Geography Club, Brent Hartinger

Geography Club was a book I picked up over the summer knowing full well that it was aimed at an audience much younger than me. I’m comfortable reading books meant for YA and even MG audience, and I would say this one falls somewhere in between. It’s definitely a novel I would have picked up and enjoyed in sixth or seventh grade, and as an adult, it’s a little light on the drama for me.

Part of me couldn’t help but feel that it’s a good thing though. The possibility of stumbling across a sweet, coming of age book that deals with the struggle of being a LBGTQA teen is slim. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard kids that I’ve worked with complaining about the fact that all the books that even tangentially represent them end with depression, critical injury, or death. While those books are certainly important (because sadly, those stories do represent the reality for too many teenagers), it is not the only story by a long shot.

When I was in high school, I had at least a dozen friends who had come out, not just to close friends and family, but to the school community. They were as happy as any other kid I knew, which is to say…some of the time life was good, and some of the time, it sucked. Relationships went south. Friendships were built over common interests and then allowed to slip away. Classes were hard or a snap or an escape from a difficult home life. Basically, everyone I knew, regardless of orientation, was just really busy. Rehearsals, soccer practice, Junior World Council, swim meets – endless hours, all filled to the brim.

Looking back, I feel exhausted for my younger self, but in the moment, it was ordinary. And honestly, I was less concerned with who wanted who than I was with meeting deadlines. Well, that’s not true. In locker rooms and green rooms and class rooms, we stuffed our entire social lives into five-minute between-the-bell increments. “Love” could rise and fall over the course of a single day.

This is not to say I don’t expect that relationships were harder for some of my friends than they were for me. I just don’t recall bullying being linked specifically to sexual orientation. I also don’t remember the teen mothers or the hearing-impaired students (our school had inclusive programs for both) being singled out, although it would be impossible to believe it didn’t happen. To me though, it seemed like bullying was targeted at a certain type of kid, a person who, through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, was an easy victim; in Geography Club, that kid’s name is Brian Bund.

While it’s critical to have stories about the Brian Bunds of the world (he’s actually my favorite character in this book), I also like finding a novel that’s focused less on the more on the ordinary foibles of adolescence. Yes, Russel Middlebrook is a gay teenager struggling with the decision to come out, but he’s also casually cruel in order to protect himself. He’s a clueless jock, and he’s a guy dying for acceptance when the only thing he believes sets him apart is also the thing he fears people knowing.

When it comes to deciding what sort of person he’s going to be, Russel has to choose between remaining silent in the face of hatred, or taking a stand. It’s not a cavalier decision to make, no matter how simple it may seem at a distance. I found myself often thinking of a well-known quote from a speech by Martin Nieöller that my best friend’s parents had up on their fridge throughout my childhood:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I remember wondering whether I would speak out to protect someone at great risk to myself, and I saw, over and over, how I did not. It’s incredibly hard to stand against bullies, against a frightening majority, especially during the fragile years of adolescence when everything seems impossibly significant. It gives me hope, even all these years later, to read about teenagers who choose to do it, who set an example of confidence in compassion. It doesn’t require perfection, but it does mean taking a risk, then living with the consequences.

For more about Brent Hartinger, go here.

To learn more about LAMDA Literary arm, head here.

Hurricane Story, Jennifer Shaw

On Sunday night, we got home from a three-week trip halfway across the country and back. In twenty days, we visited twelve states and drove over 6,000 miles. We visited roughly twenty-four friends (ten families), stayed in five hotels, one airbnb apartment, and in some of the most pillow-filled guest rooms imaginable (especially amusing since we packed our own beloved pillows and slept on them happily every night). We woke up at 4am in Albuquerque to see the first exquisitely peaceful dawn patrol of the city’s famous hot air balloon fiesta. We stayed out way too late in smoky jazz clubs in New Orleans. We played board games with my husband’s best friends from college, and watched his team win their homecoming game in the rain. I have a tiny clay “puppy” given to me the very first night of the trip by a new young friend, carefully protected from the ravages of the road with toilet paper wrappings, and I have beautiful autumnal pictures of Temple Square in Salt Lake City (mere blocks from where we had afternoon beers with friends who used to live down the street from us). We stargazed in Arches National Park and had catfish and green chiles and grits until all we wanted was something green. It was a wonderful trip. Exhausting and ridiculous in its scope, but still precious.

And because we were driving, I was able to justify buying a few books to add to my collection, although admittedly I forgot about most of them as they were lost under the detritus of car travel. This one though, this little volume of photographs, I’ve been carrying with me since New Orleans. My husband found Hurricane Story when we went to an after hours event at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We’d spent two hours wandering around the museum, mostly exploring the Gasperi Collection (self-taught, outsider and visionary art) while half-listening to the band that had been booked in the lobby (extremely loud punk-jazz…is that a thing? It’s what they sounded like). It was our last night in the city, and we’d spent the past few days digging into the history of the region (an absolutely fascinating part of the country I had known virtually nothing about).

I suspect that’s why I was so taken by Shaw’s story. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I remember the overwhelming imagery of a ravaged city, but I had neither been there, nor knew anyone living in the area, and it felt very removed from my life. I had no frame of reference for what was being lost, or even (despite the hours of news I watched) how it could be happening. Levies and wards were words that meant almost nothing to me. It wasn’t until I was walking the city, listening to people who had lived there for years, and exploring it for myself that I truly appreciated both the devastation and the resiliency of the community.

New Orleans is a fascinating mix of uninhibited exuberance and solemn tradition. The beads and the drinks and the food are shiny paper on a city that deserves to be unwrapped and appreciated more deeply for its political and cultural history. It wasn’t my favorite stop of the trip, but it is where I learned the most, and thought most deeply about many troubling aspects of our nation’s past and present. Shaw’s book added another dimension to my perspective of the city. I finally got to read about the hurricane nine years ago through the eyes of an artist, rather than a reporter.

 

For more about Jennifer Shaw, go here.

Untitled, Rainer Maria Rilke

One more week of vacation and I’ll be back full time, but for now, enjoy one of my favorite pieces by Rilke.

Untitled

My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.
Much stands behind me; I stand before it like a tree;
I am only one of my many mouths,
and at that, the one that will be still the soonest.

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.

And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

I’ll be back “in the office” in two weeks, but for now, please enjoy this lovely book based on a true story about chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo. The illustrations are gorgeous, and the story is a perfect follow-up to questions from little tikes about what makes a family a family. Spoiler alert: it’s love and commitment.

For more about the authors, head here. For more about the illustrator, this way.

Journey, Aaron Becker

From Sept 30 to Oct 21, I’m on a road trip across the south and I haven’t brought my computer with me. (Vacation! Hallelujah!) I don’t want to abandon you for three weeks though, so while I’m gone, I’ll be posting videos of some of my new favorite children’s books.

This week, I present Journey, an absolutely stunning wordless picture book I fell in love with this summer. When my mother refused to give me her copy, I ordered it from my local children’s bookstore, and the woman working there shared with me that Becker has a sequel coming out soon. (Update: the new book is called Quest, and I am already in love with it having seen the cover.) I’m incredibly excited to hear that. This book is my happy place, and I highly recommend that you watch the video in full screen, and then go get a copy for yourself.

For more about Aaron Becker, go run here.

You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, Julie Klam

I’ve really never considered myself a pet person. I think my parents would laugh, then shudder, to hear that because my brother and I banded together on very little as children, but one of those things was the acquisition of pets. My parents were powerless against the combination of our good behavior and camaraderie, and we always won. A pair of gerbils born after the pets in my third grade class turned out to be male and female instead of two males? Two of the meanest, most bitey rescue rabbits imaginable? A whole flock of finches saved from a college dorm? A turtle found on the side of the road during an early morning dog walk? Oh, and dogs? Of course we had dogs.

My earliest memory is actually the acquisition of the first dog my brother and I owned. He was a mutt fox terrier we got from the pound when I was three, and although I don’t know whether he came with the name Spot or I gave it to him (he was white with brown spots – I never claimed to be a genius of subtlety), I remember standing in the parking lot while my brother received enthusiastic doggy kisses.

That memory might as well have substituted itself for Spot’s entire life. I lived with him, but his love and adoration were saved exclusively for my brother and mother. He was a good dog, but he was, to me, like a roommate I never got to know very well. When he died (at quite an advanced age), I called my best friend up and found out the cat they’d had since she was tiny had died on the same day. That cat had been ornery and mean, and had loved my friend’s older sister to the exclusion of all others, but we were both still sad.

A few months later, we rescued another dog, an Airedale terrier mutt, who had been saved from an abusive home where she’d been chained beneath a porch, cut across the head with a knife, and taught to bark ferociously at men in uniform. She’d had a whole litter of puppies under there too, and even though she was big and sort of ugly (we affectionately called her Frankenstein for many years), she was a love.

By the time we got Shady Lady, my brother had left for college, and I was able to win her affection more readily. She would occasionally sleep on my bed, although the slightest noise would send her careening downstairs barking. I left to go off to school a year later though, and she became very much bonded to my parents, and then, of course, my brother, when he moved back to town. When she passed away in 2010, my parents decided to wait until after my wedding to get another dog. They didn’t want to be traveling too much while helping the new dog adjust. It was a tough year for them, and it was the first time I clearly understood that I was not a pet person. It was unbearable of my parents to live without a dog. When they rescued Willie (the beagle) in 2011, it was like a light came back on in their lives. Even though his nickname quickly evolved into Wily Willie (Google “beagles stealing food” to have some idea of what my parents willingly go through for this animal), they adore him.

That same year, I was out for a run and I came across a dog running loose in my neighborhood. It didn’t have a tag or a collar, and I had no cell phone to call for assistance. I stopped only because he seemed to think my running was a game and kept sprinting into the street – an act that earned me dirty looks from passers-by. After about fifteen minutes, a man walking his dog came by and reprimanded me for not keeping my dog on a leash. I explained to him, almost in tears, that he wasn’t my dog, that he snapped at me when I tried to get close, and that I really didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, he lived across the street and was able to get the dog into his backyard and took over all responsibilities from there.

When I called my brother, he immediately asked me why I didn’t just make a lead out of my belt. I explained to him that sweatpants don’t generally have belts, and he proceeded to give me a lecture on all the ways I could have helped that dog. My brother doesn’t understand; he’s the dog whisperer and has, on many occasions, jumped out of his car into traffic to rescue animals. He will then spend hours caring for them while searching for their owners.

I, on the other hand, barely notice that animals exist. I like them, sure, but I don’t feel that deep bond. That was part of the reason I wanted to read Klam’s memoir. I thought it might give me perspective. I wanted to better understand the pet people I came from, and she is very much like them. She’s a wonderful writer, funny and poignant, and I’ll admit I cried through about a quarter of the book. When it was finished though, I felt, if anything, more alienated from my family. Pet people are a certain kind of wonderful. They’re crazy, but it’s a warm, fuzzy crazy. Reading about it made me feel a little monstrous. How could I be so indifferent? And yet…I am. Sure, I’ll take a doggy cuddle now and then, and yes, my husband is trying to convince me that we need to adopt a cat, but honestly, if I never had another pet, it would be fine. Good, in fact, considering that my father took responsibility for just about all the pets I ever begged for (aside from the dogs, who are members of the family).

But you know, if you’re not heartless, this book is great. As for me, I’m sending my copy east to be appreciated by people far better than I later today…

For more about Julie Klam, head here.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Bank

I love that there exist books I must read in a day. It’s as freeing a feeling as diving into the ocean. I come up from a book like that sputtering, looking around at everything I’ve forgotten I need to do. The dishes are not just not done – they’re not even in the sink. They’re not even in the kitchen. The laundry hasn’t had a chance to get wrinkled in the dryer because it’s stinking up our closet. My email, which I prefer to keep as close to inbox zero as possible, suddenly balloons. I resort to scribbling down notes from phone calls or numbers for the doctor’s office on the white board on the fridge because otherwise it will be as though those conversations never happened. The book is all that matters.

I read at least a book a week, and sometimes more, so I feel comfortable saying that I read a lot. I read at the gym and when I’m waiting to pick up my husband from work. I stay up too late lying in odd angles to angle the light from his kindle onto my pages, and when I wake up sandy-eyed the next morning, I shake the cobwebs away by reading over breakfast. I’ve always been like this, obsessed, filling the empty spaces with words and stories and my own happy endings.

I do this regardless of the fact that some of those books aren’t the greatest. Not all books are created equal. But we know that, don’t we? We’re readers. If you stick with me here every week, if you’re willing to read about reading, you know this. You know that there are infinite books in the world, and some of them will make your blood sing, and some of them you’ll read every ten years like clockwork, and some you’ll donate without getting past the first chapter.

This is part of the reason why I don’t use a metric system here to talk about the books I read – four stars could mean so many things – I can’t quite wrap my brain about that kind of categorization. It’s not wrong, it’s just not me. I’m the kind of person who pets the spines on books when I have to leave them on the shelves in bookstores. I whisper to them. Don’t worry. Soon, the perfect person will be by, and they will find you and love you as you’re meant to be loved. I am overly sentimental.

When I found The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing last January, I staying with my parents. I’d come out with a couple of friends from high school. They were buried somewhere in Music History, and I was dragging a finger over all the overly stuffy fiction titles that end up in second-hand bookstores. I didn’t need a new book, so of course, I was already holding four of them, and this became the last. Girls was where I drew the line and demanded we buy and sit and have our bottle of wine (because the best bookstores serve wine and have couches where you can sprawl out with your compatriots, clutching your books and laughing over the fact that one of you owns a house now, and one is expecting a baby, and all are incandescently happy that while everything changes, this can still exist). So we did, and it snowed that night, which was perfect, and then I packed up and flew home, and it found a place beside all the orphan books I can’t bear to whisper goodbye to.

And it languished there. Many books do. I’m a raven that way, picking up more shiny titles than I have time to read. Until I do. And often, the paper and glue books I buy, the ones I grab without the benefit of Amazon’s carefully collated selection – often, they are the very best. I fell hard into this book, and the whole time, it reminded me of when I first read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. It was eight years ago, but I still remember it stitching itself into my soul like it was yesterday. It’s a funny feeling, and not entirely comfortable. Books like Girls tickle and prick at the edge between what’s right and what’s true. They remind you of the things you’ve done wrong, and the things you’ve left undone, but also of the fact that everyone does things wrong, and leaves things undone sometimes. Instead of loathing that imperfection, this book embraces the frailty that exists in all of us.