Wednesday, March 21, 2012


By Gloria Feldt. Hardcover, 381 pages. Seal Press, 2010

Buy the book

This is truly a women's book. Its subtitle is 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. I was honored when Mrs. Feldt asked me to read it. I would love to see more women in positions of power; I think male and female leadership styles can balance each other out. This book is an instruction manual for women to claim their power. According to Feldt, the only thing stopping women from having more power is their reluctance to do so. Men have always taken power for granted, she argues. The time has come for women to do the same.

The book bears repeated reading, because it does so many things. It provides an outline of women's history. Feldt shares her personal history as an example of what can happen when a woman decides to take charge of her life. She critiques women's websites that purport to empower women by convincing them to buy things. She relays interviews with women who have founded companies, given money to charity, and brought about change.

The biggest lesson I took from this book is the difference between what Feldt calls power over and power to. Men in leadership roles typically have power over those under them. But women's power is the power to solve problems together. I prefer the latter, because power over always causes more problems than it solves. Since reading this book, I have tried to think and make decisions more like a woman, from a power to dynamic. This book is part of my training.

Although the book is meticulously researched, with an extensive bibliography, Feldt never lapses into dry academic language. Her voice is friendly, inviting women and men alike to question their assumptions. Reading this book has helped me understand women and their relationship with power a little better. I recommend it for women who want to improve their careers and relationships, as well as for men who are ready to redefine their gender roles.

Also, after reading this book, I am excited about the possibility of voting for Hilary Clinton in 2016. I hope she runs!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Losing Clementine

By Ashley Ream. 306 pages, paperback. William Morrow, 2012.

Will she or won't she?

This question lies at the heart of many romantic comedies, and it usually has to do with sex. But for renowned, troubled artist Clementine Pritchard, answering that question is a matter of life and death. After years of mind-numbing medication, dubious psychiatric treatment, and the inability to form healthy attachments to other people, Clementine has decided to end her life. She tells us so in the first chapter, called "30 Days." Each following chapter moves us one day closer to Clementine's planned suicide.

Although she seems incapable of showing affection, there are people who care about Clementine. One is her assistant, Jenny. Jenny is an art school graduate who organizes Clementine's found art materials, cooks her meals, and tries to keep Clementine from self-destructing. She is not aware of Clementine's plans. Like everyone else, she thinks her employer has cancer. This is the lie Clementine spreads. Her ex-husband, Richard, reacts to the news by telling Clementine to fight. He accompanies her to Mexico, even though she will not tell him why they are going. They visit a funeral home, and in one darkly comedic scene, he tries to force her out of a coffin she decides to "test drive."

Clementine's last relationship, and the one that seems most damaging, is with her psychiatrist. Even as he violates every ethical rule by having sex with Clementine, he encourages her to talk about her feelings as if this will overcome the harm he causes her.

Ream does a good job of making us curious about Clementine. It would have been easy to portray her as self-pitying, selfish, and hysterical. She is certainly self-centered, but she did not ask for a mental illness. A subplot involves Clementine's efforts to find her father, who abandoned and traumatized her at an early age. She did not ask for that either, and Clementine deals with the fallout in the only ways she has ever learned.

Clementine's defining characteristic is her relentless pursuit of death. She makes a plan and follows it with almost no deviations. There is no sense that what she is doing is a cry for help; Clementine rejects help in subtle and blatant ways on nearly every page. Yet sensitive readers can empathize with her enough to hope she will, somehow, gather what she needs to go on living.

Will she or won't she? This question matters, but it is not nearly as important as learning how Clementine arrived at a place where taking herself out seemed the most sane and logical decision. Ream's exploration of that story is what will enthrall readers and make the book popular.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Monday, March 4th is National Grammar Day. Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, invited me to write a post in honor of this special day.

As a Language Arts teacher, I am always on the lookout for real-world examples of good and bad writing that I can use in my classroom. One of my favorite bad examples is this photo, taken from an office door at the local supermarket. If you're having trouble reading it, it says "YOU DO I REPEAT DO NOT HAVE MAID SERVICE SO YOU WILL NEED TO CLEAN UP BEHIND YOURSELF!!!"

It's safe to assume a manager wrote and posted this notice. The door opens onto one of those narrow staircases leading up to a large office with a tinted window. This is where the store manager stands and watches everything going on in her realm. I think some of them rub their hands together and cackle with glee as they do this.

I doubt the store manager wrote this notice, though. She probably farmed it out to the Customer Service Manager or even the head cashier. In any case, this writer would receive an F in my class.

First of all, what part of a sentence is "I REPEAT DO NOT?" And why is "DO" underlined if the point is to say "DO NOT?" And isn't it redundant to tell people who are tasked with keeping the store clean that they do not have maid service? It would be more accurate to say "YOU ARE I REPEAT ARE THE MAID SERVICE!!!"

Secondly, I have never heard of anyone cleaning up "behind" her or himself. In the South, where I live and where this sign hangs, "behind" connotes a person's butt. So the public display of the phrase "clean up behind" creates an image with which I am not comfortable.

Lastly, Miss or Mr. Manager, let's talk about the tone of this sign. I know you wanted to show authority and perhaps frustration with people who do not always clean up after themselves. But was it really necessary to write in ALL CAPS? ALL THAT DOES IS MAKE YOU LOOK HOSTILE!!! AND THE EXCESSIVE USE OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! IS UNWARRANTED BECAUSE THIS IS NOT A COMIC BOOK!!!!! IT IS REAL LIFE, AND THE PEOPLE WHO WORK UNDER YOU HAVE REAL EMOTIONS!!!!

Perhaps you have forgotten what it was like when you got your first job as a younger person. You were inexperienced and maybe a little nervous. Everyone else had been there longer. They gave you all the crappy jobs they didn't want, like cleaning the bathroom or baling the cardboard.

First jobs are meant to show people how to be responsible employees. Whether you like it or not, Miss or Mr. Manager, a young person's work ethic is usually still under construction. Your job is to mold them- not belittle them and breed resentment.

Seriously, the manager who wrote this sign is just like a teacher who brags about getting kids suspended. A little compassion goes a long way. If I don't do my job, and you have to fire me, you can even do that with compassion.

On the other hand, a grocery store does need to be clean. This is my question for my readers: How would you rewrite this sign so it is both grammatically correct and non-confrontational? Leave your revised version in the comments, and I will share the best ones on twitter.

Friday, February 24, 2012


By K.M. Walton. Young Adult. Simon Pulse, 2012. 312 pages. Hardcover.

Buy the book on Amazon

K.M. Walton's debut novel is a fast-paced character study of a high school bully and his chief victim. William Mastrick, better know as Bull, beats, taunts, and terrorizes Victor Konig on a daily basis. In an early scene, Bull comes up behind Victor in the cafeteria and punches him so hard he spits out the chocolate milk he is drinking. The reaction from nearby teachers and lunchroom staff is very telling: nothing. Walton does not even mention them. After the recent spate of teen suicides in Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin school district, brought on by a misguided policy of gay neutrality, it is hard to say Walton is being unrealistic. Those teachers were afraid of losing their jobs if they stood up for a troubled teen. Perhaps those in Victor and Bull's world have similar anxieties.

It is one of literature's jobs to help us face and perhaps overcome our anxieties. Victor and Bull are given ample opportunity to do just that. Bull fears his grandfather's drunken abuse. The old man blames Bull, loud and often, for his grandmother's death. Bull's mother, the old man's daughter, also drinks, neglects Bull, and once slaps him. Thoughtful readers can gain a whole new perspective on Bull, and kids like Bull. Of course teens are responsible for their own actions, but they are not to blame for adults in their lives who make sure they never develop any self-respect. Bull goes from being a mean-hearted sadist to being someone who might be able to change... if he ever gets the opportunity.

As for Victor, a note from his mother on page 93 tells us almost everything we need to know about his seemingly privileged home life. She and his father leave for an extended trip to France. Victor has to stay behind, under his elderly grandmother's care, because his score on the SAT was less than perfect. As the note explains, the parents leave early to get lattes en route to the airport. "We didn't want to wake you," mom writes. She leaves Victor a list of chores and tells him "I've made a drug counseling appointment for you," even though Victor has never touched drugs.

No "Dear Victor" or "love, mom", Victor says in response. I can't believe they didn't even say good-bye... Not even good-bye.

Soon afterwards, Victor and Bull find themselves together in a teenage psych ward for would-be suicides. Victor tried to kill himself, swallowing his mother's antianxiety pills after his beloved dog died. Bull, having found a handgun stashed in a closet, tried to shoot his grandfather. Bull winds up with a gunshot wound in his leg. It puts him in a wheelchair. In his only act of kindness, Bull's grandfather lies to police and says Bull tried to kill himself.

Being roommates does little to improve Victor and Bull's relationship. But they finally meet adults who care for them with no expectations of a reward. They also meet other teens who are just as troubled as they are: abandoned or humiliated by parents, teased and harassed for being obese, locked into private worlds nobody else can enter. Even though they cannot change their parents, the boys learn to change their own attitudes. They form meaningful relationships with peers. They stop hurting themselves; Bull stops harming others. They learn that feelings are not fatal, that circumstances are temporary, that they are capable or giving and receiving love. They grow up. While they are not fully healed from their trauma- this is not a fantasy book- they are equipped to weather any future setbacks with dignity.

This book is useful for teens, both high school and certain middle school students. It is also good for parents and teachers. When kids are traumatized, they act out. A responsible adult must look beyond the outer behavior. We might never know a kid's whole story, but we can still make ourselves a positive part of it.


By Gaby Rodriguez with Jenna Glatzer. Simon and Schuster, 2012. 218 pages, hardcover.

Buy it on Amazon

By now there are probably few people who have not heard of this book or the Lifetime movie based on it. Gaby tells of being hounded by news crews almost as soon as she shared her project with her school. That attention leads to one of the book's many unanswered questions- how did Good Morning America get a 17-year-old girl's cell phone number? Gaby doesn't know, and neither do we.

What we do know is that Gaby grew frustrated with the negative attention surrounding her and her family, who live in the small town of Topenish, Washington. Her mother gave birth to her as a teen. Like too many teen moms, she had to raise Gaby mostly alone after Gaby's father took off. Unfortunately, Gaby's siblings also had children young, before they were emotionally and financially prepared. This was in spite of Gaby's mother's constant warnings and exhortations not to follow her path.

But Gaby heeded those warnings, and the unspoken one she saw every day in her mother's struggle to make ends meet. When offered the chance to do a senior project, Gaby decides to fake her own pregnancy. With her mother's help, she fashions a prosthetic baby bump to go under her clothes. She goes to a clinic and learns how pregnant women work- the weight gain, mood swings, sickness, erratic appetite, and pregnancy brain. Only her mother, her boyfriend Jorge, close friend Saita, and a handful of teachers and administrators know the truth.

By taking on this role, Gaby gains an empathy for teen mothers she might never have learned otherwise. Friends reject or gossip about her, thinking she cannot hear. Her older brothers, all former teen dads, threaten Jorge with physical harm. Gaby experiences real loneliness and depression. She comes to understand why so many teen dads do leave; they are given almost no positive messages or support. There are few role models, either- successful fathers who can mentor those whose paths they have walked.

Why is that? Nearly everyone agrees that it is a mistake for teenagers to have babies. Why are so few of us willing to help? It seems easier to stand on the sidelines and judge or deride people for their unfortunate choices, like so many of Gaby's classmates. But she teaches us how to do the hard things. Hopefully the attention surrounding this well-written, engaging book will encourage us to ask questions with no easy answers, and to change our thinking about some of our culture's most helpless members.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Thanks to Anne, aka the Lit Bitch, for this post. You can read Anne's views on classic and contemporary novels on her website.

Exploring the New Woman in Jane Austen’s Novels

Jane Austen began her literary career in a time when society just began to explore what is known as ‘the woman question’. The woman question most often refers to specific constraints imposed by society such as sexuality, gender roles, suffrage, and employment. By the early nineteenth century, society began exploring these issues in depth with the common avenue being the literary medium. Literature became a safe and popular way to subvert society’s traditional expectations of women and explore concepts which appealed to women readers. As female authorship increased, many embraced the new feminist views regarding the woman question. Through the novel, readers could live vicariously through the heroine allowing them to experience new situations and thought without threat. This growth and enthusiasm is most notably seen in works by Jane Austen. Austen’s legacy can be seen in her most popular heroines who all tend to follow the same pattern of new woman meets old world expectations.

Austen wrote about what she knew. Austen’s social class hovered just outside the gentry and most of her education was self-taught. Having never married, Austen had a unique outlook on marriage. She maintained that marriage should be about love--if not the deciding factor in the match--a radical concept in the early nineteenth century! Readers can see Austen’s views echoed across the pages of her novels and most notably in the heroines. All of Austen’s novels reflect the same type of heroine which follows both feminist and patriarchal models.

In Austen’s novels, the heroine typically desires improvement through marriage and in many cases the family encourages her to use marriage as a means for improving their position in society, demonstrating the patriarchal influence of the age. The new feminist approach is seen in the final decision. The deciding factor in all the matches of an Austen novel is always love-- wealthy was considered an added bonus. By doing this, Austen is both subverting social norms and maintaining acceptability. Critics of Austen note her early novels such as Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice depict a traditional idealized version of women while her later novels such as Emma and Persuasion present a ‘new woman’.

As ideal women all of Austen’s heroines are conventionally feminine with desirable traits such as modesty, delicacy, sweetness, and gentleness. Most agree Austen’s depictions of women in her early novels were the most socially acceptable; due largely to the basic representations of the heroines and plot. In Austen’s world, many felt literature should encourage proper values and model characters, however female novelists felt women’s writing should be based on the nature and experiences of women rather than society’s expectations or idealization of women.

One of Austen’s most famous critics was fellow author Emily Bronte who suggested she lacked the passion necessary to write successful love stories and the experience to create modern feminist heroines. While this might be true, Austen chooses not to completely challenge society’s expectations so that she could reach a wider audience. This was why it was necessary to follow a carefully prescribed formula which is what Austen did in her earlier novels with her later works such as Emma and Persuasion begin to embrace a new modern woman. Interestingly enough Austen’s most popular heroine is neither Emma Woodhouse nor Anne Elliot of the later novels but rather Elizabeth Bennett of the earlier Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s most well liked heroine, not only respects herself but she does not care if the man she marries has wealth as long as he loves her and is not prejudice against her class. She stands up for herself but is not afraid to admit when she is wrong.

From the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice it is clear marriage and fortune will be dominant themes: “It is a universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have five daughters and no sons, meaning upon Mr. Bennett’s death all of his small fortune would be entailed to the next surviving male heir, Mr. Collins. For the Bennett daughters the only way salvage their family legacy would be to marry well or for one of them to marry Mr. Collin’s. Mrs. Bennett finds the latter a most agreeable option and encourages Elizabeth to consider it. Elizabeth refuses and explains to her mother she does not love Mr. Collins so she will not marry him. Mrs. Bennett is desperate for her daughters to find husbands who will insure the future of the family since there are no sons. Mrs. Bennett’s rational is aligned with traditional patriarchal thought that women can only find definition and security through marriage. While Elizabeth views marriage as a means of emotional fulfillment and enjoyment, demonstrating the new woman ideology.

When Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy she sees only a man who values money and is also required to marry well as a requirement of his status. When he asks her to marry him she adamantly refuses because he insults her family and financial position. Though she knows he is rich and would more than secure her future, she does not accept because he does not consider them an equal match. The idea of refusing a perfectly good marriage proposal from a gentleman would have been scandalous in the Regency period to say the least. Only when she is convinced of his love, commitment, and respect will she agree to enter into an understanding.

Elizabeth demonstrates a prototype for the new woman who is willing to stand up for herself placing importance on character rather than wealth. But Austen is careful to maintain within society’s comfort zone by emphasizing other story lines of other women characters--such as the indifference question between Jane and Bingley and the uber scandalous marriage between Wickham and Lydia. Many women readers were in positions such as Lydia and all the other Bennett women. Austen ends the novel with every implication that Darcy and Elizabeth will live ‘happily ever after’ in love--which suggests independence through love.

Austen knew what it was like to be a woman during the English Regency period, with no money, property, and position. Austen would have had to marry well if she hoped to be of any value to her family, which of course she did not. Austen, like Elizabeth Bennett had little money and was not part of the gentry, her only hope was marriage.

With the increasing amounts of female authors in Regency England, Austen’s heroines became the prototype for future generations to interpret and address the growing woman question. Through the novel readers live vicariously through the heroine allowing them to experience new situations and thought without threat. Unlike other popular genres of prose, Austen put heroines in positions of independence or control over their futures which drew attention to issues surrounding class, sexuality, and gender roles. Austen produced novels which incorporated patriarchal ideas while at the same time subverting tradition. Because Austen wrote about what she knew she was able to properly address the woman question while maintaining within societal expectations appropriate of the era.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Club Update

We have switched two books. We will be reading Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, in March to coincide with the movie. We will read Nina Revoyr's Wingshooters in December.

It is still not too late to get a free review copy of Michelle's book, These Days Are Ours, in time for the February twitter meetup. Contact Michelle on twitter @MichelleHaimoff.

February: These Days Are Ours- Michelle Haimoff

March: The Hunger Games- Suzanne Collins

April: Play It As It Lays- Joan Didion

May- The Age Of Innocence- Edith Wharton

June- Bad Behavior: Stories- Mary Gaitskill

July- People Are Unappealing: Even Me- Sara Barron

August- It Chooses You- Miranda July

September- The History of Love- Nicole Krauss

October- Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name- Audrey Lorde

November- Sarah's Key- Tatiana De Rosnay

December- Wingshooters- Nina Revoyr