Try a Family Book Club


Many of our choices and a note from my son about buying one of them for me.

People joke about their love of the wine and food, but book clubs are essentially a great experience because we get to discuss one of our favorite things with some of our favorite people. I’ve participated in book clubs with both my friends and my students, but having a family book club with my adult children has been the best experience of all, one I highly recommend.

It’s tough to have a family book club when kids are younger, especially if there is a spread of years in the children’s ages. You can’t read a young-adult novel with an elementary school child. Yet a ‘chapter book’ ensures that older siblings quit from boredom.

So here’s to one of the best things about having survived the teen years: thoughtful exchange is finally possible. You can read anything you’d like without worrying about its appropriateness. Your kids can pick the books, and you’ll learn something about them through their choices. Your discussions will be much more satisfying than, “Yes, I also noticed the pictures in ‘Goodnight Moon’ darkened as the night wore on.”

I have three adult sons. We came upon the idea of a family book club because we often found ourselves discussing Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” during our dinner conversations over college holidays. Many themes — race, belonging, the autonomy of the individual, and more — would take us deep into the night.

It was my job to pick the first book. Since all my sons had read “Invisible Man” in high school, I wanted to connect to another book they were all familiar with through school, Camus’ “The Stranger.”

Author Kamel Daoud had recently published “The Meursault Investigation,” which narrates an Arab perspective of “The Stranger.” Scenes mirror those in Camus’s work, so a recent reading of “The Stranger” is helpful. One of the best conversations my sons and I had about “The Meursault Investigation” was on the protagonist’s shift to an existential philosophy of existence – his strange embrace of Camus. The book reviews we’d read skipped this, focusing solely on the effects of colonialism on the colonized. This led my sons to declare that book reviewers don’t actually finish the books they review.

Next, I picked a book by an author that I wanted my kids to read — “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” by Salman Rushdie. Shorter than other novels I’d read by Rushdie, it has qualities my sons love in books: playful language, mythic characters (in this case, jinn or genies) and philosophical quandaries. This one- thousand-and-one-night clash between light and darkness was a perfect choice.

High on our success, we decided to try David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” This was our first (epic) failure as we couldn’t get through it, and our only discussion was on an essay-length footnote. Taken back, I asked my middle son, a serious fantasy fiction reader, to pick something we’d all enjoy. He selected “Lud-in-the Mist” by Hope Mirrlees. I love this tale of a town bordering Faerie land. The characters are as fully developed as any in literary fiction. The world-building evokes wonder. As someone little acquainted with fantasy, I was delighted with the new genre which also took me back to Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Goblin Market.”

Thinking on our success with otherworldly elements, we next decided on the surrealistic “Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories” by Bruno Schulz. Schulz’s life and his death at the hands of a Nazi officer are compelling in themselves, illuminating his ability to imagine strange creatures invading a home while family members become unhinged. Our family conversations centered on the ways magic realism affected the lives of the characters.

We are currently having a rough go with “Mistress of Mistresses” by E. R. Eddison, an author described by Tolkien as “the most convincing writer of invented worlds” that he’d ever read. “Mistress” is a highly symbolic fantasy written in the 1930s. My oldest son thinks it makes too much of outmoded ideals of the Nietzschean superman. My middle son loves it because of the symbols and archetypes, ones that I find too unlike real people — women who represent Aphrodite in perfect beauty, intelligence and grace, for example. My youngest son read the first four pages of the purple prose and said, “I’m done.” My husband never started it because it isn’t on audiobook. The disappointment of my middle son is palpable. He wanted us to connect to ideas that are meaningful to him, and we failed to do so.

Oddly, many of the books have one thing in common — commentary by Neil Gaiman, as if he has read every fantasy and surrealistic novel available. So I take that as my cue. Next, we’ll read Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology,” which, based on our experience thus far, I expect will be a complete success.

If you have any suggestions for a family book club selection, please let me know.

(Published yesterday in the Southern California News Group papers):

Want to know how your relatives think? Start a family book club

Literary Quality YA: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The film The Miseducation of Cameron Post based on the  YA novel of the same name won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. I’m naive enough about the judgment of critics to think that this meant they would all like it. So I was sorry to see that a few of my trusted review sites didn’t like the film . (Rolling Stone review and New Yorker review.)

I was also glad to see on Rotten Tomatoes that those reviewers were not in the majority—most of the reviewers liked the film, both for performances and storyline.

The real reason I want people to like the film is so that they will read the book. It’s a good chance to experience a lesbian protagonist who is able to hang on to her self-esteem and sense of person despite some lousy odds. Several years ago,  I gave a book talk to our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance about the history of LGBT YA lit. I chatted up several of the books I’d enjoyed. One of the girls in attendance said she wished there were more LGBT YA novels with female protagonists. I hadn’t thought about that, so I went back to

look over our collection, and the male protagonists appeared about twice as often as female, so the student certainly had a point. Cameron Post was a welcome addition.

The release of the film reminds me to go back to the novel now and offer some advice to YA writers—if you haven’t read this book, do it. It’s a wonderful example of YA lit that is quality literature. The writing is excellent. While I love YA fiction in general, I can’t say that most of the novels contained top notch writing. The Miseducation of Cameron Post shows a YA writer what is possible.

I reviewed the novel on School Library Lady in 2014 when I first read it.  Following is what I had to say about it–today I might think less about younger readers as things change:

Cameron Post and Irene Klauson have always been best friends. They do everything together including all those things they shouldn’t do, like shoplift. And there’s always been an edge to their relationship because they compete with one another. So when they are twelve years old and they decide to practice kissing, there’s nothing particularly strange about that. But what they both discover is that they like their kisses and want more. Cameron Post is realizing that she is a lesbian, and it seems that Irene is too. They are already thinking about being careful, keeping it a secret, and looking for an

opportunity to do it again.

The night following their discovery, Cameron is staying at Irene’s house. Irene’s father wakes her up in the middle of the night and tells her that he has to take her home. Have the girls been discovered? They are so worried. But, unfortunately, the news is much worse than that. Cam’s parents have been killed in a car accident at Quake Lake in Montana. Ironically, this very lake was created in an earthquake decades before, and Cam’s mom had just coincidentally escaped it.

Cameron’s life is pulled apart. Although she still has her much-beloved, oddball grandmother (mother of her father) to help take care of her, her mother’s sister, a recently reborn Christian, gives up her own life to take care of Cam. And worst of all is the thought that keeps running through Cam’s head—she’s glad that her parents will never know about her kiss with Irene. And she believes that the kiss itself may have been the cause of her parents’ death—a punishment. And so the guilt begins.

As Cameron grows into her teen life, she also grows more distant from Irene, who has become wealthy and leaves for private school. She hangs out with mostly guys, who dare one another to do dangerous things and spend a lot of time smoking dope. She now has Lindsey, a girl from Seattle, that she competes against in swimming. Lindsey is openly gay and much more knowledgeable than Cam. She makes Cam feel the stultifying nature of her life in eastern Montana and in the Gates of Praise church (which is always shortened to the acronym GOP—and, yes, I was amused). At GOP, Cam often hears sermons against homosexuality. She’s surprised one day when she hears her aunt having sex with her boyfriend—after all, that’s one of the sins on the GOP list. Why are the standards for the two different?

With Cam exploring and working out her sexuality, you can pretty much figure she’s going to get caught. Her downfall is a beautiful girl of her dreams, the super popular Coley, who is also a member of the GOP church. A girl with a boyfriend, one who is either secretly bisexual or at least is exploring. When the two are caught, Coley hurls all of the blame on Cameron; her betrayal, as we see it later, is breathtaking.

Once caught, Cam’s life is again turned upside down. She is sent away to God’s Promise, a conversion therapy school/camp. Up to this point, the novel has been very good. But at God’s Promise, it soars. There Cam has no privileges until she earns them. She has to deal with her roommate ‘Viking Erin,’ who wants her conversion to work. But she also makes a few great friends and still manages to get up to no good.

Guilt is a major theme of this novel, beginning with that first kiss between twelve-year olds. The big question that hangs over all the ‘disciples’ (students) at God’s promise is whether their conversation therapy will work. There’s no evidence that it does and the psychic price that the students pay is high—even tragic in some cases.

High school housekeeping: The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a literary-quality novel. The characters are well drawn—no stick figures here, including Cam’s Aunt Ruth who does love her, feels that Cam’s ‘problem’ may be as much her fault as it is Cam’s, and who truly believes that she is helping Cam by sending her to God’s Promise.

I did worry a bit reading the book because Cam is such a pothead and has several other bad traits to boot. Obviously, I’m not someone to promote drug use, but I think that with all the issues in Cam’s life, her behavior is pretty realistic. The intimate and sexual scene are well done. They aren’t gratuitous nor are they pornographic. Nevertheless, this is a book for mature readers, and I think high school rather than younger YA readers are the audience.

Tim Winton’s “Breath” as exemplary lyricism and storytelling

Because I am something of a media moron, I just found out that Tim Winton’s short novel Breath has been made into a movie directed by Simon Baker and was released on June 1.

In an interview for FilmInk Magazine, Baker says he worked to maintain the lyricism of the novel.

I want to see this film, to see how it translates from the written word. Apparently, Winton is quite well known in Australia. I think he deserves a larger American audience—like rock-star status.

If you want a painless—in fact, glorious—writing lesson from a master, read this book. Tightly-controlled, beautifully rendered—both in emotion and atmosphere—Breath has it all.  I reviewed the novel back in 2012 on my School Library Lady blog. Here is the review in its entirety. As I wrote it for a school blog, I mentioned that some of the story’s action is for a mature audience—so FYI, I was thinking of 13-14 year olds. There is nothing in the novel that would give an adult pause.

Breath by Tim Winton 

Not only a great novel, but a great cover, too.

Which risks are worth it? How do you challenge yourself in a way that makes you grow as an individual? That can make you feel alive and so adrenaline-fueled that every day you’re ready and waiting for a new adventure? How do you keep from stepping over that invisible line where you are challenging death itself?

Bruce, nicknamed Pikelet as a teen, is a paramedic as an adult. As the novel opens, he has arrived on the scene of what appears to be a teen suicide, a hanging. But he knows better.

When they meet Sando, friends Pikelet and Looney don’t know that he is a big wave surfer, well-known in some places and sometimes appearing in surf magazines. They are Australian boys who have recently discovered the sport. They’d always enjoyed the water and holding their breath at the bottom of the river. But the ocean is something different. They love it and will do whatever it takes to have the chance to ride waves. They take up odd jobs in order to buy equipment. Looney’s father is neglectful and abusive, so he can go out anytime without much trouble. But Pikelet must lie to his older, concerned folks in order to get away and challenge the waves since his father fears the ocean for reasons he keeps secret.

Sando decides to mentor the boys in surfing bigger and more dangerous waves. They are flattered by his attention, and learn that they have to ignore the snide comments Sando’s wife, Eva, makes about them and their relationship to Sando. She understands that they are there, at least in part, to feed his ego.

Eva has a limp. Yet why she limps and why she is so angry is a secret—and uncovering it is dangerous for Pikelet. As she opens herself up to him, he finds himself trapped by her adult yearnings. While he intuits how inappropriate she is in taking him into her confidence, Pikelet is also smitten with her.

Loonie is aptly named. He will try anything and for him, death-defying challenges are a way to show that he is better than Pikelet, more of a man. But Pikelet has a better sense of self-preservation. He loves a challenge, but knows when his chances of survival aren’t so good.

This slender book is so beautifully written, such a wonder. I was hungrily reading it, hoping to recommend it to all teens. As I got to the final pages, and read about Eva and her way of recreating danger and the adrenaline-stoked high of the fear that accompanies it, I knew that Breath is for mature teens only. Yet it deals so well with the questions of an ordinary life, of facing challenges, and even of maintaining breath, I couldn’t help but hope that others will have the chance to enjoy it.

Note—inserting a little update here: LARB has a nice interview with Winton about his writing process and influences:

Teen ‘Literature on the Lawn’ and the Value of Mentors

Flyer for the teen ‘Literature on the Lawn’ reading.

As all the work and celebration of the teen issue of the Inlandia: A Literary Journey Journal concludes, I want to reflect one more time on the value of creative work—of the value both of managing to create when doing so seems a burden, and of being an advocate for others’ work as a teacher, mentor, or perhaps simply as a part of the cheering squad.

Inlandia’s June “Literature on the Lawn” event in Riverside featured some of our teen authors, who read their work. I enjoyed speaking with their cheering squads— parents, family and friends—as well as with the teens themselves. Listening to the authors present their work added another layer of enjoyment in experiencing their writing. 

Cati Porter introducing the teen writers.

Earlier in the process, I was less sanguine. I had worried that the work of our IE writers was being judged by teen editors. Carissa Myung’s poetry is very mature, quite professional—hardly the stuff of Instagram posts that has made it into teen collections. Audrey Vazzana’s creative narrative looks at the the ravages of Alzheimer’s from both the point of view of a great granddaughter as well as from Alzheimer’s Disease itself, describing its progression in destroying personality. Joseph Salvinski’s story takes place across the Atlantic more than two centuries ago. Kiyani Carter’s narrator is wonderfully quirky and isolated. Aubrey Medina Gaines’ work combines horror with the lonesomeness of a child grieving a parent. Would the teen editors enjoy the individualism and the depth of each piece? Happily they did, proving to me it was the right choice to have them make the selections and, other than myself, to leave adults out of it. 

Kiyani Carter reading from “Counting People.”

As the evening was an opportunity to celebrate emerging writers, I felt it was serendipitous that I had read, on the same day, two encouraging media posts. The first, from the Academy of American Poets: according to new findings by the National Endowment for the Arts, in the past five years the number of poetry readers in the United States has almost doubled to a total of 28 million adults. I have seen a similar increase in teens wanting to read poetry in my school library.

Aubrey Medina Gaines reading from “Seasons.”
Carissa Myung reading two of her poems.










The second, which speaks both to writing and to being a mentor, I saw in a blog post by editor and writing guru Jane Friedman. She stated that in the most recent Glimmer Train bulletin, Jon Chopan discusses how one of his greatest struggles as a writer and human being is to find purpose in what he does, and to help students find purpose. He writes:

“Despite the notion that we are voiceless, it seems to me that the challenge of a good creative writing instructor is to teach students that they do indeed have a voice and that their voice, that all our voices in concert, have meaning. … We should be struggling with our students as writers, and students of writing, to leave behind something worth protecting, worth defending, something that contributes to the growth of this culture.”

Joseph Salvinski reading from “Exitus.”

Finally, in what felt like more than a coincidence, I read an essay in Philip Levine’s My Lost Poets that serves as a reminder of why writers need supporters. “In a portion of an essay [poet Larry Levis] tries to define the essential qualities of his most influential teacher, and in so doing he gives us a road map to his own notion of a person’s spiritual and social uses. ‘What still strikes me as amazing, and right, and sane, was his capacity to share all that energy, that fire, with those around him: students and poets and friends. The only discernible principle I gathered from this kind generosity seems to be this: to try to conserve one’s energy for some later use,  to try to teach as if one is not quite there and has more important things to do, is a way to lose that energy completely, a way quite simply of betraying oneself.’ What Levis seems too kind to say is that it’s also a way of betraying one’s friends, one’s fellow poets, and one’s students.”

Audrey Vazzana reading “Another Life Destroyed by Alzheimer’s.”

Further on Levine continues the thought, again quoting Levis’ discussion of his mentor: “‘Because we mattered so much to him, we began to matter to ourselves. And to matter in this way, to feel that what one did and how one wrote actually might make a difference, was a crucial gift … given to each of us.’”

Congratulations to the teens whose work was selected. Congratulations to all writers that keep at it and make a difference. And if you are someone who supports writers, to whom good literary citizenship is a daily practice, and who is giving a crucial gift to society by reminding writers that they matter—well, congratulations to you, too.


Tiferet Journal: Fostering Peace Through Literature and Art


So happy to get a copy of the spring/summer issue of Tiferet in the mail today. My essay “ Living the Three R’s—Rejection, Reconciliation, Renewal” is included. When I wrote it, I was reading the philosopher William James (brother of the novelist Henry James). It’s a reflection on my spiritual journey away from my religious upbringing. It’s also a consideration of whether people who have conflicting views of religion can get along.

Happy for the opportunity!

Props for the Teen Issue of Inlandia

Still in the crazy space, but on the upside, there was this fun article about the teen issue of Inlandia Literary Journeys Journal in the Press Enterprise. I was interviewed, as were Cati Porter (executive director of Inlandia Institute) and three of our eight teen editors. Plus, there’s a nifty photo in the rose garden of the institute’s office.

Inlandia staff and teen guest editors for the online literary journal, “Inlandia: A Literary Journey,” recently launched the first all-teen issue. Pictured from left are Cati Porter, founder; Stephanie Martinez-Beltran; Kiyani Carter; Aubrey Gaines and Victoria Waddle, managing editor. Photo by Malie Hudson, contributing photographer

Young Inland writers express themselves in Inlandia’s first all-teen issue