What I’ve Been Reading: July/August 2017

While I’ve been neglecting my blog, I’ve been exploring the libraries and bookstores in my new city.  As it turns out, the libraries here fell way below my expectations, especially compared to the city where I grew up.  I jokingly-but-not wish I had visited the libraries before I moved here, but it is what it is.  And we do at least have a McKay’s, which is a giant, hugely popular book, movie, and music thrift shop — the absolute best kind of shop for browsing.  So here’s what I’ve picked up in the last couple of months.


A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly

My mom likes to say her favorite movie genre is “based on a true story,” and mine has become the same.  Sometime this summer, we watched the movie Lion.  Saroo, born in India, got lost as a 5-year-old and lived on the streets of Calcutta for months.  He eventually ended up being adopted by an Australian family when no one could figure out where he came from.  He grew up Australian, but as an adult, remembered snippets of India, and used Google Maps to track his way back to his birth family.  The movie is an incredible, chilling rendition of this incredible, chilling true story.  Stuff like this cannot be made up; when they say the truth is stranger than fiction, this story is what they’re talking about.  Read this book; watch the movie.  This is one I won’t forget for a long time.


Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas

Another true story/memoir/autobiography, this is the testimony of Koren, a girl who was introduced to alcohol at age 14 and didn’t look back for almost a decade.  Written during the time of her life when she realized just how much of life she was missing out on because of alcohol, it’s a detailed reflection of what could almost be considered lost years.  Koren, once she had had a taste, used alcohol to fill all the voids in her life because she didn’t know what else to do.  She drank her way through middle school, high school, and college, never quite getting physically addicted but never able to give it up.  It’s sad story, and sluggish at times because of the sheer amount of detail in it.  But Koren has a way with words.  She uses a lot of metaphor, which has drawn a lot of criticism on Goodreads, but I enjoyed her writing style because it felt graceful and genuine.  It’s obvious that Koren still has issues to work through, but don’t we all?

My final comments on this story are these: when I was glancing through the Goodreads reviews, I was appalled by the sheer amount of people who seem to hate Koren (not just her book, but Koren herself) because she was a sorority girl and because she wrote and was successful with this book so soon after she stepped away from alcohol for good.  What the crap, people?  Can’t we just let this girl help herself through her writing, through sharing her story?  The book was a New York Times best seller — it’s obvious that this is something that affects a lot of us.  Why tear down something that Koren should be proud of?


Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

This is a story, told in reverse, of a man named Sean who shrinks from society after a horrible accident that disfigured his face.  He makes a living by creating and running an adventure game that is played through the mail.  But when two teen players experience tragedy because they attempted to recreate the game in the real world, Sean has to face the world again, and at the same time, his past.

This was a weird book to read.  Sean has a pleasant, nonchalant tone about him, but it’s obvious he hides something.  His life, and the chapters, are quiet, but things are revealed each chapter almost without the reader noticing.  As you piece together his life, and how it turned out this way, it gets more and more horrible.  And while the how behind his disfigurement is revealed, the why is much harder to grasp.  A lot of this book is implicit, but it’s obvious it deals with self-hate and depression without offering much hope or ways out.  This is one I would love to read with others in an analytical setting.

The Handm12961964aid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’ll be honest; I only read this book because none of the other books I wanted to read were available at the library, and because of the new Hulu show based on it (which I haven’t seen).  And I wasn’t really that impressed.  It was boring and hard to get into at first.  It’s a book that very obviously tries to make a point, and so it’s a little two-dimensional.  I feel like the explanation for the dystopian society was a little weak and lacking in depth.  The characters were a bit flat also.  Some of my complaints could be because the whole book is supposed to be the transcript of a recording that was made supposedly long ago.  It’s a historical document being analyzed by professors in the year 29something.  But even so, this just wasn’t anything that particularly struck me.  If you want to read about dystopia, read the Hunger Games trilogy.  They’re put together much better.

Small Admissio30827125ns by Amy Poeppel

This is the story of Kate Pearson, who finds herself thrown for a complete loop after her serious boyfriend dumps her.  She wallows in her sadness for months, but after her sister’s prodding, finally gets a job in admissions at a prestigious private school.  As she’s getting back on her feet, her friends are keeping secrets, parents are doing inane things for an acceptance at the school, and her sister is learning to let go.

This is a fluffy book, like I expected it to be.  And it was delightful.  I did have a couple complaints — a parent of a student-hopeful begins to narrate about a third of the way through the book, which threw me for a loop.  I think she should have been introduced earlier.  And near the end, I felt the story had wrapped up nicely, and then there was an incident that seemed to drag the book out a few more chapters and didn’t do a whole lot for Kate’s character arc.  But overall, this was so fun to read.  The characters were interesting and distinct, there were surprises I didn’t see coming, and it was a great story about changing your expectations for life and being okay with that.  It was definitely a few hours well spent.

All images from Goodreads.


What I’ve Been Reading: Feb/March 2017

In between procrastinating working very hard on projects and homework, I’ve found a little time to read.  If you are looking for books with heavy topics, this is the post for you!  Warning: this post contains quite a few spoilers.

439288Verdict: If you get a chance, PLEASE READ THIS.

Speak was recommended to me by a friend who has very good taste in books, and we saw it in the bargain section at Books-a-Million, so I went ahead and bought it.  I really think this is one of the most important books that people, especially young people, will ever read.  Word of warning: it’s not a happy book.  If you haven’t heard of it (which you may have, because it’s read fairly commonly in high schools now), it’s about rape.  The protagonist, a high school freshman, gets raped right before the start of the school year, and spends the entire year dealing with the aftermath alone.  She gets depressed, and it manifests mainly through selective mutism — she quits speaking to almost everyone except her art teacher.  She has trouble sleeping.  She loses all her friendships, because no one knows what happened and she won’t talk about it.  It’s a story that is more common than we think it is, and that’s why it’s so important.  It’s not a happy or fun book to read, but it is incredibly well-written.  The protagonist is realistic, and the language is simple and easy to understand.  I cannot stress enough the importance of this book.

13260227Verdict: Do not use to make yourself feel good about the human race.  Do use to try to understand the lives of others, and why they act the way they do.  Do use to develop your empathy.

The Distance Between Us is a memoir about being left behind.  Reyna Grande, the youngest of three siblings, grew up in Mexico after both her parents moved to the United States.  They were stuck in poverty with an abusive, neglectful grandmother, and feelings of abandonment are the main recurring theme.  Grande writes about life in Mexico, and how her older sister became the little mother for her and her brother, and how that affected her sister for the worse later in life.  She writes about how her brother struggled because he never had a good role model.  She writes about how it was when her mother returned to Mexico because her father slept with someone else.  She writes about illegally crossing the Mexican-US border after begging her father to bring her to the US, and she writes about trying to please him time and again even when he gets drunk and beats her and her siblings.  This was not a happy book to read, either.  It shows the worst effects of poverty and desperation, and if I’m being brutally honest, it makes Mexican immigrants look terrible.  Grande’s father was a horrible person, and it’s so easy to read this book and think that everyone who comes from Mexico is like that.  But this is not a book about Mexican immigrants.  It’s a book about the life of Reyna Grande.  It’s about socio-economic disadvantage.  It’s about needing a family, even if that family treats you like shit.  And it shows that it’s possible to overcome all that, but that your history will always be a part of you.

20447732Verdict: Yay! A memoir with happy parts.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed is one of the most iconic coming-of-age memoirs there is.  Hernandez discusses meshing American and Cuban-Colombian traditions, translating documents for her parents, and navigating being bisexual in a Latino family with very traditional values.  This book is more like a collections of essays than a comprehensive memoir, which makes sense since it began as an editorial column when she began writing for the New York Times.  Hernandez definitely has a knack for storytelling, and she has an interesting one to tell.  Because this one was not as devastating as the books above, I don’t remember as many of the details.  However, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys memoirs.

Besides my capstone books, that’s all I’ve been reading lately.  Reading Spanish memoirs closely really cuts into other reading, and I actually found myself getting confused about which details were from which book.  So reading all these at the same time probably wasn’t the best idea.  I’m afraid I’m going to end up basing a point in my paper about the works of Esmeralda Santiago on something I read in another memoir, but those are the hazards of wanting to read a bunch of similar things.  Enjoy!

All images from Goodreads

Blast From the Past: An Overview of Computer Games from My Childhood

Being homeschooled, my childhood was a little different than most of my friends’.  Besides not having to get up early and go to class, we never had cable TV or video games of any type.  (Gasp!)  We definitely weren’t bored, though — when we weren’t doing schoolwork, we would watch PBS, or play outside, or read.  Or, we would get on our clunky old desktop and play computer games.

My boyfriend thinks I’m totally weird when I reminisce about the games we played.  And I get that — the games we played were either your typical homeschool-er educational games, or they were horribly dated even for the years in which we played them, and they  all had to be installed via the incredible CD-ROM.  Even then, it was kind of a weird, novelty thing.  No one else I knew growing up loved playing dorky computer games.  But me and my siblings did.  And it’s time for a flashback.


Resultado de imagen para jumpstart spanish

Ah, Jump-Start.  I’m pretty sure we had every Jump-Start game there was.  But this is the one I remember.  If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may know that American Girl’s Josefina was what really got me interested in learning Spanish.  Before Josefina, though, there was Jump-Start Spanish.  I learned a ton of vocabulary playing this thing.  When I started Spanish lessons in fourth grade after we began homeschooling, I was a little ahead because of all this vocabulary, and that gave me the feeling that I was good at Spanish, which in turn gave me the confidence to continue studying it.  Thanks, Jump-Start.  (And parental units.)


Resultado de imagen para math magician computer game

I remember this being called Math Magician, or Math Mountain, or something like that.  This was one my mom kind of made us play, and we grumbled about it, but it really did make basic math concepts easier.  You play as a cat (I think?) who travels through different places, but to get to the next one you had to successfully solve the puzzles (ie, learn the concept).  There was basic addition and subtraction, and it went all the way through fractions and multiplication tables.  And when you got to the end, there was a little party because you finally made it to the top of the mountain!  Yay!  Math was my least favorite subject, so this really did make it better (although I never would’ve admitted it at the time.)

Resultado de imagen para where in time is carmen sandiego

This was literally one of my and my siblings’ favorite games.  In all the Carmen Sandiego games, you played as a spy trying to catch Carmen.  For this game in particular, you chased Carmen all the way from the Silk Road to Yuri Gargarin’s launch.  You met Leif Ericsson, Thomas Edison, men from ancient Japan, Native Americans before settlers came, and a ton of others I can’t remember, and you had to solve a problem for each one before you could travel ahead in time.  I think my sister and I probably played this through a good three or four times.  It was fabulous, and we both still occasionally quote the characters.  Also, while I did take an ancient history class in high school, a lot of what I remember came from this game, not our assigned reading.


Resultado de imagen para oregon trail game

Oh my word — the Oregon Trail.  Possibly one of the worst, most basic computer games ever created, my siblings and I could not get enough.  We discovered this around the time we were reading the Little House on the Prairie series, so it was just perfect.  We played it a lot, and for a game so simple, it was such a challenge to arrive at our destination.  I only remembering getting there a handful of times.  As a kid, if you haven’t died of dysentery on the trail a million times, you haven’t lived.

Resultado de imagen para barbie secret agent

The infamous Barbie Secret Agent — this game had no educational value whatsoever.  The graphics were awful, and so was the dialogue.  It was hilarious to play.  I’m pretty sure the story line centered around someone stealing someone else’s fashion designs, and that just sets the tone for the whole game.  Barbie had the most diva secret agent skills ever — for instance, to sneak past a guard, you had to blow compact power into his face.  It made me and sister laugh every time.  In addition to all that, you could also choose between about 10 different outfits for Barbie (because she’s not Barbie without a fabulous wardrobe).  She had a different set of clothes for each country she had to go to.  For being such a frivolous game, the final level was really hard to beat — I remember that euphoric feeling when we finally achieved it.

Resultado de imagen para nancy drew games

Nancy Drew games were the last few I played before I started growing out of computer games.  Honestly, they’re still kind of fun — my cousins play them at Christmas, and we often have to work together, because the puzzles really are difficult.  I read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys mysteries as a kid, so playing through these was so much fun.  And at the time, the graphics were good enough that the games could be absolutely terrifying.  It was thrilling and addictive, and I really think it boosts critical thinking.  These are very well done, and I definitely remember them fondly.

I’m sure we had a few more, but those are the ones I remember.  My parents didn’t like us to play for too long at one time, although my siblings and I would’ve played for hours straight.  But I don’t remember a ton of screen time.  Mostly, I remember crowding around the computer with my sister and brother and collaborating to figure out a puzzle, or laughing hysterically at terrible graphics and stories.  As we all got older, we quit playing together as much, because we all have different interests.  But these computer games fascinated all of us, so I think they kept us playing together for a little bit longer than we might have if we hadn’t had them.  I think we’ll be laughing at the memories of these forever.

Also, I just have to know — were we the dorkiest kids in the universe, or is there anyone out there that also remembers these??

4H and Public Speaking

Imagine yourself standing in front of a room full of people.  You’re supposed to give a presentation.  You have your notecards, and your PowerPoint, and a bottle of water just in case.  You’ve practiced what you’re going to say in your head dozens of times.  You’re prepared.  And yet, as you stand up there all alone, in front of thousands of expectant, blinking eyes, your throat goes dry and your breathing catches and your knees get wobbly.  You glance at your carefully written notes, and take a breath, and force yourself to begin.

Sound familiar?  We’ve all had to give speeches at one time or another.  And it’s a lot of people’s biggest fear.  No one likes standing in front of others, feeling exposed.  If we mess up, everyone knows. It’s nerve-wracking.  I get why people don’t like it.

I’m the anomaly.  I actually love public speaking.  As reserved as I am, you wouldn’t think it to be true, but it is.  To me, public speaking can be easier than a regular conversation.  When I do a speech, I get to write my thoughts down on paper and organize them first, and then I get to say them out loud to an audience who wants (or has to) listen to me.  It’s like a blog post, but out loud and live.  I do get nervous, but I’ve done it enough that I’m fairly comfortable in front of a crowd, and I know that I can get through it without embarrassing myself.

It wasn’t always this way.  I first started doing speeches in 4H, and it was flipping terrifying.  In 4H, January is public speaking month.  Because 4H starts in 4th grade and continues through high school, there are different prompts for each grade level.  They gradually get harder as you get older.  Every January, members of local clubs prepare and give speeches at the monthly meeting, and those who do a good enough job in their grade category can go on to county, regional, state, and national speech competitions.

That’s where I started.  I think my family got involved in 4H when I was in 6th grade, and my mom encouraged me to do a speech.  (She may have required it as a school assignment, but I don’t remember.)  She helped me write, practice, and memorize it.  She told me when I was fidgeting, and pointed out my habit of speakingreallyfast when I get nervous (which I still have to watch out for).  I gave my speech, and I did well, so I continued.  I don’t remember how many speeches I gave, or how far I got.   I do remember also entering the local Optimist Club speech competitions when I got older.

I also vividly remember getting to state with the Optimist Club when I was a senior, where a $2000 scholarship was at stake.  I was about to graduate, and I wanted to win.  I wanted that scholarship.  There was one other student competing for the scholarship — a junior.  We drew names to see who would go first, and I got the first spot.  While I like going to first because I like to get speeches over with, this can be disadvantageous because judges sometimes subconsciously “reserve” points until later in the competition.  But I did my best — I gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever given.  The other girl was good, but I didn’t feel that her speech was as strong as mine.  (I was probably biased, but…)  However, when awards were announced, I lost the competition and the scholarship by one point.  I’m pretty sure I will always be bitter about that.

Sometimes, I miss competing.  I get to give speeches and presentations in classes, but the other students don’t really care about what I have to say.  They just want to get their own presentation over with.  I miss having more than a grade at stake.  I know I can get an A on a presentation, but I miss the adrenaline of trying to be the best.  In competitions, everyone watches you because everyone cares.  We all size each other up, and think about last minute adjustments we can make to give ourselves that edge.  In competitions, I knew I was good, but I really didn’t know if I would win.  It was a challenge.  It required me to push myself.

I did a few other things in 4H, most notably the sewing camps.  Even though I didn’t always enjoy the meetings, I am glad my parents pushed me to join and participate.  I got a lot out of 4H, and I didn’t realize until it was over just how much it shaped who I am.  But the speech competitions will always be the thing I remember most fondly about 4H.

What I’ve Learned From Working in IT

As a freshman, I received a university scholarship that requires me to volunteer 75 hours each semester to the university.  A lot of students get similar scholarships, and thus it seems like half the university is staffed by students.  At the beginning of every year, we all have to go pick up our volunteer assignments and report for duty.  Most of us monitor computer labs or do basic clerical work.  Many “jobs” involve sitting at a desk and doing homework.  But not mine.  I got stuck in an IT office.

When I started working for Bill (name changed), I was declared as a basic business student.  To this day, I have no idea how they decided to put me in Bill’s office.  Bill is the head of all technology in his building, which happens to house one entire college of our university.  This means he buys, installs, maintains, and tracks every single piece of hardware and software for every single teacher and classroom in the entire college.  He’s the one teachers call when they can’t get their email to work, and he’s the one who implements new systems with heads of technology for other colleges.  He does a ton, and when I started, all of it was over my head.

When I started as a brand-new freshman, I was the first girl and the first business major that had been assigned to his office in years.  All his other student workers were guys majoring in computer science, computer engineering, business information technology, or mechanical or electrical engineering.  They all had an interest in how things work and a propensity for fixing.  And then there was me.

I had no idea what I was doing.  As student workers, we were responsible for documenting complaints and problems and then going out to fix them.  We also had to update and deliver “mobile labs” — huge carts full of 40 laptops each that professors could request for classes.  They weigh more than I do, I’m pretty sure.  I managed to push them around when I needed to, though, and I was good at documenting.  Often I would document calls that other students went out on — they could do the work, but didn’t want to document it, so I made myself useful that way.  But I spent the majority of freshman year following Bill around as he went to fix stuff that we students couldn’t handle.  I met a lot of professors that way, which was really helpful when I started having them for classes.

Gradually, I learned.  I kind of figured out how networks function.  I learned several ways to wipe a hard drive.  I figured out how to explain things I didn’t fully grasp to professors (who often didn’t fully grasp them, either).  I learned to be polite and sympathize when I couldn’t fix something, because I knew how frustrating it was when technology didn’t work.  I learned to work with people I didn’t particularly like.  Mostly, I learned to listen, because I learned that people don’t always communicate the way I want them to.

Disagreeing respectfully with a superior was a big thing to learn.  Bill is very conservative, and though he says he dislikes discussing politics, what he really dislikes is when people disagree.  He has a habit of taking a break and coming into the student side of the office to discuss current events or politics.  Usually, I just nod my head and listen, because (as I discussed some in my last post) I don’t like discussing controversial issues, especially with someone whose views are so different from mine.  But occasionally I do speak up.  Take this morning, for instance.  Bill was reading something about a Title VI document, and got hung up on the words “English is not the official or native language” (or something along those lines).  He started making comments about how English is the official language here in the U.S., and it irks him when concessions have to be made for non-English speakers.  He said he doesn’t think it’s fair for taxpayers to have to pay for everything to be written in more than one language.

Being a Spanish major, I couldn’t let that one go by.  I mentioned that we have a lot of taxpayers in this country whose first language isn’t English.  This was one of those times I wish I knew exact stats, but I don’t.  I tried to talk about how many Spanish-speaking citizens we have here (stressing the legal part, because I know how Bill feels about undocumented immigrants).  Bill did listen to me.  I didn’t expect him to agree or change his mind.  But by speaking up I at least attempted to stand up for my beliefs and worldview.  And though I know Bill doesn’t agree, I think demonstrating a different viewpoint does gain me some respect in his eyes.  He likes people who can think for themselves.  (And it reminds him not to put his foot in his mouth.)

Now, in my last semester here, Bill has gotten a lot more student workers and had to expand his office.  Having more of us means that there are fewer calls to go out on.  Not to mention the fact that the university really amped up its overall help desk, which reduced our workload a ton.  This was nice, because now professors and students can call the help desk for mundane tasks like resetting email passwords, and we can focus on bigger issues like smart boards that don’t work.  The problem for me, though, is that I was good at the mundane tasks.  I have enough computer knowledge that I can figure out which settings to change and which problems I can rule out.  But while I can fix relatively simple problems (and gain good rapport with professors in the process), I can’t fix the big ones.  When a projector malfunctions in the middle of a class and I’m the only one in the office, I leave professors feeling frustrated rather than thankful.  It doesn’t reflect well on me or the university.

But I’m going to leave this job on my resume, because it shows a lot of things.  For one, this job has taught me to work effectively with a team.  It’s heightened my communication skills.  And it’s allowed me to better understand what the crap people are talking about when they tell me to map to a certain drive or boot a machine to the BIOS menu.  It shows that while I may not have a natural affinity for technology, I can learn.  I’ve been very frustrated these past four years, because it takes up a lot of time and is difficult.  But ultimately, I’m thankful I got stuck here, because it has helped shaped me into who I am today.  It’ll be a sweet goodbye when I leave.  But there will be a tiny bit of bitter in there, too.

Our super-official password generator (not — it’s actually to scare new students)


Book Review: Fragments by Jeff Cann


29769662 Back Cover Copy

Jeff Cann has achieved the improbable. He has taken an honest look at himself. The twenty-four stories that comprise this book range from serious and sad to funny and uplifting. And they all include an element of raw, self-analysis. These well-crafted stories each stand on their own, but together they form a mosaic, a picture of a life in transformation.

Often self-deprecating and seemingly shocked by the discoveries he’s made, Cann weaves together an engaging tale of mental unhealth, substance abuse, family life and a four-decade love of rock music.

I initially agreed to read this book because I love memoirs, and this did not disappoint.  This book, a collection of life stories, put me in mind of Blue Like Jazz (except way less religious) or even The Theft of Memory (except way more stable).  Cann is simultaneously funny and thought-provoking, and very relatable — perhaps more so than he thinks he is.

Written as an exercise in self-examination, Cann — true to his back cover copy — is honest about his life and his shortcomings.  He is open about his early life and his continuing struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, and makes no effort to hide his anxiety or OCD.  He in no way pretends to be perfect.  But while it seems to me that Cann might be a bit too hard on himself at times, he doesn’t hide his successes in life, either.  Happily married with children (no small feat in itself), Cann recounts his experiences going way out of his comfort zone to support his kids, and tells stories of perseverance in pursuing running and biking despite various injuries.  His essays are well-written, and I found myself laughing out loud in places (and then forcing my family to listen to the funny parts).

Also, as a self-published book, this is a huge success.  I normally shy away from self-published work because it is often poorly edited and low quality.  This?  Not at all.  I knew the writing would be good, because I follow Cann’s blog.  But there are also zero grammar, formatting, or print errors.  I have never seen a self-published book with zero errors.  And that speaks to not only to Cann’s passion for writing, but also the attention to detail I imagine he applies to all areas of his life.

Reading this book felt personal, like Jeff is a person I would enjoy a cup of coffee with.  I also think that this is a great book for those that also struggle with mental disorders or substance abuse, because it shows that life can be lived and enjoyed even with these often-all-enveloping problems.  TL;DR — this is a great read.

This book was provided to me for free by the author in exchange for this honest review.

Southern Food and Christmas Plays: A Holiday Memoir

My family are holiday travelers.  Thanksgiving and Christmas have always meant packing suitcases and spending 3 or 4 or 6 hours in the car.  Out of the 16ish years my brain allows me to recall, I can remember one Thanksgiving spent at my own house — all other holidays are spent at grandparents’, or whichever relative has the biggest house at the time.

A lot of families I know have several generations all living within a few miles of each other.  When I realized as a first- or second-grader that some of my classmates saw their grandparents every Sunday for dinner, I was amazed.  I thought everyone had to travel for hours to see their family members.  Trips were especially long when I was little — my mom’s side of the family lived 6 hours away,and my dad’s side was a whopping  12.  I don’t know how my parents stood it.  If it had been me with a 5-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a baby, I would have been letting my parents come to me.  (Actually, my dad’s parents did come to us eventually — they moved a much closer 3 hours away when I was in middle school.)

Because of the long drives, we hardly ever stay with relatives for less than 3 days.  And when I say stay with relatives, I mean with relatives.  Some families prefer to maintain some breathing room by renting hotels if they  visit family, but not us.  Neither side of my family is afraid to break out the air mattresses — having up to 18 people in a 3-bedroom, 2-bath is not uncommon.

It sounds chaotic, and it is — but not in an unbearable way.  By some stroke of luck, both sides of my family get along with each other pretty well.  There are feuds here and there, and the occasional silent treatment between siblings, but fights get put on the back burner during the holidays.

Holidays with my mom’s side are full of home-cooked Southern food and visiting old friends.  I appreciate this now, but as a kid it sometimes got a bit monotonous.  My mom has three sisters, but only one of them had a kid, and she was born 15 years before me.  Having essentially only each other to play with during holiday visits, my siblings and I often bickered (not that it was any different at home).  But we would bring lots of books and toys to keep us occupied, and visits to the local zoo were always looked forward to.  Also, my grandmother’s home was close to the state capitol building, which had an amazing archive.  This archive included a collection of beautiful donated clothes, complete with a 50s(?)-era wedding gown, that young children like me were allowed to dress up in.  While I don’t remember ever going there during the holidays (it was more of a summer thing), archive visits with my mom and grandmother will always be treasured memories.

My dad’s side of the family makes up for the cousin “deficit” of my mom’s side.  On his side, there are 8 of us, almost perfectly stair-stepped in age.  Amazingly, we all get along great.  Once I aged into middle school, we had all hit that sweet spot where we could collaborate.  For about 4 or 5 years straight, my cousins and I would spent the day or two right before Christmas or Thanksgiving locked in a bedroom, writing a play.  We’d come up with the premise, and each create our own character, then we’d write a script.  Inevitably, the younger cousins would float away during that part, but we’d reign them back in to create costumes and practice.  We’d even write advertisements, which we’d tape to walls and doors throughout the house, to draw in our audience (who would’ve attended no matter what).  Then, typically the evening before everyone left, we’d perform our play for our grandparents, parents, and aunts and uncles.

As we all got older, interest in the plays waned.  The cousins who were in elementary school during our prime play season continued to suggest them into their middle school years, but as a whole, we had grown out of them.  We moved on to books, manuscripts, video games, and preparation for the zombie apocalypse.  I, as the oldest cousin, started playing up-and-down with the grown-ups at night rather than cramming on the couch to watch a movie.  We began discussing current events instead of hypotheticals.  We started graduating high school.

When that side of the family gets together now, we are a little more separated.  Those closest in age end up basically glued together while the rest of us bounce around doing our own thing.  When we get older, though, we’ll still make an effort to all get together with our own families — we’ve already talked about it.  Those cousins are a tight-knit group, and our Christmas plays definitely played a role.

This year is a dad’s side Christmas (we visited my mom’s side for Thanksgiving).  Typically we switch sides every year, but I have a feeling next year will be more complicated, since my boyfriend and I are planning on being engaged by then.  I guess we’ll all have to do some adapting.  But this year it’s still relatively simple, and even though my hermit side occasionally dreads being around so many people for so long (though I do love them all dearly), I think I’ll have an easier time appreciating it all.  In the finale of The Office, Andy says this:

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Lucky for me, I do know that these are some of the good old days.

Book Review: Teacher Misery by Jane Morris




NetGalley Synopsis:

Teacher Misery perfectly encapsulates the comical misery that has become the teaching profession. Morris’ strange, funny, and sometimes unbelievable teaching experiences are told through a collection of short stories, essays and artifacts including real emails from parents, students and administrators. From the parents who blame their son’s act of arson on the teacher for causing him low self-esteem, to the student who offers to teach the teacher how to sell drugs so she can pay her bills, to the administrator whose best advice is to “treat kids like sacks of shit,” one story is more shocking than the next. An important read for teachers and non-teachers alike– Teacher Misery paints an amusing and thoroughly entertaining picture of what has become of our education system, without detracting from the overall point that what teachers have to put up with today is complete, utter, unacceptable insanity.

If you feel like being completely entertained while also losing all hope for the American school system, read this book.

I could not put this book down.  The stories that Morris tells about the school system are riveting.  The antics and violence and outright stupidity that she and other teachers have had to endure are outright insane — some of it is so crazy it’s almost unbelievable.  If I did not know many public school teachers personally, I would be inclined to believe some of her stories are embellished.  But while I was fortunate enough to escape the atrocity that is public school, I’ve heard enough to know that this is all real.

In a lot of ways, this is such a depressing book.  We all know that our school system needs some vast improvements, but this book is a down-and-dirty look at all the ridiculous ways it needs help.  While many of the stories and episodes are hilarious, the fact that these stories actually happened is really a cause for concern.  Teacher Misery simultaneously makes me feel hopeless about our school system and gives me so much more respect and appreciation for every teacher I know.

Teaching is hard.  I think it is one of the most difficult professions a person can choose, right alongside going to war — seriously.  Not only do teachers have to pursue extensive training, but they also have to deal with ridiculous or unenforced policies, parents who refuse to discipline their children, and students who are blatantly disrespectful and sometimes dangerous.  They must watch out for psychological issues, bad living conditions, and substance abuse while staying within the confines of privacy, policy, and procedure.  And they must do all this while actually teaching — introducing new ideas and concepts and encouraging students to think critically about all aspects of their lives — in between mandatory testing, of course.  The stress that teachers are put under is incredible — Morris starts the book by stating that almost half of all teachers quit within their first five years.  Most cannot handle it.

Teacher Misery is a brutally honest look into teaching, and I think it’s something that needs to be read.  When I began writing this review, I was going to write that my only complaint was that Morris does not counter her bad experiences with any good ones.  But then I remembered it was titled Teacher Misery for a reason.  If I had experienced all that Morris had been through, I would rant for 244 pages too.

I received this book from Truth Be Told Publishing through NetGalley for free in exchange for this honest review.

Book Review: The Theft of Memory by Jonathan Kozol


Back Cover Synopsis:

National Book Award Winner Jonathan Kozol tells the story of his father’s life and work as a nationally noted specialist in disorders of the brain and his astonishing ability, at the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, to explain the causes of his sickness and then to narrate, step-by-step, his slow descent into dementia.

Classically trained at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, Dr. Harry Kozol was an usually intuitive clinician with a special gift for diagnosing interwoven elements of neurological and psychiatric illnesses in very complicated and creative people, including Eugene O’Neill.  Later, he evaluated criminal defendants in high-profile cases, notably Patty Hearst and the Boston Strangler.

But The Theft of Memory is not primarily about a doctor’s public life.  The heart of the book lies in the bond between a father and his son and the ways that bond intensified even as Harry’s verbal skills and cogency progressively abandoned him.

Lyrical and stunning, The Theft of Memory is at once a tender tribute to a father from his son and a richly colored portrait of a devoted doctor who lived more than a century.

This book felt less like reading a memoir and more like having having tea and conversation with the author.  The story, which Kozol wrote in the year or two right after his father died, felt natural and loosely woven, but at the same time incredibly profound.  It was obvious from his language and from his discerning tone that Kozol inherited his father’s intelligence and intuition.  He simply recorded his memories of his father as he descended into illness, both the tender moments and the yuckier ones.

His father was a fascinating character.  As the back cover copy notes, Kozol details a few of his father’s specific cases, which he found out more about as he went through his father’s papers during his last years.  As a doctor, Harry Kozol was incredible.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his cases, as I have an interest in mental disorders and their causes and treatments.  Part of the reason I chose this book in the first place was the fact that the doctor unfortunately succumbed to one of the very diseases he studied.  His understanding of the mind and doctor’s professional demeanor apparently never really left him, even after all other faculties abandoned ship.

Kozol himself was also intriguing.  He was honest about not wanting to let go of his father, and about the fact that even though he filtered out a lot of the not-so-great memories of his growing up years, there were many parts of his relationship with his father that were actually very strained.  But he seems to take this in stride, understanding that even intelligent, accomplished fathers are not perfect.  He actually sets an incredible example for all his readers with the way he cares for his parents extensively as they age, setting aside any differences they might ever have had.

Overall, this was an incredible story about familial love and the sacrifices we must go through to demonstrate it.

I received this book for free from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group in exchange for this review.  All opinions expressed are my own.

And This One is About My Brother

I just wrote a post about my sister.  It was a long overdue post, and said things like how proud I am of her and how cool she is — things I should say more often.

But while I was writing it, I kept thinking about the fact that I have a brother, too, who is just as cool as my sister.  And really, instead of writing about him, I should just tell him randomly that I like him and think he’s a really cool person.  But since I’m an hour and a half away at school, and since I’ve already written a lot about my sister for everyone who happens to read this blog to see, it’s time to introduce you to my brother, too.

I was five when my brother was born.  The only thing I remember about his infancy was that I was days from starting kindergarten, and on the morning of his birth, when my grandmother asked me to “guess what I had new today,” I confidently told her, “A lunch box!”

I do remember him being a toddler, though.  I loved him when he was a toddler.  I thought he was cute.  But as he got older, I got more and more frustrated with him, because it seemed that he always wanted to be doing what my sister and I were doing.  I didn’t want to add a new companion to our playtime.  What 9-year-old kid wants to let her 4-year-old brother follow her around?  Maybe some do, but I didn’t.  And I didn’t know how to swallow my selfish desire for things not to change, and so I have to admit I could be pretty mean to my poor brother when he was little.  I wouldn’t let him play with me and my sister.  I would tell him he was annoying and a pest.  (All of which I regret deeply now.)

Looking back, I think part of this is because I do not have an innate need to have a lot of friends.  At this point in life, I have three-ish people I talk to on a regular basis, and that’s counting my sister and boyfriend.  It’s a part of my nature to not branch out if all my social needs are met, and when I was 9, 10, 11, all I needed was my sister.  I didn’t want to make the changes that a new sibling required.

There was also the age difference to think about.  Age matters a lot when you’re young, and with five years between us, we’ve always been at different stages of life.  When I started middle school, he was in second grade.  When I started high school, he was 9.  When I began college, he was barely 13.  I’ve always been focused on my own life, not really bothering to ask him how he was doing or what he was interested in, and not really knowing how.

My boyfriend has a theory that brothers just usually aren’t as close to their siblings as sisters are.  And maybe that’s true.  But I also know that my sister and brother seem to have a fairly close relationship.  Part of this is because they were the only kids at home after I left for school, and they’re also a bit closer in age.  But sometimes another part of me thinks the reason we are not closer is because I ruined our chances in childhood.  By telling him he was annoying all the time, did I push him away forever?

I seriously hope not.  Because now that we are both older, I really appreciate how he has grown as a person.  He’s very crafty with his hands, and built his own homemade forge in the backyard with which he makes his own knives and tools.  He likes to learn by watching YouTube and researching blacksmithing processes online.  He’s also into 4H and shoots skeet and other things.  I won’t even pretend to know what I’m talking about when it comes to shooting sports, but he got his own shotgun for Christmas and is getting better at whatever it is he’s doing with that.  

He’s also told me recently, offhandedly, that he’s been writing some.  He described a scene of a story he was typing out.  It was full of action, as I would have expected.  I don’t know whether this story was for school or enjoyment, but either way it made me happy to see him being creative with words.  My siblings and I are all so vastly different, but all of us enjoy writing.  And I love that.  

I worry sometimes if my brother knows that I love him and appreciate him as a person.  I try to let him know in little ways.  I’ve been known to leave notes in his room on occasion telling him that he’s “awesome sauce.”  Over Christmas break, to remind me to pick him up from school, he put a note in my car telling me to “pick up favorite brother!”, which I did every day.  We don’t chat a whole lot, but when we do it’s friendly and enjoyable.  In light of our hugely contrasting personalities, I think on the whole we have a good relationship.

Sibling relationships are weird.  Some siblings I know can’t stand each other, or are always in competition.  Some siblings can’t overcome their differences as children and distance themselves from their families.  And others stay friends even after they’ve all left their childhood home.

I honestly think that my siblings and I will be like that.  When all three of us are together, we have a great time.  They are the friends I never would have chosen if we weren’t related.  We three have discussed that before — if we all were to have met not as siblings, we would be friendly to each other, of course, but none of us would have bothered to get to know the others.  But I guess that’s what family is supposed to be.

I said this already in the post about my sister, but I wish everyone had siblings like mine.