Dear Diary: March 30, 2020. I’ve seen “covid diaries” popping-up on social media, mostly friends’ feeds, and gee, what a thrill to be a trendsetter! I have to say, I’m glad to see a lot of people using the time and technology we have to continue to keep in touch with one another. It’s not the kind of personal connection that many prefer, but it’s better than nothing. I’ve also been enjoying watching the many heart-warming and funny stories people are sharing, whether its emergency services crew cheering up medical staff or photos and videos of friends visiting one another for birthdays or special occasions, but maintaining social distance guidelines. Sure, it’s weird to see your friends holding up “happy birthday!” signs from your front curb rather than from within your living room, but I think the important thing is that we’re still thinking about one another and finding ways to be there for each other, all while caring for people’s health and safety.
Recently Read: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. This could be classified as historical fiction or a biographical novel; I guess it depends on who you ask and how close one considers it to truth. Some people don’t make any distinction between historical fiction and biographical novels, but I do. To me, historical fiction is about a general time/place/event but is mostly fictional in terms of characters and situations, a la Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief; a biographical novel, on the other hand, is a researched piece of fiction that relies heavily on historical fact of persons, times, and places, with some things, like dialogue, mostly invented. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life and Christopher Bram’s Gods & Monsters (AKA Father of Frankenstein) would fit this bill. And so does Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. The author has researched the lives of the The Mirabal sisters, Patria, Minerva, Maria, and Dede, who lived in the Dominican Republican during the time of Trujillo. Most of the sisters eventually joined–or led, depending on who you ask–resistance cells. Inspired by events like Castro’s rebellion in Cuba, they worked against Trujillo’s dictatorial regime quietly and through back-channels, though some of them had pursued and received college degrees.
The novel itself is told from the perspective of each of the sisters in alternating chapters, divided by time period. It moves back and forth through time, often returning to the lone surviving sister’s perspective from after the events of the revolution. Some of the strong points for this one include excellent characterization; each of the sister’s voices comes through distinctly, which is important in a multiple-POV narrative. The history and the fiction are also wonderfully interwoven into the larger narrative voice, making it all unfold smoothly; there are no lengthy treatises or segues into historical exposition; instead, the history is worked into the course of these biographical fictive events. Finally, Alvarez brings the time, place, and people to life through use of local idioms and customs, distinctive senses of humor and cultural artifacts. I would have liked to have gotten a lot more detail about what the sisters actually did in terms of leading or being part of the rebellion; most of what the reader learns is about the sisters’ everyday lives, with the revolution a relatively vague affair, to be honest. Still, books like this are absolutely necessary, particularly to western readers who tend not to get much history beyond the major western events, through an Americanized lens. Learning about the other important changes happening in the world at this time is so important, and interesting.
Currently Reading: I’m reading Toni Morrison’s Sula. Yesterday, I completed Part One of the two part novel. It’s still amazing to me how quickly and easily I sink into Morrison’s narratives, particularly because their themes are always so heavy. There’s something about her style, though, that allows her to wallop me with truth while keeping me wholly invested, turning the pages faster and faster to learn more about these beautiful, terrible characters and their complicated lives. I’m also still working on Leonard Cohen’s collection of poetry and drawings, Book of Longing. I’ll probably finish both of these in the next couple of days and then it is on to another re-read of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (how many times is this? ten?) and a re-read of Jane Eyre (third time?).
Currently Writing: I received my first draft response from one of my three beta readers late last week. Her feedback was just what I needed to hear, really, so it has motivated me to return to my novel WIP and get cracking on revisions! I was particularly curious about two things–elements of the story that were important to me–and this reader happened to mention both of those elements, with praise. I can’t put into words how encouraging that is, or how great it felt to hear it when I hadn’t even prompted for it. So, thank you, beta reader (you know who you are), for your feedback. I can’t wait to get to work on this. I have three revisions planned, one for each beta response, and then I hope to start submitting to publishers in June. I’ve also been revisiting and revising some of my poems, and writing some new ones. I have submitted a few to a few online journals that I read and enjoy, too; so, work is picking up in this regard.
Currently Listening To: Harry Styles’ Fine Line. I’m going to be honest, here. I’ve enjoyed listening to Harry Styles for years, ever since his audition days and the formation of One Direction. Most of One Direction’s music was lighthearted pop, though, which is fun but not particularly moving; that being said, I had spotted his voice and artistry pretty early and have been rooting him on. The only contemporary artist I see who has interested me the same way, as singer-artist-songwriter, is Troye Sivan (which, by the way, if you’re not watching his Instagram right now, you should be. He’s doing some interesting things.) Styles’ first solo album, self-titled, was proof enough that he’s got incredible talent and is likely to have a long and interesting career. Despite my being a fan, though, I’ve only just gotten around to listening to all of Styles’ second album, Fine Line, and my goodness. Stevie Nicks wrote in a letter to her own fans recently that this is his Rumours, which is both high and deserved praise. I happen to agree with her; this album is a masterpiece and Styles is moving beyond impressive into genius, as singer, songwriter, and musician. “Falling” might be the best song he has written yet, even better than “Sign of the Times,” which is also brilliant. We have tickets to see Harry with the incomparable Jenny Lewis later this year, and I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that the pandemic and all its implications don’t result in the concert being canceled or postponed. I haven’t looked forward to a show this much in years. I’m also a little obsessed (and proud! so proud!) of his insistence on being himself, of breaking or ignoring gender expectations. Will he perform in fishnet stockings, the way he appeared recently in Beauty Papers? We should only be so lucky!
Teaching Updates: We are officially online for the rest of the semester, not just the two or three weeks that were originally planned. No surprise. Things are getting tricky; so many students are having complications due to the massive, quick, and uproarious changes brought on by stay-at-home orders: job loss, loss of access, increased work responsibilities for nurses/healthcare workers, mobilization of military students, etc. These compound the typical challenges that students face over the course of the semester and particularly around midterm. I’m finding it difficult to find more and more ways to adapt and to be fluid and fair. I’ve decided to be rather soft with deadlines, but there are some things that students request that I don’t think are actually helpful or fair; still, it’s hard to say “no” right now. I’m also balancing their needs with mine; having five online courses to facilitate is extremely difficult. All the work typically done in a classroom setting, like discussions, is now done online, too, which means it’s not just an hour in the classroom where we get to have the discussion and I can assess it quickly; instead, it’s five classes of going into discussion boards, reading everyone’s comments and responses, and responding to them when/where needed. That takes literally hours and hours to do. So, this is stressful and this is a challenge, but I’ll continue to do the best I can. I’m certainly open to hearing what other professors are doing, though, so please share if you’ve got good ideas.
Current Status: As of today, the Nevada Department of Health reports 753 cases of COVID-19 and 15 deaths. That’s a 20% increase from a week ago. Judging by the traffic on the roads and at the parks, it does seem like people are social distancing slightly, but I would really prefer a total stay-at-home order for the entire nation right now, for 2-4 weeks. At some point, we must get serious and close it all down so that people have enough time to recover from the virus while stopping the spread. Personally, I too have some health updates. My doctors seem confident that they’ve figured out what’s going on with me. The first part of the equation seems to be severe allergies, for which I’m being medicated. Nothing to be done about that, I guess. The other, more serious problem appears to be a genetic blood disorder. I’m being tested again in 3-months to see what current treatment is doing (helpful or not) and to see if they can specifically confirm their diagnosis; the doctor is pretty certain, but there are always anomalies. In any case, the bad news is this is something I’ll always have but the good news is that it is treatable. I am one of those “immuno-compromised” individuals, though, so if it helps to have someone in mind when thinking about whether you should be following social distancing rules right now, well, feel free to think of me. I’d like to stay alive for a while longer, if you please.
Positive Thoughts: I’m corresponding via snail mail with one of my nephews, who is five (six? Oh no!), and that has been a real joy. His first letter asked, “when can you come over again?” and “what are you reading?” Does that kid know me, or what!? I’ve been sending out postcards to friends and family in order to stay in touch a bit more “personally” while all of this is going on. A friend had shared concerns about the safety of postal workers and mail delivery right now, so I did some research online and went to my local US post office to ask about it, and was reassured that postal delivery is still mostly safe, particularly if one is being cautious. Postal workers who are concerned are wearing gloves and have received other safety guidelines; the virus can live on surfaces for some time, but not for particularly long, it seems (certainly not the days it takes to transport mail). I’ve also been extra careful, though, and have been sanitizing the cards with Lysol spray prior to putting them in the mailbox. Maybe that’s overdoing it, but better to be safe, right? I’m also mostly sending the post cards to people who expressed interest in receiving them, so I have permission first. That said, if you would like one, please feel free to get in touch! (I would need your address, obviously.) They’re literary-themed and I have a lot!
“There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers