What’s Going On

Fall semester starts today, technically, but for me it starts tomorrow. I’m in back-to-school mode, which is one of the best modes of all. I love the start of a new school year, don’t you?

Here’s what’s been happening this spring and summer:

I went to New Orleans with my BFFs! we all turned 40 this year, so we decided to ring in the new decade with a ladies’ trip. We rented a lovely and perfect house on the bayou where we could hang out at night listening to the noises of the wildlife or relaxing in the hot tub. In town, we ate all the delicious food and drank all the beautiful drinks and had generally an amazing time. We need to do this every year now.

My kiddos started a new daycare/preschool. They started attending at the beginning of the summer, during the “summer camp” mode, which meant they got to have splash days and popsicles on Fridays and they loved it. Now the daycare’s new preschool year has started and E&L moved up to a new class and started taking Gymnastics (they offer classes as part of the preschool extracurriculars) and it feels like basically the next time I turn around they’ll be off to college. They’re doing wonderfully. They’re mostly daytime potty trained at this point now, too — one twin completely; the other uses a pull-up at naptime — and that’s probably not something I’ll write much more about here on the wide-open internet, but suffice it to say: YAY.

We took our summer road trip to Iowa to visit my in-laws and survived the long days in the car thanks to my iPad and Netflix’s selection of animated movies available for offline viewing. The kids had a blast playing on the farm and riding all the various farm vehicles with Papa.

I’ve been reading exclusively women writers this year, and although there are a couple of books on my shelf waiting for when the man-ban is lifted, it’s been completely refreshing. These are a few of my favorites so far.

So what’s new with you?

Watching & Reading

Here’s how I’ve been entertaining myself lately:

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How to Get Away with Murder

I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of this show last year, so I was excited to find a few new episodes in my Hulu queue. I’m almost caught up with the new season, but not quite, so no spoilers, please. I love mysteries and legal dramas and have a bit of a weakness of absurdly soapy plots, so HTGAWM is right up my alley. I don’t particularly “like” any of the show’s characters, which almost makes it more fun to watch because if/when something terrible happens to one of them or they’re revealed as evil, I just get to straight-up enjoy the drama. Fun.

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Scream Queens

This show is completely ridiculous and fun and I recommend it if you’re interested in horror, campus narratives, or over-the-top campy pop-culture stuff. The send-up of popular horror movies is entertaining and the 90s soundtrack is just extra enjoyment for old folks like me. Plus, Jamie Lee Curtis!

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The Mindy Project

This is the one 30-minute comedy I’ve been consistently watching this season and while I don’t LOVE it the way I loved, say, Parks and Rec, it’s still fun for me. especially because this season Mindy and Danny have a new baby, so, hey!, relatable. Has anyone else noticed Mindy’s supercute pajamas recently? I need to know where she’s getting all those.

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Nashville

As out-of-control soapy as this show gets, I still love it so. The Juliette storyline is particularly awful this season, so I really hope they find a way to turn that around. I also really can’t stand this new Marcus character. Who the hell does he think he is, anyway?! What I have been appreciating is the return to Scarlett and Gunnar awesomeness, in particular their musical collaborations. Just give me the S&G album of my dreams, please, Nashville!

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The Martian, Andy Weir

I had been meaning to read this forever based on people’s favorable mentions of it on Twitter, and then I realized the movie had been released, so I’d better get a move on if I didn’t want the plot to get spoiled for me. I enjoyed the first-person narrator’s sense of humor and sarcasm and found the scientific aspects of the story to be really interesting. Space travel isn’t something I know a lot about, but I still found the technical aspects of the book easy enough to understand for a non-expert such as myself.

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The Royal We, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

I had absolutely no interest in this book for a long time because I was somehow under the misconception that it was a non-fiction book about the real Will and Kate. Once I found out it was a novel, I was on board. When the Kindle version went on sale, I figured, why not? It had plenty of slow moments for me, especially in terms of the royal family stuff, which I generally have very little interest in, but the love story itself was entertaining enough to keep me reading.

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Carry On, Rainbow Rowell

I’ve just started this one. Rainbow Rowell is hit or miss for me — I tend to prefer her adult books (Attachments and Landline) over her young adult stuff. In particular, I did not care for Eleanor and Park. Fangirl, on the other hand, was more interesting to me, but I found myself skipping the Simon Snow fanfiction sections of the novel in order to focus more on the main characters. I figured, then, that Carry On, her fantasy novel about the Simon Snow “world of mages” (obviously inspired by Harry Potter) that she first explored in Fangirl, would not be a hit for me. I decided to read it after all, though, after seeing a lot of friends say how much they were enjoying it. I’m about 20% of the way through so far and in all honesty I’d just rather be rereading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time. Maybe it will get more gripping. We’ll see.

Present Perfect Continuous

It’s been nothing but pregnancy talk around here for a while, so I want to change things up. I keep running into the thought that I “don’t have time” to write substantially about anything more than once a week, so that time gets devoted to weekly pregnancy updates instead of anything else. Well, perhaps I don’t need to write substantially! Perhaps I will write trivially about things of little import! How about THAT?!

Here are a few things I’ve been doing lately:

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Reading: I recently started Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, and despite not being immediately gripped by the plot or characters, I have persisted. At about 80 pages in I was seriously wondering why I bothered, but I am currently about 125 pages in and now much more interested. I am usually not one to complain or be daunted by very lengthy works of fiction (some of my all time favorite books include Infinite Jest and In Search of Lost Time, for example; The Goldfinch was a recent favorite). I do generally find, though, that my favorite lengthy tomes are the ones that interest me immediately and in such an insistent manner that I am unable to stop reading after just one chapter. I don’t feel that way about A Little Life, nor did I about, for example, Ulysses. We’ll see how it goes.

Watching: Sadly I have finished watching Make it or Break It, the cheesy ABC Family show about competitive gymnastics. I was dismayed to find out at the end of S3E8 that I had just seen the series finale — I’d been expecting several more episodes. Having accomplished that proud feat, though, I’ve returned to my slow ongoing re-watch of Lost.   What I wish I were watching, however, is Hannibal. I got behind on the current season and then when I went to Hulu to catch up, all but the last three episodes had been removed. DAMN YOU, HULU. (No, they’re not available on NBC.com, either.)

Listening: Frank Zappa and Taylor Swift. With those two, you’ve pretty much got all your bases covered. Until, that is, the much anticipated (by me, anyway) Ryan Adams 1989 cover album is released. Bated breath over here.

Planning: My next nursery project, a couple of mobiles with //embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js“>hand-sewn birds. I haven’t done a legit sewing project in MANY A YEAR, so this should be…something.

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Loving: The visit from my friend C. and family over Labor Day Weekend! It was so nice to have them at our house and to have a couple of days to relax, hang out, catch up, and just spend time together. We went out to dinner one night and then the next day stayed in for brunch and then afternoon grilling at the house, with plenty of breaks for her 8-year-old to run around in the backyard and for our dog to follow him around hoping for a chance to play with the b-a-l-l. It was lovely. We need to do this more often.

Things I’ve Been Enjoying Lately

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Re-watching Lost

I’m currently early in season two and thoroughly enjoying it. If I remember correctly, I’ve seen the first couple of seasons more than once, but it’s been long enough that I don’t remember a lot of what happened. As far as seasons 3 and beyond, my memory is very foggy. Of course, I do remember the way the series ended, which I did not love at the time, and when it occasionally comes to mind as I’m watching now, it still pisses me off. I wonder if I’ll feel differently about the ending this time around? At any rate, I am enjoying spending time with Sawyer, Jack, Kate, Locke, Jin and Sun, Hurley, and Desmond.

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The Property Brothers

As we moved from house hunting to house buying, it’s been really fun to watch this and other real-estate/remodeling shows. It doesn’t hurt that the brothers are both totally adorable. My husband has gotten into the show, too, and it’s just fun to sit around and think about all the things we can do with our new house — and, of course, to make fun of the often vapid and annoying people featured on the show. “I want my dream house, and I want it NOW!” — Actual Quote from a Buyer on the Show.

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My Library’s Kindle Books

Downloading a book to my Kindle app instantly, for free, just never gets old. Sure, sometimes I have to be on the waiting list for quite a while (I’ve been waiting weeks and weeks for Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and I’m now number 10 on 6 copies — it’s getting close!), but it’s worth it. Here are a few I’ve read recently, along with my star rating (out of a possible 5):

  • How to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran (still in progress)
  • Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel ***
  • Looking for Alaska – John Green ** (2.5)
  • Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty *** (3.5)
  • The Vacationers – Emma Straub ***
  • Yes, Please – Amy Pohler ** (2.5)
  • This is Where I Leave You – Jonathan Tropper **
  • Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes **** (4.5)

Dinner! (kale, quinoa, roasted sweet potatoes and chickpeas, feta, tahini dressing)

This Composed Salad Recipe

I found this recipe on Pinterest and, due to my love of all things kale and quinoa, I felt sure I would love it. I modified it by roasting the chickpeas first, but did everything else pretty much as directed. When I make this again, I’ll leave out the feta. I think, with the tahini dressing, the feta is not really needed. Leaving it out has the benefit of making the whole recipe vegan, which is something I like to do often.

Azaleas

The Warm, Springy Weather

It’s azalea season, which is the loveliest time in Alabama. Enough said.

Beloved Books I Just Don’t Love

After my post about Harry Potter last week, I was chatting about it with friends on Twitter when my friend Tim asked,

Makes me wonder: what beloved tale do you just HATE?

I had one immediate answer to this question that I’ll share in a minute, but I wanted to spend a little more time thinking about it, to ask myself if there were any others, before I posted.

Before I get into talking about beloved tales I hate, let me just beg you please not to be too offended if I mention one of your favorites here. I know. There’s a really abrasive way that people sometimes have of doing that. Every so often, when there’s something that people just seem to enjoy and then somebody feels the need — nay, the moral obligation! — to pipe up and say how much they hate it.

I think when we feel like outsiders, not getting something that everyone else seems to get, we turn that outsider feeling into dissent. And sometimes it gets mean. The Serial podcast and the Elf on the Shelf are two current examples — my Facebook feed is mostly full of people publicly enjoying one or the other or both of them; meanwhile a cranky hater here or there raises his voice in a self-important bleat, trying to make sure everyone knows he hasn’t “fallen for the hype.” In fact, simply invoking “the hype” when discussing something popular is enough to put me on edge every now and then.

But of course I’m sure I have done this PLENTY of times myself. Sometimes I think we’re blind to ourselves that way. But I try.

At any rate, I certainly don’t want to hurt your feelings if I mention not liking a book you loved. I know I would get hurt feelings or just feel downright indignant over someone claiming to hate Nabokov or Faulkner or David Foster Wallace or Donna Tartt. I can recall those feelings so vividly, thinking back to the times I’ve heard people say that. Please don’t feel that way. Think of this post as me exposing my own inadequacies as a reader– my inability to appreciate these beloved, admittedly good works. They’re good; I fail to appreciate them.

So. I’m just going to talk about the works I personally didn’t like or enjoy — I make no claim about their quality, their social relevance, their artistic worth. I’m not writing as a literary scholar here; rather as a reader who is just looking for that spine-tingle of pleasure a book can so often afford.

But these books, reader, sadly did not:

1. All of John Steinbeck’s Work. This was my immediate gut response when Tim asked me about this (and we talked about it on Twitter already and we are both on the same page here). I read The Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl in high school and a short story called “Chrysanthemums” in graduate school, so those are the only texts I’m basing this on. I loathed every minute of the two high school novels and then successfully avoided Steinbeck throughout college. By graduate school perhaps I had mellowed a bit, but I did rather … appreciate “Chrysanthemums,” for reasons. Nonetheless, since that day, I have sworn to myself not to read any more Steinbeck and that’s a promise I take very seriously. Would I appreciate some of his other novels? Or even maybe appreciate the ones I already read, if I read them again at a more mature stage of life? Stubbornly, I won’t ever find out.

2. All of Shakespeare’s plays. I know. I know. I adore his sonnets. I enjoy passages from the plays treated in isolation (the language! the wordplay! it’s all brilliant!), but I just cannot bear to read an entire Shakespearean play. I would rather read Twilight again, no joke. Even the horrible fourth book. This baffling situation is further explained below.

3. All plays. I hate reading plays. I don’t enjoy going to the theater either. Something about the reading experience being all dialogue and no narration, maybe. I want artful and complex prose, narrative and descriptive prose, not just speech. Something about the theater experience being so awkward and full of Loud Stage Talking. I feel uncomfortable on behalf of all the actors (they’re standing on stage, talking at an unnatural volume, with an unnatural cadence, standing that way). PLEASE DON’T BE MAD AT ME. Some of my very dear friends are theatre professors and I love them and I respect their work and I will always see their shows but I swear to you there is something in me, something in my brain and the way I process narrative vs performance that just locks me out. I cannot enjoy it, no matter how wonderful the writing is or the acting or the production. I am incapable. It’s a true defect. But I will not read a play (for pleasure).

4. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green. Okay, hold on and please don’t start throwing rotten fruit at me just yet! I know y’all really loved it. This book isn’t on this list because I felt particularly strongly about it; rather because I wanted to include an example of a popular contemporary novel that just didn’t strike a chord with me and this one came foremost to my mind. I didn’t particularly dislike this book in and of itself, actually. I think the reason it came up as I was thinking about this post is really just that the book is so popular. Tons and tons of my friends were talking about it when they read it, and talking about how much they loved it, so I got pretty excited to read it, too. That was really the only issue — it was (and I hate that I am even THINKING of this term) “the hype.” Ugh. I’m sorry I invoked that dreaded term. Honestly, I think if I hadn’t heard much of anything about the book, I would have thought it was pretty good, fine, not life-changing, but okay. As it was, my excitement to read it when it finally became available at the library (BIG!) was so disproportionate to the actual pleasure I got from reading it (modest) that it made me disgruntled. I did really like the character of the angry Dutch writer. I’d read a book about him, for sure.

Reading for work; Reading for fun

When I put out the call for questions I could answer in a blog post, my friend RA, who by the way is also a super avid reader and always has good book recommendations, asked:

I am also curious: How do you balance reading for work/teaching versus pleasure? Do you get to teach material you’d read for fun?

This is such a good question and one that I’ve been learning how to answer for myself for a few years now. When I first started teaching full time, post grad school, I really couldn’t balance this at all. I was teaching a lot of texts I wasn’t already super familiar with at the time. Reading them well enough to be able to teach them was a huge part of the time I spent preparing for class.

When I read a text to teach it, I read it in a completely different way than I would if I were reading something for pleasure. The most visible difference is the pencil: if I’m reading something for reaching or research, I have a pencil in hand and I’m always ready to annotate. I’m circling words I need to look up, mapping out plot or marking scansion, noting points of connection across different parts of a text, tracking motifs, and so on. It’s a very active, very slow way to read. Occasionally I stop to look something up or turn back to reread an earlier section of the text. Sometimes I keep a running list of notes beside me with ideas about how I’ll present the material, what I can ask students to do with it, or connections I could make for my own research and writing.

This type of reading was all I had time for when I first started teaching full time. Back then, almost everything I was teaching was new, or at least relatively new, to me. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to develop those courses and repeat some of the same, now familiar, texts, while also adding in new ones here or there to replace ones that I’m tired of or ones that haven’t worked out well in the course. So, while I’m always adding new material, I haven’t ever had a semester where I just replaced everything with 100% new texts. This has meant that the number of new texts I’m working with in any given semester is much smaller, so it has opened up some more leisure reading time.

In my first years with this job, I think I really just wasn’t reading for fun at all. And how sad is that — the English teacher who never gets to read? The kind of scholarly reading I described above took … well, not exactly all of my time, but all of my bandwidth, so to speak. I just couldn’t process that much more reading. Now I can.

In recent years, I’ve been finding the time and energy to read more for fun. And thank dog for that. Here’s how I usually balance it now: the reading I need to do for my courses tends to happen during work hours. For the most part, I try to keep that to business days/hours and do it in my campus office. If that can’t happen, I will sometimes go to a coffee shop to work or I will work at my home desk on a Saturday morning. I’ll be sitting up straight and I’ll always have a pencil at hand. Work mode. My pleasure reading is far more likely to take place in the evening, on the couch, or in bed. I’ll be cozy and at least partly horizontal and there will definitely be a blanket involved. And, rather than a pencil, I’ll usually have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a piece of candy at hand. Pleasure mode.

To get to the second part of RA’s question: do you get to teach material you’d read for fun? Yes, absolutely! It’s definitely not all stuff I’d choose to read for fun, but I do really enjoy everything I teach.

A lot of these texts are things I would just genuinely like to read. I teach a wide range — literature from all over the world, in all genres, from as early as ~2000 BCE to the present day. That’s 4000 years of writing, if you’re keeping track. My research area (and the area I’m most likely to read for pleasure) is 20th-21st century fiction, which is only a small part of the range I work with. That said, some of the texts I teach, even if they fall outside of my preferred focus area, are still things I’d read for fun anyway (Sappho, Tolstoy, Flaubert, the entire tradition of the sonnet, T’ang Dynasty poetry…). The best part, though, is when I teach the 20th and 21st century and I get to pick and choose my very favorite authors to include (Joyce, Woolf, Millay, Faulkner, Nabokov, Borges, García Márquez, Calvino, Murakami, Wallace…). Best of all: one summer I got to teach an upper level comparative literature course on detective fiction, which basically was five weeks of Let’s Read Kate’s Favorite Books and Talk about Them Every Day. That was fun.

Thinking of that class reminds me: because I get to teach things I love so often, there is often a sort of gray area when I’m reading something new. Is this new detective novel I just picked up going to be the pleasure read I’m expecting? Or is it going to turn into a scholarly read for a future course? That happened a couple of summers ago with Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. I started out reading it for fun and then I wound up teaching it a few months later. The moment I knew I was crossing over was the second I reached for a pencil.

The End of Harry Potter

The other day I put out a call on Twitter, asking people if they had any questions I could answer for a blog post. I’d just been tweeting all day about my marathon reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and my friend B. asked:

Were you disappointed by the ending of the Harry Potter series? I wanted a finale that would have revealed magic to the muggles.

My dream ending: a duel between Harry and Voldemort in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, forever changing the world of magic.

I have to admit, this was something I’d never thought of before. For one thing, I don’t think I ever really tried to envision an ending to the Harry Potter story beyond the final face-off between Harry and Voldemort (with, of course, Harry winning in the end). I was looking forward to that major confrontation and wherever it happened, I probably would have been satisfied. For another thing, the idea of magic being revealed to the muggle word on a large scale also just never occurred to me as a possibility. The necessity to keep magic a secret from muggles and the conflicts that secret entails are certainly central to the series, but that set of conflicts generally stayed in the background for me. The secrecy added allure to Rowling’s world, and beyond that, I didn’t think about it as much of a plot element. But then, it could be a huge one.

As I sat and reflected on my friend’s vision of the ending he imagined, I was an easy sell. I think it sounds like a potentially AWESOME way to end the story — it would be spectacular and exciting and would leave the series with the sense that things were going to be forever different, not just because Voldemort had been defeated but also because muggles would never be able to see things the same way again.

But, to get back to B’s original question — had I been disappointed in the way J.K. Rowling ended the series? had there been a particular ending scenario I’d wanted to see, but hadn’t? — I have to say no. I found the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to be quite satisfying. And that may be in some small part to do with how I read. I think I generally don’t tend to imagine or forecast the endings of stories. I may have guesses about where something is going, but my imagination just rarely ever writes an ending for me before it happens. Forecasting and prediction almost never enter into my way of thinking. With some exceptions, of course. It’s a fun thought exercise or conversation topic, for example. What if Buffy dies? What kind of job will Rory get? What if Dexter gets caught? (Speaking of endings that pissed me off, Dexter‘s ending was the actual worst.)

It’s not that I don’t wonder about endings; I suppose it’s just that I don’t often imagine an ending that I decide I really want to see. I don’t invest in an ending I’ve imagined. In fact, if I find myself thinking too much about where something is going or how it will end, that in itself tends to detract fom my enjoyment of the story (and I think that kind of forecasting happens for me most often with writing that telegraphs too much ayway). At any rate, I think I just like to watch the story unfold.

So yes, I was happy with how the Harry Potter story unfolded. The setting Rowling chose for the final showdown, rather than being a public or muggle space, like Picadilly Circus, was the Hogwarts Great Hall, the same room where Harry and Tom Riddle were sorted, where they ate every meal during their time as students, where they took their OWLs. I loved that.

I loved that the entire final battle takes place at Hogwarts. For one thing, I missed Hogwarts in book seven. I was tired of wandering around the woods with Harry, Hermione, and Ron. I missed the school and the people in its walls. Hogwarts is the heart of the story in a lot of ways. It’s Harry’s home; it was Tom Riddle’s home, too. It signifies love and belonging for Harry and — for the rest of the wizarding population of the UK — it signifies hope for the future.

To have Voldemort and the Death Eaters breach the notoriously strong defenses of Hogwarts was significant. It was scary. When they could enter the grounds of Hogwarts, it meant that shit was getting real. It brought the fight home. The professors and students were there, able to take part in the fight and, on the other side of that coin, vulnerable to attack. Hogwarts makes a perfect backdrop for confrontations between the Death Eaters and beloved characters like Neville, Luna, Ginny, Professor McGonagall, and all the Weasleys.

I loved the way the final fight worked — that it mirrored the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort in the graveyard in Little Hangleton. Voldemort uses an unforgivable curse; Harry uses a defensive disarming spell. The callback to their first duel was nice, structurally. And Voldemort, dead, is “vacant and unknowing,” “a shell.” Just as he was in life, in the end.

On another note, one of my favorite things in the ending of the Harry Potter series is the trip through Snape’s memories. Oh, man. That chapter of the story makes me well up every single time. Severus and Lily as children, before ever coming to Hogwarts. Petunia writing to Dubledore, begging to come to school with her sister. (Tuney!) Snape vowing to do anything to help protect Lily’s son. The doe patronus. Y’all. It’s so good.

I imagine this might be an interesting topic, though, and I know lot of you are Harry Potter fans. What do y’all think of the ending?