Thursday, November 30, 2017

Holiday Ornaments for Children who Love to Read Books

My four-year old and I began our Sunday morning by cleaning out and organizing his art shelves. In the midst of doing this, we came across a few scenes from Where the Wild Things Are meant for a project that did not turn out, despite high hopes. Rather than recycling the pictures, I moved them from here to there, since everything can be used for a craft. When the art shelves were organized, we started cutting out these saved pictures. I took out the new roll of contact paper. And suddenly we were making Christmas ornaments. 

One thing led to another, and Henry and I found ourselves back at the computer, searching for scenes from his favorite books. Thank you, Google Images. A few times, Henry would run back to his room and scan his bookshelf, then run back and tell me which books we loved. Oh, yes! I'd say. And we'd find more. 

Then we printed, cut, sandwiched each between clear contact paper, cut and taped string and voila! we have lovely little literary ornaments. Quite a few, actually. Perhaps some will become presents for his teachers?

It was a good project because Henry could take part fully in each step, from selecting the pictures, to cutting them out, to measuring the string and taping it to the back. When he wanted to try a different step, I continued working on the step I was on. The last step of hanging the ornaments on the tree was very fulfilling. He chose several to hang on the little tree in his bedroom, too, which is definitely the mark of a successful project. 

This is not necessarily a super creative project, but we enjoyed doing it, and I'm glad that we've commemorated the books we have loved so well. I most enjoyed his picking out the pictures and hearing him tell me the part of the story associated with the picture, as I didn't realize, though I should have, how closely he has been listening--and memorizing--as we read and re-read. His favorite part of the project seemed to be pulling the tape off the dispenser and wrangling the embroidery thread into ornament loops.

These could serve nicely as gift-tags, too, though I don't know that the time-investment would be worth it, especially if you don't require an oath that gift-receivers will keep the tags.

Here are a few samples. Do you know which books these come from?


Monday, November 27, 2017

Book Your Stocking: The Whole World at Once on Cyber Monday

Celebrate #CyberMonday by purchasing The Whole World at Once for all of your friends. All of them. 

The Whole World at Once is a collection of stories that trace rural landscapes and the journey of mourning and how that affects those who have experienced loss. A soldier returns from multiple tours of war, only to plant landmines in the back yard; a sister searches for her sister among cornfields and fairgrounds; a daughter counts time by her tire swing.

A few reviews: 
"This is an astonishing collection, beautifully written, heartrending, and deeply affecting." Read the full review here.

"People who grew up in rural areas will feel an eerie sense of stories they've grown up hearing or stories they've lived, a sense that this could happen or has happened here, and yet the pervasive thread of grief opens these stories up to anyone." 

"The characters dream intensely, waking in terror, and the stories themselves have a dreamlike intensity heightened by Pringle’s lyrical voice. [. . .] Readers willing to immerse themselves in sorrow, and sometimes in narratives that twist and shimmer before taking definite shape, will find reflected in these stories the unsteady path of coming back to life—or not—after loss.Continue reading at Kirkus Reviews.  

Pick up your copies of The Whole World at Once at any of these places:
From your local bookstore (better):
From the publisher (best):

If you'd like a signed copy, message me via Facebook or my website: 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

So, I've been reading . . .

My last post was a narrative about my fall-from and return-to reading book-length works. Since writing it, I've since been reading non-stop. The Thanksgiving holiday helped, too. But it has been a good November for reading.

I also stopped annotating while reading, for the first time in nearly twenty years. It can be done, amazingly. I may return to marking lightly, though, because I do remember better when I've made notes.

As I finish each book, I've posted little summaries or thoughts on my Facebook page, which I've now assembled here, beginning with most recently read. My head is now so full of words and worlds that I may need to take a few days to absorb all I've read.

1. Monsters in Appalachia by Sheryl Monks

2. Our Daughter and Other Stories by Wendy Oleson

3. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

4. Hollow by Owen Egerton

5. In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

6. The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A Personal Narrative of Reading, Leaving and Returning

I took an unintentional break from reading for more years than I can say. I used to read all of the time, from before I could read words. My mother would take me to the public library and we'd spend hours (it felt) in the children's section picking out books, stacking them up, and checking them out on her library card. I read my way through my childhood and I don't remember the habit slowing in my pre-teen or teenage years. I spent a summer in my closet reading the whole Anne of Green Gables series. Another time, I returned again and again to the Stephen King shelf, pulling out one thick book, going home, then returning with it read and my hands ready to pull another from the shelf.

Libraries were a wonderful place. Classrooms, not so much. I never did well with being assigned books to read, as my reading experience had always been one of a personal discovery--or what felt like one, even though my mother had been an elementary school teacher and taken children's literature classes and knew how to find the better of the books, though I wouldn't realize this until I took children's literature courses myself in college and realized that all the books I loved and remembered were also on the lists of must-read and Caldecott books.

Reading programs, though, made me angry and ill, and probably have something to do with the drought of not-reading I recently experienced. Reading programs, BookIt! in my elementary school days, did two terrible things to my approach to reading:

1. They made reaching the end of a book = Good Girl, Good Student.
2. They harnessed my competitive side, which is one of my worst sides, to one of my best life-experiences: reading. And so reading became no longer about the experience of reading but about reading-more-than-so-and-so. Or reading-enough-to-get-a-star-and-pizza.
3. Probably someone else has already explored the stupidity of linking reading to the reward of material objects or unhealthy food. That, too.
4. Has anyone written about how simplifying a book into a barrier to a goal may also simplify the reading experience for the child? Maybe keeping an eye on the prize isn't wise. Maybe it's hard to read, really read, when one eye is on the page and the other is on the wall chart tracking everyone's progress.
5. Surely, there's an essay to click about the ridiculous situation that is tying reading and the expansion of knowledge to consumer-capitalism. A "free" pizza in a buying economy . . .

So, after BookIt! was discarded, a new awful program, perhaps a worse program, started running at my school: Accelerated Reader. Maybe you've heard of it. I hope not.

Accelerated Reader did something on the high side of awful. For one, it turned every book into a reading level, and these reading levels were marked on every book. Some teachers used these levels to prevent children from reading "outside" of their level; some teachers used the levels as "goals." Always the levels felt like teacher-induced-peer-pressure.

It seems, in my memory, that the levels were marked on the outside of the books so anyone who caught you reading would know exactly what level you were reading at. Adults don't seem as aware of how children organize themselves into hierarchies, but they do. They do it through the clothes they wear (class markers), the amount of Disney movies they know about (and Disney materials they wear/play with), capabilities on the playground, and any number of markers in the classroom. There is also the constant pressure to grow up and not be a baby. My son is four and already using that language. He's not a baby. He's a big boy. He'll be a man. And I remember cringing when the language was used against him by toddlers who would call him a baby, or still do since he's shorter than most children his age. I'm not a baby, he'll say when he is incorrectly identified. And now it's happening when someone calls him a little boy. Mama, I am not a little boy. I'm a big boy. Of course, this is followed by discussions about what all of this means, but my point is that this same kind of hierarchy-making happened with the classroom reading program, Accelerated Reader.

The books not in the Accelerated Reader program, i.e., not in the testing depository, were shunned.  Each level of book was allotted a certain number of points, it seems like; so, when a student finished reading a book, to earn those points, he or she took a computerized test about the book--a multiple-choice, computerized test in which there were wrong answers and right answers, but the wrong answers and right answers required a specific way of understanding the book. I'm sure this was all sold to the school from the angle of computer-literacy. If it still exists, I'm sure it's also now sold on the idea of saving paper, as though before such multiple-choice reading tests teachers were giving multiple-choice reading tests. I don't think they were.
Not the good ones.

More than once, I had to argue my case about an answer that the test marked wrong. And I won my cases, but I was always a good reader, a confident student, and someone who was deeply wronged by being called wrong by a computer in regards to a question that allowed a more faceted answer than A. B. or C. allowed.

I cringe at the thought of all the students who were told their answers were wrong and just assumed the computer was right, and that they had misunderstood the book. More than cringe. It makes me feel nauseous.

I survived Accelerated Reader, and went on to study literature in college and again in graduate school. So, I read, sure, but not in the way that felt like reading. I had been warned by a fellow from my town who had gone the college-literature route that the way you are taught to read in college ultimately changes the reading experience, and you can't return to how you read previously. And it was true. And I resented it for what seems like an unnecessarily long time--this inability to read without noticing the stylistic devices, the use of symbolism, the historical questions, the lack of gender awareness, and so forth. I'd been taught how to see more of the world in a book than I'd been able to see before. And I didn't like it because it was uncomfortable, I guess. Maybe it felt less pure, as though being able to follow only a story, only what is directly printed on the page, was more authentic than analyzing. I wanted the cigar to be only a cigar, to hear a joke and it be just a joke and not an indication of a problematic culture.

Ah, the good old days. I guess. Something like that.

But I still did not read all the books that were assigned to me. Refusing to read was my way of rebelling, maybe. Or an attempt to assert some kind of control over a life that felt happening regardless of my decisions. I'd done my best to fail high school, had come close, and was saved and carried into college as fast as my mother and high-school counselor could carry me. My dad had died. I was making a good amount of money as a waitress. I had a boyfriend. I had, basically, the necessary parts of a life that could continue on, day after day, in the small town where I'd been born. To my mind, I was doing all right without attending school.

I wasn't.

In a bigger city, in a bigger school, I would have not graduated high school, and life would have kept going because that's what life does, no matter what happens, it keeps going until it doesn't. Even in my small town, plenty of us did not graduate and life went on, taking the form of whatever versions are available.

I should probably talk to my son about the inevitability of life as much as the inevitability of death. Both seem as damnable in their own ways.

My mother had been a teacher. She had an understanding of the system that many parents don't have--that is, she had a confidence to talk to people, to enter the building, to speak on her daughter's behalf. She knew the language of education and educators. All while she's a new widow. When people asked what they could do to help, which is what most everyone says after someone dies, I doubt any of them imagined that one way to help was to tell my mother she was brave, to assure her of her decisions, to drive her to the high school to talk to the principal about my excessive absences, to drive the both of us to the doctor to discuss my depression of the moment and as a family inheritance.

Or maybe people did help her that way. I was a teenager and oblivious to the world outside of my head, and that was a limited world. Thank you, Mother. Thank you, community. I'm sorry I had to hate you in order to leave. It's the only way I knew to save myself.

I don't remember reading much then. I discovered Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar while turning the wire rack of my high-school library. I checked it out. I read it. That was important. Later, my English teacher told me of my life then, that I'd been missing from class often, and she remembers the day I came back.

Thank you, Mrs. Pierce.
Thank you, Miss Thomas.

Reading in graduate school was difficult. One part was reading the stories that my classmates were writing, as I was in an MFA program, and much of that means "workshop," which is the situation of reading a classmate's story and then discussing it as a class. The same is done to the story you've written. Some students thrive in this kind of situation. Some people thrive in parties, in crowded clubs, and find god in the rush of the subway. I did not, unfortunately. This was probably a large strike against reading or my desire to read because the new voices that tried to choir around the voice of analysis I'd learned in college weren't so nice. Well, often they didn't speak at all. It would be the turn for discussion around my story, and it would often be a silent discussion as though the professor had suddenly decided we would have silent reading time.

Which is awkward.

The other part of my graduate school experience was becoming an instructor, and much of that is not reading full-length books but reading non-fiction essays that are relatively short and manageable for a classroom of writing students to discuss, consider, and then write responses to. They are, probably, the effect of students raised on BookIt! and Accelerated Reader. Acceptably diverse, exceedingly readable, clear in the point and easily complicated. I'd never been a non-fiction reader, much less a reader of essays, but that's what I became for the next thirteen years. During this time, the internet helped my new non-fiction habit by providing the world's newspapers in my hand with just a scroll and a click. And I've been clicking and clicking. Clicking and clicking.

I wrote a book. I clicked and clicked. I wrote another. I taught.

Much of teaching writing is reading and preparing for class and then trying a different approach the next semester/quarter, and so that means new essays, more reading. Shifts in assignments. Writing new assignments. Discarding this set of readings, searching for more readings. And then, of course, the reading of student papers. Lots of student papers.

What are you reading?
Student papers.

That's the recurring joke in the halls of English departments. Followed by the laugh, the shrug, the yearning that means oh, to be alone in a library again with so many books--but this is good, too, just different.

After over a decade of teaching, I stopped. Some other day I'll address my life as an adjunct--the love of teaching coupled with the rage of position, and the resulting humiliation, shame, and powerlessness, not to mention financial struggle and the powerlessness that entails.

Reading had not, after all, led to security. In fact, my love for reading, my life of reading, my college training to be a reader had resulted in a life that was less secure than had I stayed in my rural town and continued waitressing.

But everyone discovers, eventually, that utopia is utopia. Well, not everyone, I guess. Becoming tenured allows some forgetfulness. Living in a neighborhood where teenagers don't crowd the corner and leave their milk cartons scattered across the sidewalk allows some forgetfulness. Washing dishes in water from the faucet not infused with lead allows some forgetfulness. Setting a cemetery on the outskirts of a community allows forgetfulness. Raising a son instead of a daughter encourages a kind of forgetfulness until I forcibly remember my son will become a man, a white man with blue eyes and blond hair in a country that already winks at him and pats him and endears him far more than were he a girl, were he dressed in raggedy sweatpants and a mismatching shirt too short in the sleeves, were he not white.

When I began writing every morning, I didn't start reading, too. I continued my habit of reading one or two books a summer, which began in college and suited the life of a teacher. One summer was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Another summer was Winter Light by Faulkner. Another summer Lolita by Nabokov and Kerouac's On the Road. Hemingway's Garden of Eden.

At some point, I discovered Ingmar Bergman and read his films like books, but faster, of course. Then I read more films like books and convinced myself I was doing the same thing. I wasn't. But I was analyzing.

But analyzing is not reading.

All the while, I continued to click and read articles, then scroll for more as though reading a thousand short articles is the same as reading one long book.

It's not.

But there's always more articles, titles to click, to like, to share, to comment on, to be disgusted by, to endanger one's belief in love and truth. There's also more books on a long shelf, but I'd changed the purpose of shelves and so I forget that, too. As a kid, my bookcase was full of books I'd read. At some point, it became a bookcase full of books I want to read. Some have sat there for nearly twenty years since I first found them in a box outside of a professor's door, marked free. More have leaned against each other for five and ten years. I became a want-to-reader. It's sort of a funny thing to be. I would visit the bookstore, follow the steps of choosing a book to read as I had my whole life, then buy it, and take it home. But instead of reading it, I'd put it on the shelf. If there are ghost writers, perhaps my future had become the ghost reader for my present.

All the while, I clicked and read articles and essays. Long ones, short ones. One article led to another, and I'd read that. In all those years, I found one excellent essayist: Eli Saslow. Read this essay-article by him: A Survivor's Life

This is not to say there aren't more excellent essayists. Clearly, I was not reading deliberately. By my method of running a dial up and down radio stations, I'd landed on one excellent song. Of course.

In all the essay-reading for my college students, I found an excellent writer: Georgina Kleege but I'd learned about her by wandering, some Summer day, in the San Marcos, TX public library and finding her book, Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller on the bookshelf. Very few of the essays in the college anthologies moved me in any palatable way. They were essays that served a different purpose, I guess, which seems silly to say now, since the purpose was to give excellent essays to writing students. Or should have been. I need to think about this more.

If I'd done any self-reflection in regards to my reading discoveries, maybe I would have changed my reading habit sooner. But I also had a way of rationalizing why I didn't read more, and this was to say I read only dead authors. There are so many, after all. Really, I don't like the discomfort of reading new people. It may be connected to my social anxiety. My therapist is dubious.

I heard a story on the radio once about song preferences and age. It was told by a man who must have been in his thirties or forties and found the music his twenty-something colleague listened to horrendous and ear-piercing. Whereas, the man continued to listen to the same songs he'd always loved as a teenager.

Comfort zones.

Of course, other things were happening in my life that made reading more difficult: a miscarriage, the disintegration of a marriage, a living baby, a new relationship, moving from one house to another, another three classes--midterms, another round of 90 student essays, each four-eight pages long. Breastfeeding, busyness, teaching, not teaching, writing, not-writing, needing-to-write, wishing-to-write, being a mother, becoming a runner. I was not supine on a beach with a hand empty of book, but I did treat reading like impossible exercise. I just didn't have the time. Busy, busy, busy. So busy. Man, I respect everyone who is reading, but I myself just can't do it. Maybe one day. Maybe when I get this-whatever figured out. Love to exercise, but you know. Time. Routine. Life.

When I stopped smoking, I had oodles of time. Oodles and oodles of time. It's disarming how much time I now gained. So, I later used that for running but not reading. And I'm glad I run now. Live long. Be well. Cheers to running.

There was also something romantic about being a writer who doesn't read. In retrospect, it was akin to the romance I imagined around smoking cigarettes like Rita Hayworth. Turns out, Rita Hayworth would have been beautiful without smoking cigarettes. Turns out, her beauty bled onto the cigarettes, and the smoke in her hair hurt her throat. Turns out, reading a book is necessary to a living, curious brain--even when the book isn't the best book there ever was.

Luckily, some romances end.

In September, I lost my non-reading habit. Two major things happened:
1. I volunteered to become a co-leader of a local book club.
2. I attended the Montana Book Festival.

The first book I read out of the drought was Sherman Alexie's new memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. Then I facilitated a discussion about it, and had a wonderful time. I loved reading again--having thoughts while reading, jotting notes, thinking about the book when I wasn't actively reading the book, scooping up time when I could to read. And to be around readers again. Turns out, my enjoyment of the book itself didn't hinge on the writing but on the experience of reading. Just as my enjoyment of books when I was a kid didn't hinge on the quiz or pizza but on the experience of thinking, learning, questioning, imagining, remembering, wondering, and all the things that occur while words transform their meanings into my brain.

Then, at the end of September, I attended the Montana Book Festival. I was to be on a panel of writers discussing the unhappy ending. To prepare to sit with these strangers and the anxiety, I decided to order their books. This, I thought, would make the terrifying experience less so because then I'd know what to say to them. So, that's what I did. Turns out, it takes longer to read a book in reality, but I still read one in full and started another, which I just finished this weekend.

Turns out, you can come back to a book and pick up where you left it and keep going.

I had a wonderful experience reading Polly Buckingham's The Expense of a View. It's a collection of stories that are quiet and beautiful and tragic in all the ways I thought no one was writing but wanted people to write.

Then I read Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho between reading Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories by Donna Miscolta, which I just finished this weekend. It's a beautiful and rich examination of a family originally from Mexico that immigrates in the 1930s, and follows the lives of the children and grandchildren into the present-day. I'm so glad to know this family, to have lived with them now these past several months. Lupita, I'm sorry your grandchildren set their children on your lap like you were an artifact. Rosa, I'm sorry what that man did to you. You tried to be beautiful when nothing else was. Thank you, Donna Miscolta for writing this book.

Last night, the book club met to discuss Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is an amazing book, a book to its highest degree, wrought and well wrought. Yesterday, I read his essay, Donald Trump is the First White President, which I'd scrolled past when it came out, but was too long to study, and so I'd printed it to read for a later that luckily came.

A most wonderful series of things has begun to happen because of reading long works again. One is I'm having the excitement again of wanting to shove books into people's hands, dreams of buying copies of Between the World and Me and just handing them to every person I pass. Read about the white woman who pushes his son on an escalator. Read about the yard at Howard University. I wept here, on page 117, when he's talking about his wife visiting Paris, France, and how it'd never been in his imagination of his life that he would one day see Paris. And she's showing him pictures of the doors, all the huge, colorful doors, that she took. And he writes "But now your mother had gone and done it, and when she returned her eyes were dancing with all the possibilities out there, not just for her but for you and for me. It is quite ridiculous how the feeling spread. It was like falling in love--the things that get you are so small" . . . [emphasis mine]. And I knew what he meant. And I wept because I, too, had grown up in a place with a limited narrative of what my life would be like, and I too had somehow found myself across the ocean later in life, and the doors of Ireland, how I just kept taking pictures of them. The little things. Yes. How our imaginations can be unflung. How our lives can be made larger and more beautiful and uglier and more hopeful and lovely and harder than we ever could know. But that's not quite that, either. But I don't have to explain it because I understand and feel it all when I read that passage. The act of reading knows what I mean.

And my memories are increasing. Just as memories rise when I'm writing, they rise when I'm reading. By not reading, I'd conditioned myself to relive a specific set of memories that rose from my particular writing. But now, with reading, I'm having memories I haven't for a long time, and part of that includes rethinking them, understanding them from where I am today, what I'm reading right now. So, I'm changing, too, and that's exciting. My plant has so many leaves to turn to the light. And there I'd been leaving them in a room with one tiny window far too high for all of them to reach.

And book clubs. I've never been in a book club. But I love this book club. I so enjoy discussing a book with other people, knowing that while I'm reading, they are reading, too, that we're doing this together, somehow. I like how the discussion is not the same experience as reading the book, and that I like it--I'd always imagined that the discussion would ruin the book, somehow, because I've never been a communal reader. Or, better, never understood my role as a reader within a larger community.

So, that's what I wanted to tell you. I'm reading again. And I joined a second book club, so I know what book I'll be reading this weekend. Next month, my book club is all coming with books we've chosen on our own, read, and then we're going to discuss them and then give them to each other.


Oh, dear world where I grew up and learned and then left. I'm back, Reading. And I'm so glad.