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Posts Tagged ‘AIDS’

I’m over halfway through my 7 week class. It’s been hard to read much. In fact, the only things I’ve read are my textbook (which I don’t care for) and some things for work. One of which is Callings, a StoryCorps collection about work. We’re considering it at my university as a common read for the freshmen. Other than the subtitle, which includes the word “passion” (I told my freshman student success class that I think “follow your passion” is crummy advice), I enjoyed it. Like other StoryCorps books, it’s a collection culled from the interviews people submit.

There are actually several examples in the book that fit the advice I prefer over “follow your passion” — follow opportunity and try to be happy where you are. A number of people interviewed discovered things about themselves by taking jobs they needed but didn’t necessarily want. Or their career took a turn in a direction they never expected and that became their life’s work.

An example I really loved was Rev. Eric D. Williams of Kansas City, Missouri. He talks about being asked to hold a funeral for young man who died of AIDS, because his own church wouldn’t have it. Rev. Williams didn’t want to either but he listened to his heart, which was telling him that being rejected by your church when your kid has died is wrong, and he needed to help. After that he realized his community wasn’t talking about AIDS, and that he could educate people about it, to help end the fear and prejudice.

What he said that really got me was this: “I came into this work kicking and screaming. I just didn’t want to do it. But my heart was pulled. Everything good that I’ve been able to accomplish in ministry, has started with some kind of burden, and AIDS burdened me.” I find that really interesting. I’m not even sure what to make of it. Burden as a breakthrough . . .  I really want to ponder that.

What Rev. Williams, and many other people featured in Callings, did was ask themselves questions about their life and the world and the work at hand, and take action for themselves as they answered those questions. The other book I recently read (albeit very quickly; I hope to go back and spend more time with it when I can), was Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions  by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. Over on Nocturnal Librarian I blogged about coming across the work of the Right Question Institute in an interview about the Question Formulation Technique and librarianship. I decided to read Make Just One Change so I could try QFT. It’s a good guide to the technique and has helpful examples of real life applications. But I wasn’t sure when I’d try it.

Well this week, I used QFT with my Student Success class. This is a one credit year-long course all freshmen at my university take, and I’m teaching a section of it this semester. We’ve had a few weeks to explore the idea of vocation — not an easy concept for anyone, let alone 18 year olds, to wrap their heads around. After a week where there wasn’t much discussion and a fair number of bored looks, I decided to shake things up a bit. I asked them to read the rules of the QFT (Ask as many questions as you can; Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions; Write down every question exactly as it is stated; Change any statement into a question) and then come up with questions using this question focus: 

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

(No, I haven’t yet read Let Your Life Speak but I’ve read excerpts)

Once they had questions, they looked at which were open and which were closed (could be answered with yes, no, or another one word reply). They practiced changing questions from one kind to the other, and thought about what the pros and cons of each kind of question are. Then they prioritized three of the questions they chose and wrote down why those were their priority, and thought about how they might use those questions. Finally, they reflected on what they had learned about asking questions, what they had learned about the question focus, and what they would do with what they learned.

It was fabulous. I had split them into groups of three, and each group came up and talked about their question creation and analysis, and I could not have been happier. When I handed out the papers, one of my peer mentors had already said she didn’t get it and didn’t think they would, and I had enjoyed (not really) a moment of panic that the whole plan was going to flop miserably. But they got into it — conversation was livelier than it had been in weeks. And, they came up with some really good questions, like “How will I know if my life is speaking?” and even “What is life?” and they had amazing ideas about how to use what they learned, from asking questions in order to study for hard exams (many in my class are nursing students) or using the questioning method we had explored to look hard at issues in the world around them.

If you’re an educator or leader of any small group, I highly recommend you give it a try.

Of course this means I need to come up with something really good for our next class, which is also our last. We’re talking about service, and I have a surprise field trip planned, so there isn’t going to be time for a full QFT, but I will remind them to use what they learned as they write a reflection.

This weekend I have to read a pre-pub novel for Kirkus, but I hope to be back to pleasure reading very soon. Only three more weeks of adolescent development class!

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Sometimes we read to enter into another life, an experience utterly unlike our own. I enjoyed Nick Hornby’s novels About a Boy and How to Be Good, so I decided to give High Fidelity a try, and it was just that sort of psychic field trip. Clearly, I will never know what it is like to be a thirty-something man who owns a record shop in London like Rob, the protagonist of High Fidelity. Yet Hornby’s gift is that for a few evenings while I read his book, I knew.

Rob’s recently split with his girlfriend Laura and he’s beginning to wonder if he’ll ever get over his earlier relationships and really be happy. His shop is struggling. His parents don’t seem to realize he’s grown up. He’s drifted away from many of his friends.

Rob narrates the book and we learn his thoughts on mix tapes, top five lists (episodes of TV shows, movies, songs, etc.), and all kinds of relationship theories and worries. If you’ve ever thought men aren’t as insecure about relationships or as worried about how they appear to others as women, this book should be illuminating. Rob is quirky but kind, and you can’t help rooting for him.

And Hornby has a real knack for packing emotional punch in Rob’s reflections. In a scene where Laura wants to be with Rob again after a brief stint with another man, Rob asks her about whether they had safe sex, and she cries, because “You were my partner just a few weeks ago. And now you’re worried I might kill you, and you’re entitled to worry.” In the next paragraph Rob speculates that it is unlikely Laura’s interim-lover put Laura or him at risk for AIDS, but notices, “. . . in truth it was the symbolism that interested me more than the fear. I wanted to hurt her, on this day of all days, just because it’s the first time since she left that I’ve been able to.” Just a few sentences, but they sum up all the tumult Rob and Laura are experiencing.

Still, I’ve enjoyed Hornby’s other books more. I especially recall loving How to Be Good. High Fidelity was enjoyable but not overly so. I’m curious about the movie now that I’ve read it though.

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The 1980’s references in Carol Rifka Brunt‘s debut novel, Tell The Wolves I’m Home, are thick and resonant. A Holly Hobby wallpaper border. Gunne Sax dresses. “99 Luftballoons,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” on the diner jukebox. Suzanne Vega on Saturday Night Live.Those skinny black rubber bracelets we wore by the dozens. Ryan White. Reagan’s speech on AIDS. Kids playing D&D after school.

I was nineteen in late 1986 when this book opens. The teenaged sisters at the center of the story, June and Greta, are a little younger, but their world felt oh-so-familiar to me. Even the woods June hangs out in behind her school were similar to woods I went to behind my own neighborhood school.

But if this setting isn’t familiar to you, don’t worry. Rifka Brunt gives readers meaty details on every page. The smell of the stew in the crock pot, the scent of June’s uncle on his wool coat and of Greta’s Jean Nate, the howling June hears in the woods, a jar of guitar picks, a neon orange lighter, Greta singing, Toby’s hacking cough and his “thick and gurgly” breathing.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home evokes these specific kids of sights and smells and sounds, making it possible to enter the story sensually. But it also evokes such primal and universal feelings and experiences that I couldn’t help also being very emotionally drawn in. Siblings changing as teens and and not really understanding what’s happening. Trying to figure out one’s place in both the miniature world of one’s family and the larger world. Experiencing a death in the family for the first time. Learning about your parents as people, and as younger versions of themselves.

Without giving too much away, here’s the gist of the story. June is a quirky kid, into medieval history, mad about Mozart’s Requiem, feeling like a misfit as her childhood world gives way and her old friends, including Greta, seem to grow up and away from her. She has a rich inner life, imagining herself in other times and places. Her Uncle Finn is the only person she feels really understands her.

When the novel opens Finn is dying of AIDS. He’s also painting a portrait of June and Greta. Not long after he dies June finds out Finn has had a partner, living in the apartment she visited every week, for nine years and she never knew anything about him. This man, Toby, contacts her and begins to share things he says Finn wanted her to have. Among them, a note asking her to look after Toby.

As June starts to unravel the things her family has hidden from her, she’s also negotiating her tricky relationship with her sister, who is at turns cruel and tender. Rifka Brunt really nails that adolescent weirdness of sometimes forgetting yourself with your siblings and parents, allowing yourself to be the kid you often still feel like, and then catching that happening and trying to be the separate young adult you also often feel like.

June is a fantastic character who manages to be a unique and fully drawn person and also a symbol of adolescence in all its glorious mess. Greta, Finn, and Toby are fully themselves even though they are the satellites to June’s star, and even Ben, a minor but occasionally important character, makes an impression as a full person. I thought June and Greta’s parents — especially their mother, whose role in June’s new understanding of family dynamics is key — were somewhat less fully formed.

But overall I found Tell the Wolves I’m Home to be a very satisfying and enjoyable read. If you like your novels character-driven and full of redemption and growth, this is for you. It’s beautifully evocative, the dialogue felt true, and the writing is real, for lack of a better word. This is the second book I’ve read lately with a very interesting, strong teen girl setting the quarrelsome or misguided adults straight —Where’d You Go, Bernadette being the other. If this is a trend, I like it.

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In between following campaign hooey, congressional shenanigans, stock market dives, and the intricate schedules of the four members of the bookconscious household, I took comfort in fiction and poetry this month. I suppose much of what passes for news is at least semi-fictional these days as well, although pundits refer to that kind of fiction as “spin,” but when the current events fiction gets to be too much, there’s nothing like losing yourself in a good book for a little while.

I also find that lengthy nonfiction doesn’t lend itself to reading in brief snatches of time — when I’m waiting for my daughter to get out of art class, for example, or I’ve arrived at my son’s soccer game a little early. A chapter of a novel or a poem is a pleasant diversion when I find myself waiting. I admit I am the kind of person who finds it hard to sit and do nothing if I have a spare ten or fifteen minutes, and I almost always leave the house with a book, a poetry journal, and an issue of one of the magazines I read regularly (The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, Science News, or Cooking Light).

In a summer post I mentioned taking Jon Kabat Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are with me on vacation. I’m still reading it, bit by bit, and I sometime actually just sit and try to be mindful when I am waiting. But I admit, I still bring reading wherever I go — wherever I am, there I read.

Last spring, I attended the NH Writers’ Project Writers’ Day, and one of the sessions I took was called “Zen and the Writing Marathon,” given by Katherine Towler. I enjoyed her practical, mindful advice, and made a note to read her novels. This month I read the first two in her trilogy (the third won’t be out until 2009), Snow Island and Evening Ferry. It was interesting to read these books after hearing the author talk about writing them.

Snow Island is set in the 1940’s, and the events of the book lead up to America’s entry into the war. At the end of the novel, we know the post-war fate of a couple of characters. The book centers around a young woman, one of three kids about to graduate from her tiny island school, Alice. Besides trying to find her way as she reaches adulthood, Alice is running the store her widowed mother can’t handle alone, offering new ideas like delivery and fresh produce to her customers.

While Alice is the central character, we get to know the other year round island families and my favorite thing about Towler’s writing is that every character, no matter how minor, is visible to me as I read. Same goes for the settings — both the island and the mainland town that is so nearby but in many ways almost foreign to the islanders are easy for me to see. I don’t want to give away the plot of the book, so I won’t go into much detail, but if you like historical fiction or coming of age stories, Snow Island is simple but beautiful, true without being overbearing in its “truthiness,” and satisfying but not in any way sappy.

I went back to the library for Evening Ferry even before I finished Snow Island. I remember as a child checking out a stack of books by the same author, like the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories, or a series like Madeleine L’Engle‘s Time Quartet, and enjoying the feeling that even as I savored one book, the other was right there waiting for me. When my own kids were little, I remember finishing one Narnia book and hurrying to the library for the next, checking out two at a time so we would be able to keep reading.

As a grown up, I went through a long dry spell of not reading much (believe it or not!) and when I returned to books, I read the John LeCarre Smiley novels all in a row, complements of my Grandmother. Not too long after, I decided to read the entire A Dance to the Music of Time series by Anthony Powell — twelve novels — checking out 2-4 volumes at a time so I wouldn’t ever find myself at the end of one without the next one on my nightstand. Somehow knowing the story won’t end without my being able to pick up the next thread is very satisfying, and was one of the worst things about falling in love with the Harry Potter books as J.K. Rowling was still writing them; the kids and I would feel mournful knowing we had a couple of years to wait and see how the problem at the end of each volume would resolve itself in the next!

Thankfully, Snow Island and Evening Ferry don’t end in cliffhangers, and the emotional resolution of each novel is tidy enough to allow the reader some closure without being pat or forced. So I can wait patiently until the third book is published. One reason I enjoyed Evening Ferry so much was that is didn’t follow a neat “sequel” pattern. Towler revisits Snow Island and brings back some of the characters from the first novel, but Alice is a minor character this time, and the main character is of another generation.

Evening Ferry is also set against the backdrop of war, this time Vietnam. Towler’s focus, however, is Rachel’s struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with the turmoil of her own life, as a divorced woman returning to the island to care for her injured father. It’s a book about relationships, religion, and growing up, as well as a historical novel, but while Snow Island dealt with the transition from youth to adulthood, Evening Ferry describes the awkward growing up adults do when they reverse caregiving roles with their parents.

Towler also nails the uncomfortable process of looking back at childhood through adult eyes. As a novelist looks through her character’s eyes, so Rachel looks through her mother’s eyes as she reads her journals, and later looks through her father’s eyes as she begins to order her own memories and her mother’s. Towler doesn’t let any of the characters off the hook — she bares all of their flaws. But they are characters easy to like and empathize with, and I look forward to finding out about another generation of Snow islanders in her next book.

For my birthday in late September, Steve and the kids gave me a new book I was looking forward to: the latest collection by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, called Ballistics. I enjoyed it very much and shared one of my favorites, called “Hippos on Holiday,” with my brother and sister-in-law, whose online home is dozinghippo. “Ornithography,” which speculates on the messages in birds’ prints on the snow, is another I really liked. Several poems in this collection are about writing and language, and no one makes a wry observation as poetically as Collins does. In my poembound blog, I wrote about workshops with teenagers, and found that Collins is one poet every kid responds to — he just gets life so perfectly, and tells it truthfully in a way that hits you as both timelessly wise and entirely new.

Collins and Donald Hall, who has a new memoir out, were on the Diane Rehm show recently. I heard Hall read from his new book at Gibson’s in Concord a couple of weeks ago. I last saw Hall at the Poets Three reading last fall, and he told the audience about a difficult period he’d only recently emerged from, during which he could not write poems. He seemed tired then, and to hear him read this time, in fine spirits and as eloquent as I remembered from earlier readings, was a delight.

Isn’t that one of the reasons we read: to be delighted? Chaim Potok is a writer whose work rings with delight — no matter the struggle of his characters, they are vividly alive, and you know that the author who brought them to life took pleasure in knowing them. I read The Chosen last year, and recently read Old Men at Midnight, a book of three novellas, linked by a common character. Each of the three stories could stand alone, but together they build powerfully, each piece adding another layer of observation, until the reader sees that Potok’s book is as much about story as a primal human experience as it is about particular human characters in places and historical moments.

A book that is centered on people living with the challenges of our time, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, caught my eye at my public library a few weeks ago. Father Michael’s Lottery wasn’t a great novel; the midsection dragged along enough that I actually skipped a few chapters. But I didn’t put it aside, because I was fascinated by the main character, a doctor named Morgan who is a Hawkeye type renegade, putting patients before administrative rules or cost benefit analysis. You wouldn’t think a novel about such a depressing real life topic could be funny, but this one is, which added to its charm.

Author Johan Steyn is a doctor in Botswana, and his descriptions put me there in the hallways with his doctors, or in the bush with Morgan as he tries to let his anger at what his patients are suffering go. This vivid detail is one of the book’s best assets, as well as the humanity and warmth of the characters. The reader has a sense of where the story is headed, but I was surprised nonetheless by some of the details and without giving much away, I hope that since Steyn wrote the book some of the figures he had in mind have changed, especially the cost of anti-retroviral treatment. Steyn could have headed for a clear cut happy ending, but instead lets the book close on a hopeful but not overly tidy note, which seemed far more effective than if he’d wrapped up such a serious topic with complete closure.

Speaking of closure, I am slogging my way through American Bloomsbury. I would have put it down by now, except I really like Gibson’s book club and it’s the next selection we’re discussing. I enjoy the subject matter — the community of writers and thinkers living in Concord, MA in the mid 1800’s. In fact, the kids and I learned about Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott last spring and still intend to visit Concord to see where these amazing Americans lived and worked. So, why am I finding it hard to finish this book?

It dawned on me last night, as I forced my way through another of the short chapters between the end of the final presidential debate and the beginning of The Daily Show. American Bloomsbury is just like the infuriating campaign news coverage. Plenty of sound bites, plenty of speculative punditry, little bits of facts spun into a picture that looks complete if you don’t look too closely and see where it’s unraveling.

Author Susan Cheever tells readers right up front she is going to revisit events over and over because she wants to tell us about them from different people’s perspectives, but the effect is that you feel the book is never moving forward. A combination of the choppy style and overt projections of the author’s views or experiences on the historical narrative, marked by Cheever’s gossipy questions, add to the disjointed feeling. The final straw was reading that Plymouth, NH, is at the “head” of Squam Lake, when in fact it’s not on the lake at all. When a book contains such a silly error, it’s hard not to wonder what other facts went unchecked.

If I want unchecked facts, I can just tune in for three more weeks to campaign hooey. But in the interest of sleeping well, I think instead I’ll keep reading books.

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