the cousins struggle through pre-war Brooklyn, a cut-throat industry, war-time Antartica, and the stasis of 1950s suburbia. It's a series of escapes, of flights of Sam's imagination.

I first heard this book on audio book 4-5 years ago. I don't recommend that approach. The tendency of each chapter to start off as though presenting a whole new world, combined with the fact that it was unfortunately abridged, left me feeling pretty confused. Still, I kept thinking about the book and its comic book background--enough to make me buy the book this summer. I remembered so many scenes as I read them--vivid imagination and writing style at work. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Okay, I'm back to book reviews!

Nothing says "Day Off" better for me than to be able to read a whole book from start to finish in a day. Sunday's choice was the powerful debut novel of my friend Swati Avasthi: Split. The writing is edgy and vivid, perfectly in the voice of 16 year-old Jace. I was immediatley caught up in Jace's story beginning the night he shows up at his brother's door, having driven halfway across the country, not having seen his brother in five years--with nowhere else to go and a "re-landscaped face, courtesy of his father's fist." The book articulately realistically explores the issue of domestic abuse, both abusers and vicitms: how (and whether) they moe on. I admire her writing, the way each page moves the story forward with perfect speed, keeps rising to its climax, and then sets us on the road to healing. I did not want to put the book down, and so, with the immense pleasure of a day off, I did not. The book is winning scads of awards. Highly recommended. Her second book is due out soon!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Kafka's Metamorphosis

I wonder what Kafka would think of this version of the Metamorphosis, where Gregor turns into something much cuter than a bug?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


A poem in honor of National Poetry Month: "The Creative Writing Professor Sits Down to Write a Sonnet." Picture a professor trying to write, getting distracted by 4 other things at once...


I've been thinking a lot about the bus lately, now that I'm car-less: thinking about what makes a good bus route, how many people take it, etc.

I'm thinking about route: why the bus goes into the parking lot of one grocery store while zooming right past the other, why it stops in the Walmart parking lot and not Target's. (Though perhaps Target intersects with a different route.) Who planned this circuitous route? With what motivations?

In Minneapolis, you had to pay attention to which direction the bus was going. Here, the buses run their loops and meet up at a central transfer station. Which means that it takes me 35 minutes to get to work and only 15 to get home, based on where I am in the loop. I live 4.3 miles from campus, as measured on my bike. (which I do take when the weather agrees. Today, April 20th, it's snowing.)

I'm thinking about how many people take the bus. I like to count how many people there are, rooting for filled seats. Often the bus if half-full at best, although the morning bus driver, whom I've gotten to know a bit, says that in the 22 years he's been driving, Eau Claire (city of 60,000) has gone from carrying 300,000 people annually to over a million.

At the same time I'm rooting for more people to ride the bus, I'm also longing for a car. Because the truth is that, if I had one right now, I'd drive every day that I didn't bike and be happy about it. I'm grateful for the chance to think these thoughts and occasionally meet new people on the bus, but I'm also eyeing every Prius that passes by...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

no more collective bargaining?

I promise I'll get off Wisconsin politics soon and return to books and teaching. Two weeks-ish ago, the Democratic state senators left the state so that the budget repair bill could not be voted on, as the senate would not have quarum. It was the only way to avoid the vote going through, and it gave time for hundreds of thousands of people to rally in Madison. Rather than come to a compromise, the remaining 19 senators have sidestepped the need for quarum by creating a new bill; they voted to end collective bargaining rights this morning without the presence of 14 elected officials, as explained by this New York Times article. As a teacher of English, I'm horrified by the lack of communication (not to mention fair play) that's gone on in our state senate.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

roadblocked wisconsin

For an excellent article from WI-Sen. Jauch, click here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


There were student rallies at the U-W Eau Claire campus yesterday and today. (Today's followed a walk-out). Many schools are closed for today as public employees have called in sick. 10-12,000 people came to protest Walker's "budget repair" bill, that includes taking away collective bargaining rights of public employees in the state where unions were formed. I'm hearing reports that yesterday there were 30,000. The last time so many people descended on Madison to protest, it was the Vietnam War.

I am so proud of our students who are speaking up in front of crowds, celebrating their wonderful education at the K-12 and university levels. My whole building is abuzz with collective, angry energy. There is a feeling that we're all in this together.

See the article below, pointing out that the State had a surplus when Gov. Walker arrived a month ago. Now we have a deficit:

“Wisconsin is managing better -- or at least it had been managing better until Walker took over. Despite shortfalls in revenue following the economic downturn that hit its peak with the Bush-era stock market collapse, the state has balanced budgets, maintained basic services and high-quality schools, and kept employment and business development steadier than the rest of the country. It has managed so well, in fact, that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau recently released a memo detailing how the state will end the 2009-2011 budget biennium with a budget surplus.” In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state’s budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million. [evidence is provided in document] ... To the extent that there is an imbalance -- Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit -- it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January. If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker’s new spending schemes -- or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues -- the “crisis” would not exist.”

Monday, February 14, 2011

public employees

Dear Governor Walker,

As you work hard to balance the state budget, please consider this:

In 2010 alone, I taught 216 University of Wisconsin students to read, write, and think critically and creatively. These were face-to-face, writing intensive courses. I knew every student's name and gave individual feedback throughout the semester. These students will soon be the new work force in the state, the next teachers and engineers and entrepreneurs.

How much is that worth to you?

speaking up

I teach a course on human rights and another on women's literature that is themed "finding your voice." We look at writers who find their voices as they speak up about issues of importance to us all. We consider who does so more effectively and why. I love seeing my students engaged with issues of human rights. I love hearing how they've shared what they are learning with their peers.

I do not wish to be an armchair humanitarian. In graduate school I managed to keep a foot in both the academic and social justice (specifically, refugee resettlement) worlds. And while my current position has allowed me to speak about human rights to a wide audience of learners, I miss having that on-the-ground experience. I do not wish to talk about speaking out without speaking out myself. As a first step, in the last two weeks I've emailed or called 6 government officials on various issues. (As a side note, I had a lovely conversation with Sen. Kathleen Vinhout about the value of education in the state of Wisconsin--preaching to the choir, given her support, but important and pleasant nonetheless.)

In grad school, my refugee resettlement colleagues wondered why on earth I was getting a degree in poetry. My MFA classmates considered my work to be a more interesting side job than waitressing. Now I look back on these interests coming together and I keep recalling that wonderful quote in the biblical book of Esther: it may be for such a time as this that you are here. I have the tremendous feeling that I am preparing for something.

Friday, February 4, 2011


More hope: a picture of Egyptian Christians forming a human shield around praying Muslims during the protests yesterday.


At the start of this week I had the pleasure of visiting Georgtown, Kentucky, which boasted friendly people, a lovely campus, and 45 degree weather. Even though my trip was work-related and I had to be mentally on-the-ball, I returned to Wisconsin feeling refreshed from having gotten away. My parents in Connecticut are getting blasted with snow; my in-laws in Chicago are getting blasted with snow; it was zero degrees here yesterday--and yet, despite all of that, I had my first glimpse of spring--

I heard a bird singing.

The first bird of the year! I have a witness, too: a colleague crunching with me across the sunlit parking lot, getting ready for another day of classes. We both stopped in our tracks and just listened. Joy.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


I'm excited about the new biography Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. I bought it for my dad for his birthday, though after reading the first chapter I was tempted to keep it for myself. And my mom might take it and read it before he even gets to touch it. The prose is beautiful, and the fascinating subject is treated in a way that makes this hotly contested, much defamed more interesting rather than less. Schiff does an excellent job of putting the story into context (ie by her time the Sphinx had had to be renovated 1000 years ago...As a Ptolemaic pharaoh, Cleopatra was about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor) while making her life feel relevant and immediate.

Looking forward to reading this one!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

masterpiece classic

One of the pleasures of January is that PBS's Masterpiece Classic returns, and their current new series is Downton Abbey. It promises the grand English manors, concerns about proper suitors for headstrong young women, and worries about inheritance of the beloved Austen novels (it's hard to match Austen's wit, but as far as themes and epic sensibility, we're in at least in the same ballpark), but what fascinates me about this one is when it is set: 1912. It opens with news that the Titanic has sunk and, with it, the heir to the grand estate of Downton Abbey. It can only be passed on to a male heir, of course, and the current heir, who only managed to save his estate back in the 1880s by marrying an American heiress, has only managed to produce three daughters. The choice falls to challenging the entail that guards the estate intact from male-to-male and passing the home and the whole of their fortune on to a third cousin whom he has never met and who, they learn to their horror, is common enough to actually work for a living. Horror! Brewing beneath the drama of this grand estate are burgeoning new possibilities: electricity, cars, women's rights, modern medicine, maids taking correspondence courses to become secretaries...the large serving staff that runs the home are as important to the story as the wealthy owners, all of which makes for fascinating storytelling. And of course, we "readers" know that we are only a few years away from WWI, which will change everything....

Watch the first two (of four) episodes on PBS here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


If January were an animal, it would be a thick-furred mammal, oh-so-slow to get on its feet but long on endurance once it's up. In the middle of the semester, January is a promise: whole weeks free? What hope! What opportunities to complete myriad projects! I keep this expectation through the month, but in reality, January is a time of burrowing in, waking late despite efforts to the contrary to discover that there are only 4 hours of daylight left.

I heard that somewhere in central Minnesota a McDonald's was offering a great deal, buy one (whatever), get one at yesterday's noon high temperature. And no, they would not give you money back for negatives. Yesterday, I could have brought a second (whatever) for 7 cents. So I guess it's still somewhat warm out.

I keep trying to write poetry about January but stop because it makes me cold.

That said, the sun today was heavily, and I finally figured out where the county park is. I saw more people on the cross country ski trails this afternoon than I saw all week. And you simply can't beat the peace of it, the snow covered views.

Wishing you a cozy January.