Normal People

Dylan Landis tell us that she learns to write fiction by reading fiction. She holds up a well-used copy of Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, made thick by page-turning fingers. Dozens of multi-colored sticky notes protrude from the three edges. To a room packed with AWP 2011 conference attendees at a panel discussion on linked collections, Landis uses Erdrich’s book as a visual aid to display exactly what she means by reading.

In Normal People Don’t Live Like This, we follow the life of a  girl-turned-woman as she copes with death, high school, mean girls, sexuality, and a mother whose own passage is fraught with grave disturbances. The setting is New York City in the 1970s. Every character expresses bravery and vulnerability in the same narrative moment. Real-like people make real-life choices, then ponder the results, through  metaphor, humor, and well-chosen words.

The honesty in this book makes me gasp. Landis knows how much to put in and how much to leave to the reader’s inference. The writing provokes me to lunge towards my desk, and do better with my own.

Landis is a master of comparisons and word economy.

About olives: Plump and brown, they huddle on the plate like waterbugs. (Leah is enamored with biology.)

Angeline’s voice has exactly the same drape as her hair.

They would smell like a thrift shop on a rainy day.

Her voice is a handkerchief fluttering on a wing.

On kissing: He did this until Leah started to feel like sand in an hourglass.

A collection of stories linked by complex character development, this debut publication takes us back to our pasts through Leah and her cohorts as they ride out the pain of adolescence, a time when being smart and young isn’t enough. Light up a Winston (remember those?), hope for better times ahead, and become well-satisfied with the results.

To learn more about the author, find out how a portrait of Toni Morrison sends Dylan Landis back to her writing desk.

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March Reading: Many Strong and Beautiful Women, Part 1

March is Women’s History Month and I need to get crackin’ if I’m to finish the six books by women authors I’ve committed to read this month. At least it will be easier to find more time than last month, when school vacation and unrelenting snow made me want to curl up with my daughter, Luci, and watch movies, eat popcorn, and drink hot chocolate.

March is also March Reading Challenge sponsored by  Windham County Reads and it is a tradition in our household to stop, drop, and take up books for an hour and half each night, which is kind of funny because we all read for hours anyway. What makes it special is the little marshmallow Peeps–purple, pink, yellow, and sugary–that we use as a reward system for officially participating. I consider it good citizenship and I am willing to bribe.

This first week in March, I have read Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s collection of stories entitled, Ms. Hempel Chronicles. The stories are linked by the narrator, Beatrice Hempel, a young middle school teacher of English, who feels she really is “just another line of defense in the daily eight-hour effort to contain them.”

When I read reviews that say a book is pitch-perfect, I often wonder, well what exactly do they mean by that? But, if one said pitch perfect regarding this book, and I’m sure it has been said, one would be referring to the diction, the spot-on inner life meanderings of a school teacher as she contemplates such ideas as the benefits of a having to be put in a body cast over going to work in the morning as Bynum does in “Yurt,” which was selected in 2009 for Best American Short Stories. “…she looked longingly at a patch of ice on the pavement and realized that if she were to fall and fracture her leg in several places, the she wouldn’t have to go to school.”(133)

But, the book is not just about the pitfalls of teaching, in fact, though we are reminded often of it’s perils, we are equally shown the generosity and humor of Ms. Hempel’s classroom, the pluck she demonstrates on field trips, and the admiration she has for students and fellow students.  Herein describes Ms. Hempel’s obvious joy in the task of visiting Plimouth Plantation to teach a history lesson, or is she again, merely imagining a different life, any life beside that of a teacher.

The seventh graders darted about her, but they seemed, to her enchanted eye, nearly invisible: a school of minnows, and she, a great, stately carp.  All she saw were the marigolds drying, and the bread rising in the wooden trestles, and the colonists calling to each other from their chores…If only she, too, were a colonist. But, why not? She could learn to…sew a jerkin, render fat into soap, and muck out a barn.(114-115)

Reading Ms. Hempel Chrinicles shows, not the life of teaching, but the life of a teacher, and as such, we learn about the protagonist’s past and her dreams for a different kind of future, in which her imagination has not “begun to thicken and stink, like a scummy pond.”(102)

Perhaps my review is too slanted in the direction of Ms. Hempel’s need to get out why she still can, but that’s because I taught for 25 years, and know what’s it like to imagine oneself sitting in a lawn chair on green grass in white pajamas swallowing pills from a paper cup (my equivalent to a body cast).  But, really, Beatrice Hempel is so much more.

Anyone who has ever been a teacher, a student, or a parent will discover both the quirky hilarity and sad reality of the teaching life through the eyes of the intrepid Ms. Hempel.

Even if you never read fiction, or only read novels, dust off your proclivity and support all teacher’s everywhere by reading this book. Support Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, teacher, writer, and intrepid character herself.

And have a great deal of fun doing it!

Happy Reading!