Sunday, March 27, 2016

Fig by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

When I first read the plot summary for Fig, I was immediately intrigued and made it a point to purchase the book.  It deals with mental illness, a topic that tends to be expressed very well in young adult fiction.  I count The Perks of Being a Wallflower, It's Kind of a Funny Story, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Looking for Alaska, and Challenger Deep among some of my absolute favorite reads, so I was excited to see if Fig would be another addition to my favorites list.  Happily, it was.  I loved this one. 

Fig, by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz, is a novel about a young girl growing up in a family touched by mental illness.  Fig's mother, Annie, is diagnosed with schizophrenia and Fig herself struggles with OCD and anxiety.  The novel, narrated by Fig, tells the story of her life from ages 6 to 19 as she starts learning to live with her mother's increasingly erratic behavior and then tries to cure it through a series of bizarre rituals.  The rituals Fig tries using to help her mother, such as avoiding certain colors on certain days or going without food or water on others, only serve to exacerbate her own mental issues and send her into a spiral of despair.  She engages in self-harm and worries constantly that she will manifest signs of schizophrenia when she turns 19, like her mother did.  Eventually, things at home deteriorate and Annie is committed to a mental institution.  When she is released, Fig must learn to accept her mother's illness while making strides to improve her own mental health.

Fig is a beautiful novel, told through vivid imagery and symbolism.  As Fig is the narrator, the reader is forced to view events through the lens of her mental illness, which adds a layer of complexity to a difficult and emotional story.  This is a book for readers who like to think, wrestle with images and consider different perspectives.  It is not a fast-paced reading experience, rather, it is a story that asks its readers to grow with its characters and watch how they change over time.

Annie's character is well-written, and Schantz is careful to show her personality before the schizophrenia changes her.  In this way, both Fig and the reader are able to watch a woman who is an intelligent, feminist, hippie kind of person morph into someone who has completely lost touch with reality. Similarly, the reader watches Fig change through her narration, from a more or less normal kid to someone constantly frightened, worried and increasingly controlled by the rituals she invents to survive.

While Fig and her mother are the central characters in the story, the rest of Fig's family are well developed and play important roles in the novel.  Watching Fig's father close himself off and turn cold as the woman he married slips further and further away from him was disturbing, as was reading Fig's grandmother's passive aggressive barbs toward Annie - which were normal for a possessive mother-in-law but took on a dark tone in light of the family's struggle. 

I very much enjoyed this novel and I think that it presents an emotional and honest-feeling story about how families are affected by mental illness.  My one slight criticism is that the end of the novel felt a little too thick on the symbolism, making the actual events of the story seem a bit unclear and rushed.  Ultimately though, I thought this was one of my best reads of the month.  This is Schantz's first novel, and I'm excited to read what she comes up with next. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Jane Goodall by Dale Peterson

Since March is my month to read about strong women, I decided to read the biography of a woman I deeply admire, the famous primatologist, Jane Goodall.  Prior to reading Goodall's story, I only knew bits and pieces about her life from television shows and interviews I'd seen.  I had a vision of her in my mind as a fearless woman scientist who fought to make it in a male-dominated field.  As I made my way through her impressively complex story, I came to realize that my initial impression of her was correct, but in a completely different way than I thought.  This was a very enlightening and inspiring reading experience.

Dale Peterson's comprehensive biography of Goodall is a brick, coming in at 714 pages of tiny print.  He tells Jane's story from the very beginning, before she was even born, in fact, with information about the lives of her ancestors, grandparents and parents. With the help of letters, personal journal entries, and interviews, Peterson presents a very detailed account of Goodall's happy childhood, her famous work studying chimpanzees in Africa, and her later social activism.  Goodall is a very impressive woman, and the story of how she rose from secretary to scientific icon is equally impressive.  The biography covers a lot of ground--too much to comment on everything in this review, so I thought I would discuss the moments that stood out the most to me.  

What I was the most surprised to discover while reading was how Goodall came to work in Africa.  I was picturing a fresh-faced college graduate pursuing a lifelong dream to observe chimps.  Instead, I read about how a secretary working for the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey said yes when he asked her if she might be interested in going to Africa.  Goodall had no formal education besides secretary training when she left to study at the Gombe Reserve.  All she had was a quiet, intelligent nature, a strong work ethic, and a love for animals.  He asked, and she jumped on the opportunity.  Thus began the career of one of the most famous scientists of our time. 

Goodall earned her Ph.D. after studying chimps for years in Africa, and even then, it was only a formality so that she would be taken more seriously at conferences.  She was already one of the world's foremost experts in chimpanzee behavior.  She didn't even have to take classes to get her degree, she just needed the help of some professors to write up her observations as a scientific dissertation.  This was just astounding to me and it is an important lesson in saying yes to things, even if those things seem impractical, impossible or scary.  She went all in on something that sounded fun and discovered her life's work.  We should all be so lucky.   

Another point I loved was how Goodall was refreshingly open-minded and willing to consider chimpanzees as rational, intelligent individuals. Most people now would probably agree that chimps are highly intelligent, but this belief was new when Goodall was studying in Africa.  She was one of the first people to take this point of view, and was roundly criticized for it.  She knew she was right, however, and stuck to her beliefs.  In doing that, she was able to reshape the way people thought about both the great apes and about what being "human" really meant. 

I was also surprised to learn that in the second phase of her career, Goodall became quite the social activist.  She still visits her chimps in Africa, of course, but her primary work now is to work to promote a better standard of care for captive chimpanzees, establish wildlife reserves, assist native Africans with establishing sustainable farming practices and promote peace and tolerance through her work with children.  As Peterson notes, she travels about 300 days out of each year giving lectures, interviews, fundraising and working with world leaders.  Just reading about the work she does is exhausting.  I can't imagine the energy she must have to actually do it.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading about Goodall's life and career.  This biography, while very lengthy, is readable--once you get used to the slow pace.  I admit that it took me a while to get into the story.  I don't know if all the information about Goodall as a child was particularly necessary, and it made the beginning of the book difficult to get through. Peterson also spends a lot of time giving the background stories of many of the figures in Goodall's life, which felt a little unnecessary as well.  I would have rather had more information about the observations Goodall made about the chimps.  There was surprisingly little of that in comparison to everything else.  To be fair, however, Goodall's famous "In the Shadow of Man" is what I should read if I want to learn more about her work.    

In the end, Dale Peterson's Jane Goodall was an excellent and thorough account of the life of an extraordinary woman.  I still have the utmost respect for Goodall as a groundbreaking female scientist, but my admiration has shifted from a vague respect for her academic accomplishments to a concrete respect for her bravery, patience, ethics, and hard work.  This biography was a fantastic read, and one that I would definitely recommend to those who admire Goodall and have excellent reading stamina.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Excalibur Race 2016

I'm now in what I'm forced to acknowledge is the end of my spring break.  It has been a glorious time of knitting, computer games and reading.  The blog has been quiet due to the fact that I'm in the process of powering through a 700+ page Jane Goodall biography.  It feels like too long since I've been away though, so I thought I'd come and report on my most recent race.

Last Saturday, my mom, stepdad, husband and I set out for Melbourne, Florida to run the Excalibur 10-Miler, a medieval themed race.  It was our first time running in this particular event, and it promised an awesome dragon medal, so we were excited.  Well, as excited as it's possible to get while preparing to do something that will take a really long time and be physically painful, anyway.  Melbourne is about three hours away from us, and the race started at 7:00 A.M., so we stayed in a rather spartan, but clean, hotel the night before.

As we assembled at our starting corrals early on race day, everything was delightfully cheesy.  Medieval music blared from the speakers, people were dressed up in period costumes, and some dashing knights from Medieval Times were on hand to start us off with a sword fight.  After listening to a funny, but poorly written, story about how we were on some sort of mystical quest for an emerald to save our kingdom, we were off.

The race started off fairly normally, winding along streets that had been closed down to accommodate the runners. I, as usual, hadn't exactly trained for this race with the dedication I should have, but I was keeping up my normal pace and doing okay.  Things took a turn for the worse when we turned down a private road and onto a ranch.  It was there that I faced the true dragon of this race - a three mile long dirt road. 

Having only ever trained on pavement, this stretch was a shock to my system.  The sand was a bit loose and slippery, and required more effort to run on than the concrete I was used to.  Wanting to quit during races is a standard thing for me, but I have honestly never wanted to give up on a race so much.  I had no idea how much longer I was going to be on the road either, as this was my first time running this one. So, I couldn't even console myself with mental assurances about how much was left to go.  It was pretty awful.

I persevered, however, and finally made it to the end of the dirt road, which seemed like such an accomplishment that it made the rest of the race feel a little easier.  Waiting for me at the end of the race was my dragon medal, which was carefully draped over my head by a volunteer dressed up like a medieval nobleman while the strains of M.C. Hammer's "You Can't Touch This" blared over the crowd.  (I supposed they had exhausted their selection of chamber music by then).

 The thing about me as a runner is that I am terrible at it.  My body hates exercise, and no amount of training has ever changed that.  I have to mentally bully myself into running every mile, and I completely lack the motivation to stick to a training regimen. Every race, from a 5K to a half marathon, feels like an evil endurance test to me.  A lot of people say that running makes them feel strong and powerful.  Running makes me feel like I'm about to die.  

I am always reminding myself that a few years ago, I couldn't even run for a whole minute without stopping, and now I can run a half marathon without taking any walk breaks.  Logically, I know I've come a long way, but that doesn't stop me from hating to pull on my running clothes, hating being sweaty and hating being out of breath. And yet, there's nothing like the feeling you get when you struggle and struggle through a long race and finally cross the finish line.

I guess that's why I'll probably be at the Excalibur race in 2017, facing down my old dirt road nemesis once again.  This race is part of a four year series, you see.  This was the year of the emerald.  I can't miss out on the sapphire, ruby and diamond years.  If you do all four, you get a jeweled chalice, and my dislike for running does not outweigh my love for medieval-style trinkets.  I'm not a peasant, after all.        

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Freedom Writers Diary by The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell

I've been meaning to read The Freedom Writers Diary ever since I saw the movie version starring Hilary Swank years ago.  Erin Gruwell is definitely a strong woman that I deeply admire, so this month was the perfect time to finally pluck this novel off my shelf and dive in.

The Freedom Writers Diary is the story of how Erin Gruwell, a new high school English teacher in Long Beach, California, changed the lives of her 150 at-risk students through her creative and dedicated teaching style.  As the name implies, the novel is structured as a set of diary entries, with entries from Gruwell herself interspersed with writings from her students.  Through the students' narratives, we learn about how Gruwell was able to create a strong classroom community for her kids and encourage them to strive for higher goals. 

In the very first entry in the book, Gruwell herself explains how she chose a theme of tolerance for her students after witnessing one of them drawing a racially offensive picture.  From that point on, her students studied genocide, racism and gangs through literature and documentaries on the topics.  Through the stories of figures like Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic, her students came to reject senseless violence and discrimination, and form a strong bond among themselves that transcended the racial divisions in their school. 

Gruwell was able to loop with her students and teach her group of 150 through all four years of high school.  In those four years, she completely changed the lives of her kids.  They became powerful ambassadors for change within their community, which was struggling with issues like gang warfare, drug addiction, and poverty. They read several novels, took trips to different states, and met all kinds of important government and historical figures.  Gruwell was even able to secure a scholarship fund for her students so that they could attend college, a dream that for many, seemed impossible at the start of their freshman year.

The diary structure of the novel jumps around from student to student, and through the collage of different voices, the reader gets a clear picture of all the work Gruwell put in to help her kids.  This method of storytelling is a great strength of the novel, because we get to learn about the impact Gruwell had on her kids in their own words.   Her students did not lead easy lives, and their entries discuss heartbreaking topics like homelessness, addiction, rape, and domestic violence.  Against all odds, these kids were able to make something of themselves because their teacher cared about them.  This is a powerful example of what dedicated teachers can do.

Gruwell is an amazing woman.  She was a brand new teacher at a very difficult school, and was given a set of classes to teach that most would have given up on.  Rather than admit defeat and lose control of her classroom, she found a way to reach her students and help them grow.  She never gave up on them.  As a teacher myself, I am very inspired by the work she does. I want to be more like her in my own classroom.  This is why teachers must do so much more than teach their subject area; we must help our kids grow as human being too.  The Freedom Writers Diary sets a powerful example for educators, or anyone else who works with young people, about the importance of forging connections and encouraging others to reach higher and dream big.       

Sunday, March 13, 2016


A week ago, we made a dedicated work space for my husband.  We freed up a corner of our home, bought a little desk, and set up his laptop on it.  It's funny how a little change can make such a dramatic difference in the way you feel at home.  He feels more productive, and somehow, do I. 

Little by little, I've been clawing my way back to being myself.  Scheduling and organizing have helped, and so has making time to be creative.  When my husband asked for a coaster for his new desk, I eagerly took on the project. 

It had been a long time (years, probably) since I crocheted, but as I twisted the cotton yarn around my fingers and started pulling up loops with my hook, it all came flooding back to me.  This little granny square popped into being inside of twenty minutes and now it's sitting comfortably underneath my husband's coffee cup. 

It feels really nice to be doing this again. 

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert


"Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?"

Elizabeth Gilbert is an author that I definitely consider to be a strong woman.  When I read her most famous novel, Eat, Pray, Love, a few years ago, I was struck by her bravery.  To drop everything and travel around the world as she did requires a lot of courage.  It's scary to go to faraway places by yourself.  It's scary to leave your conventional life behind.  It's scary to spend a long time just focusing on yourself.  I was impressed by her boldness and honesty.  When I saw that she had published a nonfiction novel all about creativity, I was instantly intrigued.  I am currently trying to get back to a more creative place and pick up my knitting, sewing and embroidery again.  I thought that perhaps Gilbert, who I already admired as a courageous woman and talented artist, could inspire me to throw myself back into the creative activities I used to love.  Plus, that cover is stunning.  This book was begging to be read.

Big Magic is all about having the courage and trust to pursue living a more creative lifestyle.  Gilbert uses the term "Big Magic" to describe the mysterious nature of inspiration and how it can bring out our best work when we give it a chance.  Her advice covers such topics as letting go of your fears, being persistent in the face of failure and letting go of the negative emotions that block creativity.  She tells readers to explore what interests them and not let anyone or anything stand in the way of that exploration.  As Gilbert cheerfully encourages us to experiment and work hard in the medium we love, she also remains very practical, reminding readers that their creations do not have to be particularly important, or change the world.  If what we make is personally fulfilling to us, then that is a good outcome. She explains that there is room for everyone to be artistic and reminds us the we have the right to exist, to be happy, and to create whatever we please.

Big Magic is essentially a 250 page pep talk, and I found Gilbert's advice to be motivating in many instances.  The first section of the novel focuses on overcoming your fears, and I related very strongly with what she described.  Gilbert explains that she was a very timid and shy child, who was easily scared by seemingly mundane things.  She eventually was able to break out of her fears and anxieties and adopted a strategy of persevering on and doing the things that scared her.  Letting go of fears is crucial to the creative process, and it's something I still need to conquer myself.  Since I'm still trying to get to that place in my life, reading about her struggle was inspiring to me. 

However, as the novel went on, I found myself increasingly unable to relate to Gilbert's point of view.  It became very obvious that Gilbert is a much more spiritual and whimsical being than myself.  She describes her belief that ideas and inspiration are ethereal beings that float around the earth and insert themselves into people's heads, where they must be nurtured and brought to life.  If the person who receives the idea neglects it, it will leave that person and enter a different person's body in the hopes that this new person will take better care of it.  She isn't speaking metaphorically when she describes these beliefs.  She really believes this is true. 

I think this is a lovely way to think about the world, but I'm too scientifically-minded to agree.  Gilbert's thoughts on how ideas work sounds like pure fantasy to me, so it was hard to take anything she said seriously after reading her theory.  I was hoping for something a little more concrete out of this novel.  I didn't want a science textbook, but I was hoping for advice that was a little more practical. The topic of "creativity" is very broad though--perhaps too broad for this book to be any more practical than it was. 

Despite my theoretical issues with Big Magic, the book was still an interesting read.  Gilbert makes many great points and you definitely feel more empowered to create something after reading it.  More spiritual readers than I will undoubtedly find a lot to love here.  For me, unfortunately, this novel fell a little flat.  However, I love the spirit and intent of it.  I agree with Gilbert that creative living is the best kind of living and that we should all make the time to pursue our artistic interests without being hamstrung by fear.  Discovering how to unlock this impulse in ourselves is Big Magic indeed.      

Friday, March 11, 2016

How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

I love reading about people making lists and achieving goals.  It's nuts, I know, but I'm instantly attracted to people who set out to do X, Y, and Z.  I want to follow their journeys.  It makes me want to start a journey of my own.

When I saw How To Be a Heroine sitting on the sale table at Barnes and Noble, I had to pick it up.  A whole memoir about a woman who reexamines her life through the lens of the heroines she read about growing up?  Yes, please.  

In the prologue to the novel, Samantha Ellis, an Iraqi-Jewish playwright, sets out her plan.  After realizing that her admiration for Cathy from Wuthering Heights might have been better placed on Jane from Jane Eyre, she decides to embark on a journey of self-discovery.  She rereads the books that impacted her the most as she was growing up and analyzes her feelings for the heroines she used to admire.  Some of them still hold up as good role models, while others, she realizes, don't.  The novel reads like a memoir mixed in with literary criticism, with each chapter dedicated to a different character matched with a period of time in her life.  By the end of her journey, she realizes that all of her past heroines formed a part of her heart, for better or for worse.

This is a book for people who truly love to read.  The discussion, the references, and the analysis are refreshingly thoughtful and genuine.  Ellis' personality really shines through in the text, and while reading, there were multiple times that I wished I could talk to her in person, so I could either debate or agree with her on some of her views.  I don't know anyone who reads as much as I do, so I can't have intellectual discussions about literature in my real life.  How To Be a Heroine gave me a lot to think about regarding women in literature in a way that wasn't preachy or pretentious.  It was just smart.  I enjoyed the level of thought presented here and I wasn't bored at all while reading, even when I hadn't read the book Ellis was discussing.  This novel make me feel more intelligent after reading it, which is a wonderful thing.

Ellis' self-discovery project tempts me to start my own - to reread my old childhood favorites and examine how the characters might have influenced me.  I suppose that's the highest compliment that I can give a novel such as this; I found it to be very inspiring.  How To Be a Heroine is interesting not only as a memoir of a talented woman, but as an examination of how literature can be a powerful force in our lives.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Coming Back

I have gotten away from being myself over the past few years.  Being a teacher, and really being good at the job, can completely consume your life.  To be in a profession where you give so much of yourself to everyone else tends to leave little left over at the end of the day. It's rewarding work, but it's hard work. 

A month or so ago, I fell into a depression that I had a really hard time coming out of.  I was tired all the time. I couldn't finish my work.  I wasn't doing anything that I loved anymore, besides reading, of course.  I didn't feel like me.  I needed to change. So, I bought a new planner, got myself organized, and started a knitting project.

Knitting used to be my entire life.  When I was fresh out of college, frantically looking for work, and substitute teaching to get experience, knitting kept me sane.  I bought a book and taught myself everything I needed.  Quickly, I discovered that I had quite a talent when it came to the fiber arts.  Each hat, scarf and shawl that flew off my needles helped to soothe all of the stress that I felt at not finding a real teaching job right away.  I bought more yarn than I could knit through in a lifetime.  I worked on something every day.

When I found a job, that slowly changed.  As I took on more and more responsibilities, I knit less and less.  I eventually got to a place where I was hardly knitting as all...just sporadically, here and there.  I hadn't finished a project in over a year.  Something that used to be my heart was suddenly shoved aside in favor of lesson planning, grading papers and charting test data.

When I hit my bottom last month, I knew that knitting needed to be part of my recovery.  I started a project.  A little cowl that uses some clever techniques to look like a scarf.  I worked on it a bit each week.  Through better time management, I was able to carve out enough hours where I still had energy left to be artistic.  I finished my project last weekend.  I wore it to school today.

I'm not back to my previous, superhuman levels of knitting, and I probably never will be. To be honest, I don't need it as much as I did before. But I can do a little. If I forget to do the things that make me who I am, I will lose myself to work that, while satisfying in its own way, does not completely fulfill me as a person.  I will not let myself get lost again.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Furiously Happy is a collection of essays by the famous blogger, Jenny Lawson.  The essays center around her struggle with mental illness and her determination to live her life the fullest despite the hardships she faces.  As the cover suggests, the writing is a mixture of funny and absurd, and Lawson's distinctive voice guides the reader with wit and humor through some very sensitive topics like depression, self harm and the social stigmas associated with mental illness.

I greatly admire Jenny Lawson, and after reading this book, that admiration has only grown.  She is very honest and open about her diagnoses in Furiously Happy, and describes how depression, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, compulsive behaviors, and more have affected her life.  When taken together, all of the mental illnesses she struggles with seem like too much for one person to bear.  It's incredible to me that Lawson is able to function on a day to day basis, never mind actually enjoy her life, write books, and run a successful blog.  As she explains, that's what being "furiously happy" is all about - taking control of her situation and being happy in spite of the odds against her.  Her theory is that people who struggle with depression and anxiety experience all of the extremes of emotion.  They have to struggle through the lowest lows, but they also experience the highest highs.  She is determined to enjoy the moments where she is happy and fight through the moments she is not. 

I definitely enjoyed this novel and there were several chapters that had me laughing out loud. Lawson's relationship with her husband is hilarious and her predilection for taxidermied animals is delightfully weird.  There can be no doubt that Lawson has a fantastic sense of humor that comes out loud and clear in her writing.  Aside from the book's entertainment value, it was also very interesting to explore how mental illness can impact someone's life.  As Lawson explains, there is a stigma surrounding mental illness. No one wants to talk about it, so it is poorly understood by those who don't struggle with it.  While everyone's experience with mental illness is unique, Furiously Happy is a window into how one woman functions.  Lawson's honesty about her feelings helped bring to me a deeper understanding of how depression works and the struggle to effectively treat it.

While there's a whole lot that Furiously Happy does right, there were a few elements that I didn't enjoy.  Unlike Lawson's first novel, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, there wasn't a logical narrative flow to the essays.  They could have been placed in any order and the book would still have made sense.  While the writing didn't seem outwardly disorganized, it didn't feel tight enough either.  I found myself wishing for some kind of chronological thread to hold onto.  I also thought some of the chapters were a bit forced, and trying too hard to be funny.  For example, one chapter is comprised of notes that Lawson wrote to herself while on sleeping pills.  The whole thing was nonsense, and while some of the notes were cute, it made me suspect that she had run out of things to write about and just stuffed all of her undeveloped essay ideas into one fragmented chapter.  Overall, while Furiously Happy was good, I didn't think it was as funny or as well-written as her first book.

However, despite my issues, I still enjoyed the novel.  It opens up an important dialogue about mental illness and inspires both those who struggle with it and those who don't.  Lawson's candor and humor are effective at bringing a deeper level of understanding to a topic that is difficult to talk about.  Any book that can shine a light into the shadowy places that exist in our world is well worth your time.  Furiously Happy is an inspiring and important read.      

Friday, March 4, 2016

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë is a simple little story about a young woman who sets out to be a governess to help support her family and to experience the world outside of her comfortable, familiar home.  She works in two different households throughout the course of the novel, and experiences several disappointments with her employment.  All of her pupils are spoiled, selfish, and inconsiderate and  her employers expect her to exert control over her charges without resorting to any disciplinary measures.  In general, Agnes is ignored and treated as if she were invisible, unless someone finds a fault in what she is doing.  Despite her difficulties, she maintains high personal standards for herself and does her work to the best of her abilities.  This is a novel about honor, character, and social class.  In tackling these weighty subjects, Anne Brontë gives us an unflinching look at how the upper levels of society treated their hired help, and how women can hold onto their moral values when they are surrounded by superficiality and carelessness.

I read this novel as my "classic by a female author" for the Back to to the Classics challenge.  As my reading theme for March is strong women, this book fits into that on two accounts.  Firstly, it was written by a woman who lived in a time period that discouraged girls from pursuing careers as authors.  Anne Brontë followed her dreams anyway.  Secondly, it features a strong female protagonist who is hard working, kind, and has a strong sense of right and wrong that she refuses to compromise.  I found this book to be enjoyable, and an interesting look at what it was like for teachers working in the 19th century.  It won't be remembered as a particular favorite of mine, but it was definitely worth reading. 

In researching the background of Agnes Grey, I discovered that Anne Brontë based the book off of her own experiences as a governess.  I had already assumed this point as I was reading the novel, because several of the complaints and difficulties Agnes experiences in her work are still true today.  Whether you have 2-3 pupils at a time, as Agnes did, or 135 pupils, like I do, kids can be rotten, parents can be awful, and your bosses heap completely unrealistic expectations on you.  The accuracy of her feelings actually become a bit of a downside to reading this novel for me, because I identified with it too much, and started feeling overly negative about my job.  This quote from Agnes about the teaching profession is very true:
"I can conceive few situations more harassing that that wherein, however you may long for success, however you may labour to fulfill your duty, your efforts are baffled and set at naught by those beneath you, and unjustly censured and misjudged by those above."         
What was missing from Agnes Grey were those little moments all teachers experience that make the job bearable.  The student and parent characters were so very flat that they were unrealistic.  I've worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of kids during the course of my career so far, and not one of them has been completely bad.  Even during the rough years, there are laughter, smiles and purely ridiculous moments that buoy a teacher's spirits.  That was completely absent here.  All the students were bad and it was always their own fault or the fault of their parents.  This is an ineffective way for a teacher to think.  It's no wonder that Agnes was so unhappy.  In an effort to show how virtuous, hardworking and put-upon Agnes was, the other characters became stereotypes.

Due to this disconnect, my feelings about this novel are ultimately mixed.  I enjoyed the parts of Agnes that were honorable and hardworking, and I was hoping for her to achieve happiness by the end of the novel.  I also enjoyed reading a little bit about what life was like for a governess trying to work during the 1800s.  However, the novel ran a little too negative for me, and since I have a similar profession to the protagonist, I disliked the one dimensional situations she found herself in.  I was hoping for a little more complexity.  The name Brontë brings memories of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights to my mind.  This novel fell short of the work of her sisters. Ultimately, this was a pleasant, but shallow, story.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

March Reading List: Strong Women

In honor of Women's History Month, I am dedicating March to reading books by or about strong women.  It's important for me to read about girls who are brave, smart, and capable.  It gives me the motivation to keep on going and reaching for what I want.

This month, I've lined up a selection of both fiction and nonfiction novels that celebrate and encourage women:

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte - This novel details the struggles of a 19th century governess working to support her family and expand her own horizons.  This will also be my "Classic by a Female Author" novel for my reading challenge.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson - This memoir details author/blogger Jenny Lawson's struggle with mental illness.  Her first novel, Let's Pretend This Never Happened was fantastic and funny, so I have high hopes for this one.

How to be a Heroine or, What I've Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis - This memoir is organized by the inspiration that the author took from different literary heroines throughout her life - perfect for this month!

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert - This nonfiction novel about unlocking your creative potential was penned by the author of Eat, Pray, Love. I'm hoping that it inspires me to get back to my own creative pursuits!

The Freedom Writers Diary by The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell - Told through journal entries, this novel details the story of an inspirational English teacher and her students.

Jane Goodall by Dale Peterson - This is a biography of one of my personal heroes, the primatologist and activist Jane Goodall.

Bonus Round Books:
Fig by Elizatbeth Schantz
Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

The Jane Goodall biography is 685 pages, so I'm nervous about finishing everything this month.  Luckily, I will have spring break to work with!