2017 In Review: My Year In Books

CaptureIn a year marked by tragedy—both personal and political—I turned to books, as usual, for solace, answers, escape, and laughter. I had set out to read 20 books in 2017 (I’d forgotten about this goal until I recently logged into my Goodreads account) and ended up reading only eight books. Better luck next year! Despite the many challenges of 2017, I found lots of pleasure in the books I read this year, and so I present to you (in hopes that you might enjoy a few, too) my year in books, in chronological order:

1. South and West: From A Notebook by Joan Didion

Only Joan Didion can publish excerpts from her notes and captivate an audience. As a fan of Joan Didion, I greatly appreciated this book. Written in 1970 after a month trip to the South without a specific story in mind, Didion’s notes offer a unique outsider’s perspective on life in the South and the reader can see through her observations how the mostly unchanged South has influenced our current political climate.

2. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Naht Hahn

I purchased this book shortly after my mom’s passing in order to start to grapple with grief (which as many of you know is a lifelong journey). Many of the ideas in this book resonated with me–particularly the idea that one shouldn’t try to push away suffering in order to find happiness; both have to peacefully coexist. Hahn also talked about the idea that we often let “les petites miseres” of life cause us more suffering than its worth. I’m pretty new to meditating (as in, I’ve done it a handful of times), but the mantras at the end of the book providing helpful centering exercises.

3. A Farm Dies Once A Year: A Memoir by Arlo Crawford

I’d come across this title on a list of promising nonfiction to read in 2014. I’d picked up the book in 2014 at a time when I relate to the narrator-a young 30-something who was questioning his purpose in life and searching for meaning. Also like the narrator, I fantasized about simplifying my life and moving to a farm to live and work of the land (instead I opted to return to the field of teaching). I finally read this book it in its entirety this year when I decided I was going to rotate fiction and nonfiction. I found that by now, I no longer could relate to the narrator and the story felt a little trite, the narrator a little whiny, and the idea of showing up to one’s parents’ farm to live and work for a year and then move a little too classic millennial for my tastes.

4. Moonglow by Michael Chabon

This book was given to me last Christmas by my mom and it turned out to be the last book she would ever give me, so this book has a lot of sentimental value to me in addition to it being a beautifully-written and intriguing story. We’d first heard of the book a couple summers ago while watching a segment on PBS Newshour where Michael Chabon spoke about his process for writing Moonglow, which is billed as a “faux-memoir novel,” and we were intrigued. The story takes place in 1989 while the narrator’s grandfather is on his deathbed. While on medication, he tells the narrator stories about his life, which is also interspersed with the narrator’s memories of his childhood. The novel plays with the conventions of fiction and memoir and I was pleased to hear Michael Chabon read from Moonglow and talk about his process this past fall at the 92 Street Y. I even waited in line and had the copy of the book my mom had given me autographed.

 

5-8 The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

     5. My Brilliant Friend

     6. The Story of a New Name 

     7. Those Who Leave, and Those Who Stay 

    8. The Story of the Lost Child 

I ended the year by reading the Neapolitan Novels. This was a delightful adventure that I recommend to anyone who loves coming-of-age tales that last over four thick novels. The story chronicles the life of Elena Greco and her lifelong friendship with Lila from elementary school until the present. The first novel is set against the backdrop of 1950s Naples, in a poor neighborhood where few residents go to school beyond elementary school, and the novels that follow trace Elena’s life through the decades amidst varying political changes and struggles of the time and relationships with family, friends, lovers, neighbors. One of the blurbs on the front cover of the first novel summarizes these novels best, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”

There is also some mystery surrounding the actual identity of Elena Ferrante,  the author’s pen name, which adds an even more exciting buzz to these already intriguing novels.

That’s all for 2017! I’m looking forward to reading more in 2018 (hoping to hit 20) and of course I’m looking for your suggestions! Here’s to another great year in books!

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Be Brilliant At It

“The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.” -Norman Cousins

This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!
This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!

 Several years ago, a friend loaned me his copy of Words I Wish I Wrote, compiled by Robert Fulgham. As a young professional, not too far removed from my idealistic liberal arts college days, my mind was blown by the nuggets of wisdom contained within its pages. As a writer, I wished I’d written every single one of these words as the title suggested. The above quote from Norman Cousins completely resonated with me and I’ve thought about it a lot recently as I’ve returned to the teaching profession.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about what we let die inside ourselves in the past few months as I made the choice to get back into teaching and the career path from which I strayed so far. I was starting to feel like I’d let so many things inside me die as I struggled to figure out exactly what I wanted to do career-wise. When I left teaching five years ago, I never gave myself a timeline as to when I’d return, but deep down I always knew I’d find my way back in some capacity.

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-Charles Bukowski

However, in the last five or so months, I felt as though getting back into a career I felt passionate about was beyond my reach. Five years had flown by and my most recent stint as a full-time server made me feel as though I’d reached the point of no return.

Naturally, when you feel so far from your desired path, feelings of self-doubt creep in. How did I get here? How could I possibly have let all of the things that make me who I am just fly to the wayside? It was almost paralyzing to think about all of the potential I was wasting. Was it gone permanently? It had been so long since I’d worked in an academic setting I questioned my ability to secure a job in that field. Had I inadvertently closed the door to teaching forever?

IMG_0779_4To me, there are few things more tragic than wasted potential. I love the way John Updike beautifully paints this melancholy picture of wasted talent in his poem, “Ex-Basketball Player.” He tells the story of Flick Webb, the best basketball player in his town’s history who now pumps gas for “he had never learned a trade, he just sells gas/ Checks oil, and changes flats.” Remembered for his hands that “were like wild birds,” Flick spends his free days at the diner smoking cigars, playing pinball, and drinking “lemon phosphates.” Instead of playing in front of adoring fans, he faces only “applauding tiers/Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads” at the diner. There are several Flick Webbs from my hometown who haunt my memory with their athletic and artistic prowess that went unrealized.

Your potential, rekindled.
Your potential, rekindled.

On the bright side, there is always triumph to be found in tragedy. The good thing about potential is that it is only wasted if you allow yourself to waste it. It can be rekindled. Though I felt so far removed from where I’d begun, I applied for teaching jobs and eventually found my way back into the classroom. All of the things about myself I missed were still buried within me. It was just a matter of bringing those missing pieces to the surface.

On one of my last days of waiting tables, I explained to a group of guests that I was leaving to teach writing. An older gentleman at the table simply smiled and replied, “Be brilliant at it.” Not a congratulations, but a you have an obligation to yourself and to the world to be brilliant at whatever it is you decide to do. This gentleman’s simple words have inspired me far more than he probably ever imagined.

Be brilliant at it. 

I challenge all of you to focus on whatever it is that makes you alive and be brilliant at it. The world is depending on you.

Does It Really Matter What Books We Read?

books
One can never have enough books.

Last week, writer Ruth Graham published a piece in Slate Magazine slamming adults for wanting to read young adult novels saying they “should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” She laments that adults who spend their time reading young adult novels are wasting their time because they’re missing out on the literary novels written for adults. Graham finds YA novels to be overly simplistic about the human experience, which is a problem because it asks adults “to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired.”

Understandably, this piece caused quite an uproar on the internet, prompting numerous rebuttals. One of my favorite pieces was from an author who happens to write YA novels herself. Her main message is enforced in the title of her piece, “Adults Can Read Whatever The Hell They Want.” I couldn’t agree more. 

Some of my favorite YA novels.
Some of my favorite YA novels.

I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed by the books they read. I hold a torch for certain YA novels because many of them shaped my life as a young reader and a young adult. Judy Blume’s books and the Ramona Quimby series are two such series that come to mind. I would re-read any of those books in a heartbeat. It’s fun to return to those reading experiences and recreate those memorable moments. I’ve always been overly nostalgic and that’s part of the reason I love revisiting books from my youth. In fact, when I first started working at a school, the first thing I did was check out a copy of The Westing Game because I’d had such fond memories reading it in the sixth grade with my class. As an adult, I read it in a couple of hours. 

I also read the classics.
I also read the classics.

Does it really matter what books we read? I say no. To me, the reading experience is what matters most. In our current culture where Netflix, Facebook, DVR, iPads, and a whole slew of other electronics and social media apps are competing for our attention and brain power, I salute those who pick books above all else. Read whatever you want, just read!

I find Graham’s opinion to be a bit elitist. She overly generalized adults who read YA novels. Adults who read YA novels don’t read them exclusively. And what’s wrong with reading YA novels for the sake of nostalgia or escape? Isn’t that one of the main reasons we read any way?

4 Lessons I’ve Learned In 4 Years of Blogging

Me in 2010, the day I embarked on my blogging journey. Hey there, iPhone 3!
Me in 2010, the day I embarked on my blogging journey. Hey there, iPhone 3!

Today my blog turns four. Four years ago, if you would’ve told me that I’d have a blog that would last for at least four years, I would’ve responded with, “what’s a blog?” Back in 2010, I knew nothing about WordPress, barely anything about Twitter–I was just looking for a way to create writing samples.

Fast forward to today and I can’t imagine a life without blogging. It’s become my strongest passion and something I absolutely love. It’s through blogging I’ve been able to connect with all types of people from around the globe, trade stories, learn new recipes, receive book recommendations, and simply be entertained. Blogging has opened my world to a whole new slew of people, events, and thoughts. It’s helped me tighten my writing and allowed me to continue to view the world through a critical lens.

As I sit here in my college friend’s apartment in Washington DC, a city I haven’t been since I was a newly 21 year old intern in the House of Representatives, I reflect on what I’ve learned in my years of blogging. Here are the four lessons I’ve learned in four years of blogging:

1) Don’t think, write.

Often times as writers, we stop ourselves before we start. We come up with an amazing idea and then toss it out the window before a post comes to fruition. I’ve learned that when an idea strikes my mind, I should just go with it. As my Creative Writing professor used to tell us back in college, don’t stop yourself before you even start. Get those ideas down and you’ll find that it will become a wonderful post.

2) Share the love.

One of my favorite things about blogging is reading and commenting on other blogs. I love sharing the posts I enjoy reading and promoting other talented and well-spoken people. You can’t blog in a bubble, you must be a part of the community!

I’m also a fan of getting people to start their own blogs. I know so many people who are talented and would benefit from sharing their opinions with the world. Just recently, I helped my friend get his wine blog up and running.

3) Get out of your comfort zone.

Say the toughest thing. I’ve found that some of my best posts have come when I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and discussed hot topics, particularly when it comes to politics and education. Those posts have fostered interesting discussions and have helped me to strengthen my own opinions and arguments. It’s also fun to get out in the field and research a completely new topic and see where it takes you.

4) Frequency is key.

In order to maintain the community surrounding your blog, you have to post! The number of posts I wrote in 2013 decreased significantly from the years prior and it definitely made a difference in the number of visitors that came to my blog that year. I saw a lot less traffic in 2013 because of that fact. This year, I’m making it a goal to post at least once a week.

Here’s to another year of blogging!

Happy Blogiversary To Me!

cheersToday marks my three-year blogiversary. Quite a milestone, if I may say so! I’d actually forgotten the exact date I took the plunge into the blogosphere until today when my WordPress account prompted to renew my expiring domain name (something I have to do annually).

Three years ago today, I bought my own Tweetupdomain name and started a blog so that I would have writing samples for potential employers. Little did I know that blogging would catapult me into a completely new career path and take me into the uncharted waters of tweet-ups and other social media/blogging-related meetups. Not to mention the countless people I’ve met virtually and in real life thanks to this medium.

I don’t think I ever thought about where blogging would lead me or what would actually become of this blog. I simply just wrote in hopes that someone, at least–if not solely–my parents, would read, enjoy, be entertained, and be challenged by what I wrote.

breakfast sandwichMy first blog post was about a sandwich. I’m a woman of many words when it comes to the foods I enjoy, so it’s no surprise that food posts have made many appearances on this blog. I’ve shared family cooking traditions, expounded upon my own food obsessions, and even passed along a recipe or two.

classroomAnother thing I’ve loved about having this blog is that it’s been a great forum for creating dialogue on social issues that are important to me such as education, health care, and the latest happenings in local government. Facebook and Twitter rants don’t quite do it for me.

I raise my glass to you, Prince William!

Then of course, there’s the lighter side. That’s the great thing about having a blog called Ramblings, I can write about whatever I want. Conversation starters for the socially challenged, gushing over my literary crushes, reflecting on an old celebrity crush, requesting to work for Saturday Night Live in a cheeky cover letter, lamenting the death of romance, ranting about Comic Sans. One of my greatest joys came from solving the age-old mystery from my youth about the disappearance of the other Cinnamon Toast Crunch bakers.

Perhaps the biggest laugh for me is in realizing that Snooki has provided my blog with the most traffic. Thanks to the post I wrote about her publishing a novel, there was always a spike in traffic to my blog on Thursdays just before Jersey Shore aired. Thank you, Google image search!

So, what’s next? What will the next three years bring? More of everything, I hope! For starters, it’s time to get back to a more frequent blogging schedule. Second, it’s time to get more personal. Perhaps throw in a bit more about my own life, only the interesting parts of course! Lastly, I really want to take a look at how I can engage foreign readers. Within the last year, WordPress started keeping stats on clicks by country. It’s really cool to look at the map of top views by country for my blog:

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People from Myanmar have visited my blog? Not to mention Albania, Egypt, Mauritius, Australia, and India. It blows my mind! If only I could get this visitors to speak to me and share their stories. The possibilities would be endless. I would love to find a way to foster an international conversation.

We’ll see what’s happen. Here’s to the next three years and beyond!

Champagne toast!
Champagne toast!

Reading Ray Bradbury

ImageMy first encounter reading Ray Bradbury came in the sixth grade, when my teacher had us read “All Summer in a Day.” This story became an instant favorite of mine. I often wondered what it would be like to only see the sun once every seven years, especially during streaks of particularly grey weather. I wanted to know how the girl felt after the story ended, when she realized that she had missed her one chance to see the sun for seven years. I also couldn’t fathom how kids could be so cruel to another classmate.

In the ninth grade, it was Fahrenheit 451 that left an impression. Outlawing books?! I couldn’t fathom a bookless existence. Through this reading experience, I also discovered that I, in fact, enjoyed science fiction as a genre. I loved the idea that science fiction provided social commentary.

As a middle school English teacher, I was drawn back to “All Summer in a Day.” One of the many joys of teaching is the fact that you get to share your favorite stories with a new generation of students. Of course, when I reread the story as a teacher, I came at with a different perspective. First of all, how could the teacher leave her students unattended? Second of all, how did she not notice that one of her students was missing when they went to play outside? Beyond those nitty gritty details, I found that “All Summer in a Day” was an excellent way to open a deeper discussion with students about tolerating differences among classmates.

Although Ray Bradbury has left us physically, his stories remain for as long as we keep them alive. It’s our duty to share his stories with future generations so that the truly great American writers, like Bradbury, will never be forgotten.

Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

Where do your best ideas come from? I always get my ideas for my next blog post or piece of fiction while in the middle of doing something else. As of late, the shower, the treadmill, and my bed have been my greatest sources for finding inspiration for writing. It’s in these places that the part of my brain that generates ideas can finally relax and spew out ideas as it pleases. If I sit down at a blank computer screen and say, “Write! Write! Write!” there’s too much pressure to produce. But, if I’m standing in the shower focusing on getting the perfect shampoo lather for my hair, the pressure’s off and ideas are born!

Do you have a specific writing ritual that is conducive to coming up with great ideas? I’ve always been interested by the unique writing rituals of famous authors. My writing rituals aren’t too quirky (yet)–I like to write while sitting cross-legged on my bed, on the floor of my living room, or while sipping a glass of Sauvignon blanc. Here’s a look at some of my favorite writing rituals of famous authors:

Perhaps it’s time to adopt a quirkier writing ritual. I used to be very particular about the kinds of pens that I used when writing, but that habit has dissolved now that most of my writing is done on the computer. Maybe I should create some sort elaborate writing den in my apartment. Or incorporate sitting in Central Park or maybe a long stroll down Park Avenue into my daily writing routine.