Category Archives: Books

The cost of Free Lunch

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Monday, YALSA, the young adult librarian services arm of the American Library Association, awarded the 2020 nonfiction award to Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch a small book that left a huge impact on this reader. The memoir tells the story of Rex’s first semester of sixth grade in Texas. He’s just entered middle school, a milestone for which he was very excited. He’s a hardworking and bright student who loves to read and values the routine of school. In addition to his schoolwork, Rex shoulders a tremendous amount of responsibility at home caring for his 2 1/2 year old brother and preparing meals since his mother “doesn’t cook.”

 

And, he’s poor. Really, really poor.

 

Rex lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and their child, in a two bedroom apartment in which all of the furniture items can be counted on one hand. Rex sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag, storing his meager wardrobe of ill fitting, but clean, clothing in cardboard boxes left over from the family’s most recent move. They move a lot.

 

There is never enough food in their home, but the threat of physical, emotional and verbal abuse fills the otherwise empty rooms. Grocery and school supply shopping expeditions are balancing acts between getting what is needed and not angering a mother who rages against every perceived societal injustice with a loud and confrontational voice.

 

Reading Rex’s words on the page prompted memories and strong feelings for me. We were poor, too. While my mother never was abusive, she also was not particularly interested in the emotional needs of her own children or sensitive to the pressures of fitting in socially. I just don’t think she had the resources to explore either of those avenues.

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I shared Free Lunch, along with Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s National Book Award Finalist graphic novel memoir, last week with my 7th grade students. The theme of the presentation, and the books I pulled, was families. I talked a little about the infinite number of household compositions that can be encompassed by the word Family. I told the kids about the embarrassment Ogle felt about his home situation and poverty and explained that I knew what he was talking about because of my own experiences growing up in a single parent household, being dependent upon welfare, and receiving free lunch.

 

When I was a kid, there were times when we had to devise ways to heat up food (pre-microwaves) when there was no gas for the stove. Hot water wasn’t always available and sometimes in the winter there was no water whatsoever because we had neglected to leave the water dripping on cold nights and the pipes had frozen. Most of the time, in home laundry was a luxury we didn’t have and I have memories of clothing drying near the wood burning stove upon which we were dependent for heat. 


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Hours of my childhood were spent in the overheated offices of the county social services building waiting as my mother reapplied for assistance. I learned at an early age that toilet paper, soap and aspirin were all considered nonessential and thus not able to be purchased with food stamps. And the embarrassment of free lunch? I’m very familiar with the shame of having to publicly admit that my family did not have the means to provide me with a midday meal.

 

My lesson finished with a “blind” book selection activity in which I asked students to close their eyes, reach into a bin filled with assorted books and withdraw one. As they lined up to perform the task, I explained that none of us get to pick the family that we’re born into and I requested that they sit down for 5-7 minutes with their randomly selected book and just read. Following their quiet reading, they had the option to borrow the book or opt for an alternative title. The choice, just like what might come next in their own lives, was theirs to make.

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Thoughts I’ve been thinking

  • It sucks that my knee is injured and I can’t fully do the active things I enjoy doing. I see a surgeon in early February and my only question will be: In your experience, what is the most successful plan of treatment for women in my age and activity range who are most interested in being able to resume normal activities (even at a modestly modified level) in the speediest fashion?  That’s my bottom line. I want to run.
  • There were two articles which really spoke to, and for, me recently.  There are things in life which will forever cause me to shake my head, sometimes in a nod and other times in “no.” Both of these NYT pieces made me forget to breathe. I can only link to one because they other one, “I Quit a Seven-Year Affair,” has been removed from the Times’ site.* I’m not sure how I feel about that move, but the piece did remind me of Mrs. Maisel’s choice to share as much about Shy Baldwin as she did in her performance at the Apollo. I knew there would be repercussions.
  • For god’s sake can we leave Megan and Harry alone? They’re entitled to their one precious life, too and Harry’s already seen how an uncivilized society can kill a woman he loves. Who cares how they choose to live?

  • Speaking of caring, there’s so little of that in the world right now. This recent picture of an absolutely beaming Megan Markle walking with her baby and dogs, collected some heated comments about Megan’s son not being safely fastened in his front carrier. Everyone had something critical or nasty or judgmental to say and no one simply offered to help her accomplish the task. We’re moms. We need to be nicer to each other.
  • At a just-turned-green light, I hesitated prior to shifting into first gear and the man in the big truck behind honked his horn and then pulled into the left lane to pass me, giving me the finger as he jerked his vehicle in front of me. I shrugged. Whatever. As we approached Fuller Road, I moved into the right hand turn lane and, again, he aggressively yanked his truck partially in my path. I’d be afraid to witness his response to something beyond a too slow start at a green light.
  • This morning, J, shared a story about some kids pulling a Ding-Dong Ditch which resulted in the deaths of three teenagers. The home owner whose bell was rung, felt the need to pursue these kids at high rates of speed prior to ramming his vehicle into theirs and forcing them off the road and causing them to crash. What is the matter with people? Why are folks overly reactive to minor transgressions, yet numb to the way our government is broken? Is it an assertion of control in a world which feels increasingly unspun. Or maybe it’s actually overspun. 
  • In the last week I was recognized by a reader I had never met (Hi P!) in a really complimentary way and told at an event a few nights later that I looked like Emma Stone.  That’s a good week right there.
  • I read a book this week and can’t stop thinking about, Free Lunch by Rex Ogle. I’m working on a full post.
  • I can’t imagine a better Friday night than a winter one spent at Cafe Capriccio eating eggplant, drinking red wine and hearing a set of quality live jazz.
  • Happy Chinese New Year.  It’s the Year of the Rat, but, honestly, isn’t that what we’ve been living with for the last three years?
Let’s all make the best of it, shall we?
*maybe you can find it in print somewhere?

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Weepy in the light of the full moon

Generally, I’m not much of a cryer. I’m not boasting when I say that. Trust me when I say there are moments when I wish for little more than a sob session to release the emotions that at times well up inside me and practically beg to get out. Honestly, tears would be welcome.

But, like I said, I’m not much of a cryer.
Last week, though, my eyes filled with tears repeatedly. What can I say? Children and full moons apparently are my weakness.
It started with a book. Author Nikki Grimes’ recent memoir, Ordinary Hazards, relates the story of her childhood. Grimes, the second daughter born to a mentally ill, alcoholic mother and a musician father with a gambling habit, survived a childhood that was rife with abuse, neglect and instability.
What saved Grimes and propelled her forward were words and their power to provide comfort, hope and confirmation of her own value. The intuitive and undeniable impulse she had to write, saved her.
This quote really resonated with me –
She’d prepare a hearty soup for them from scratch or bake a batch of cookies to lift their spirits. For such kindnesses, that mother was beloved by untold unfamiliar people beyond our door. On them, she lavished the attention I had once been hungry for. Oddly, her redirected affections made a certain sense to me. Apparently, my sister and I had made the colossal mistake of not being strangers.
My childhood was nothing like the one of neglect and emotional abuse experienced by Nikki Grimes and her sister, but I’ve known students who have suffered a similar existence…girls who have been sexually abused in the same beds in which they had once been tucked into and boys who have been told by their grandparents that they are no longer welcome to live in the only family home they’ve known.
I work in a middle school. My students are children. While mere words may not save children who are living in dire situations, I believe my most important job as a librarian is to provide kids with books that can do just that, save them, by letting them know that they’re not alone, they’re valued and life can get better.
The fullest moon in the sky has more of a chance of holding all of the sadness I feel, than my eyes have of containing my tears.

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Lock her up – four books about young women who have lost their freedom

I’ve been known to seek out books and movies set in locales which I have plans to visit, but beyond that I don’t often read thematically. That probably makes it all the more remarkable that the four most recent books I’ve read all deal with young women contending with the loss of liberty. Three of the titles were from the historical fiction genre while the third, disturbingly, is currently classified as science fiction. After reading it,though, I’m inclined to believe that that title will eventually be reshelved in realistic fiction. Not a good thing.

What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper is a powerful book set in Europe during WWII. The novel opens with the main character, Gerta, being liberated from Bergen-Belsen by British soldiers at the end of the war. I’ve read many Holocaust stories over the years, yet there’s always something new for me to consider and in this novel it was what happened to the survivors once they were nursed back to health and could leave the camp or medical facility? What must that have been like for a teenager who has essentially been orphaned? Another scene in the opening chapter depicting soldiers forcing residents from the nearby community to tour the concentration camp and witness the atrocities which they allowed to occur by their apathy, is another aspect of this tragic time in history that I had never thought of before. What knowledge did citizens have of the victimization of Jews, gays, gypsies and the disabled? How were they able to avert their eyes from what was occurring? This book answers some questions while posing others.

Set in the same era, White Rose by Kip Wilson tells the story of a resistance group which made the ultimate sacrifice during a war that fractured families and devastated Europe. The novel, told in verse, provided insight into the conflict of Germans during WWII and the actions taken by young citizens in an attempt to thwart the Nazis. The selfless bravery of Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose organization, provides inspiration during a time when our own country is teetering on the edge of nationalism and xenophobia. A quote that stopped me dead:

People who
​refuse
to open their eyes
are more than ambivalent –
they are guilty.

Monica Hesse’s The War Outside brings the conflict to our own American shores in the form of the internment of Japanese-Americans and German-Americans during WWII. This historical novel describes what life was like for American citizens who were considered threats to national security despite having lived in America for generations. As the daughter of a German immigrant, I can attest to biases that I personally experienced 25 years after the war – being told to not speak German in public as a child, for instance. The camp, an actual place in Texas known as Crystal City, was depicted as a “family camp” with amenities such as a pool and community garden designed to distract residents from the reality that they were not considered equal citizens in the eyes of our government. I am certain that my family, had they been present during this dark time, would have been subjected to similar treatment.

Now, the Sci-Fi book I mentioned? Internment by Samira Ahmed is a bone chilling read because it seems all too possible in our current political climate. This was the one that made me the most uncomfortable because it relates the story of a Muslim American family who, after responding to a query regarding religion and ethnicity on the national census, find their civil rights being systematically eliminated by the government. No longer able to study, work or live in their communities, Muslim families are shipped to camps where they are separated by ethnicity and suffer limits upon their access to information, technology and loved ones who do not share their same cultural heritage. It is all the more horrifying because it is completely possible under the Trump regime. And – at a time when the federal government is attempting to insert citizenship questions into the upcoming national census that’s not an exaggeration.

What have you been reading? Do you have recommendations to share?

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Making connections

This image makes me happy #picasso

Until recently, I didn’t realize that one of the things that makes me happiest, is making connections. I like when things come together and add up. It feels good. Prior to having this epiphany, I hadn’t really considered the thread of connections I’ve experienced over the years. Below are a couple of recent ones which came to mind and probably helped to inspire this new self awareness I’m feeling..

Last weekend, a friend in Rome posted on the FB seeking someone visiting Rome at that moment and traveling back to the states shortly thereafter. Within 40 seconds I remembered that I had not one, but two friends currently in that exact situation! After a little social media stalking, I observed that one of my friends had departed Rome earlier in the day, but the other friend was fairly nearby and able to help with the international errand being requested. In return, Rome Friend scored seats at my favorite Trattoria for Foodie Friend doing a Favor. How amazing is that?

In a cool and delicious cafe in Northville, Sacandaga Kitchenette, Runner Friend and I talked with a neighboring couple who were lovely. Childhood sweethearts, they looked amazing and were so interesting to speak with about the race, the village we were in, their home Gloversville and, of course, Richard Russo. The wife said she had met him at an event celebrating his generous support of Gloversville’s public library. I confessed my crush. She asked if I had heard of the other author who hailed from that small and somewhat struggling city? Her mother’s cousin, Joseph Persico?

The name was so familiar, and I had a memory of working a party for Dale Miller and Stone Ends and catering an event in someone’s home. I immediately knew Persico was a nonfiction writer, but couldn’t come up with a title of one of his works without the help of Google. The Colin Powell biography rang a bell. I looked at the date it was published, 1995. Yep, that’s exactly when I worked for Dale. I had worked the book publication party at Joe Persico’s House almost 25 years ago. How funny is that?

How much of a connector are you?

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Finding your voice to Speak and Shout

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, originally published in 1999, is one of those books that has stayed with me since I first read it many years ago. This YA novel relates the story of a high school freshman, Melinda, who is ostracized by her peers because she calls the police while at a party during the summer after eighth grade. What no one other than Melinda knows is that she called for help because she had been sexually attacked by an upperclassman. She told no one. She did not speak.

Recently, I read the graphic novel edition of the title and was completely taken in by the story again. Updated to include social media, cell phones and other contemporary details, the story translated beautifully to the visual medium of a graphic novel. Our copy has already disappeared from the collection, a sure sign to librarians of a book being a winner. We have two more copies on order.

The latest title written by Anderson is Shout, an autobiography written in verse and, again, it is exceptional. Subtitled “The true story of a survivor who refused to be silenced,” this book tells the story, at last, directly from the author’s perspective without the protection a fictional character can provide. It is raw and harrowing and at times deeply sad, but there is a thread of defiance that is awe inspiring. The story manages to span a time period from World War II to #metoo and has left a mark upon me that I suspect will remain forever.

Below are a few of the lines that stole my breath.

 

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I Am Still Alive

The title of the post refers to a really great book I just read, not the fact that I spent a quick and indulgent weekend in Miami, by the way. Kate Alice Marshall’s book, I Am Still Alive, published in 2018, was the perfect vacation read – exciting, well written and an absolute page turner. Let me tell you about it!

 

The story is told in alternating chronology – Before and After. Jess, the protagonist, has survived a devastating car crash which killed her mother and left her scarred with lasting injuries. Her father, who left the family when Jess was a small child, lives in a remote area of Canada and Jess is sent to live with him, an option better than the foster care setting in which she had previously been residing. Or was it?

 

After an unexpected second flight on a much smaller plane, Jess finds herself in a small cabin living with her father and his intimidating half wild dog in the woods, completely away from civilization. She and her father are essentially strangers to one another and Jess recognizes she can’t possibly live in the woods forever. She and her father negotiate that she will remain with him for a single year, a length of time Jess is able to imagine surviving with her dad. Until her Dad is dead and Jess is left alone.

 

What happens next is a tale of survival, learned independence, revenge and ultimately, realizing that we are capable of things we may have never before imagined. Curl up on the couch and settle in to read this one. I’ll be scrolling through photos from my warm MLK getaway.

 

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