News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Top 100 books

I love lists, especially book lists, so enjoyed the Globe’s top 100 books about New England or written by NE authors. You can check off the ones you’ve read and rate them; I have only read 35 of the 100, but just squeaked in by finishing Moby Dick last weekend (more on this once I’ve recovered). I also just started Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, but I love it and am half-way through, so maybe I could make my score 36. For local authors, we have On the Road, of course, and Massachusetts by Nancy Zaroulis of Chelmsford.

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Immigrant stories

My father recently came back from New York City where he visited the Tenement Museum (Teachers: the website is filled with excellent materials for a unit on immigration, including “the Immigrant Game.”) He liked it so much he went back a second time and brought back a book from the gift shop – Out of the Shadow by Rose Cohen. It’s a first hand account of a Russian Jewish girl who came to this country in 1892 (according to the Museum website, 23 million people immigrated to America between 1890 and 1924). Her story starts in a sleepy Russian village, where life falls in with the rhythm of the seasons. At the age of 12, she and her Aunt follow her Father to America, after being smuggled out of Russia in a hay wagon. She works 14-hour days in numerous sweatshops or as a servant until her health deteriorates, but she and her father save enough money to bring her mother and four siblings over from Russia. If you ever saw the musical Fiddler on the Roof, you get a sense of the family and culture into which she was born, including people whose profession is “matchmaking” and the constant fear of persecution for being Jewish (both in Russia and America). Her story, written at times almost haltingly, in a language that she struggled to learn in night classes or from her younger siblings, is one of a search for herself as well as a larger tale of the immigrant experience. There is a sense of wonder and amazement about the fact that public education is free to all. She discovers books, and I, who stumbled upon Dickens as a child, felt the same thrill as she did when she picks up David Copperfield and reads it aloud to her family. There’s also a Lowell connection: the book was edited with an introduction by Thomas Dublin, who wrote Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and community in Lowell, Masachusetts, 1826-1860.

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Thankful for golden bones

In Cambodian culture, the expression “to have golden bones” is used to describe someone who is greatly blessed. Former U.N. Ambassador Sichan Siv, who visited Lowell High School yesterday, fits the description as someone blessed with brains, guts, determination, and the courage to seize opportunity—as well as a healthy dose of good luck. Siv spoke to a packed auditorium of LHS students yesterday as part of his visit to Lowell and a national tour promoting his book Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America. As a Cambodian-born American who lived through the killing fields, Siv’s experience resonated with our students, who were enthusiastic and respectful, not only for its status as an amazing immigrant-success story but also because of its message of hope and perseverance through hardship. Siv told the spellbound audience how he threw away his glasses when the Khmer Rouge arrived so he wouldn’t be killed, volunteered to run a crane for them and then taught himself how to do it, and ultimately escaped across the border to a refugee camp in Thailand. At the refugee camp where thousands were cramped into deplorable living conditions and depression was rampant, Siv taught English as a way to provide hope to his fellow refugees, who were waiting for passage to places such as the US, Canada and England.  He told about his entry into the United States, finally, with two dollars in his pocket and an attitude to “adapt to be adopted,” which meant he took whatever work he could get and did his best at it. At first, that work was picking apples; later it became flipping burgers and driving a taxi in New York while earning a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University. Siv also decided to become involved in our government, and so he volunteered on the presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush. With the success of that election, Siv was offered work at the White House. Within 13 years, he went from the killing fields of Cambodia to the White House of the United States. Last night, I saw him again at the Angkor Dance Troupe celebration of the Cambodian New Year. He told the audience how our city epitomizes the American spirit, and I was struck by how true those words were and how happy it made me. For more on Siv, check out his website. I’ll be back with a review of his book later.

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Catching up with the classics

Who doesn’t know the story of Frankenstein – the mad scientist who created a monster. It’s one of those tales that seems to be part of the air we breathe so that we know about it without knowing how or why. Even if you haven’t seen one of the movie adaptations (Netflix lists ten movies with Frankenstein in the title, from the original classic with Boris Karloff as the monster to the inspired parody Young Frankenstein with Gene Wilder), you can picture the eerie gothic castle, the demented obsessed scientist, the strange, oversized creature with bolts in his head, the creepy assistant. So, when you pick up the book, written in 1818 by twenty-one year old Mary Shelley, it is quite surprising to find that the story is not set in Transylvania or some such place, that there is no castle, no assistant and that it is more of a philosophical and moral fable than a horror story. There are plenty of dead bodies by the end, but the true horror is in the inescapable, personal doom brought on by the hubris of the scientist in daring to create life. In the nuclear age, with the awful power to destroy ourselves unleashed, the lesson is clear – the deed cannot be undone and the consequences cannot be escaped. In addition, there is a creeping horror about the monster himself who cannot be looked upon without loathing and who commits murder out of his anger and loneliness, but he is also a piteable creature who longs for love and acceptance. His angst and questioning of his creator is that of an existential anguish that also parallels the modern individualistic quest for personal meaning. While the prose is a bit overwrought and some of the coincidences and plot twists unlikely, the complexity of motive and personality in both Frankenstein and the monster are moving and convincing. The stories are layered, being framed rather oddly by a letter from an Arctic explorer to his sister, both characters who have little to do with the central plot but merely exist as a device by which the tale of the Doctor is told. This roundabout method of narration was not unusual at the time when many novels were epistolary, and is reminiscent of Coleridege’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” where the narrator tells a story that was told to him. If you have patience and endure the somewhat tedious set-up, the story itself is worth reading.

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Returning to Venice in my mind

I just finished reading A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi, a romantic book that took me back to this most magical “water kingdom,” complete with sounds, smells, and sights. The story won’t appeal to everyone due to its introspection and little action, but the imagery made me long for Venice, and the exploration of the mid-life romance between two strangers, one a divorced American chef and the other a Venetian banker, was thought provoking and affirming—not to mention the actual recipes included at the end of this true love story.

Read a glimpse of the protagonist as she ponders her life: “Terror, illness, deceit, marriage, divorce, loneliness had all come to visit early enough in my life, interfering with the peace. Some of the demons just passed through, while others of them pitched tents outside my back door. And they stayed. One by one they went away, each leaving some impression of the visit that made me stronger, better. I’m thankful the gods were impatient with me, that they never waited until I was thirty or fifty or seventy-seven, that they’d had the grace to throw down the gauntlets when I was so young. Gauntlets are the stuff of every life, but when you learn, young, how to pick them up, how to work them against the demons, and, finally, how to outlast if not escape those same demons, life can seem more merciful.”

Later, as she acknowledges what she has achieved despite her fears and self-doubt, she realizes she can let it go: “The really precious parts of my life are transportable, not conditions of geography. Why shouldn’t I go to live on the fringes of an Adriatic lagoon with a blueberry-eyed stranger and leave no trail of biscotti crumbs to find my way back? My house, my fancy car, even my native country were not, by definition, me. My sanctuary, my sentimental self were veteran travelers. And they would go where I would.”

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Small, mean hearts

Decades ago, I visited a place where adults with mental disabilities made a living preparing large-scale mailings for businesses. I remember being impressed by their work ethic and their joy at being productive self-earners. I thought of that place recently when I read about Governor Patrick’s budget cuts that required layoffs at a Malden employment center for the blind, as well as other impacts to social services statewide. I know the Commonwealth faces a financial crisis due to a Wall Street fiasco with global impacts. I also believe the governor is a good and intelligent man, trying to do more with less in a climate overwhelmed with real fiscal problems (not counting the havoc if Ballot 1 passes—see here for earlier mention), but is this really what we’ve come to? How is it that our society cannot care for the least of us—even when it simply means giving them the opportunity to work? It reminds me of a Mary Oliver poem, unlike her in its dark brooding, but so indicative of the day:

Of the Empire, by Mary Oliver, from her book Red Bird

We will be known as a culture that feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the

many. We will be known as a culture that taught

and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All

the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a

commodity. And they will say that this structure

was held together politically, which it was, and

they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of

the heart, and that the heart, in those days,

was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

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Poetry trivia

I’ve been reading a rather strange and difficult book, The Sea by Irish writer, John Banville. As you follow the fractured progress of the plot, moving back and forth through several time periods as it does, the one thing that quickly becomes apparent is the brilliant, unique, obsessive style of his prose. At once lush and, as another reviewer put it, pungent, he strings his words along like a spider does a web, around and around each other and the narrator, characters and reader, until all are caught alike in this predicament we call life.

Getting to my point, one of his many obscure references was to the “Bard of Hartford.” Once having lived in that fair city, I was immediately intrigued but not sure who it was. Any takers? (No fair googling, although even that doesn’t get you too far at first). For the answer: more »

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Summer reading

I love to read articles where different people talk about what they are planning to read on the beach or by the lake. While I’ve been known to cart War and Peace (the new translation is tempting me) around while on vacation, ideally Summer reading should be light, easy to carry around and fun to read – a break from the thick biographies and such that are more fitting for a long winter night. I’ve already read three great books this summer which were purely self-indulgent, fun reads:
1) Desolation Island, by Patrick O’Brian. Any other O’Brian fans out there? I’ve been hooked on these books since the movie, Master and Commander came out a few years ago. They are filled with action on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars, but the character development and attention to detail is also amazing. As a huge fan of Jane Austen, these books that are exactly contemporary with her period complement her more interior, local village scenes by showing what the men were up to: the brothers at sea (as were her own), the Admirals called back on duty, the militias that moved on. I usually detest the fake feeling of many historical novels, but such is O’Brian’s meticulous scholarship that the dialogue, values and actions of the characters ring as true as if he had been an actual contemporary of Austen. (Desolation Island is the fifth in the series).
2) Speaking of Jane Austen, I enjoyed Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, both the book and the movie were fine tributes to my favorite author. I gave her latest book, Wit’s End a try and was mildly amused and entertained by it. The setting, an old Victorian house in Santa Cruz that had been built by a survivor of the Donner Party, and the characters were all pretty well done. Her writing is good-natured, with many sly bits of humor sprinkled in, little recurring jokes that work. The plot was a little clunky and overdone, but on the whole it was worth a read.
3) I really like Australian mystery novelist Peter Temple and just finished his latest, The Broken Shore, which I’m a little hesitant to recommend. It has gotten great reviews, but the Australian slang and vulgarity may be difficult for some readers as is his elliptical writing style, which leaves a lot unsaid and much going on under the surface – rather like Hemingway; however, his characters, detailed descriptions and laconic humor reward the persistent reader. This was not my favorite of his because of the nature of the crimes and some of the grisly descriptions; however, I will definitely be on the lookout for his next novel Truth which should clear up some of the unfinished business and dangling plotlines from this one. (If you like to read everything by a new favorite author, be forewarned that all of his books are not yet available in the U.S.)

For the rest of the summer, I’m interested in two unique books about poets: Fall of Frost by Brian Hall, a somewhat controversial fictionalization of the life of Robert Frost and Posthumous Keats. I’d also like to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (didn’t everyone read this one a few years back?) and an older book that was referenced by Fowler (her heroine was named Rima) in Wit’s End: Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson (also a movie starring Audrey Hepburn).

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Our ADD world

I read the book, Driven to Distraction, a few years ago and became convinced that I and everyone in my family had ADD. Now, I just think there’s too much going on in the world – ‘the world is too much with us’ as Wordsworth put it. There’s too much in daily life to handle without a disciplined approach, which means focusing on one thing at a time. This is hard if, like me, you’ve always prided yourself on being a multi-tasker (and I don’t even own a PDA!). You know, read a book and cook dinner while listening to language tapes and checking email, oops, burnt the broccoli.

And so it goes. Research has shown that the added mental effort of switching tasks makes you less productive even as you have the illusion of getting more done. Some of this data is almost 10 years old, which shows the way the public only hears what it wants to hear as in the plethora of left-brain, right-brain popular psychology books (Drawing from the right brain, etc) that mushroomed in the wake of a study that was shortly disproved (see link in previous post). I’ve been taking a time management course and one of the first things they demonstrate is the fallacy of multi-tasking. They ask a person to walk a straight line along a piece of masking tape on the floor. It’s morning, the guy had had coffee, no problem. Then they ask him to do it while reading a book – the results are comical. This is oversimplified, but a good way to think about what you are asking of yourself when you rely on multi-tasking to manage your life. For more information on this subject, read this highly-entertaining, very informative and thoughtful article by Walter Kirn from Atlantic Magazine. Here’s a quote that sums up the problems and dangers of multi-tasking:

certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

EEK! Who needs that? (Note: While working on this post, I forced myself not to go downstairs for more coffee, look at my calendar, read incoming email or clean off my desktop. Reading the Kirn article was part of my task, but I resisted reading other interesting Atlantic articles that I noticed on their site.)

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Farewell gift: Books for Dr. Baehr

The Citywide Parent Council will thank Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr for her service to the Lowell Public Schools by donating books in her name to individual school libraries across the city. Dr. Baehr, whose tenure as our school chief ends on June 30, will be presented with a list of the donations at a farewell gathering held in the Mayor’s Reception Room on June 18 from 5:30-7 p.m.—just prior to her last school committee meeting. The public is invited to attend the reception and participate in the book-giving—a “twofer” in Baehr-speak as it is a great way to honor her commitment to improving public education in Lowell while also expanding our school libraries. And it’s so easy to participate: simply go to Barnes & Noble at 151 Merrimack Street, purchase a book, and choose a school library, or EVEN EASIER, call Barnes & Noble at 978-458-3939 and purchase the book by telephone with a credit card. B&N will record your donation for the presentation to Dr. Baehr and deliver your book to the school library you selected. The downtown store is also offering a 20 percent discount on books purchased for this program and can recommend children’s favorites.

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