Dines Family Book Club October Selection: Bad Land

Bad Land:  An American Romance by Jonathan Rahan

Ginger poses with Bad Land in the Dines Dining Room.

Ginger poses with Bad Land in the Dines Dining Room.

My Review from My Goodreads.com Account

This book mirrors the landscape it describes: slow, meandering, and seemingly endless. Although the tragedy of the Montana homesteaders is worthy of a place in American history, the author fails to make the personal connections between the reader and the subject of the book. Raban interviews many different people along the Montana plains, but his writing fails to make the reader feel as if he or she knows the people. It seems more like listening to snippets of a public radio broadcast than making connections with human subjects. The book gives the impression of an overzealous Brit exploring the wildness of the American West in a cheesy PBS documentary, yet, to Americans, it is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder minus the compellingly simple narrative arcs. Raban meanders through the “Bad Land” of Montana, and every inch seems miserable and gray.

Post-Reading Discussion Questions 

by Jennifer and David Dines

1. Compare the effects of the Homestead Act on the railroad industry to its effects on individual homesteaders.

2. How did personal pride and independence influence homesteaders?

3. What is the role of faith in American invention?

4. How does the Wollaston family’s lifestyle contrast with the environment in which they live?

5. How did the homesteaders’ view of themselves differ from the government’s view of the homesteaders?

6. How did advertising serve as a catalyst for the settlement of the railway?

7. What is the role of debt in middle class American adulthood?

8. How are the grasshopper plagues a metaphor for the homesteaders themselves?

9. In what way is self-sufficiency threatening to organized government?

10. Did the homesteaders realize the extent of their effect on Boston and New York-based investors?

Index Card found in the used copy of the book purchased at Brookline Booksmith

Index Card found in the used copy of the book purchased at Brookline Booksmith

A Literary Surprise on a Tuesday Night

On Tuesday evening, my phone rang, and it was a number I did not recognize. I usually never pick up for unknown callers, but for some reason, I did. The voice on the other end asked,”Do you accept book donations?”

I didn’t have to think for anymore than a split second.

“Yes!” I replied affirmatively.

“Can I drop them off to you today?” asked the voice.

“YES!”

The caller was a very generous Roslindale resident and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt employee named Emma R., and she left a beautiful collection of books on my front porch. Her donation will be shared with my middle school students at the Lilla G. Frederick and with clients at the Roslindale Language and Literacy Center. Thank you, Emma!

A sofa full of new friends.

A sofa full of new friends.

Box

A Box Full of Joy

Open the Door To Liberty: A Biography of To

Open the Door to Liberty! A Biography of Toussaint L’ouverture
This book will be a part of my ESL unit on reversing the narrative about slavery to demonstrate the strength of those who were treated as slaves  in the Americas and the Caribbean.

No DAmsels

No Damsels in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Women
This book will be a part of my ESL unit on mythology and folklore that I am planning in collaboration with 826 Boston.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way By Julia Cameron, Week 3

Like most worthwhile endeavors, The Artist’s Way does not get easier as it goes along; it becomes more difficult as the novelty of taking time for one’s self and one’s thoughts wears off, and the challenge of getting to really know and live with the self begins.

It took me two weeks in real time to get through the third week of The Artist’s Way.

Morning pages are not an obstacle for me – I continue to write about dreams, and then about whatever comes to mind. Increasingly, these thoughts have been more and more about work-related and school-related matters. I think it is healthy for me to notice when my mind becomes overly focused on that particular area of my life, rather than to become entangled in that one particular domain without noticing, and then wondering why I feel burnt out.

The Artist's Way. All Day.

The real block I faced in the third week was coming up with a suitable artist’s date. Nothing seemed worthwhile. I kept brainstorming, but none of my ideas seemed worthy enough. I was overanalyzing the simple act of spending some time alone doing something different than I would ordinarily do. I had convinced myself that I needed to come up with a really grand idea. Well,I think that was just a procrastination.

Two nights ago, I became frustrated that I hadn’t yet completed my date. I got in my car and drove, putting on an old song I used to listen to repeatedly in college. The location of Trident Booksellers and Cafe popped into my head after being in the car for less than three minutes, so I drove there. Normally, I would avoid this area of town at night if I was alone. It was unsafe to take the train there by myself, and I didn’t know where to park. But on this night, I just went with it, and, behold, I found a parking spot, spent some time browsing and some time writing, some time drinking some Chai Spice tea, and so it went. And then it was over and behind me. I did it.

The third chapter of The Artist’s Way is titled “Recovering a Sense of Power”, and this refers to examining one’s limits as well as one’s ability to keep an open mind.

The chapter discusses the themes of anger, synchronicity, shame, and criticism. Anger and synchronicity are useful tools that we should attend to rather than dismiss, while shame and criticism are often destructive tools that we amplify and overemphasize. The writing exercises in the chapter examine childhood environment, traits, and accomplishments, as well as friendships and admirations. It is a chapter that will have you check your reality, and it is hard work. If you choose to continue The Artist’s Way, this chapter may leave you feeling raw and vulnerable, but you will also feel stronger and more in touch with yourself.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 2

Before beginning The Artist’s Way, I would wake up and instantly reach for my laptop. First e-mail account. Second e-mail account. Third e-mail account. New York Times. I would start the day by drowning my brain in communication with others. Well, The Artist’s Way has changed all that, and now the first thing I do is slide out the drawer of the bedside table to pull out my gold and red Chinese print fabric-covered journal and my InkJoy retractable pen and write down three pages of whatever comes into my mind. Since I am sleeping well for the first time in years, I actually have dreams that I can remember. I usually begin by writing those down, and then I write down whatever else is on my mind. Rather than infecting my brain will e-mails and advertisements, I am beginning the day by slowly massaging the thoughts from my mind and onto paper. It feels great.

Week Two focuses on rediscovering one’s own identity.

The second week of The Artist’s Way focuses on recovering a sense of identity through exploring self-definition, creating boundaries, and exploring one’s personal needs, desires, and interests. Ironically, these themes are something that I periodically I focus on with my own students, yet it never occurred to me to take the time to examine them for myself.

On page 43, Cameron states: “As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others. We tend to think our behavior makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us frustrated people.”

Prioritizing taking care of others over self-care is an extremely easy trap for those in the teaching profession or any human services career for that matter. In my teaching career, I feel an extremely compelling passion for and responsibility to my students and their families. However, there came a point last year when I began to felt burnt out or, as one friend said, like I’d been put through “the old-time, old-fashioned wringer”. I had spent nearly a decade putting my responsibilities to others over spending time taking care of myself, and I found myself feeling short-tempered, moody, and exhausted. Interestingly, since focusing more attention on myself, I feel more clear-minded, energetic, and self-assured, and I am better able to assist others with my stronger sense of self.

In this chapter, Cameron carefully cautions the reader to be wary of “poisonous playmates” and “crazy makers” in one’s life. She encourages the recovering artist’s to avoid those who diminish our self-worth and increase our skepticism and self-doubt. And she asks the provocative question: “What creative work are you trying to block by staying involved [with those who make you feel terrible and insane]?”

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 1

Mom: What did you do today?

Jenn: Well, I went on a date with myself, my artistic self.

Mom: (knowingly) And how did that go?

Jenn: Well, I got dressed up. I wore the shirt that you gave me for Christmas. I went to a café by myself, and I downloaded piano music and listened to it for an hour.  I think we’ll probably go out together again. (laughs)

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Self-dating, which the author calls “Artist Dates”, comprises just one of the unique tasks that Julia Cameron suggests will heighten the readers’ creativity and build their relationships with their creative selves . The Artist’s Way consists of 12 weeks of creativity courses, each with a discussion followed by a series of ten short tasks based on that weeks concept. For example, week 1, titled “Recovering a Sense of Safety” discusses negative self-talk regarding one’s own artistic endeavors as well as examining relationships that have either repressed or championed creativity throughout one’s life time.

In addition to the ten tasks, Cameron’s course also requires a commitment to both daily Morning Pages, three pages of long-hand free writing composed first thing after awakening, and weekly Artist Dates – spending time with one’s self for a couple of hours each week doing something creative.

Thus far, the program is encouraging me to pursue the creative work that I enjoy – writing, playing piano, and cooking – as the author points out that unless we ourselves are doing these creative acts, they will not happen.  She also highlights the importance of letting ourselves “try it to see what happens”. Although I do this with my own students, I often neglect to provide this sort of encouragement for myself. I have also been practicing yoga daily during this time. Between the tasks in Cameron’s book and the yoga classes, I have a sense of peace and my mind has been cleaned enough to allow creative thoughts to enter and creative tasks to occur.

For example, a few days ago, I practiced piano for about three hours straight without even realizing where the time had gone. I faced a difficult piece that I have wanted to play for the past twenty years – this piece has literally plagued me and nearly whispered to me: “You are not technically proficient enough to master me.” I even remember that a friend’s sister, two years younger that me, played this piece in a concert in high school. When I asked her if it was difficult, she said,”It’s not that hard.” As if my question was totally ludicrous. Nevertheless, I have been fearlessly practicing it this week, with many wrong notes, and I feel like I am confronting a demon.

At the end of each chapter, check-in questions encourage the reader to assess whether or not they have completed the week’s tasks, Morning Pages, and Artist Date. Although I have never been much of a person for New Year’s Resolutions (I felt affirmed when my yoga teacher offered that the resolutions we make often do not reflect and in fact actively work against who we are meant to be in this lifetime), this book does seem fitting for the time of renewal and rebirth that occurs at the start of a new year.

Citation: Cameron, J. (2002). The artist’s way. Tarcher.

Note: This book came out over a decade ago; I encountered it on the shelf at the library while browsing. I would expect that many libraries nationwide carry copies. Try before you buy!

 

Book Review: Black Ships Before Troy

The cover displays Helen looming above the black ships.

Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad (ISBN:  0-553-49483-X)by Rosemary Sutcliff retells Homer’s epic poem in the form of a novel. Several themes emerge in this retelling –  betrayal, loss, revenge, and heroism.

Agamemnon Betrays Achilles

Achilles feels betrayed by Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks, when Agamemnon threatens to take Briseis – a captured maiden and spoil of war – away from Achilles, and, although he is the pride of the Greek army, Achilles refuses to fight any longer for Agamemnon.

The war wages on, however, and the Greeks become more and more disheartened. Agamemnon wants to give up on the war entirely, but Nestor, an old wise man, advises him to beg forgiveness from Achilles by offering him Briseis as well as many riches if Achilles will agree to rejoin the Greeks in battle. Two accomplished members of the Greek army, Odysseus and Ajax, are sent to make this offer to Achilles.

Achilles, still brimming with anger, refuses the offer, declaring his distrust for Agamemnon. However, upon witnessing a severely wounded friend returning from battle, Achilles sends his best friend Patroclus out to gather news from the front lines. Patroclus returns extremely distressed by the scenes of war, and he requests to borrow Achilles’ armor, as Patroclus intends to fight in disguise as Achilles.

The Death of Patroclus

Achilles allows Patroclus to borrow the armor, but he carefully instructs Patroclus to fight only until the Trojans are beaten back from the Greeks’ black ships. However, Patroclus does not heed Achilles’ instructions, and he continues to fight in battle even after the Trojans have cleared away from the ships. Patroclus perishes at the hands of Hector, the Trojan leader, who strips the famed armor of Achilles from Patroclus’s body.

The Revenge Upon Hector

Upon learning of the loss of Patroclus, Achilles becomes mad with grief, and he wishes to avenge the death of his friend. After obtaining new armor procured by his mother, Thetis, Achilles kills Hector, and then Achilles gruesomely straps his body to a chariot and drags it through the filth of the battlefield. For many days, Achilles continues to anguish in guilt at the death of his friend, and he reacts to these emotions by further abusing the body of Hector. However, upon advice of Thetis, Achilles finally returns the body of Hector to Hector’s father, Priam, the King of Troy, and Achilles and Priam weep together in their grief for those that they have lost in the war.

The Heroism of Odysseus

While Homer’s Iliad concludes with the funeral of Hector, Sutcliff continues the narrative with several more tales of the Trojan War, including two stories that illustrate the heroism of Odysseus, the central character in The Iliad‘s sequel: The Odyssey. The first story, “The Luck of Troy”, displays how Odysseus’s chicanery enables him to steal The Palladium, a black stone that symbolizes protection of Troy and the Trojans. The second, the famed story of “The Wooden Horse” and “The Fall of Troy”, shows Odysseus’s cunning and patience as the Greeks emerge as the victors of the Trojan War and as Odysseus saves the life of his long-time friend, the famed beauty Helen.

Conclusion

Suttcliff’s short and easy-to-read version of The Iliad serves as a supplement to or preview for translated versions of the original text. Although it omits much of the detailed descriptions, historical backdrops, and deep emotions of a translation such as that of Robert Fitzgerald (ISBN: 0-385-05941-8), Suttcliff’s retelling keeps the narrative flowing with action and purposefulness that makes the epic tale accessible to young adult readers.

Note: I found this article useful in the preparation of this book review.