Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Summary (Courtesy of  Goodreads): We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence. Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renée's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

My sister recommended this book to me a long time ago, so I've had it on my to-read list for a while. However, I'd read quite a few negative reviews of this book, so I never had it really high on my priority list. I should trust my sister more, because she knew what she was talking about. Also, she knows me. This book was a perfect fit for me.

Now, I'll say upfront that I can see why people gave this so many negative reviews. I can see how people would find it pretentious or overly-full-of-its-own-wisdom or whatever. And I didn't necessarily find either the characters or the story to be exactly perfect. I didn't quite find it convincing that Renee's whole hang-up with the upper-class hinged on her sister's tragic episode of decades before. She seemed intellectually smart enough to be more emotionally mature than that. And for all her brilliance, Paloma was still such a pre-teen, so narrowly-focused on her own problems and so utterly sure of her own view of the world. As if even a genius can have life figured out at the tender age of twelve. So yes, I can see how people would be annoyed by the characters, or find the story lacking, or just be plain bored (the plot is rather slow-moving).

But there were so many beautiful moments, especially from Renee. I loved her reflections about life and beauty and culture. I loved her obsession with Russian literature (reminded me of a dear friend and old roommate), and I laughed at her response to people who made grammar mistakes. Her opinions about using correct language (and her snarky criticism of those who don't) reminded me so much of my husband (and I mean that in as loving a way as possible). There were simply beautiful nuggets of wisdom and depth tucked neatly throughout the story. This is a book to be read slowly with a highlighter and notepad, slowly savoring the beautiful images. I actually regret a bit that I listened to this one as an audio book, because I found myself thinking all the time about how I wanted to stop and think about some of these ideas more slowly. Someday maybe I'll find a hard copy and read it again (I'm not sure I loved it quite enough to actually buy it).

So, as far as recommendations go, this one isn't for everyone. It's not necessarily a light or easy read, it's not necessarily flawless. But for those who don't mind a little substance and enjoy really beautiful writing, this one is well worth your time.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Two Weeks


I blinked, and here we are. Two weeks into grad school. It's been a blur, folks. A crazy, crazy fortnight. I'm sure you're all dying for an update, so here it is. The highs, the lows, and the oh-so-interesting reflections on my new life as a full-time grad-student.

Let's start with the negatives, so we can end on a positive note, shall we?

The Lows

-My commute. I have to travel to campus three days a week, and no matter how I schedule it, one leg of my trip is fifteen minutes, and the other leg is an hour plus. I just can't avoid rush hour. It's terrible and horrible and I hate driving in traffic and (don't tell my mom) I've already had about five near accidents and I'm just waiting for the day (because it is inevitable) when I hear that awful sound of metal on metal contact.

-The homework. Oh, man, am I drowning in the reading. In my first week alone I was assigned well over 100 pages of scholarly articles on New Formalism (ugh! don't even ask), as well as a 326 page book on mythology (actually sort of enjoyed that one), plus a few poems that were only a couple of pages long, so you know, no biggie. Maybe that doesn't sound all that intense? Throw a toddler in the mix and trust me, it was intense. It helped that my husband had work off on Monday, so he was able to take the Little Man out for a day of fun and adventure while I devoted myself to hours and hours of reading. I have no idea what I'm going to do this week, without that precious time.

-Feeling lost in class. While I am in the master's program, I'm taking the same courses as the PhD students, many who have been in their programs for 3+ years and just have this whole swath of knowledge that completely overwhelms and intimidates me. There was a conversation in class the other day about Kantian aesthetics versus Hegelian "spirit" something or other, and I was so lost. So very, very lost.

-The stress of the babysitting situation. I'll probably write a whole post just on this childcare issue, but trust me. Stress.

-The cost of books. I forgot how expensive it can be to major in literature. Especially when two of your professors require obscure out-of-print texts that the school bookstore wouldn't even carry, and you have to spend hours scouring the internet looking for a copy under $200 that will ship in time to get here before next week. That's just one of the many issues I've had with procuring my books this semester. Let's just that I have not been impressed with this school's bookstore. Not at all.

The Highs

Lest you think nothing good has happened in the past two weeks, let me assure you, it's actually been incredible. Fantastic. Really, I'm not being sarcastic here. This has been an amazing couple of weeks, and these highs have just confirmed that I made the completely right choice to come back to school.

-Saying something brilliant in class. Okay, maybe not brilliant, but despite my lost moments there have been a couple moments in every class where I've asked a question or said something that the professor seemed really excited about. They were those triumphant little moments of "Yes! I'm actually getting this! I'm contributing to this class! The professor knows my name! I might just be cut out for grad school!"

-The commute. Okay, I know I listed this in the cons, because the traffic really is beastly and unpleasant and all that, but! I discovered I can listen to audio books in the car! You guys! I have a dedicated three hours every week where I'm trapped in my car with nothing to do but listen to books! Are there too many exclamation points in this paragraph? Anyway, this is a definite perk, and wonderful for my sanity. I might actually blow my personal reading goal out of the water this year, and there's hope for keeping this blog alive.

-Strong start. I don't want to brag or anything, but I totally geared myself up for the start of this semester, and I have been ON TOP OF IT. I've impressed even myself. Not only have I done all my homework on time (reading almost every assigned word), but I've kept to a rigorous house cleaning schedule (I cleaned BOTH bathrooms this week, which is more productive than my pre-school self), made dinner every night, and still got at least seven hours of sleep every night. Don't worry, I know I won't be able to keep this pace up for long, but for now, I feel a little bit like the Energizer bunny (does anyone reference that any more?).

So to sum up, it's been hard, but it's been good. It's felt so good to get my brain working again and to get back into some of this academic stuff, reading Romantic poetry and the like, and realizing how rewarding this kind of stuff is. I'm tired, but right now I'm feeling very optimistic. Here's to a good start.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Review: The Odyssey

Okay, this isn't so much a book review, as it is my thoughts on this specific radio adaptation. Because, does The Odyssey really need a book review here? What can I really say about this book that hasn't already been said by the 2,000+ years of history this story's been around for. I mean, this book is a classic. End of story. Does anyone really care if I rate it four stars or five? This book is going to be around for another thousand years at least, so my opinion matters little.

Also, do you need the plot summary? Really? In all your years of education, did no one really make you read this? Guys, if you haven't read this one, you should. If only just to understand all the cultural references made to this book (everywhere all the time). Make it a goal or something. Or go back to grad school, which is exactly why I recently reread this book. Or, more accurately, listened to this adaptation.

This semester I'm taking a course called, wait for it, The History of Narrative! I can't decide if I'm super excited for this class, or if I'm kind of terrified, because if you saw the reading list, it is comprehensive. Everything from Virgil to Dante to Spenser to contemporary stuff. And while Homer isn't on the list specifically, the professor hinted in his course description that The Odyssey would be referenced frequently and it might be nice to brush up on it before class. The last time I read The Odyssey was in about sixth grade, so I figured a refresher might be a good idea. I suppose I could have found an audio book of this word for word somewhere, but I saw my library had this dramatized radio adaptation created by Yuri Rasovsky available, and it piqued my interest.

This adaptation was actually a series of radio broadcasts produced in the 1980s for The National Radio Theater. And guys? I know people talk about how radio is a dying medium, but considering how many stations out there are still alive and thriving, I kind of thought radio had it's niche and was doing just fine. I had no idea stuff like this used to be on the radio. I mean, this was like a serialized theater production with a full cast of actors and music composed specifically for this production. I did not know they used to make such quality entertainment programs for the radio. It was kind of cool to think about the stodgy old professor types who tuned in every week with their audiobills (all you had to was call this number and get a free audiobill in the mail, how awesome is that?) to listen to this dramatized version of The Odyssey. Kind of like how I tune in every week to get my Downton Abbey fix (except, Downton Abbey is a soap opera dressed up in period costume, not a splendid epic poem that will be loved for centuries).

So, the story was broken up into episodes, but what I thought was really fun was how at the end of every episode they had a bit of a journalistic piece where they interviewed experts about some aspect of The Odyssey. So I learned all sorts of interesting things about Oral Culture, about the guest-host relationship in ancient Greece, about political structures in ancient Greece, etc. I suppose some people might find these scholarly bits to be a distraction from the story, and boring or annoying. But I'm a pretentious snob, or whatever. I found it fascinating.

My one complaint about listening to this adaptation was that I felt it should have been edited a bit more for audio book format. This thing was, quite literally, the exact broadcast that aired in 1980, including commercials for Radio Theater and other sponsors, and recaps at the beginning of each episode. All of that was entirely unnecessary for the audio book format, and should have been edited out by someone (Blackstone, I'm looking at you). But other than that. I thoroughly enjoyed this dramatic adaptation of The Odyssey. I thought it was a great way to refresh myself on the story, learn a few interesting facts, and discover the glory that once was Radio Theater. Fun stuff.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Student Mom: The Application

So, I originally intended to break this post up into several different posts for each section of the application I want to talk about. But then, I kind of waited too long to really remember everything about the application process (I turned it in last September, I should have written this post back then). Also, this is all probably terribly boring to read about, so let's just cram it into one longer boring post instead of multiple, repetitive boring posts, shall we?  Good. Here's the condensed version of my reflections/advice about the actual grad school application.

Letters of Recommendation

My program required that I provide three letters of recommendation from academic sources. This was by far the most intimidating part of the application process for me, because (if you remember) I'd been out of school for over three years at the point I was applying and didn't really have a lot of contact with any of my professors. When my husband was in undergrad, he knew he would need letters of recommendation for law school and so he carefully cultivated some relationships with professors specifically to ask them for letters. Since I had no thoughts of grad school at the time, I went to no such pains with my professors.

I have a friend who went back to school for her master's and she had been out of undergrad for so long that she actually signed up for pre-req undergrad classes at a local community college first just to get some professors that could recommend her. I didn't think my situation was quite so dire as that, but my emails to my professors all contained some version of the plea, "I hope you remember me... ." I was a bit lucky in that I had a student teaching mentor who I knew already had a letter on file for me, and another professor that I actually worked for (so that had to leave some kind of impression, right?). For the third letter, I went back and forth about who to ask. There were a few professors I think I would have preferred to ask, but I just didn't feel like I'd made enough of a connection with them, so I ended up asking a professor who I am friends with on Goodreads (bless Goodreads, another reason I love that site so much) and had maintained a connection with that way.

Here are the pieces of advice I would give from my experience:

-It is worth it to keep up a connection with professors from your undergrad experience! I wish I would have realized that more when I was actually there.
-Professors are busy people, so ask early. I sent emails out last June (the deadline wasn't until Nov. 1st) and I was still sending polite reminder requests in mid October.
-Make sure you know how the letters need to be submitted before you contact your recommenders. Some universities require online submission, others want the old fashioned paper letter signed and with a stamp (I had some confused professors who expected the online submission, but apparently my university isn't up with the times).

Statement of Intent
For my application, I had to write a 500 word statement of intent. This is sometimes also called a personal essay or letter of intent, or some other such name. Requirements and expectations vary depending on program and school. I had a vague idea about what I wanted to write for this statement, but then I went online to look at some example statements and realized I was completely off base. I probably read five or six example essays before writing my own, and while it certainly wasn't anything ground-breaking, at least I didn't embarrass myself by submitting something completely off-topic.

So my advice for writing this statement:
-Read example essays! The internet is a wonderful invention for this, there's lots of stuff out there.
-DO NOT submit your first draft (I admit, I was tempted to do this). No matter how brilliant of a writer you are, it only gets better with revision.
-Have someone else read it. For me, this was my husband. He thought my statement was cliche and bland, but safe (which is what I was going for).

Writing Sample
Because I applied for an English literature program, I was required to submit a 12 to 15 page writing sample. So I picked one of my best pieces from my undergraduate classes (my final paper for my Shakespeare class). Once again, I was tempted to just submit the paper as it was (after all, it got an A in that class), but I listened to my better advisers and sent it off to my brilliant and generous friend Katie (soon to be Dr. Katie, whenever she finishes her thesis) who completely tore it apart and made me realize how much better the paper could be (honestly, why didn't I have her review it back in undergrad when I wrote it? She had such good advice...). It was too much work to make every change she suggested (I didn't have access to enough of my original sources), but I was able to spruce the paper up to what I consider a more acceptable graduate level. Anyway, I don't have any more specific advice other than to reiterate the value of having someone else read your work, and revise, revise, revise.

There was a general part of the application too, forms where I provided all my personal information and the resume of all my previous academic experience, etc. I'm not sure that I have any sort of advice to give for that other than to get it done early. Don't procrastinate getting your application in on time. It's stressful enough being a mom and working on the application, so just get it done early.

And that's it! There you have all my astounding insights into completing a grad school application that will be accepted by a middling university. I hope someone finds this useful someday.

To read the rest of the posts in this series, click here.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review: Okay for Now

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Summary (Courtesy of Amazon): In this companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, Doug struggles to be more than the "skinny thug" that some people think him to be. He finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer, who gives him the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.

I read The Wednesday Wars a few years back, and while I found it a little improbable (a seventh grade kid who comes to actually appreciate Shakespeare? I taught seventh grade kids, so call me skeptical) that didn't stop me from loving it. Schmidt really is a master of the middle-grade genre, and I love the way he tackles big issues and themes with such simple language. So anyway, when I found Okay for Now available for immediate download from my library, I jumped at it.

And... it was just as good as The Wednesday Wars. Maybe even better. It was essentially the same formula: troubled, base-ball obsessed, middle-school boy makes some unlikely friends, finds inspiration from a high-culture icon (this time Audubon instead of Shakespeare), and finds inner strength in the face of serious issues (slightly more serious in this book-- an abusive father and a friend with cancer), but Schmidt does a really good job with this formula and I wouldn't mind if he wrote ten more books just like it.

I especially appreciate how great these books are for boys. I mean, I don't actually know any middle school aged boys at the moment, so I don't know how well they are actually received by that target audience (I might just be wishing here), but sometimes it feels like no one is writing good fiction for young boys anymore. So many books these days feature female protagonists, and I know the boys I taught were very turned off by any book with a female protagonist (The Hunger Games being the one exception I can think of). So it's really nice to see quality middle-grade books with really well written male protagonists. Schmidt's boys are funny, sweet, at times frustrating (like all boys that age) and very believable. They are just fantastic characters.

I recommend this one to anybody who enjoys a good a middle-grade book (FYI, you don't need to have read The Wednesday Wars first, but these books are connected a little bit). This was good one to start the New Year off with.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Reading Goals for 2014

I've been hemming and hawing and mulling over the idea of implementing some reading goals for this year. In theory, I really like the idea of goals. My book-a-week goal has served me incredibly well over my first two years of motherhood (p.s. holy cow, I have a two year old! Who allowed my baby to grow up on me?).

However, sometimes goals add extra pressure and the disappointment of failure. I'm hoping most of you don't remember the goal I set two months ago to read a historical biography by the end of the year? Yeah, well, I'm 150 pages into John Adams, and it's incredibly good, but it's also incredibly thick. And then, there was my novel writing project that distracted me in November, and then the holidays hit kind of hard and so that goal didn't really happen. I totally intend to finish the book, but I might need to find it on audio (my only available reading time these days seems to be while scrubbing bathrooms). Anyway, I'm still a little disappointed in myself for failing at that one.

And, considering the fact that I begin a Master's in Literature program in a mere ELEVEN DAYS (freaking out here), and will suddenly be inundated with reading assignments out my eyeballs, it's very likely that no pleasure or personal reading of any kind will happen this year.

But that thought kind of depresses me. There are just too many books on that to-read list of mine that have been sitting on that list for far too long, and I think I will be a happier, healthier reader if I make a little time for pleasure reading in my life. Having preset goals will give me the excuse I need to do that. So I've determined that I'm going to set some very un-ambitious reading goals, with the strict stipulation that there will be no guilt if I don't meet these goals. Without further ado (because there has already been way more ado than necessary leading up to this list), here are my reading goals for 2014:

1. Finish John Adams. I would like to do this before July, but if I don't find the audio book, I'll just give myself to the end of this year.

2. Read 12 books for pleasure. That equals only about one book a month (a far cry below my book a week goal), but since all pleasure reading will likely happen between semesters, I'm trying to keep this goal as easy as possible.

And, that's it! Yep, pretty unambitious this year in the personal reading department. However, there will still be plenty of reading going on (hello, working on a master's in literature), and I fully intend to keep up with this blog. I just hope you're all anxious to read reviews of Reformation poetry, because that's one of my classes this semester. I know you're super excited, don't deny it.

2014 is going to be a good year.