100 Book Project: Book #67: The Unsavory Book about Chocolate

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (1974).

This is not a feel-good book. I'm glad I read it, but I don't want to pass it on to anyone else because it left me frustrated and empty like some really good books tend to do.

The story is set in an all-boys Catholic high school lead by Father Leon, a bullying priest who threatens and humiliates students publicly to teach "lessons."

The polar opposite of Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets Society,  Father Leon is more focused on money than education, and makes it a priority for every student to sell 50 boxes of chocolate at $2.  Participation in the fundraiser is voluntary, but secret clubs and varsity sports groups all agree to support Father Leon's chocolate sale, and 100% conformity is expected

One  student refuses to sell chocolate. 

He is the individual who wants to test limits and also be respected for expressing his opinion.

At first this causes no problem but as more students come to support and admire the dissenting student, Father Leon sets off an escalating culture of oppression and violence by the student's peers. Ultimately the individual who stood up for his right to not sell chocolate is attacked several times and in the last pages of the books is being taken to a hospital. In response the other boys shrug and look for chocolate to eat, ready to find another way to direct their testosterone.

This book was about as enjoyable as Lord of the Flies. If you've read the book, you understand. Some parts are hard to read, hard to imagine. You want to put the book down, cross the words out, skip to the next scene and pass over the ugliness but you cant.

The Chocolate War, Book #66 assigned to me by my college students, is important to read, important to talk about, but not the happiest way to spend the last Sunday afternoon in August.

100 Book Project: Book #66: "Oh Yes. Yes, yes, yes."

Book #66:  Nice Girls Finish Last by Natalie Anderson part of the “Working It” series that can be purchased at K-Mart for $3.74 (and online as an ebook)

The Harlequin mark on the top corner told me this was a romance. The wedding ring in the corner promised the “happy ending” would be a culturally appropriate goal that would sanction sex – marriage.

I haven't read a book like this since  the early 90s, since before the internet and DVRs and OnDemand, back when watching OJ’s slow speed chase was downright riveting. I remember spending a summer buying these books by the bundle at a thrift shop then curling up in my too quiet room reading a book,  leaving my corner of the universe and disappearing into the passionate dramas of disowned heiresses and their ilk through torrid PG-17 affairs set hundreds of years ago and thousands of miles away which always always always end happily in that they never deal with what comes AFTER a single woman "hooks" a man in marriage.

This book is set in far away New Zealand, where Lena, the twenty-something single protagonist finds herself working for a rugby team. In the first pages she is forced (forced!) to pour oil on the sweaty half naked rugby players.  They were hazing her because she was new, because she was hot and reserved and basically uptight. 

Then Lena meets Seth and they have instant chemistry.  

He is not a rugby player, they like each other instantly and by that night they are having PG sex.

Pleasure. Such pleasure. Profound pleasure…. Pure power-filled delight bubbled up from within, finding release….” And “He wanted it to go on and on – this tension that put her at his mercy.”

Now, if Lena were in her 30s or 40s or even if Lena were a bit “smarter” she would have thanked the universe for sending her a hot millionaire who was into her.

But no. She does this whole “we can only have TONIGHT” thing and tells him he’s like a too rich dessert and sends him on his way.

Seth is older than Lena, more accomplished and generally but irrationally pursues Lena while she’s telling him that she’s no good for him and they can be nothing but a series of one night stands.

  We find out Seth’s dad cheated on his mom and ultimately broke his family up, and that Lena once had an affair with a married man and hoped to break that family up but ended up humiliated.

To her, this is the fatal flaw that makes her unlovable, that allows her to neurotically and irrationally distance herself from Seth who is obviously a gift from the universe.

 If she were my friend I would tell her to stop living in her head, wake up and live in the present. For example, if you’re on a plane and a perfectly delicious stranger sits next to you, I suggest you say thank you to the universe that arranged this moment and see what kind of conversation unfolds and where it takes you.

Lena doesn’t have many friends in this book, which conveniently leaves room for her to wallow in her on her own self-centered thought cesspool of a woman who was not yet accomplished in her career and life and had too much time to think about herself.

By the end of the book Lena has confessed each and every one of her moral and physical and emotional shortcomings to Seth.  

This makes for awful small talk.

They never discuss the world, they never laugh together, they never even just take a walk.

Every single discussion they have is about their hearts, their flaws, the impossibility and urgency of their need for each other, like their relationship is a grenade that can blow them up separately and together.

When they aren’t talking to each other about their fatal flaws and everything they’ve done to be unworthy of each other, they’re thinking about each other, heavy painful thoughts, so dramatic I found myself covering my mouth and laughed quietly so as to not disturb their lamentation over treasure

The book ends with Lena finding a bit of maturity and therefore finally capable of feeling loved by this guy who ultimately proposes to her at the end, to which she replies, “Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes” and the book ends. I wish them luck, and hope they use birth control until she deals with some of her issues.

100 Book Project: Book #65 - Wonderful Indeed (Angels in the ER by Robert D. Lesslie, MD)

Angels in the ER by Robert D. Lesslie, MD

Hello, My Name is Melissa and I’m a bookaholic.

Even though I haven’t finished over 40 of the 138 books my students assigned me before this semester, I still succumbed to the insanity of my addiction and asked this semester’s students for more books. 

I planned to spend today writing up a list of all the new books I’d been assigned but I couldn’t, because I had to cancel classes the day two of my classes were bringing me books. 

I never wanted to be the professor who cancels class the first week but  this is what happened. 

 Last Sunday I woke up unable to move my right hand. I thought I slept on it funny, so I rubbed it, stretched it, and ignored it.  Monday it got worse. Tuesday, worse – so bad, in fact, I walked in to my new class and dropped my half-full diet coke right in the doorway because my hand was too weak to hold it. 

Probably my awesomest first impression ever, besides the year that my shirt zipper broke before the first day of class so my only option was to turn my shirt backwards and wear it to class. (Top that.)

On Thursday I go to my doctor. We look at all sorts of blood tests I need for scary diseases that could be causing this sudden onset of pain when she points at the cast on my left foot.

How did you hurt your foot?
Walking the dog.

She nods. I nod.

I remember, right then, holding fast to my dog’s collar when she suddenly leapt into the air and tried to fly into a tree after a squirrel.

She nods at my story and then asks how long I’ve had “this dog” because it seems like she’s putting quite a beating on me. 

I shrug the question off and ask what to do next. She sends me to another doctor, and that one does more squeezing and pulling and squinting at x-rays then puts my hand in a splint with orders to keep it immobilized for two weeks (except for typing, right? I didn't ask, but that’s OK, right?) and here we are.

I can’t yet give you the list of all the books my students are assigning me for this 150+ book project, but I did already finish one: Angels in the ER by Robert D. Lesslie, MD.

 I’m not sure that I haven’t read this book before, the stories seem familiar, or maybe it’s the format of meditative vignettes that feels like a deeper “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” 

Before I started the book I marched it into Zoe’s room and waved it in front of her, trying to distract her from three pages of algebra sprawled across her lap and bed, highlighted green yellow pink and orange with evidence of her concentration.

Looky! An ER book!

She pulled a headphone out, nodded at me and said; “Thanks, leave it right there” pointed at the foot of her bed and went back to solving polynomials and their friends. 

I hug it to myself and leave the room. She follows me and spots a book called Uglies, which I’m pretty sure she finished before lunchtime the next day.

I read Angels in the ER over the course of a morning and afternoon, although I could have finished it faster. It’s the kind of book that keeps good company, speaking in sentences, pages, chapters or hours, whichever you need.  

Written by a physician who is also a talented storyteller and devout Christian, each of these stories take the reader to the edges of the human experience – grief, mercy, patience, violence, faith, addiction, deceit – then brings them back, concluding each lesson with the spiritual fruits that come from walking with each other through our darkest days.

I really enjoyed this book (although I did find out it takes two hands to hold a diet coke and a book at the same time, which is one more hand than I have), because the author is a man who didn’t take a singular path in life: he could’ve decided to call himself a “doctor” and let that direct his identity. Instead, he chose the harder path of  finding all of his talents and using them to light the path for others. Wonderful indeed.

After typing this up for you but before reading the final proof, and putting the splint back on my hand (you saw nothing, got that?) I reach into my bag of books pick book #66, a slim white covered book with the head-scratching confusing title, “Nice Girls Finish Last.” I’m a nice girl (I think) and have no idea what that title means or this book could be about, so I decide to read it before the FSU game tonight.

100 Book Project: Book #64: A Serious and Important Book. Another One I'm NOT Giving Back*

From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking by Chris and Toren Volkmann.

Before I settled down to read  this book I messaged the super-sharp extra successful student who assigned it to me and asked how he ended up with this book.

He messaged back that his mother gave copies of this book to him and to his friends.

I messaged back "Wow, you have quite a Mom!" then sunk into this brave book, captivated by the  brutal honest discussion of the disease of addiction.

Half of this book is written by a mother of three boys who tries to make sense of how and why one of her sons became an alcoholic. Her chapters are filled with statistics about the cultural acceptance of binge drinking on college campuses and suggestions on how parents can prepare their children to NOT become part of the 33% of college students who have alcohol disorders.

Addicts are people who continue to use a substance despite it's adverse consequences, and Toren does a great job letting the reader follow his path from insanity (addiction) to surrender and sanity (sobriety).

The other half of the book was the bold honest diary of Toren, who we follow through happy drinking, problem drinking (getting kicked off campus, evicted from apartments, kicked off sports teams) binge drinking (finishing the beers other people leave, drinking tequila for breakfast and brunch etc), blacking out (finding letters from people that say "I brought you home, but I'm sure you don't remember me), and eventually having to leave his post with the Peace Corp.

His writing was my favorite part of the book.

For example, in explaining how addiction is a disease of insanity and denial, he relates the time he decided to quit smoking cigarettes:
During that week in Arizona, I managed to go through a generous supply of painkillers made available by a friend.  For the better part of seven days, I accompanied the painkillers with constant drinking, a few nights of heavy ecstasy dosing, and a bunch of cocaine to finish it all off. All the while I impressed myself by abstaining from smoking cigarettes. This made me feel in control.... but my nose was bloody, my mind was numb, my mouth was dry, my heart felt weak and my soul felt sick. (64)

After reading this book I am much more hesitant to have a glass of wine in front of my kids; I now see alcohol as a dangerous drug.

I definitely will not be giving this book back to my student -- I need to keep it as a resource.

Meanwhile, I could sure use a happy fun quick read after this very dense, important and powerful book. .

100 Book Project: Book #63: Creativity, Despair, Brilliance

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

After I finished The Virgin Suicides and wrote it up for you I sat quietly and .... and.... I didn't know what to do with myself.   I took the dog outside, all the way to my 50 step broken-foot limit.

I did laundry and dishes and things moms HAVE to do and when that was all done I sat quietly again and wondered how to fill the rest of my day.

I looked at the books I'd brought home from my office and picked the fattest one,  peeked at who assigned it to me and put it back. His endorsement didn't bring much weight in my world, and besides that this book looked suspiciously new and unread.

Next to the book was one a former student sent me. I trust her. She's a military mom who's been working her way through college for years and finally sees graduation on the horizon. Any woman who can work as hard as she does earns my respect; the fact she reads more books than I do keeps me humble.

 I pick her book and sit down on the swing behind my house.

Immediately I can tell this is the right book to read after Virgin Suicides.

The book opens with puzzlement over sudden death, just like Virgin Suicides, and tells the story of a bereaved husband who desperately wants to understand if his wife Lexy committed suicide or if her death was an accident. The only witness to Lexy's death was their dog, so the protagonist takes himself on an year long academic journey to learn how to teach the dog to speak so that the true story can be known.

The story is told through the present voice and flashbacks, recollecting how they met (square eggs were involved) and their first date (I won't ruin the story for you) and the ensuing dance of bringing their lives together.

Through the flashbacks the narrator admits to himself and the readers that his free spirited artist wife has a mood disorder which sends her into flashes of creativity, despair and brilliance.

If I told you I couldn't put this book down, I would be lying, and we have gone too far along this journey for me to lose your trust, so here is the truth.

I put this book down for about 20 minutes so that I could film my son getting ice poured on his head. The first "take" didn't work out, so he had to dry off and do it AGAIN.

After that I had the pleasure of filming my son pouring ice on his friend's head.

When they were satisfied they had joined the movement that was sweeping the country, I handed them towels and headed back for my chair to follow this wisdom journey through Disney World and Mardi Gras and around people who were good bad and ugly to it's graceful poetic climax.

Read this book, then (if you can part with it) lend it to a smart wise friend who has great taste in books and authors.

I can't follow my own advice -- I love this book so much I'm sending my mom a new copy than mailing her mine.

100 Book Project: Book #62: The Book I Would Trade for My Puppy

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides.

Wow. Ten words into this book I knew I was reading something written by a genius writer and storyteller. Ten pages into the book I couldn't put the book down. Ten pages later I check the front and see when the book was published in 1993, the second year of my PhD at FSU and some of the darkest loneliest times of my life.

I wish I'd read this book and let the authors brilliant words and masterful plot crafting move me.   I guess the saying is true, "When the reader is ready, the story appears" and I wasn't ready for the wisdom and beauty of these pages yet. (I made the saying up, you aren't going crazy).

This book is as good as Great Expectations (the writing is better) and needs to be on every shelf that already contains The Perks of Being a Wallflower,  Catcher in the Rye, Paper Towns and other coming of age books.

What is so great about this lyrical tragedy? Everything.

Tied for first place: the writing and the plot.  

Here are four quotes from pages 168-169, which I randomly picked. Every single page of this book is this sharp.
"Sometimes as she (Mrs. Karafilis) passed we'd tell her the latest about the girls, and she'd cry, "Mana!" which meant something like "Holy Shit!" 

"We  Greeks are moody people. Suicide makes sense to us. Putting up Christmas lights after your own daughter does it - that makes no sense." 
"Winter is the season of alcoholism and despair. Count the drunks in Russia or the suicides at Cornell." 

"From her weekly baths of Epson salts, she talked of the girls, or to them,  we couldn't tell which. We didn't get too close or listen at the keyhole because the few contradictory glimpse we'd gotten of Old Mrs. Karafilis, with her sagging breasts from another century, her blue legs, her undone hair shockingly long and glossy as a girls, filled us with embarrassment."
Here is a quick plot overview.

A group of middle aged men convene retrace the lives and deaths of the girls in one family who all committed suicide when they were all in high school together.

Their investigation lead them to interview characters that pop from the pages reflecting the good and bad and ugly goings on in 1950s white suburbs.

I was concerned this book might glorify suicide (like the book "Thirteen Reasons" which you should NOT give a teenager) but at the very end the narrator's tone changes from investigator to a mature man who is looking for closure over this

The book concludes with the admission that the investigating group will never know the true reasons all 5 girls in one family commit suicide and that their entire journey to piece the truth together has just been chasing after the wind because "the essence of the suicides consisted not of sadness or mystery but simple selfishness. The girls took it into their hands decisions better left to God... they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together." (243)

Read this book and pass it on to a friend.

PS, Jordyn H** ~ I'm not sure I will be able to give you this book back, I love it too much. Can I offer you a very sweet puppy with sharp teeth instead?

100 Book Project: Book #61: You are Loved

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D.

I can't even begin to review this book for you without this disclaimer. I like books like this. I believe this stuff. If you already think you believe and you haven't read Many Lives, Many Masters, just go get a copy and let me know what you think.

If you don't like books that write about the soul and the complete connection we all have all the time with God, then definitely don't pick this book up.

This is a very popular book that has an explanatory title, so I feel silly explaining the book to you but it would be rude to skip an overview so here it is. This nice man has a near death experience and... well, guess where he went?

I loved it, and if a friend lends you a copy, thank them warmly and read it as soon as you can.

Here are my two favorite quotes from the book -
"The universe has no beginning or end, and God is entirely present within every particle of it." (156)

"You are loved. Those words are what I needed to hear as an orphan, as a child who'd been given away. But it's also what every one of us in this materialistic age needs to hear as well, because in terms of who we really are, where we really come from, and where we're really going, we all feel (wrongly) like orphans." (170)

100 Book Project: Book #60 - The One I Spent a Month Reading

When I asked my students to assign me 100 books for this project, I specifically asked for no porn, no chemistry textbooks and no Bibles.

A former student wasn't there for this mandate saw fit to join the project by sending me his favorite book. When I  received the book (Thanks!!0 I flipped it to back cover and read that the books will revive my spirit and show me how to be fueled by God like never before.

  It sounded interesting, but nothing I needed to read urgently.

 I started this project going hard in January, reading up to 2 books a day and writing about them immediately.

"Fresh Air" waited patiently while I worked my way through "If I Stay" and "Mockingjay."

 This book waited while I rode a tidal wave of  inspiration from Book #50, got a puppy and broke my foot, cleaned the kid's rooms and moved furniture (with the broken foot, yes).

"Fresh Air" waited and waited and when I finally sat down to read it, I liked it right away. Ish. 

In real life I'm not cozy with protestant church going peoples so I was wary of this pastor man and read the first chapters very slowly, pen in hand, ready to question everything.

Ten pages into the book I knew I'd been given spiritual treasure, so I gave the book my intentional deliberate attention and tried to finish the book in one day (it's only 200 pages, that should be 3 hours, right?) but something happened.

This book disappeared.

 I wanted to finish it, I wanted to be DONE but I couldn't find it.

For two weeks I hunted high and low (under the bed, on the top of the closest) for this book but it was nowhere to be found. 

Unable to finish it, I was stuck meditating on what I'd already read.

Then when I stopped looking I found Fresh Air hiding in my computer bag, curled up with the keyboard. 

I read more of the book, put it down to make a sandwich and lost it again for a week, when it reappeared on top of the refrigerator.   

On my own I wouldn't have taken so long, but because this book MADE me read it slowly, I feel like I've had more time to reflect on the wisdom in these pages, and for that I'm thankful.

The part of the book that most deeply influenced my summer was the author's discussion of the Sabbath and the commandment to rest.  I felt like the author leaned over his protestant pulpit and reminded us of Psalm 46:10 -  "Be still and know I am God" -- then pointed at me in the back row,  fidgeting and looking at people's shoes and checking the ceiling for spiders and writing my next semester''s syllabus in my head --- "Many of us need to relearn how to slow down and come to a complete standstill." (172).

I took this book seriously, and spent the better part of August sitting still, waiting quietly and expectantly for blessings that always come.

39 books to go!!!

I can't expect my college students to walk in the door knowing whether the US is a communist nation or not.

20 years ago this week, I taught my very first college history course as a grad student - LAH1093, Latin American Civilizations at FSU. Since then I've finished my PhD and taught US, Latin American and World History courses at Loyola University, St. Thomas University, Barry University, Nova Southeastern University, Broward College and Tallahassee Community College where I've been full-time since 2005.

 I've learned over the past 20 years that I can't expect college students to enter my classroom with anything but the ability to read and write English.

My job is to diagnose what they know about the world in general and the US in particular, figure out what they NEED to know and connect it all into a memorable and meaningful college history course.

Maybe other colleges can expect more.

Maybe the limited admission colleges that require SAT/ACT scores,  essays, recommendations and application fees get a different breed of student. 

I only know what I have seen. 

I can't expect my students to know what country the US gained independence from, or when the US became a nation.

 In the most recent pre-tests I gave my class only 12 out of 40 students identified "Great Britain" or "England" or anything along those lines as the country the US won our independence from. Other answers ranged from China to France to "Germany? and/or Cuba?"

I can't expect them to know if the US is a state, a city, a country or a continent.

I can't expect them to be able to articulate the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and I certainly can't expect them to name the first colonies and states. 

 I know for sure that less than 1/3 of my students have a clue what the Louisiana Purchase was, and fewer have any idea of the importance.

I can't expect my students to know that the Mexican-American War was between Mexico and the US (really, I have documentation to back this up) or that the Spanish-American War was between the US and Spain (again, I can't make this up). 

I can expect my students to put WW1 and WW2 in order, but I can't expect them to list major battles, identify our allies or give an overall description of the war.

I can't expect them to find Puerto Rico on a map or know what language(s) might be spoken there (much less why). 

I can't expect my students to know the basics of geography, to name the 7 continents or find the major waterways that have shaped world history. 

I can't expect them to name capitals, empires or oceans.
I can't expect my students to name 5 countries in Latin America. 
Example #1:  Ala; Africana; Arlllia; Elkia; Ewe
Example #2: Brazil, Equador, Amsterdam, Phillipines, Alamo

I can't expect my students to name 5 countries in Africa.
Example #1: South Africa, Lapos, Lapa, Lauppas, Lapps
Example #2: Madagascar, Nigeria, Korea, Bam-Bam, NaNa

I can't expect my students to know who the Commander in Chief is or how someone becomes the Secretary of State.  

I can't expect a student to know when or how slavery ended in the US or when the Civil Rights movement was.

I can't even expect students to know whether the US is a communist nation or not.

I can't expect my students to know what the United Nations is, what NATO is, or who attacked the US on 9/11.

The next generations deserve a richer understanding and appreciation of the US and our role in the larger world. 

I don't know what changes are coming in the K-12 curriculum, but if anyone wants a little feedback, call me up.  

I want better for them.

A Reason, A Season, Forever (Leslie Hutson Soldani)

People remember things they play over and over in their heads, and so I will always remember meeting Leslie Soldani.

It was at Mama Rosie's house in Chalmette; I might have been going to Loyola at the time, or maybe I was there visiting.

 Either way, my cousin Jason brought he lovely, happy new wife to meet us and she and I ended up partially sharing a chair around a crowded round table.  

The only way to keep from falling off was to put our arms around each other and so we sat there partially hugging. I liked her right away; she was soft and happy and funny.  She told me her favorite Journey song was "City by the Bay" and the two of us sung it together, ignored by the chaos at the table (there may have been crawfish and oysters and po-boys involved; I can't say).  

Over the years Leslie brought treasure to our family (Britney, Sean-Michael, Evan Winn) and has been a constant source of encouragement and kindness who never stopped learning, trying and growing. 

This morning I found out that Leslie has left us and I am heartbroken.

 I want to say the right thing, and what keeps coming to my mind is that wisdom quote about how  people come into our lives for one of the following: 1) a reason 2) a season 3) forever. 

I have heard we come to earth to gain wisdom. I've also heard we are put here to challenge everything and forget what we think we know so that we can see the truth.

Leslie was here for a reason AND for a season AND forever. 

Our lives, our families, our roots and futures are tangled forever and I can only find solace believing that you haven't gone very far at all....

Grown Up

Last week Zoe made me sit in the car while she went into Publix on a very very important, private and personal mission.

Find something, anything, to make a friend feel a little bit better.

Twenty minutes later she emerged with carefully selected treasures -- tiny cans of sunkist, a box of goldfish,  rice krispy treats, and a bunch of purple flowers.  

 With no help from me (none required, none appreciated, none allowed) she arranged the gifts in a basket and hugged the basket to her chest for the rest of the drive. 

As we turned onto her friend's block, Zoe turned to me and said "I thought only grownups did this...."

I agreed. You are officially a grown up now.  

She exhaled loudly in protestful agreement, then banished me to the car (again) while she went to cry with her  friend.  

Until June 10, 2014 "guns on campus" meant OTHER campuses in other states

Until today I have never been on the "other side" of school violence.

 To me, guns on campus meant OTHER campuses in other states.

Today we (me, my class, my colleagues, the community) and while I write up a piece of the story for you, here is something I wrote last year that strikes my heart today because while it was all going on I was quite aware that I didn't kiss either of my kids goodbye this morning.

Duck and Cover and Always Kiss Your Brother*