Bookminded

books, art, culture, and other things I love

Miss, Mrs., Ms.. and The Politics of Naming.

Yesterday, I wrote a piece on the politics of naming–use of the title “Mrs.” for adult women, or the default use of a husband’s surname–for WBUR’s Cognoscenti that touched a nerve–at least for a few commenters. Some suggested that I was being overly sensitive, while others echoed my discomfort–but the real reason I wrote the piece, which was to consider the question of why this can be a fraught experience for many women, seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

I wear a lot of hats. I am a wife and I am a mother. And I would say that for me, those are the two most important hats I wear. But I am also a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher, a writer, a really bad piano player…you get the idea. So in some contexts I do feel a twinge when referred to as “Mrs.”–and it is hard to explain why. Is it because it presumes (or privileges) one identity when ignoring the others? I don’t know. Would I feel better being addressed as Ms.? Maybe. Or by my given name? Probably.

There is no easy answer.

For some women, this is a non issue–not something they ever consider. And that is fine too. But to dismiss the fact that this *is* a gendered conundrum would be akin to wearing blinders. The truth is, men are always Mister–married or not. But it is only women that have to address the question of prefix titles once they are of marriageable age.

A male friend made this point: “A discussion on gender roles in our society is certainly something that matters, given that women still earn less than men and are still having to assert and prove themselves more rigorously than their male counterparts. And what may be just a silly name to one can mean a lot more to another…like the whole ‘marry’ vs. ‘civil union’ thing.”

And so. Where do we go from here? Address that how we are addressed is a topic worthy of debate. Allow other women to grapple with the matter–publicly, privately–however they see fit. And finally, appreciate the fact that our varied points of view  benefit us all–particularly when we take the time to truly listen.

Women wearing many hats. ;)

Women wearing many hats. ;)

Book trailers for readers?

My husband loves movie trailers. And for me, someone who is perpetually multitasking, the previews are something I can generally do without. If I catch them, great–but if not, no big deal. I am much more inclined to make my decision on what to see at the movie theater or what to select on Netflix because of a word-of-mouth recommendation or a printed review.

This holds true for books as well. I read the NYT Sunday Book Review with great enthusiasm. Devour the Books and Arts section of The Economist each week. Jot down titles I read about on The Millions. Listen raptly to Maureen Corrigan’s weekly NPR book reviews.

Something I never do? Look for a book trailer.

In fact, I did not realize this was a thing until I happened upon BookReels. Which is, you guessed it, a site devoted to book trailers. In fact, Publisher’s Weekly calls it “the MTV for books.” And on its website, the portal is described as a place where “Characters and their compelling stories leap off the page at BookReels, the web’s leading site for avid readers who want to preview their next book purchase the same way movie lovers preview an upcoming attraction: with trailers!”

Is this really what “avid readers” want? What do you think? Is this a way of creating more readers, or is it just a gimmick where books are morphed into visual productions before readers ever get the chance to render their own visions of the story an author tells.

Watch the “trailer” for John Kenney’s Truth in Advertising (a book that I actually read and enjoyed). Would something like this make you more inclined to read a book, or not?

Memoir Monday: Should there be a Q-School for memoirists?

Yesterday I came across a 2011 New York Times article by Neil Genzlinger titled “The Problem With Memoir.” The online text features a graphic with the word “memoir” in large block letters with a red pen correction crossing out the last four letters and inserting a period after the “me.” We get it, we get it—there is an overabundance of memoirs out there—and many of them are not very good.

First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

But we have a choice of what to read, just as editors have a choice of what to publish. Chances are, particularly in today’s publishing market, that editors are only taking what looks to be a good risk. Meaning, if a major publishing house publishes a book, market research likely suggests that there is an audience out there that is looking for that kind of book.

Even if it is one that some of us wouldn’t choose.

Genzlinger comments that historically, a writer had to “earn the right” to publish a memoir, “by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.” He goes on to note that “anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

Wow. I am not sure that I agree. Part of the reward for the reader is to read about an ordinary life made extraordinary through the artfulness of its prose. Further, who decides what qualifies as a “noteworthy accomplishment” or writerly “brilliance”? I am not sure that those are objective categories.

Sure, some memoirs can seem self-indulgent. Even still, some others don’t exhibit the artfulness upon which the genre insists. But without the sea of unremarkable memoirs floating about, we wouldn’t get to experience the pleasure of discovering a autobiographical gem like Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, Frank Bruni’s Born Round, Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, or Patti Smith’s Just Kids—and readers for sure would be missing out.

The Weekender: The Boston sports reporter that will inspire you.

Around these parts, local sports are like a religion. Everyone you meet has an opinion–especially when you are talking about our beloved baseball franchise, the Boston Red Sox. So for a sports reporter to survive in this town, he or she needs to be tenacious and focused, and able to build relationships with the players and managers that serve as the source of information. Though sometimes it might seem like sports radio can survive on contributions of listener speculation alone (ha!), that is definitely not the case. Time and again, it comes back to the story. And WBZ Radio’s Jonny Miller has a nose for it.

If you’ve ever heard the WBZ interviewer with the gravelly voice, that is Miller–who has lived with cerebral palsy his whole life. And as we close out this baseball season here in Boston (wah, wah!), Miller marks his 42nd year covering the team.

Photo credit: Robin Young.

Photo credit: Robin Young.

In a fascinating profile by NPR’s Robin Young, cohost of Here and Now, Miller describes his lifelong love of sports, particularly of baseball and his childhood passion for playing the game despite his physical challenges. Even still, he refuses special treatment–walking the labyrinthine twists and turns of Fenway Park aided only by his cane. When asked how he has survived so long in this tough business–that is, what he has that others may not–he concedes that he must work harder. Other people might be able to work faster or smarter, but he always puts the time in to do his job and do it right. And he asks the tough questions that less seasoned reporters won’t. His drive and determination has earned him the respect of his peers and his story subjects, and as Young points out, he is like the Helen Thomas of the press room–the venerable Washington reporter who was known for her tough questions (and for always leading off with the first one).

Jonny Miller is also a charitable guy–giving his time, money, and energy to a variety of causes–and is genuinely appreciative of all the chances he has been given throughout his career. Listen to Young’s profile of Miller here.
//embed.wbur.org/player/hereandnow/2014/09/26/johnny-miller-profile

It is time well spent to hear such an inspiring story of how a nice guy finishes first!

The Weekender: How Esmeralda Santiago learned to read again.

Are you familiar with Esmeralda Santiago? The Puerto Rican novelist of more than 16 books including the (wonderful) memoir When I Was Puerto Rican suffered a stroke in 2005 that left her unable to do the thing she loved the most: to read.
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Now she is the subject of a case study in the current issue of the medical journal Neurology Now that catalogs her slow rehabilitation to reclaim her reading skills. And a radio interview on NPR’s Here and Now this week, Santiago talks about how she slowly re-taught herself to read. She recalled coming to the States when she was 12 or 13 and needing to learn English because Spanish was her first language. The way she did it at that time in her life was to go to the children’s room at her public library and take out stacks and stacks of children’s picture books. She found that she was able to quickly acquire a series of words just by being able to match them with the corresponding picture in each book.

Santiago figured that if it worked once, it would work again. So as a 60-year-old woman, she was back in the stacks at the children’s room of her local library. And gradually reclaimed her abilities. She explains why she had such determination to Here and Now’s Jeremy Hobson: “Before you are a writer, you’re a reader” she said. “To me the idea that I was losing the ability to read was just terrifying.”

Though she confesses that her reading ability in Spanish it’s still not where it was before the stroke. She’s back to reading in English, she’s back to writing in English, but she commented on the fact that for her latest novel (Conquistadora) she was on unable to do this Spanish translation for it as she had for her previous work. But Santiago is hopeful that someday she will get back that which that she has lost.

And for now she’s grateful that she was able to read a work that she hadn’t gotten to before: Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “I read the war scenes, the stuff people skip over, because for me it was proof that I actually had recovered from the stroke, that I could read every word in that book.”

Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read.
If you are looking for a book that will surprise you, and is just about near perfect, than read E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. To offer the backdrop (a Massachusetts island, a short boat ride to Martha’s Vineyard) and some description of the characters (New England elites) and a plot summary (I can’t–it would give too much away), would diminish the impact this book might have on its reader. I will tell you that it surprised me at every turn and was just beautiful. I am not going to say any more than that. Just read it!
We-Were-Liars

To Listen.
How often do you listen to music that is not in your native tongue? Most Americans, I think, look for music in English, which is not how it is around the world–where people routinely listen to music in other languages. I am thinking of Europe in particular, though some of this may be due to the close proximity of nations (and obviously the fact that multilingualism is almost a prerequisite). One European musical export that I have been enjoying lately is Stromae (Paul Van Haver) who is a hip hop/electronica artist from Belgium. His music is in French, and is socially conscious–often dealing with weighty issues. Watch this video of his song “Papatouai” about a distant and absent father (Stromai’s own father was killed in the Rwandan genocide.

And read this week’s pieces from Time Magazine and Vulture for more about the artist.

To Make.
Well this is been a long week. I am so glad it is Friday! And I plan to make myself one of these apertifs as soon as 5 o’clock rolls around. You might try it as well. I am not sure if it actually has a name, but I am calling it “The Hildy” in honor of my new pup. She is a love, but definitely part of the reason that I have had a long week! Puppies are no joke.

So here’s how to make “The Hildy”:
The ingredients you need to have on hand are straightforward: some white wine–preferably a dry white–but just a basic white table wine will do. A bottle of St. Germain liqueur. Some plain seltzer. And a lemon. Fill your glass halfway with ice (I like to use a stemless wine tumbler for this purpose) then fill about half-way full of white wine add a little bit of St. Germain, fill the rest of the glass with plain seltzer, and garnish with a lemon wedge it is the perfect blend of tart with just a hint of sweetness and will get your weekend started off on the right foot.
photo

To Do.
Watch these clips.

Well, last night Captain Derek Jeter played his last game at Yankee Stadium. In Jeter’s 20 year career as shortstop with the New York Yankees, he has been nothing but a class act and a key contributor to the team’s success. Who can forget his leadoff homer in the 2000 World Series, his “Mr. November” walk-off in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series, or his  famous “flip play” against Oakland in the 2001 ALDS? (My son has watched this last one on YouTube countless times.) Last night was no different. Jeter closed the game with a walkoff single for a Yanks win the game.

I had tears in my eyes. (And I am a Red Sox fan.)

If you haven’t yet watched the Jeter “Respect” commercial, then you should. Regardless of what team you root for, Jeter has always been a class act and deserves all the fanfare.

Long live #2! RE2PECT.

Have a wonderful weekend! And Cheers.

Current Events: Celebrating the freedom to read.

Comic by Grant Snider (www.incidentalcomics.com).

Comic by Grant Snider (www.incidentalcomics.com).

In case you didn’t know, this is Banned Books Week, which is sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) as a way to draw national attention to the harms of censorship.  This is a time to think about the liberties most of us are in fact afforded when it comes to the books we choose. Read on!

Here are just a few of the most frequently challenged books that might surprise you:

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstein
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

Literary censorship is NEVER a good thing. Choose what is right for you and let others do the same. :)

Guest Post: With and Without My Library.

The most important books I own are The Chronicles of Narnia that I bought with my allowance in the fifth grade. Each volume has been read dozens of times (The Horse and His Boy several dozen, at least). They are puffy with water damage from the bathtub and the beach. They’ve gone away to college with me, been packed and unpacked in several apartments, and gotten me through breakups.

When I looked at my shelves, I saw my life through titles, starting with Narnia, and ending in 2009, when I switched over to ebooks. For a while I religiously kept track of what I read on Goodreads, though now if I’m feeling nostalgic I just page through my Amazon orders list. My bookshelves were no longer a visual memory jogger of my past or a symbol of my identity as a reader and librarian – they were just a beautiful, heavy piece of installation art.

With a move from one apartment to another looming in the weeks ahead, I found myself dreading the thought of packing and unpacking those books, all 1,100ish of them, and was exhausted by the thought of it. I kept wishing I didn’t have to deal with them, sort the same way you feel about someone you’re dating right before you break up. When I moved three years ago, I got rid of every single CD and DVD I owned, without even bothering to burn them (with Netflix and Spotify, why bother)? I haven’t once regretted that decision.

So I made the emotionally painful decision to do the same with my books, which clearly had become more of a burden than a piece of who I am. I looked into charities around Boston, and found More Than Words, a nonprofit bookstore run by at-risk youth, including kids in the foster care system. (My sisters were adopted out of foster care, so I am very biased and try to support that system as much as I can.)

Before I began sorting, I set some guidelines. I allowed myself to keep my Marion Zimmer Bradley collection, which includes the complete Darkover series that I hunted down one by one, as well as her rare pulp novels written under pseudonyms. I kept one book from each “phase” of my life: elementary school (Lewis’ Narnia); middle school (Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit); high school (Salinger’s Nine Stories); college (The Riverside Chaucer); grad school (Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses); and living in NYC (Belle’s Little Stalker).

I also kept a few books that remind me of great loves, and a few books that are just great. There are a few signed editions, though I’m not sure if I’ll keep these or sell them. Finally, I kept a half dozen or so that I want to read, enough so that I will even though they are in print and so heavy.

In total, this left me with about 125 books to my name, about 1/10 of the original number. I gave away half of my shelves, and filled much of the rest with plants.

While I was doing the packing and sorting, I felt liberated, cathartic. It was like instantaneously losing weight and exfoliating; it was while the boxes were going into the More Than Words truck that I broke down, getting choked up and almost ordering them to bring the boxes back. But I swallowed my emotions and said goodbye, thinking of all the good those books would do in their new home.

I don’t miss the books like I thought I would, not as a scrapbook of my life. I miss them as symbol of me as a reader. I just remind myself that I am – and always will be – a reader, whether or not anyone else knows it and whether or not I have an object to prove it.

Before and After.

Before and After.

Dawn Bovasso is a creative director in Boston and one of the most awesome (and smartest!) people I know. Thank you for sharing, Dawn!

Memory and the Physical Text.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed something curious in the college classroom. As online availability of texts has arisen, students have exhibited some interesting behavior. For all the talk of these digital natives preferring to streamline their reading material in order that it may be accessed on a device (rather than toting around various textbooks and readers), it seems that in practice, this may not be the case.

Despite what Microsoft and Amazon and Apple—and even US Education Secretary Arne Duncan might believe, this does not appear to be what students want. Though there are valid arguments to the exorbitant costs of traditional textbooks—and companies like Boundless, which seeks to disrupt this traditional model by providing cloud based course content that students can choose over the traditional print text that may be adopted by their instructor, I have yet to have a student that has opted for this model. This is a national trend outside of the classroom as well–in 2013, while 70% of readers read physical copies of books, only 4% read e-books exclusively.

This preference for the physical text does not hold to just course readers themselves—it also applies to syllabi and handouts. One semester I tried to go entirely paperless (in truth, this was spurred on by a copier breakdown on the first morning of classes and my last minute troubleshooting decision to project introductory course material using the digital projector). For the duration of the semester, I uploaded syllabi, assignments, handouts, and readings online. And every time, students either printed them out or asked me to furnish a hard copy (the latter usually occurring after the midterm, when they had exhausted their free print allotment on campus). It was good for the environment, I argued. It would declutter their backpacks and desk surfaces! But again and again they said that they didn’t want to read course material on a screen. They wanted a physical copy of the text.

Photo via Flickr user srharris.

Photo via Flickr user srharris.

I have even had this experience when teaching online literature courses. For a Classical Backgrounds class, I linked students to the open access texts via Tufts’ Perseus Project. For a Shakespeare class, I linked them to the unabridged plays online that they could download in a neatly collated PDF. In both cases—despite the fact that the method of course delivery was in itself electronic(!)—students asked that I provide the ISBN numbers for suitable print editions to the texts so that they could order hard copies.

Sure, there are some that have readily adopted the 21st century model of all-electronic all the time. But still for a large majority of the student population, physical texts are still where it’s at. I’ve wondered about this and not been able to find a suitable explanation for even my own inclinations which tend toward preferring paper over screen. I still keep a paper calendar. I still buy physical books. Though I was an early adopter of the Kindle, I found that my recollection of the books I read with my e-reader were just as ephemeral as the device’s battery life and so I returned to the physical book.

Could it be that we actually retain things better when we first encounter them in physical form? Some researchers seem to think so.  But why is it so? My students have said that it is about referencing things—they find it easier when they can flip pages back and forth. Others say that note taking is part of the issue—if they are reading something and trying to take notes or write a paper that will reference the text, it is more difficult to toggle back and forth between screens than it is to glance down at a book on the desk.

So, for now, it appears that paper is still a part of the college classroom. And I’m okay with that. In fact, I need to go now—I have some course handouts to copy.

Memoir Monday: Domenica Ruta’s With Or Without You.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” writes Tolstoy in Anna Karenina and in With Or Without You (2013), Domenica Ruta takes the well worn story of familial conflict and oppression and reworks it into a story that is hers and hers alone. With its concrete details and ugly honesty, it pulls the reader into a world where a daughter is forced to grow up much too soon alongside a mother who is stunted in her own adolescence.

Domenica (“Nikki”) Ruta might have been just like any other Italian-American daughter coming of age in the close-knit working class community of Danvers, Massachusetts, except her home life was different. Raised by her mother, a drug user, dealer, and eventual millionaire, Ruta experienced the kind of chaos familiar to readers of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle or Wendy Lawless’ Chanel Bonfire.

Mother Kathi snorts coke off the coffee table and stuffs a teenaged Nikki’s stocking with bags of pot. Yet she also works the system to make sure her daughter gets a private school education—from Catholic school to Andover to Oberlin—because she believes it is her birthright. She is loving one minute, cruel the next, and always ruled by her own code of skewed ethics.

In her introduction, Ruta writes of Kathi, “What else do you need to know about this woman before I go on with the story? That she believed it was more important to be a interesting person than it was to be a good one; [she] allowed me to skip school whenever I wanted to, and if there was a good movie on TV she wouldn’t let me go to school because, she said, she needed me to stay home and watch it with her; that, thanks to this education, I was the only girl in the second grade who could recite entire scenes from Scarface and The Godfather by heart; that she made me responsible for most of my own meals when I was seven and all the laundry in the house when I was nine; that her ability to make money was alchemical; that she was vainer than a beauty queen, but the last time I saw her she weighed more than two hundred pounds and her arms were encrusted with purulent sores; that she loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me; that at least once a week I still dream she is trying to kill me.”

Like other memoirs of its genre, With Or Without You offers just a part of the author’s whole life—and in this case, it shines a spotlight on the relationship between one mother and daughter who want the same things, but take very different paths to get there. Ruta’s prose is clear, restrained, and unapologetic in its honesty as it moves through difficult (and often horrifying) territory. A recommended read for sure.
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