Category Archives: Literature

Books — the kind for kids, little, little kids

I am enjoying reading kids books more than I thought I would–well, some of them. I’m generally not a huge fan of the maudlin, poetic, “I love you” books, but I do like the more “character-driven” ones, if you can say that about a board book or a picture book.

I am really digging Mo Willems in particular. Che loves Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, which he received as a gift. He would just lagh and laugh at it, so I also bought The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!, and several other books. Che also received Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Taleas a gift, and subsequently, “Aggle flaggle!” is now an expletive in our house.

I love that Willems creates characters who, though imaginary, feel real. There’s a verisimilitude to them. The pigeon wheedles us and throws temper tantrums. Trixie gets frustrated that her father has no clue what she’s trying to say. They aren’t merely characters who behave and are cute.

You can check out Willems’ website. It’s also cool that he lives in Noho. I also just read that he is going to be appearing at the Holyoke Barnes & Noble later this month.

Che also just received two books by Leslie Patricelli. She has very simple drawing, but the concepts are very fun. Higher! Higher! shows both imagination and perspective. Baby Happy Baby Sad (Leslie Patricelli board books) gives an emotional frame of reference to a child — and they are both just fun books.

As I mentioned, I have been pleasantly surprised by how fun some of these books are. I also like to embellish the stories, of course. Check them out below:


Traveling to Kerala, Part I: Fort Cochi

I so want to do this part of my trip justice, but I am running low on time.

Kerala was a wonderful place — so different from Delhi — quieter, cleaner, greener, cooler. Kerala was the reason I wanted to go to India in the first place. I loved Arundhati Roy‘s novel The God of Small Things, which is largely set in Kerala.

Fort Cochi is a port on the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. They have been dredging the bay so larger container ships can come into port, but the port has historically been a center for the fishing trade. Along the coast, one sees many fishing nets — Chinese fishing nets.


There are also small fishing boats.


Because there are many fishmongers there, unlikely customers (who may be unlikely to pay) show up as well.


We even saw a customer looking over his purchases, one of whom was trying to make a break for it. A crab darted toward the sea, and frankly, it was sad to see that last desperate effort. The customer nabbed him before he made it.

As I have been mentioning, there are wild dogs all over the place. We saw this cute dog…


…and then we saw her pups in the greenery behind her:


It is said that the Syrian Orthodox Church was brought by St. Thomas the Apostle in 52 AD, so Christianity is very common in Kerala and throughout much of the south of India. The Portuguese later brought Roman Catholicism to Kerala in the early 1500’s. Churches there are highly decorated (inside), unlike the stark churches of New England. Here is the Santa Cruz Cathedral:


We stayed in a lovely guest house, the Grande Residencia. Because we were there off season (monsoon season), we got great rates. Unfortunately, that also meant a number of restaurants were closed. We ate at one particularly bad “italian” restaurant. The restaurant, an outdoor number, next to our hotel was very good. Stick with seafood in Kerala. Oh — and order the Keralan paratha. Oh my god, is it good! It’s made with coconut milk. Yum!

Our time in Fort Cochi was pretty relaxed. We strolled around the coast and did a little shopping. My niece and nephew had a great time in the pool.

The second night there, we went to see a Kathakali performance. I really wanted to see one, especially because it is referenced in The God of Small Things. I’ve got to be honest — it was not at all what I was expecting. It clearly takes years and years of training (they said six) to perform this art — a story dance filled with non-verbal gestures that tell the story. There is some singing, but the bulk of the story in conveyed in complex movements, including eye movements and stylized facial expressions. It is a painstakingly slow process to communicate the story, and in its traditional forms, kathakali performances begin at about 8pm and go on until sunrise. They are religious in nature, and traditionally, they are performed at temples. We saw a performance at the Keralan Kathakali Center, where they gave is a primer before the two hour performance.

Here the actors are applying makeup:


This is just before the performance:


A man made these prints using a chalk-like powder. The performance surprised us all. The demon made this screeching sound that truly sounded demonic. The nuances of all the movements were pretty amazing, but as a short attention spanned westerner, I think I’d have a hard time with the all night performance.

After Fort Kochi, we were off to Alleppy, Marari, and the houseboat on the Keralan backwaters.

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Pequot Museum & the Hill-Stead Museum

A friend and I visited the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT today. I’d been wanting to go to this museum since I moved here, but things just kept getting in the way.

Overall, it was a pretty cool museum — one that spared no expense. It’s nice place. My friend and I were particularly intrigued by the supercool looking firehouse on the reservation — very cool architecture. We both agreed that this was the hippest fire station either of us had ever seen. And I’ve been to wedding receptions at fire stations.The museum had a lot of diorama-type displays — the “ancient peoples” displays of history museums. Those kids of exhibits always make me think of this passage in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden is in the Museum of Natural History in NYC by the Park, and he describes the diorama exhibits and mentions how he feels comforted by them because they never change, that no mater when he visits, that eskimo will always just have caught a fish, and that deer-skinned clothed woman will always be starting a fire. Not that there’s any correlation between the two, other than the fact that those kinds of exhibits make me think of the novel.

While I did really like the museum, I wasn’t blown away by it like I was the National Civil Rights Museum, which I visited last year when I was in Memphis. I highly recommend that one.

Last week we went to the Hill-Stead Museum, which I also had been wanting to see for awhile. It was an enjoyable tour — and I really like having a tour guide. But I also thought the museum was a little stodgy. Okay — I do love china, especially antique china (it’s my one anglo-phile weakness) (okay — Jane Austen, too) (Who am I kinding — there’s lots more English “stuff” I like — but not colonialism!). But the museum is a little self-important in terms of commemorating Theodate Pope and her wealthy, art-collecting father, Alfred. And when we asked questions of our tour guide, she did not seem to like that our interests went beyond the realms of the immaculate life of Theodate Pope, whose name incidentally means “gift of God,” a name she took on. I’m going to start calling myself Gift of God and see how people react.

Don’t get me wrong, the Hill-Stead museum and grounds seem to do a lot of great things, like the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, and I did enjoy the museum. At one point we saw these two little paintings — clearly Indian in origin, and I think they may have been mughal miniatures — a fascination of Bharati Mukherjee. In an interview called “Holders of the Word”, she describes the way these paintings influence her writing. When I asked the guide about these two works, she consulted the “room guides” to all the pieces of artwork, and those were not listed. While there were two or three Japanese woodcut prints in the house, the fact that there was no listing for these obviously eastern pieces made me think that this house had a particularly Eurocentric point of view. And that irked me a little. I suppose it has every right to be Eurocentric, but again, it seemed a little like the wealthy class patting itself on the back for being so wealthy. I was particularly interested in the library which had a large collection of old books. I searched titles that the family owned — and I saw noting that seemed “against the grain” in any way. The guide was trying to portray Theodate (and she continually referred to her as Theodate) as this very progressive woman, simply because she became an architect at the turn of the 20th century. She opposed a woman’s right to vote — how progressive could she be. So she was wealthy enough to pursue her own goals… Grr.

Clearly I felt some classism that drove me a little nuts.Nonetheless, I plan on going to see Billy Collins this summer. So there.

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The Symposium!

While I realize one might think I have forgotten about this little blog because I post so rarely, I have not. I have had a particularly busy semester since I was teaching the Senior Symposium class at my school. It is a class where a group of seniors reads exclusively one contemporary author for a semester, and then the author visits campus for two days in January. Well, the author Bharati Mukherjee came to campus Thursday and Friday (as in yesterday). I don’t have much time to post about it now, because I am in the thick of doing my grades and comments for the end of the semester, which also ended yesterday.

It was a whirlwind two days — and Friday especially was a wonderful day. She was such a gracious author and guest, treating the students’ work, questions, and thoughts with the highest respect. She gave us great insights, and she patiently answered our questions. I really enjoyed her many personal anecdotes. She brought her husband, Clark Blaise. He was also a wonderful guest, full of stories and conversation. He also happens to be a baseball fan, so Sujal told them both the famous story of the time I brought my grading to a Red Sox game — AND — left the game early even though I could have had the chance to walk on the field. (woo-hoo)

Pat Rosoff, an art teacher at my school, made this beautiful quilt to commemorate Mukherjee’s visit! Sujal and I will have to find the perfect spot for it.

And now, I must get back to work.

Losing Time

While that title may sound like a “bad” thing, losing time can be sublime. Yesterday, I continued my great quest for articles by and about Bharati Mukherjee (For those who don’t know: I’m teaching a class on Mukherjee this year to a group of savvy seniors, and Mukherjee will visit the school in January. I am very excited about this — as it has been a rewarding experience thus far; it’s like being a student again — reading texts with fresh perspective and little outside influence. And the students have such voracious responses. This is a teacher’s dream!) by going up to Northampton to the Smith College library. After my work was done and I visited several friends, I drove back to West Hartford (sniff, sniff) and listened to This American Life. This specific episode dealt with amateurs. In the final segment of the show, David Rakoff told of his experiences making crafts in his spare time. I may forget the wording, but he said something along the lines of that he forgets his life while he is working on crafts — he loses all sense of time. This was precisely the feeling I had at Smith yesterday, and many times previously.

Going the the Neilson Library, Smith’s main library, has always felt very at home for me. I spent many hours in that library during my years as a grad student and then as a teacher. During school breaks when I was in grad school — I seemed to get absorbed in one subject or another. The summer I got into Dorothy parker, I spent hours and hours in that library with old New Yorkers in my hands. I was so impressed that the college had every issue of The New Yorker since its inception. I read all of these old, original articles and tidbits by Parker. I also got into Shirley Jackson, and I looked up some of the letters to the editor after her story “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker. Sometimes I get lost like this on Wikipedia — but actually being in a library, holding books and magazines, using the microfiche — it just does not get any better. I think the Smith library also has (for the size of the library) a decent size collection of literary texts — lots of literary criticism. I love that feeling of losing myself in the library.

When I was an undergrad at Bennington, I spent so many hours looking up random info and references in our library. I recall Friday nights hanging out with some post-baccalaureate students in the library: geek fun!

One of Rakoff’s points in his TAL piece was that when you do something for money, when it becomes a job (with deadlines, I presume), it takes that magic away. I can see how this is true most of the time. But for someone like Sujal, he still gets lost in coding. I get lost in reading and lesson planning, though I can’t say I necessarily get lost in grading. I guess we all fall somewhere on that scale.


I realize this makes me a complete dork, but I am okay with that. I spent most of my day driving around to area colleges and universities tracking down articles by and about Mukherjee. Some are quite difficult to find. Because our school library was closed during the summer due to the construction on our cafeteria, the librarian had limited access to our resources (and I didn’t want to bother her over the summer), we met yesterday to search for the remaining articles I was unable to find. Some are in some insanely obscure journals. Today was the day to track those elusive rascals down.

I began at the University of Hartford, where I drove all over their campus looking for the library. Even though it’s a university, I was lucky it isn’t a huge university. When I finally parked in some visitor lot, I asked a long-haired, smoking student to kick me in the direction of the library, and he was happy to.

UHA looks a lot like a state school, in the way that UMass, Amherst looks like somebody barfed up all these cement buildings everywhere — well, UHA is slightly more elegant in that somebody barfed up brink buildings everywhere — though with similar architecture to UMass.

When I got to the library, I was amused to see the reference librarian office had a sign on it saying “Please Disturb,” which made me chuckle until I walked in, and they obviously did NOT want to be disturbed. The librarian finally looked up from her computer and said, “I can’t help you now. I’m preparing for a class.” Then an officious assistant helped me. When I was kicked once again in the right direction, and I went up to the stacks, I got that rush of excitement I get when I’m in library stacks. Getting lost in stacks is like temporarily losing touch with the problems of the world.

When I went to St. Joseph’s College, which had a great reference librarian, it was a smaller library, but the little rooms with the stacks were equally inviting. I commented on this to the librarian, and she said, “Yes, stacks do tend to have a romantic appeal.” This reminded me of Mark Strand’s poem “Eating Poetry”, which she had not read.

Being on campuses today made me miss college and that whole academic world. I loved being a student. I love huge libraries.

Kirsten — Where are you?

This trailer for Becoming Jane makes me want to see this move with my friend Kirsten. This is in large part because we saw one of the Jane Austen novels made into a film (or was it an EM Forster novel made into film?) together years ago when we were college. We also both love Jane Austen. Then again, who doesn’t?

Kirsten, come down here so we can go see it. Better yet, I’ll meet you at the Berkshire Mall.

The Bhagavad-Gita

I started reading The Bhagavad-Gita, a cheap copy I picked up at Borders, because I am about to begin preparing a new class for the fall. I’m teaching a class on the works of Bharati Mukerjee and I thought it might help to have a bit more cultural background knowledge. It may actually be fruitless for my purposes, but I have been interested in reading it for awhile.I’ve never been a huge fan of epic poems in general, but they do give one a better understanding of culture. I finished watching the movie Gandhi last night. I’d seen it in 9th or 10th grade, and I didn’t remember it at all. I watched it with some doubt, not sure of its accuracy, and so I looked up a lot of aspects of Gandhi’s life as I watched, and it’s pretty accurate.I was also amazed by how persevering Gandhi’s wife Kasturba Gandhi was. It’s sad that she does not get more recognition, as she was also an effective (wifely) leader with Gandhi.I seem to remember being taught at one point or other that Henry David Thoreau came up with this idea of civil disobedience, and then when I was reading the intro to the Gita, I read that Thoreau brought a copy of the Gita to Walden Pond. Gandhi’s autobiography is going on my reading list — what an inspiring human being. I often get into this early summer/post-teaching funk — but it doesn’t take long to get out of it when I see how challenging so many people have it. And I realize — Damn! I’m lucky. I’m going to Yoga class and eating well.As I prepare for this class on Mukherjee, I have a feeling I am going to be looking up a lot of references (and sadly missing a few), but I am very excited by the prospect of it. So even if my reading of the Gita isn’t particularly helpful (Because I suppose this is like reading The Odyssey before reading the body of work by a white westerner), it is at least getting me ready to undertake the work I am about to do.

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Today I received Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s newest book, Finding Oprah’s Roots. While I’ve never been a huge Oprah fan, I have enormous respect for her, because I think she’s a great role model. The fact that she has her extremely successful book club got many people reading again. She’s enormously generous and intelligent. I’m sure you can find her praises much more passionately laid out in many other places, so let it suffice to say that she’s clearly influential, and mainly in a positive way.

That she has let herself be the centerpiece for this work of research is inspiring. I’ve never given a lot of thought to tracking down my genealogy — for a number of reasons, I’m sure — I’ve historically been young and therefore a little less sentimental in the family roots sort of way (though each year, I feel it creeping up on me more and more — as my Polish roots become more and more important to me), and I know a decent amount of my genealogy already, in that I’ve heard lots of stories from grandparents and parents. It’s pretty clear that all of my relative emigrated from Poland, most likely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This white immigrant privilege is not something I though about much, either, until I began Gates’ book. While I was aware in the abstract that African Americans who are descendants of slaves do not know their ancestry in terms of what country (part of Africa) their ancestors were brought from nor would they necessarily know who their slave ancestors were because of lack of records, I never thought of it in contrast to my own experience. I was just teaching Toni Morrison’s Sula, and there’s a passage where the narrator describes not knowing who one is, not having a language, a history, etc. The narrator speaks of this in reference to a character who is shell-shocked, but there is an obvious connection to African American history. But to think that here is yet again another form of institutionalized (even is historical) racism. If I wanted to research my genealogy, I would doubtless have an easier time than, say, Oprah. Granted, she has a lot more money at her disposal. Gates says as much, so I’m not sharing anything new, just the fact that I hadn’t yet realized it. I agree that it is important for people to know where they came from. I’m not too far into the book yet, but in flipping through, it looks very interesting.

A coincidental intersection — Sujal was just exploring this website, Geni, and he signed up for it and began getting our relatives to fill it out. As I’ve said, I really hadn’t been into genealogy much, but I’m finding it a bit more interesting suddenly. I don’t think I’ll develop a great passion for it, but at least I’ll have a better understanding.

Farewall to Vonnegut

Here’s the New York Times obituary for Vonnegut. I’m not sure why, but I was very surprised to hear the news. I heard it early Thursday morning as I was getting ready for work. I asked my sleeping husband if he had known about it, as Vonnegut died the day before, and Sujal seems to know news as it happens. He said that it sounded familiar — how long ago did he die?

I told Sujal he just died the day before, to which Sujal acknowledged he thought maybe he’d died several years ago — much like deja vu for me when Ford died. I’d forgotten he was alive. Nonetheless, in his sleepy state, Sujal tried to make a pun, and English teacher joke, if you will. He said, “I guess he Caught 23.

With that, I fell into laughter and replied, “That’s Joseph Heller.”

“What number book did Vonnegut write?

“Slaughterhouse 5.”

“Oh, but that’s not so funny,” said my sleepy husband. Some people just cannot pull off English teacher jokes, not the way English teachers can. And man, do we think we are funny!

I’ll be rereading some Vonnegut soon. I remember reading Bluebeard, and even though he was poking fun at the abstract expressionists, that novel sparked my love of Mark Rothko. I read it right after I finished Sirens of Titan, which I loved. I recall that Vonnegut was a topic of conversation between my very first boyfriend and me. He was Jim Wylie, and we dated in 8th grade. We didn’t talk Vonnegut then, but we both read him in eleventh grade. Eleventh graders still love him!!