Stephen King’s The Institute

I think I have been lucky with Stephen King so far.

I’ve heard from other readers that some of his books are a real bore, just slogs to get through. The ones that come to mind are The Tommyknockers and Dolores Claiborne, two that I own but have yet to read because I’ve been told they’re just sort of, “why?” I felt this way, somewhat, about Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary, too, but when I say that out loud, people tend to give me the ol’ stink eye. But still, when you stack those few disappointments up against books like It, The Stand, The Shining, The Long Walk, Doctor Sleep, Misery, Christine, Carrie…. need I go on? In other words, the odds are pretty darn good that I’m going to like a Stephen King book, and his latest novel, The Institute, just adds to the positive chances.

At the heart of this novel is a classic Stephen King battle of good versus evil, but in this case he tries to be a bit more nuanced than many of his other stories in the same theme. Where books like It, The Stand, and The Outsider set up a very distinct dichotomy between the forces of good and evil, The Institute, being in effect science-fiction rather than horror or fantasy, delves deeper into the nature of human actions and the complexities of right and wrong. There is no evil alien force such as the one that poisons Derry, nor is there an anti-Christ or legendary villain, the likes of which oppose the good forces in The Stand or Salem’s Lot. In The Institute, King pits children with special abilities against international government forces who want to manipulate their powers. On the surface, the distinction is clear. Children good, secret military agency bad. Yet, as the story unfolds, King complicates the message by delving into philosophical questions about how we weigh the rights of the one, or the few, over the needs of the many. (Beam me up, Scotty!) He uses phenomena such as telepathy, telekinesis, and precognition to explore the individual’s responsibility to the collective, or a person’s responsibility to humanity, in a way that is more convoluted and circuitous than King typically is. We root for the children; we cheer when they begin to unite; we become inspired by their bravery and selflessness in standing on their own against such a dangerous, impossible foe. And yet, in the background, King is needling. He makes the reader question, right up to the end, whether The Institute was a necessary evil, or just simply evil.

King has a tendency to get into long-winded exposition on characters and character backgrounds, sometimes taking one at a time and going on for pages and pages. Usually, it makes the story better, as in The Stand, when all of the characters eventually meet up and form two sides in a battle of good and evil. Then, it makes sense to have become so invested in them and their outcomes. They’re at war. You want to “feel” for them. Sometimes, though, that payoff is missing, and you wonder why you had to sit through so much history and detail about people who don’t seem to matter very much in the long run. Although the first part of the book, maybe even a full one-third of it, is pretty slow and tough to get into, in this case there is the payoff. The Institute is much more like The Stand or It in this regard; it’s not quite as long as either of those, so the exposition doesn’t go on as long, but it definitely makes up a very good chunk of the novel, and you have to get through it in order to get to the action. When the pace finally does pick up, though, and the story rushes toward its climax and resolution, King has made you invested in the outcome and the stakes for these characters seem higher because you, as the reader, care. You’ve been made to hate the sinners and love the saints, right down to those small town characters introduced early in the novel who don’t show up again until hundreds of pages later.

One thing that I’ve been enjoying about King’s more recent works, is that they are much more explicit in their philosophy and cultural criticisms. King has always been concerned with politics and society, but his earlier works, particularly those in the horror genre, heavily mask the very real and biting social statements he makes. Since about 2014, though, with the release of Revival, it has become clear that even in his genre fiction, King has decided to lay it all on the line. It’s almost as if someone whispered in his ear, “Let Stephen King be Stephen King.” As a great writer, he never allows the cultural criticisms to overtake the story itself, but it’s fun to see his spine making up the tone of the work, particularly as a reader who tends to agree with King’s stance on politics. In the case of The Institute, some of the philosophy gets a bit muddled, though. Because of the apparent need to create sympathy for the villains, which is nothing new in savvy “good versus evil” plots, there are moments where the reader is almost being encouraged to empathize with deeply concerning, widely derided, and wholly evil concepts and methods. There were moments where I noticed that I was being asked to find sympathy for what is essentially a kind of Nazism, and that was very hard to swallow; in the end, King rights the ship, but the fog he creates, perhaps intentionally but perhaps because he couldn’t avoid it, seemed unnecessary to me. Is the discomfort worth it? I’m still not sure.

Ultimately, with The Institute, King proves again that his power is not waning in the slightest and that he’s not just a master of horror. This is an excellent sci-fi thriller that also tackles current social and political issues (though some of that is problematic.) I think this one and his recent horror, The Outsider, are two of his best. Who says all writers do their best works early in their careers?

Back to the Classics

Back to the Classics is hosted by Karen at Karen’s Books and Chocolate. I’m so glad it is back! I had planned to avoid all reading challenges this year, as I’m trying to be more patient and intentional with my reading. To that end, I also set the bar very low for my “Goodreads Challenge,” with 12 books to be read this year. I normally read between 60 and 80 books annually, so hitting a dozen is a given, but that’s kind of the point. I don’t want to feel like I’m forced to get through book after book after book this year, or to begin a new one as soon as I end another.

I want to savor my reading this year. I want to spend time with it. I want to enter it deeply, swim around in it, write about it, and get just as far as I end up getting, but no further.  In other words: no challenges! Except this one. Because this challenge shouldn’t get in the way of my deep-reading goals. There’s no real rush to read, particularly if I’m planning to read the 12 books for this challenge anyway, and the categories plus titles that I’ve selected for each are diverse enough to keep me interested and to help me meet my perpetual goal of reading broadly.

I’ve put an abridged version of the rules and categories below. What do you think of my title selections!? Are you thinking of joining?

If you’re new to the challenge, here’s how it works:
  • Complete six categories, and you’ll get one entry in the drawing; 
  • Complete nine categories, and you’ll get two entries in the drawing; 
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you’ll get three entries in the drawing.

Basic rules: All books must be at least 50 years old (published 1970 or earlier). No crossovers to multiple categories. Wrap-up post with all links to reviews required to be posted at Karen’s blog before 12/31/2020. Must sign-up with your list before 03/31/2020. All reviews must be linked to corresponding category link on Karen’s blog.

1. 19th Century Classic. North and South (1854) by Elizabeth Gaskell
2. 20th Century Classic. Doveglion: Collected Poems (c. 1942-1958) by José García Villa
3. Classic by a Woman Author. The Good Earth (1931) by Pearl S. Buck
4. Classic in Translation. The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas
5. Classic by a Person of Color. The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison
6. A Genre Classic. The Valley of Fear (1915) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. Swann’s Way (1913) by Marcel Proust
8. Classic with a Place in the Title. The Hanging on Union Square (1935) by H.T. Tsiang
9. Classic with Nature in the Title. Desert Solitaire (1968) by Edward Abbey
10. Classic About a Family. Sons and Lovers (1913) by D.H. Lawrence
11. Abandoned Classic. Middlemarch (1872) by George Eliot
12. Classic Adaptation. Little House on the Prairie (1935) by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Progress: 0 of 11 Complete (Reviews Will be Linked at This Page.) 

2019 Year in Reading

Welcome to my Big Book Survey for 2019!

Number Of Books Read: 72 (goal of 52!)

Number of Re-Reads: 9

Genre Read Most: LGBT &  Non-Fiction

Best Book You Read In 2019? On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More? We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read? No-No Boy by John Okada.

Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)? Becoming by Michelle Obama.

Best series you started? Best Sequel of 2019? Best Series-Ender of 2019?

Favorite new author you discovered? Ocean Vuong.

Best book from a genre you don’t typically read? Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.

Most action-packed/thrilling/un-put-down-able book of the year? The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Book You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year? We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

Favorite cover of a book you read in 2019?

Most memorable character of 2019? Jonathan Hopkirk from We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra.

Most beautifully written book read in 2019? On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2019? The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2019 to finally read? Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2019?

“To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” -Ocean Vuong

Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2019?

  • Shortest: Powers of X #3 BY Jonathan Hickman (52 pages)
  • Longest: Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky (720 pages)

Book That Shocked You The Most? Gemini by Michel Tournier.

OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!): Jonathan and Web from Ziggy, Stardust and Me

Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year? Elio and Samuel Perlman from Call Me By Your Name and Find Me

Favorite Book You Read in 2019 From An Author You’ve Read Previously? Brave Face: A Memoir by Shaun David Hutchinson.

Best Book You Read In 2019 hat You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else?


Best 2019 debut you read?

Best World-building/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year? Circe by Madeline Miller

Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read? Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2019? Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Hidden Gem Of The Year? Ziggy, Stardust and Me by James Bradnon

Book That Crushed Your Soul?

Most Unique Book You Read In 2019? On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)? Internment by Samira Ahmed. 

New favorite book blog you discovered in 2019? Oops – none…. Haven’t had much time to explore!

Favorite review that you wrote in 2019?

Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?

Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?

Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2019?

Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year? Nope! Well, actually, yes, I suppose I did. I wanted to read more poetry in 2019, and I definitely did that. 

One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2019 But Will Be Your Priority in 2020? 

Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2020 (non-debut)? I’m honestly not sure what’s coming out in 2020. I haven’t taken a look at those “most anticipated releases of…” posts for this year, yet. 

2020 Debut You Are Most Anticipating? Mine? Ha! Look for an essay collection on topics of Gender & Sexuality in literature coming from yours truly, early in 2020. 

Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2020? I think the end to Rick Riordan’s Trials of Apollo series comes out in 2020. 

One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2020? Get back to it! I hope to post at least once a week, preferably twice. And I want to alternate between personal/essay type posts and book reviews. 

A 2020 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend To Everyone: What? It’s January 1st, give me a break! 🙂 

My Word for 2020

Once there was a way.

Just the other day, I was thinking back to 2018 and a new kind of resolution I had decided to try. It was something called, “My Word for 2018.” At the time, I thought it was a new trend, as I had seen it going around on a few blogs/Twitter profiles. Upon deeper reflection, I realized this is probably something people have been doing for generations, but the internet has a way of making things new again. In any case, when thinking about my 2018 word, “SEE,” I struggled to think of my 2019 word. I went back to blog posts and old journal entries, and realized that I never came up with one last year.

If one holds oneself dear, one should diligently watch oneself. Let the wise man keep vigil during any of the three watches of the night. -Attavagga: The Self (157)

I tend to work in cycles like this. Some cycles are long, like annual ones, and others seem to be a little shorter. There are times when I’m completely in control, positive and energetic, and then there are times when everything seems to go wrong and, much as I care to act/react differently, I can’t bring myself to do so. In looking back on those old posts, one thing I noticed was that, at the end of 2017, I wrote an annual reflection and commented on what a difficult year it had been. I could be writing that exact same post right now. Literally, to the word. That year, I wrote, “This past year has been a real struggle, psychologically, emotionally, and financially.” Those are the exact thoughts that brought me back to my journals and to the idea of selecting a word for 2020.

Something important, then, might be this: I ended 2017 by reflecting on that challenging year and tried to write something positive about the year ahead. Then, I began 2018 by choosing a word, SEE, to focus on (no pun intended.) And, you know what? 2018 was an a very good year, all things considered. But, when the year came to an end, I did not reflect. When 2019 began, I did not think ahead. I wonder if I only make time to self-reflect when things are going poorly, and perhaps that is part of what creates such imbalance in my life. If I cannot pause just as well during good times to acknowledge what is good, to think about why things are going well, and to remind myself of those feelings–to keep at them–then how quickly and easily might they slip away?

One should first establish oneself in what is proper; then only should one instruct others. Thus the wise man will not be reproached. -Attavagga: The Self (158)

So, I will try again. I admit first of all that I’m trying, just as in 2017, when things have not been very good. This year has been a very difficult one for many reasons, including a physical injury in January that seemed to set the tone for everything else to come, then struggles with mental health that I have been battling all year. I don’t want to end the year with those thoughts, though. Instead, I’ll think about the good:

As an educator: I’m more than half-way into my tenure term as a college faculty member and will be planning and submitting my tenure application late next year. I’ve built a good rapport with my students and colleagues at the college and have participated in a number of things, events and programs and developments, that I believe are important and helpful to the college and its community. I designed my own course, which has run successfully three times already, and I am currently designing a second one.

As a writer: In February, I published my first book (academic non-fiction) and this year I wrote and revised my first novel, which is now being beta read and queried to publishers. Recently, I compiled and edited a collection of essays that I’m working on assembling into my next book, a collection on LGBT issues in literature, and I hope to publish it early in 2020. I successfully “won” both Camp NaNoWriMo in June and NaNoWriMo in November. I submitted a short work that I care about deeply to multiple journals and, though I did not get an acceptance at any of them, I’m very glad that I wrote the piece and that I’ve been putting it out there, regardless of the outcome.

In service: I’ve made strides in public service, one of my goals for last year. Most of my activities have been in service to the college and local community, such as assisting at the county public library during LGBT family day. I was also asked to serve as a national juror for the Scholastic Writing Awards this year, a task which is rather monumental but has already been so rewarding. I’ll be finishing my services as a juror in the next couple of weeks and hope to attend the ceremony this spring, to see these young writers be recognized for their talents and hard work.

As a person: Something I’ve been trying very hard to do is break the chains of social media. It’s difficult now that I live so far away from everyone I care about, except my husband. The majority of my family and friends are 2,000 miles away now, with some a little closer (300 miles.) So, giving up something like Facebook, which is what my entire generation “grew up” on and has made ubiquitous in our lives, from sharing photos and personal updates, to invitations for important events, is easier said than done. I’ve deleted my account a number of times, and tried the same with Twitter, etc., but I kept going back. I have managed to stay mostly off of it (Facebook) for one month, now, and I’m going to consider this progress that I can build on. I fear social media has done more harm than good, particularly in the way we communicate with one another but also in the way it has decimated individuals’ capacities for critical thought, patience, and development of common sense. It is, in my opinion, stifling our growth and simultaneously cultivating our basest instincts. I’ve decided to keep in touch in more old fashioned ways, like text messaging (can you believe that’s “old school”?), sending physical cards and letters, and making phone calls. I created a spreadsheet with important people and their important information, things I want to remember, like birthdays, which for the last 15 years I’ve relied on Facebook to tell me. No more.

In addition, I’ve tried to keep up with some of my other personal goals, like developing my philosophical self. I almost wrote spiritual self, there, but I’m not really that kind of person, even though I do think I’ve been settling into Buddhism this year. A secular Buddhism, if that’s possible. (Well, of course it is.) I thought for some time that Stoicism was my route, and I still respond to much of its teachings and will continue to rely on it, but it wasn’t exactly right. Buddhism has been making much more sense to me. In a way, it brings me back to a kind of humanism that I pursued for nearly a decade.

Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial. -Attavagga: The Self (163)

One thing I’ve failed at has been maintaining my physical health. 2018 was a “Red Letter Year” in that regard. I absolutely nailed my physical health and was making incredible progress toward the kind of strength and balance I had been seeking. I think part of the success was found in the new environment–my first full year living in a new state, one where it’s possible to be outdoors nearly every day, and certainly a great deal more than I was able to when I lived in the Midwest! But when I came home from a Christmas visit last winter and injured myself just a few weeks later–an injury that took months to heal–I somehow lost all that drive and ambition, and of course physical and mental/emotional health are intimately related. I let that setback and major disappointment infect the way I thought and felt about everything else, the way I responded to every other event, and it drove the choices I made all year. The summer of 2019 brought another major setback, this one financial, so that just as I was beginning to heal physically, I was hit mentally/emotionally with another whammy. And, I believe, because I had allowed myself to sink into such a pit in the first place, the second punch landed much harder than it might have otherwise.

By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another. -Attavagga: The Self (165)

My Word for 2020: HEAL. Taking everything into consideration, then, including when, where, and why I feel I have been struggling with when, where, and why I have succeeded, I’m making my focus for 2020 healing. I know I have a tough year of recovery ahead, which will be even more challenging as I prepare for my tenure application. But while I spent 2019 feeling slighted, disappointed, and ultimately angry with myself for not being perfect all the time, I want to look at 2020 as a year of renewal. A re-commitment to myself on every level: physical, intellectual, and emotional. I’ve subscribed to a few magazines that I hope will offer me interesting news of the world, in arts, science, and philosophy. I plan to set aside time each week to read these and to engage with the world, in lieu of being on social media. I plan to continue to learn more about Buddhism and to do more writing, much more writing, than I did even in 2019. I plan to give an enthusiastic “YES” to doing things that are important to me, to taking those opportunities, and give thoughtful “NOs” to those things that demand too much of my time or attention and for which I’m not as suited as someone else might be. I will make myself a priority, again, and that means forgiving myself for a bad year of bad choices.

Job number one, now, is to look at healing as a gift to myself, not a punishment for what I didn’t do right when I could have.

I will begin with what makes me: writing, reading, and music.

Happy New Year.


Red, White and Royal Blue

Gay sex!

Have I got your attention? Good! That’s about how I felt when I started reading Casey McQuiston’s Red, White Royal Blue. A little shocked, a little surprised, a little bit, “Oh, what’s this, now?” You see, I didn’t do much background research, over even a casual web browse, about this book before I started reading it. I had seen it spoken about so glowingly on Twitter and by book blogger friends, and the reviews were generally so overwhelmingly good, that I followed my instinct and bought it, assuming I would enjoy it. The thing is, I thought this was a young adult novel and realized only during the first (of many) sex scenes that (cough) much to my chagrin, this one is rather adult. I suppose it would be classified as an adult romance novel?

I’m not sure how I missed that this one was an adult novel rather than a YA, except to say that the cover is a bit deceptive and that a number of people who I saw rating/reviewing/talking about this one are typically YA readers. I also ordered the book online, so I didn’t have the benefit of searching the stacks at my local bookstore for it, which probably would have quickly corrected my incorrect assumptions. Well, what do I say now?

The book is good. The book is also one of a genre that I very rarely read, so I’m a bit at a loss as to what to say about it. Is it a good romance novel? I don’t know – I’ve not much to compare it to. It certainly was a good story, though, and if you happen to enjoy (same-sex) love scenes, then you’re two for two so far in the “meeting or exceeding expectations” category, I think. Anyway, to the story:

Alex Claremont-Diaz is the 21-year-old son of President Claremont, the first female president of the United States. He’s also half-Mexican American, and his family is from Texas. Hello, political drama! In the midst of his mother’s re-election campaign, Alex begins to discover two things: first, that his long-time feelings for a particular member of the English royal family are more than he realized; and second, that he has a particular calling, one that might take more patience than his temperament would typically allow. Just as Alex takes important steps to grow into manhood and to develop his first honest, loving relationship with another person, scandal breaks. Can Alex be the partner his boyfriend needs him to be? Can he handle the scrutiny of the world gazing intently at his every move? Can he bear the thought of being the reason why his mother might lose re-election? Thankfully, he’s getting a whole lot of hot, steamy sex to keep him calm and motivated while the world seems to tumble down around him.

It’s not too long into the novel that you realize the book is based heavily on the 2016 elections right here in the United States, but thank heavens it takes a positive and hopeful tone, despite incorporating a number of current, relevant, and recognizable socio-cultural and political themes, including characters that are, well, awful. Casey McQuiston writes in the afterward that she began the book before the 2016 election and had to stop after the results. It makes perfect sense that one kind of alternate parallel universe was the original impetus for this one, but thank goodness McQuiston returned to the story after putting it down when the election went so wildly wrong. This is indeed a book that many will find comfort in for a lot of reasons, both because it looks hopefully and lovingly toward the future, and because it is a sweet, passionate romance story fleshed out with characters to root for, believable situations to get caught up in, and a resolution that is perfectly satisfying.

There were a few plot points that I struggled with, but I did enjoy this one. As I said, it’s not my usual kind of read, and it’s not necessarily a genre that I would go back to soon or regularly, but now I do understand how and why adult romance has become so popular. Red, White & Royal Blue is a wonderful escape buttressed by important cultural issues and thoughtful historical and political factoids that are integrated so well, one doesn’t realize they are being educated and entertained at the same time. And that is my kind of story.

Spreading Christmas Cheer

Happy Holidays!

Misonne, “Waterloo Place,” 1899

According to Christmas canon, AKA the 2003 film ELF, “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.” Since I’m obviously not going to do that, I thought I would try something else instead. It helps me to stop once in a while, especially these days, to remember all the good things that happen all the time but might not get much attention. It’s a mad, mad world; we’re constantly bombarded by the bad things, the dangerous things, the sad things, and the truly deplorable things. Today, on Christmas, I’d like to focus on the warm things, the loving things, the friendship things, and the things that make getting up every day and trying again worth it.  

So, I’m sharing three of my favorite reads from 2019, in hopes that someone else out there might also read and enjoy one or more of them, too. After that, I’ve shared a little bit about three “feel good” stories from this year. Please feel free to leave a comment with any story or message of peace, love, or joy that you think would be valuable for someone else to see/read this holiday season.

Three Books I Loved This Year

  1. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Yesterday, I received my signed copy of this novel, the first from poet Ocean Vuong, with an inscription that included an excerpt from one of my favorite passages in the book, and perhaps one of my favorite passages in any piece of literature. It goes, “To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” It’s such a short statement, but doesn’t it pack a punch? How much information, how much forced reflection, is jammed into that little passage? I read the book back in June and still that passage sticks with me and reminds me to think back to my 2018 word of the year, and try to see people a little bit better. To be more patient, more compassionate, and less self-absorbed. In my review, I wrote, “For me, it seems, a universe of ellipses is falling into place at exactly the right moment, and to read a perfect book in a turbulent and confusing time is perhaps the most miraculous way to think of one’s place in that universe as intentional, purposeful, and necessary.” This still holds true. This is a book I’ll carry with me into the new year. I think it will continue to inform the way I think about myself and my memory, the way I think about others and, hopefully, how I tread them, and the way I think about, and go about the business of, being a writer. 
  2. Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian. This young adult novel was far more than I expected. Unfortunately, I read it at a time when I was not writing many reviews, so I didn’t get much more down than first reactions. I say unfortunately because this is a book that deserved better attention from me and that certainly deserves the public’s attention. I wish I would have shared more about it at the time, so that some of you, particularly those who love Young Adult literature or who love LGBTQ literature/history, could learn a bit about it. Every good coming-out-story, like every good coming-of-age story manages to balance a personal, individual story with a unique experience in time and place and the larger issues this entails. What the author does best in this novel is to integrate powerful and accurate portrayals of two difficult events, the Iran revolution and the AIDS crisis, into a story about an immigrant boy’s coming-of-age and coming out. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna. 
  3. Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson. Since I have an adult novel and a young adult novel, I also want to be sure to share some non-fiction. Brave Face is Hutchinson’s personal and powerful memoir. I have to admit to being equal parts disturbed and jealous, because this book is in so many ways the book I would like to write or have written. We share so many experiences and opinions, which is perhaps not that strange considering we are near the same age and had a similar upbringing. There are some very specific experiences in his life that I, too, experienced in an almost startlingly similar way. It was strange to feel so connected to another person’s life story, especially considering how painful much of that journey was for him. It tapped into a part of me that I keep very much to myself, and it was cathartic in a way. Brave Face is an important piece in the LGBTQ+ literary puzzle, and especially as non-fiction targeting young adult audiences, which is not a substantial genre right now.

Honorable Mentions: DIG by A.S. King (young adult); THE SIZE OF THE TRUTH by Andrew Smith (middle grade), and BURNT OFFERINGS by Timothy Liu (poetry.) 

Three Stories I Loved This Year

  1. An entire town in Turkey learned sign language so they could communicate with one of their deaf neighbors. This is a story from 2014, but I only heard about it a few months ago, and I have to admit to being brought to tears by it. Imagine struggling every day to communicate with the people around you, to feel like an outsider in your own town, and then walking outside one day and being greeted in your own language by all of your neighbors, wherever you went. This is the kind of world I still believe is possible, so thank you to the people of Turkey for reminding us of the better path. 
  2. Millennials are constantly getting a bad rap. As one myself (just barely), and as someone who has taught Millennials for many years, I’ve always wondered about this. These young people are kinder, more generous, more thoughtful, and more inspired than I ever felt I was, or my friends were, at that age (though we were good people, too.) So, why the constant ribbing? Maybe older generations always do this, but a group of Millennials in Germany proved just how wonderful these young people can be when they surprised a homeless man with an impromptu musical performance. They borrowed his bucket, turning it into a drum, and collected money from passersby as they performed. Afterward? They gave all the money to that homeless man and went on their merry ways.
  3. Tinney Davidson, an 88-year-old woman living in British Columbia, Canada with her husband, was known to her neighbors as the woman who waved to the schoolchildren every morning for 12 years. Even after her husband passed away, she went to the window every morning to wave at the children and wish them a good day. When the neighborhood found out that she would be moving away and into an assisted living facility, hundreds of children from the local schools showed up to her house carrying flowers and signs that said things like, “We Love U Mrs. Davidson” and “Thanks 4 Being Awesome!” They gathered on her lawn and blew her one big collective kiss goodbye.  Who says small acts of kindness go unremembered? And who says children don’t appreciate kindness when they experience it? 

Thank you as always, for reading. I still cannot believe this little blog has nearly 11,000 subscribers, and I will forever feel grateful and humbled by your presence here. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Fabulous Festivus, Happy Kwanzaa, or, simply, peace, love, and good health to you as we end another year and prepare to begin a new one.

With love and kindness

To a God Unknown

“I am the rain.”

This is going to sound selfish, but the thing I love most about reading John Steinbeck, whether I’m reading him at his “best” or his “worst,” is that I always find reassurance that my love for Steinbeck, my relationship with him as a writer and a thinker, is a strong, good thing. It is something that must be.

To a God Unknown is one of Steinbeck’s more difficult novels and certainly not my favorite. And, while it’s not very long (about 180 standard pages), it took me quite a while to get through it and not, this time, because of work or other obligations that always distract and tire me. No, this one is just a little more challenging in what it asks of the reader, in the way that it challenges the reader to think and to feel. Imagine the raw, dental root nerve of Ernest Hemingway’s deepest emotion made explicit through the voice of, say, a late Mark Twain, at his most jaded. That juxtaposition of raw feeling with total world-weariness permeates every word on every page of this Steinbeck novel, in the way that his more popular works, like The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, suggest more subtly and with some courageous hope.

The story tells of Joseph Wayne, a young farmer raised a protestant Christian in New England, who has a strong desire to move west and be with the land, to claim land of his own even though he is due to inherit his dying father’s prosperous farm on the east coast. As events unfold, Joseph’s connection to the land, his yearning for it, becomes more central to the plot and to his life, until he has thrown off Christianity entirely and has adopted a more pagan belief system. Ultimately, Joseph’s success is no match for his devout Christian brother’s fears and prejudices; when his brother sabotages the idol that Joseph has instilled with their father’s memory and spirit, the family’s blessed and prosperous days come to an abrupt end. Ironically, Joseph’s story echoes the Christ story in many ways, including in the importance of the trinity and in sacrifice, but whether that ultimate sacrifice is for the land or the people is much less clear than the biblical version’s.

Steinbeck wrote that it took him five difficult years to develop this novel, and that it was perhaps the most challenging story he ever had to write. Considering the audience of the time, it is no stretch to imagine that he was deeply troubled by how a book like this, one that at the very least offers alternatives to Christianity and, perhaps, might suggest that other belief systems are better, would be received. Part of its genius, though, is in its tragic ending. Like the great epics of classical Greece, a reader might take the finale of To a God Unknown in a number of different ways. There are three that come to mind, for me, each of which suggests an entirely different way of believing and of being in the world.

While this tale might not be as deeply human or affecting as Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, or even The Pearl, it nevertheless does what Steinbeck’s works always seem to do: challenge the status quo. Encourage the reader to question what she knows. Desperately plea with us to be a little bit better than we were when we picked the book up and began to read it, better to ourselves, better to the land, and better to each other.

Notable Quotes

“It’s a long slow process for a human to die. We kill a cow, and it is dead as soon as the meat is eaten, but a man’s life dies as a commotion in a still pool dies, in little waves, spreading and growing back toward stillness.”

“The first grave. Now we’re getting someplace. Houses and children and graves, that’s home, Tom. Those are the things that hold a man down.”

“I do not know whether there are men born outside humanity, or whether some men are so human as to make others seem unreal. Perhaps a godling lives on earth now and then. Joseph has strength beyond vision of shattering, he has the calm of mountains, and his emotion is as wild and fierce and sharp as the lightning.”

“Everything seems to work with a recurring rhythm except life. There is only one birth and only one death. Nothing else is like that.”

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