Living · Reading · Teaching

Summer Reading During a Pandemic

So this has been a weird summer. And spring. You know; you’ve lived it too.

My campus went online after March 13, so we have been teaching, advising, and meeting from home for months. I have some thoughts. I have had some thoughts before now, but honestly I’ve had more feelings than thoughts. I couldn’t bring myself to write this summer, so I feel like I’ve got some catching up to do, but in keeping with what I’ve been telling my family, my students, my friends, and my colleagues, I’m going to be gentle with myself and just pick up the keyboard and start, not fret about what I didn’t do this summer.

I often post a blog or two about my summer reading, in part because it’s such a big deal for someone who teaches literature to be able to read something not for class, and in part because many of you wonderful folks who read this little blog are also big readers. This summer was something else. Here’s what went down:

  1. Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. I took a seminar on Dickens in grad school, and this was my favorite. I haven’t, however, revisited it in the twenty years since then. It’s still lovely, but I have to tell you, I started in March, and I’m not through it yet. I’ve been reading it in little bites—a chapter or three here and there, then nothing for two weeks. Somehow I haven’t been able to sustain the attention Dickens requires. From time to time I had twinges of guilt or shame at being less capable of reading a big novel, but this is just not the summer for (multiple) big novels. Whatever. Someday this fall Florence will get her happy ending, and that’s just fine.
  2. James Nestor’s Breath, a new non-fiction book about how we breathe and how we should breathe for better physical and mental health. I have gotten one massage  in the last six months, and when I did, my massage therapist recommended it. And now I recommend it. It’s readable, practical, and I found myself reading passages out loud to unsuspecting family members about how to calm anxiety and get better sleep. Timely, no?
  3. A Book that Takes its Time by Irene Smit and Astrid von der Hulst. This is basically a compilation of articles suitable for publication in the magazine FLOW, and I enjoyed all the pieces and their piecemeal nature. It’s easier to read two pages of something delightful than, for instance, 900 pages of Dickens.
  4. Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days. I recently started in a new leadership position with a wildly different job description, so I was looking for resources. Tragically, my first 90 days were all online, during summer, far away from the fine folks I’ll be attempting to lead, so all this one gave me was a vague sense that I was missing opportunities.
  5. Patricia McKissick’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. This is a lovely collection of African American fiction for kids, and it was one of the several ways I started thinking about race and history and doing better personally and nationally. I also bought Alice Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Walker is miraculous, but I haven’t read any Whitehead. I’m optimistic.
  6. Small Teaching: Online by Flower Darby and James Lang. Darby is adapting Lang’s Small Teaching, and I am frantically searching for ways to help my students stay connected to each other and the texts I teach. This has some good stuff, so I hope I finish it and put it to use in time. Cross your fingers for me; the countdown’s on.
  7. The first two novels in the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. These were the first choices of a friend who did what it takes to guarantee that I read a book—she bought me a copy and started a book club. We had good talks on Zoom about whether the murderbot is male or female and all the other things one talks about when one reads science fiction.
  8. Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, which I found via her TED Talk, and which gave me lots of little, happy boosts from reading it and consciously looking for sources of joy. For an incontrovertible happy-ass like myself (who’s been struggling of late), I now feel super-charged in the “Notice Cool Stuff and Enjoy It” category.
  9. Lisa Schneidau’s Botanical Folktales of Britain and Ireland. If you know me, this has my name written all over it. I’m reading one a night, and they’re perfect.
  10. Allan and Jessica Ahlberg’s The Goldilocks Variations. It’s a picture book. That one I finished.  But it’s also outstanding in every way, and I highly recommend it.

So what have we learned? I’m scattered, or eclectic, looking for comfort and inspiration, sometimes finding them, sometimes not finishing what I start or even starting at all. It’s been a wild summer, hasn’t it? What I’ve learned above all is to be gentle—with myself, with others, with the world. That’s all that’s working for me consistently.

I hope wherever you are, you’ve found some comfort, some solace, some insight and inspiration this summer, and if you’d like to talk about books—books I read, or you read, or books half-finished or waiting patiently on the end table, filled with potential, let me know.

Living · Reading · Teaching · Uncategorized

Ode on a Shortened Summer

The most glorious myth of academic life is the summer vacation. People who don’t teach sometimes assume the summers are one long, three-month margarita party. That’s never the case, of course, although some may start out that way.

Alas.
Instead, those who work at state universities, at least in my experience, spend a significant chunk of summer doing the research or creative work they don’t have time to do during the school year. Then there’s the planning of next year’s courses. This year that was dramatic and demanding, as my school converted from a quarter system to a semester system, so even people who have been teaching the same things for some time had to reconceive their syllabus, reading lists, and teaching strategies.
There’s also a very real need to rest one’s head and do something different for a bit, so you can come back strong. I try to reserve time to read things I will never have occasion to teach. I wrote a beautiful list and made a stack of books at the beginning of summer. In addition to three more novels in my lovely, pulpy, mystery series, I intended to read twelve books, mostly fiction, one a re-read of a book I haven’t read since college (Kamouraska by Anne Hebert).
This year’s haul from Solvang. The Book Loft always has the best new fairy tales.
Looking at my list now, I only read four, started four more, and don’t know exactly what happened with the others. I never even pulled the mysteries off the shelf. I did, however, read a tall stack of new fairy tales I bought on a trip with my daughter, write a handful of blogs and a pitch for a children’s novel, and now I am plowing through three non-fiction books I just HAD to read before school starts.
I guess what I’m realizing that what’s valuable about summer for me is the ability to plan and then pitch the plan entirely.
From September to June everything has to be very carefully orchestrated. I keep list after list and plan and organize, so that all goes well in my classes and professional life. Summer is a welcome rest for my brain not just because I’m not prepping, teaching, or grading, but because I can afford to go unscripted for a while. It’s very liberating.
This summer, because we are shifting from quarters that ended in June to semesters that start in August, our summer is about seven weeks instead of eleven. And scripted or not, it has been jam-packed. We’ll be ready, because we must be, but we might all be starting out a little tired, which we usually don’t, I think.
I resisted this conversion for a long time. I voted against it. I grumbled when our vote was ignored, and we were simply told to convert. But now, staring down the barrel of my first week, I’m not worried. I’m glad I’ll have sixteen weeks instead of ten to get to know my students better. I’m glad to have more time to go deeper in the texts I teach and to assign more writing and more revision. I’m part of an academic family, so I’ll be glad to have more holidays match up and have some more time off in the winter. Mostly, though, I’m just always glad to go back. That’s the real perk of this job—not the summer break, but the fall return.