Thursday, May 27, 2010

book club selections

Thanks for the suggestions! Here are the choices for next school year, beginning in September.

Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore. I hadn't heard of this author before but that's part of being in a book club: reading something new. This guy sounds nuts, and I hope his humor delivers.

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert. I just read Eat Pray Love not too long ago and spent the first third of the book wanting to hop on a plane to Naples for pizza. I've heard that Committed - being nonfiction - is much less confessional than her memoir so the style is either more or less appealing depending on what you thought of Eat Pray Love. (Quick aside: I went to Gilbert's site shortly after finishing Eat Pray Love and read that she didn't expect the memoir to be so widely read. I wonder if that expectation - a small audience - freed her to write more for herself than for the book clubs. If you write, you think about things like audience and honesty; the memoir is a slippery and beautiful form. Her Thoughts on Writing is worth reading - glean what you may).

Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan. A chef memoir! I might never want to eat at a restaurant again!

The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors by Hal Niedzviecki. I found this book on Oprah's recommendation list and read the first chapter online. I was going to have my juniors read it as part of our unit on technology (too much? not enough? such a personal relationship we have with our cell phones!), but much of the content was an echo of criticism we'd already read. Essentially, Niedzviecki is calling us out for being self-absorbed and thinking that other people are (or should!) be interested in what we are doing or saying. One chapter in and I'm already wondering why I really blog.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I didn't start reading Kingsolver until a couple of years ago and my favorite book of hers remains the first that I read, The Poisonwood Bible. This year's book club read Animal Dreams, one of her older novels, and now we're going for more recent Kingsolver.

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. I actually read all but the last ten or twenty pages of this memoir a year ago, forgot the book in Colombia, and have yet to finish it. I liked the book a lot and look forward to a reread. It's about a young couple who purposefully spend a year living without modern technologies; an Amish-like community allows them to live within their norms while the couple sorts out what they want and don't want from the modern world. I'm going to hunt around for an update on the couple and their children - I'd like to know what their lifestyle is like now.

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner. I know very little about this Canadian author but am glad to meet another one, eh. He'll be joined by two other Canadian authors I read occasionally, Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Recommended by several people. I know little about the book or the author but am looking forward to the story.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Another book about India to add to my list. One person I know highly recommended the book as an insight into modern Indian culture; since there are many Indians living and working in Kuwait (including our nanny), some understanding of their country and culture is relevent. But another person I know could not even finish the novel. So. I am not sure what to expect.

There you have it: our book club selections. So looking forward to placing a book order soon!

Friday, May 21, 2010

hanging on

So Claire is a lovely girl. She really is.

But last weekend a friend of mine was talking about her little girl, also a toddler, and how emotional this age is. Think about it: in the course of an afternoon, Claire might cry once or twice or five times. How exhausting that must be, to confront frustration and "no"s and bumping your head. She doesn't have the vocabulary or emotional understanding to articulate or explain why she feels what she feels, so she cries.

Right now we are learning to obey. We have been learning to obey Mama and Papa for a little while now and usually all goes well and I say, "Thank you, Claire" and "Good girl, Claire!" Sometimes, like this afternoon, learning to obey looks more like tears and snot and heaving sobs because putting the book back on the shelf is just too much to bear. Sometimes learning to obey looks like me checking my watch and thinking of bedtime.

I am not always emotionally rational myself (re: Spanglish Stove Meltdown, Paperwork Couscous Coup), but I keep thinking that if I continue to speak in a calm, even voice, Claire will be a calm, even toddler. I really don't know why I expect this.

At dinner Claire was still in fit mode. Back arching, angry that we wouldn't let her stand in her high chair. She got worked up. Hysterical. I tried ignoring. I couldn't. Snot and spit all over the tray. So I leaned over and gently took her shoulders in my hands. "Claire," I said firmly, our faces inches apart, "Calm down. Be calm. Stop." She looked at me and then I bent over, let her head rest on my shoulder and we stayed like that, she holding onto my shirt and arm, me rubbing her shoulder with my thumb. She ate her apple slices like that, and a couple of grapes. Just hanging on.

So I've had days like that, when I just needed a day-long hug. When eating dinner or picking up my socks seemed impossible to do all by myself. I read about parenting and I ask about parenting and I watch others parent. Today at dinner part of me thought: well, that book said to let her calm herself down and then she may finish eating. But my instinct said, just let her hang on. She'll finish a lot of dinners on her own.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

maybe we'll move to scandinavia next

Where the good mothering is. I just read this short (short) article delivering the news that Norway is the best place to be a mom and Afghanistan was "at the bottom of the 160 countries listed." The U.S. is near the top at number 28 but "below Greece, Portugal and virtually all of Western Europe," ranking "just above Poland and most of the former Soviet bloc."

The rankings don't surprise me - the healthcare and maternity leave in many European countries is generally more equally generous for women of different socio-economic statuses than what you'll find in the States, and the article points that out - but what did surprise me was the photograph chosen to banner the article.

It's a photograph of a group of presumably Afghan women wearing abayas and veils, standing in a stark mountainous region, organizing great big bags of food or other supplies. No kids in sight. I'm wondering why the Times didn't post a photo of a pale, rosy cheeked Norwegian mom luxuriating in her extended maternity leave, two fat little babies on either side.

There's a book called Material World: A Global Family Portrait that came out several years ago. It's definitely worth checking out from your library to see a quick comparison of average households the world over. I read it shortly before moving abroad and was fascinated by the different normals.

Perhaps a book about mothering around the world would be interesting to read. See what it's like to be a mom in Argentina, or in Los Angeles. See what it's like to be a mom who stays home or a mom that is the breadwinner. What does the day look like for a mom in Kenya as compared to the "to do" list of a mom in Slovakia?

Monday, May 17, 2010

book recommendations wanted

Our book club is choosing next year's book selections. I've gone through a few "best of" lists and found some new titles I'm interested in reading, but I'll bet you have some good suggestions too. Please post fiction or nonfiction titles or authors that you enjoy. I'll let you know what we choose.

Super excited about getting a new list of books to read! A Kindle is on my current Want List, and Justin just might be convinced after we tally an overseas shipping order. Let me know if you have a different online reader to recommend too - I know there is Sony's eReader (?); I've also heard that Google might be introducing a product you can use with iTunes books (coming soon?), Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. I haven't done much research on Kindle alternatives, but if you've got insight, do tell. Thanks!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

what i need

I was listening to a 60 Minutes broadcast during my run this morning and Andy Rooney started his weekly rant. I usually skip him because I can only take so much rant about the postal service or unemployment or whatever. But he said something about how we eat even though we aren't hungry and we buy even though we don't need and so I listened. He wondered if we could create a pill that would deaden want want want.

Lately, I've found myself if situations where I stop: want or need? A friend of mine is leaving Kuwait and selling an armchair and ottoman and I want that furniture because it's fat and comfortable. But it's also expensive and I don't need it. With the school year ending and teachers moving, there is a scramble to buy and sell and I am trying not to get too caught up in the want want want.

Today I started running through a list of my recent wants: new Birkenstocks, half the stuff still packed in my parents' basement, M&Ms and Reece's Peanut Butter Cups (here but expensive and gone too quickly from my cupboard); new running shoes, more color on the apartment walls, new dishes, a pizza cutter, a French rolling pin and a pastry board, a nice dining set, more plants for our space.

And yet, I live. I'm learning to wait for the first want impulse to pass. Then I decide.

Monday, May 10, 2010

shout out

To my sister-in-law Joie who has finished recording her first album. Joie has a beautiful spirit and the voice and musical talent to share her insights through song. I haven't listened to all of her songs yet, but last year she emailed me the track to "Walk in My Light" and I was grateful that she was given words that also spoke to me.

Here is her music page on her blog. I encourage you to take a look and listen.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

cat's cradle in a religious society

Last week I was called in to the assistant principal's office to talk about a writing assignment I gave my students. We're reading Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and in the book there is an invented religion, a forbidden religion that is all the more attractive because it's forbidden. Bokononism is a joke. It's full of silly little proverbs and senseless parables and the satire is on any religion itself.

So I asked my students to write about why people may be skeptical of organized religion and why people may choose to follow a religion. We talked about the difference between organized religion and personal faith. A separate writing prompt asked them to invent a religion - with no worries about it actually catching on - and I made clear that this prompt was given because in the book, a man invents a religion.

Anyway, after twenty or twenty-five minutes of focused writing, we discussed what we'd written. Most students chose the religion prompts to write about (there were three other prompts on the list), so our discussion centered on opinions about religion and faith. The discussions were honest and thoughtful. The list of reasons why people are skeptical of organized religion were typical: conflicting passages in a holy book, hypocrisy close to home or seen in religious leaders. And as for why people choose a religion: family tradition, a sense of community or belonging, insurance for the afterlife. But then they also delved into faith: that leap we make to believe what we cannot fully comprehend. Most discussion was thoughtful and respectful, though there are arguments - always points of disagreement when you talk about religion or faith.

I learned  a lot. The majority of my students are Muslim and while we never branched into a comparison and contrast of major world religions, I did see an everyday-ness to their religion that I don't think I'd find in an average North American classroom. Granted, not all of my Muslim students are strict. There is a spectrum to most religions: how closely you choose to adhere to texts and tenets, whether or not you intrepret scriptures literally or account for historical and cultural factors. Just how ______ are you? Can you pick and choose? Can you be Muslim and not pause at each call to prayer?

(I'll admit that I expected the society to shut down during prayer times, especially since there are mosques scattered conveniently and most malls have prayer rooms for men and women. The first time we were out shopping and heard a call to prayer, I was shocked to see all Muslim men and women continue eating their meals, buying their clothes, chatting on their cell phones).

Anyway. During one class period, a student mentioned that you might doubt parts of your religion if you line up verses that seem contradictory. Another student immediately argued that nothing - nothing - could be contradictory in the Qur'an. The argument went nowhere. I tend to think there are always questions believers of any religion have about their scriptures. I stepped in to say that, and that I don't think asking a question is always wrong: that questioning can lead to searching for an answer, which can lead to a strengthened faith. If the questions pile up, then a person might begin to look at other beliefs. A few students agreed. But the one repeated that you could not doubt a word of the Qur'an.

At the end of the day, I checked my school email and saw there was concern about the writing prompts I'd assigned. I went to the office. I knew that you could not say anything against Islam or the Emir of Kuwait, but I hadn't thought that the phrasing of my prompts was inflammatory. In fact, Islam wasn't the only religion discussed.

What I learned is that in Islam, you cannot ask questions. That's an uncomplicated way of putting it, a short answer later given by a Muslim friend. Asking questions - for example, pointing out contradictions between different verses - is not allowed. You follow because you follow. Okay, so this clearly is not how all Muslims live and believe. But since not questioning is a religious expectation, my prompt asking students to think about why people might be skeptical of organized religion was inappropriate. You are simply not supposed to be skeptical. And asking students to "create a religion" just as Bokonon did in the novel is probably close to sacrilegeous. Or, as our Arabic principal put it when I apologized to him the next day, "It is very dangerous."

So I wasn't in trouble, exactly. The issue is an issue because, as my assistant principal kindly reminded me, "This is a religious society." There is evidence of Islamic practices everywhere in this country, from the absence of pork and the presence of abayas to laws allowing men multiple wives. But I'd never sat around and thought: I'm smack in the middle of a religious society. Afterall, I can still practice my own different faith, even attend a Christian church. But as a teacher, I need to remember that the Ministry of Education isn't informed by current Western curriculum, but by respecting Islam. I honestly did not know that the prompts might offend. I told my students that the next day, when I un-assigned the religious prompts. And I assured them that my intent was not to offend or to suggest that they create a religion to replace Islam. Most students were understanding.

But now I am still wondering: Is questioning or doubting my own Christian faith also wrong? Am I to take the view of my Muslim student who repeated that you cannot ask a question if you believe? Or is God patient with my questions and doubts - and is it okay if some of my questions are never completely answered, if some of my doubts are not satisfied by assurance? Can I still claim my faith then?