Coda: Getting Tenure

The tenure track was a very long track, like the extended-play dance remix of a very long song, and now the time has come to sounds its final notes.  In talking about tenure I join a chorus; in addition to the Chronicle forums about Balancing Work and Life and The Tenure Track, lately some people are talking back about the tenure process on the internet.  The first I saw of it was "The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc," which asserts that you can work  for about 50 hours a week and still have a family life, if you organize everything and keep to a schedule.

Organizing everything is basically what I did to get tenure, but I did it my own way and with a lot of reflection up front, in the middle, and in this present coda.  What I've learned more than anything else is that, depending on your productivity style, academic field, and goals, there are so many great ways to do this work.  There are myriad smart, creative, and effective ways to get tenure.

After tenure, the work is yours in a new way; no one can judge you, and you are free to (and charged with) pursuing productive work that brings you the most meaningful kind of joy.  That in itself is another high bar!  One senior academic I spoke with this summer mentioned the "post-tenure therapy year," wherein goal-driven academics come to terms with losing the structure that seemingly tormented them but actually supported them.  Due to a spate of life lessons and crises that emerged during my tenure years, I doubt I'll need the extra therapy on this end. :)  But some of you might, and I would celebrate that form of recuperation from what is, hands down, one of the most stressful periods of time one can choose to have in a professional life.

So this coda is about my own particular, humble, and successful path to tenure.  As of 8/16, my job title says associate professor!  I'd love nothing better than to celebrate that by sharing my own strategies here as a record of my approaches.  I also hope this post will serve as an open letter to my treasured colleagues who are still on the track.

First, I paused to figure out how I would approach this tenure-track thing.
I decided that I would use metaphors to motivate myself.  I thought of each annual review, and especially the third-year-review, as a distinct level of a videogame; I scored points by hitting publication targets, receiving successful feedback, and planning my strategy for the next level based on what I learned from the last one.  I thought of conferences as exotic flea markets where I was shopping for inspiring ideas and adding my own wares to the jumble.  I though of myself as a "Tenure Athlete," so I slept, ate, and exercised regularly so that I'd have the energy to keep playing the tenure (video) game.  Basically, I found images that my right brain could enjoy so that my left brain could take the linguistic lead on writing, presenting, and publishing.

I also looked around the department.  I had just come from being a children's librarian, which is a completely different sort of workplace dynamic, so I watched the dynamics between people.  I learned a lot from the ways colleagues spoke to each other, through agreements and disagreements.  Some people opt to stay silent the first year and just listen; that didn't feel natural to me, so I looked for opportunities to contribute to our conversations and spoke my mind.  Regularly.  I feel confident that this was the right strategy for me, because it allowed my senior colleagues to see that I was willing to take risks.  Different contexts and different people would require other approaches, of course.

I had one person snap at me in a meeting; as gracefully as I could, I left the meeting.  I also awkwardly left a meeting that was clearly going to become a morass of work with/for a disorganized senior colleague.  Another person did stop speaking to me for a bit, and I forged ahead and tried not to take it personally, staying cordial enough that it eventually dissipated. Basically, I navigated conflicts as well as I could while I made a deliberate effort to understand what "good work" looked like in academia, thinking and planning about how to reach my goals, do "good work," and stay motivated by my own values.

Then, I made a list of places I'd like to be published. 
Right away, I had to decide between parsing my dissertation into articles or working on a book.  I was also aware that, having been hired on the inside, I had two extra challenges: 1) I couldn't be too closely aligned with the work of the senior colleagues in my area lest it appear I was incapable of generating my own ideas, and 2) I had to get new work out there quickly, lest it appear that I was incapable of more ideas than just my dissertation.  I wanted to demonstrate quickly that they had made the right choice by hiring me before I finished my exams, my proposal, and my dissertation.

So I chose produce articles, and my target journals list was:

  • Library Trends (a top journal in the field; as of next year, I'll have been in twice)
  • Children & Libraries (the core practitioner journal in my part of the field--also in twice)
  • Library Quarterly (the top journal, and one paper here won a bi-annual award)
  • Libraries and the Cultural Record (now Information & Culture:  a journal of history)
  • Book chapters (wrote and published three, two through conferences at The Center for the History of Print & Digital Culture, one for a British history of readers 3-volume set)
  • One children's literature journal (though I received a "revise and resubmit," I didn't make this target, and it was okay anyhow.  I don't know yet whether I'll finish this or move on to new ideas.)

After a conference, the Book History editor approached me, and so I hit a target that was well above the level I had expected to attain, because that's a top journal in the closely related field of book history.  I was truly thrilled, and, between that paper being a popular download and the award-winning paper for Library Quarterly, I felt reasonably good going into last few levels of the tenure process.

Still planning, I read some great books about academia.
This was truly unfamiliar territory for me, so I learned a tremendous amount from books like these:

I also consulted a more general productivity resource (written by a fellow New College alum).

I found within it a structure for thinking about what I wanted to accomplish and why I wanted to do it.  I still refer back to this model when I'm thinking about work goals, life goals, and satisfying living.

Here's a sample from an older one of many of my six-level charts over the past six years.  Notice that in addition to Research, Teaching, and Service, I had a category for Health.  I typically propped this notebook with the chart up on my desk for awhile after I'd made a new one, to keep my big goals and concrete steps fresh in my mind.

I also charted out the years with publication targets.
By thinking and writing, I was clarifying what I wanted to do.  However, like all academic writers, I faced the significant challenge of having no externally imposed deadlines.  None.  More than 90% of the time, you have to muster up the gumption to submit a paper simply because you must.  Because of this, often, the main reason "why" I was doing this stuff was:  to get tenure.  We'd all like to be loftier and more driven by a holistic, organic, stars-aligned view of the worth of our work, but I found that I had to get real and humble and, most of all, get to work.

To motivate my own deadline setting, I made multiple year-by-year charts of the whole six-year shebang.  Here are two of my early ones, though I re-drew them frequently when new publications came along.  I added "submission," "acceptance," and "publication" ticks on the timeline.  The "reality check" one is from very early on, when I was being extremely hard on myself about not having done "enough."

I also had a big paper calendar on the wall, charting out all of my conferences and publication targets.  It took discipline to turn papers around for submission right after conferences, but it was worth it, and all of these visual reminders were about keeping me on a clear path toward the tenure goal.

I made a list of senior professors in my general area at peer institutions.
These are the people who would be eligible to anonymously evaluate my tenure case, and this list initially gave me tremendous anxiety.  I tried to get used to looking at the spreadsheet occasionally to desensitize myself to the fear of anonymous review.  It's not a huge field, so I knew that these were the likely people, and I knew also that I'd need their names at some point when my dean asked me for a few names as input to their evaluation process.

I did try to learn about their work, met several of them, and even became friends with a few.  However, I did not go out of my way to extensively schmooze or network except in one case where it was clear to me that this person really respected go-getter schmoozers, so I did my best.  Mostly, though, I tried to make sincere connections over shared research interests, shared my articles with folks I thought might enjoy them (I didn't want to be too self-deprecating either), and I learned a ton by reading books and articles published by these scholars.

I painted my home office a bright green-gold.
I'm well aware that the terminally serious among you will find this silly.  You can see something of the color in the above photos.  For me, this is seriously not silly.  The color reminds me of spring even in the winter, and it's a visual metaphor for the new ideas that are growing whenever I am writing.  Medieval alchemists associated green-gold with their dreams of transformation.  I had a very rough personal patch involving health and other crises with home, family, and friend at about year three.  A new office color was just the ticket for revitalizing my interest in writing.  Basically, do whatever works to motivate yourself.  For me, the aesthetics of my work space are key.                                        

With reservations, I caved and did my part to perform the "I'm-so-busy" culture.
Of course, I was actually very busy, and falling back on saying "I'm so busy" tended to keep others off my case.  Because nobody but me valued my research and writing time.  Sure, everybody wanted to see the PRODUCT, but nobody validated the time-consuming nature of the PROCESS.

I know this "I'm so busy" culture is an artifact of academia because I used to be a children's librarian, book reviewer, and adjunct instructor all at the same time.  It was great fun, but I was incredibly busy, and yet we never acted especially busy at work.  In academia, the culture is to say "I'm busy."  I did have one negative reaction to this "I'm busy" strategy from a non-phd colleague, so I moderated it in their presence, but I also kept in mind that this colleague was out of sync with my goals on the tenure track.  

Am I always busy?  I always have a lot of goals, but I accomplish them by carving out quiet research, thinking, reflection, and writing time for myself.  Having been a nonstop-busy children's librarian, I STILL feel slightly guilty about this time.  But it's my job to think and write as well as teach, and teaching alone could easily take up all the available waking hours.  So I used "I'm so busy" because it worked.  I hope to someday join the next generation of more radically honest academics who quit using "I'm so busy" and instead say No.  Peacefully.

I did listen to my dean.
I had a dean who understood my work very well, saw my potential, and encouraged me along the way.  If you don't have that--and most people do not--then you have to find colleagues who believe in you, some senior and some junior, and decisively not listen to the people who will make you crazy by projecting their own insecurities and tearing you down.  I still had the significant challenge of this dean departing midway through my fifth year, and there were numerous little dramas (including routine belittling of my time spent writing from a senior colleague and a proposal/offer that I do an administrative job, which was then rescinded), but, ultimately, I focused on doing my work in hopes that the work would count more than any particular relationships--and it did.

I didn't listen to people who were throwing negative feedback my way as a kind of last-minute can-you-take-it hazing.
I'm so sad that this happens, but it does, and it's best to be prepared.  The last two years, when you are preparing or up for tenure, someone will try to throw you a clever curveball in your office, in the hall, or in your pre-tenure evaluation meeting.  As you prepare your papers, think back to when you prepared your job talk.  Be ready to speak positively about your own work at all times (while being humble and gracious enough not to talk about it constantly).  Dig deep for compassion toward those senior colleagues who know no other way because they were hazed themselves.  And end the conversation quickly.

There's more to say about this six-year process, but I have other writing I want to do!  If you've been in academia at all, you know that the theoretical talking of the talk does not always mesh with the day-to-day human walking of the walk.  I've witnessed this impacting my friends and colleagues, and I've witnessed thoughtful colleagues who pour their lives into academic work demonstrate their ignorance and lack of examination of sexism and the systematic biases of racism in our society today.  I've even done some dumb stuff myself, missing intersections of race and class or race and religion.  This writer brings an encouraging and determined eye to being a person-of-color on the tenure track:  The 7-Year Experiment.  

Planning, setting targets, reading books, meeting goals... it probably takes someone terminally geeky like myself to see so much beauty in timelines and spreadsheets.  Nonetheless, these have been my key strategies, and I'm delighted and relieved to be on the other side of the tenure-track video game.  Every level played.  Colleagues liked my flea-market wares.  Now I get to recuperate a bit while I go back and replay the levels that were especially fun and choose a new "game"--writing a book--to challenge myself further.

children's & ya literature revisited anew

When I first started my master's program, I was so thrilled that there were any critical studies of children's literature at all that I could hardly stand it.  Now I've been in the field, more or less, since 1997, and there's been huge growth in the scholarship of children's literature, some of it wonderfully inventive, some of it peculiarly intriguing, and of course some not so hot.  It's a delight to be working with a grad student who is contributing some very hot new stuff to the field.

And as for me and my reading, well, it seemed appropriate this last few weeks of summer to get back to basics and read a handful of good books for kids and teens.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
YA fantasy fans have yet another tough assassin heroine to admire and envy, and this time she has a genuine ball-gown-fancying girly streak.  Though it takes her awhile to get back into fighting or gown form after a year in the death camp of Endovier.  Background info is filled in with add-on paragraphs and the one character-of-color is, predictably, wise and aloof.  While the action is great, the relationships aren't always well-developed; for instance, the attraction between Celaena and the crown prince is more believable than the attraction to the captain of the guard.  Still, it's a fine romp of a YA fantasy.  It's satisfying indeed to see that Celaena can give all of the other competitors for king's champion a real run for their money, even if they are demons from another dimension.

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos
It's a sad and sometimes scary scene at James Whitman's house.  He reads the poet Whitman and yawps his way through a life where his sister Jorie has been kicked out of the house and he refers to his own father at "The Brute."  James' narration starts out as slightly unreliable, especially when his internal cast of characters includes a psychologist named Dr. Bird, but he actually becomes more reliable over time.  And both of his parents are revealed to be brutes, but James begins to make a plan to move forward with his life anyhow.

Powerless by Matthew Cody
What if you moved to a town where all the kids had superpowers--except you?  Daniel Corrigan is the only kid without superpowers, having just moved to town to take care of his grandma, and it bites.  Of course, all the kids lose their powers and their memories of their powers at the age of 13, so he'll be normal pretty soon.  But there's a a bigger mystery to be solved here, because it turns out that one adult knows the children's secrets, including the reason why their powers disappear at 13.  In the end, not having superpowers may make Daniel the most powerful ally of all, at least when it comes to helping his super friends.  Classic good-vs-evil comic book fans would enjoy this middle-grade novel.

In other news--and I'll make another post if this turns out to be the case--I may be cooking up a writing project that will lead me to start another blog.  If I do that, then I'll probably shift my attention to that blog and keep track of my reading on Goodreads and elsewhere, because I'm not a big fan of multitasking.  More to come...

summer nights

From sweltering to blissfully cool... this is the norther midwestern summer.  Humidity is low, sunshine is bright, everything is leafy and alive.  What better time to read on a screened porch?

I've just finished The Great Gatsby after seeing the recent movie adaptation in St. Louis with my friend Ellen from 7th grade.  Who is also an English professor.  The movie was close enough to the book that it's a bit like re-reading with the images already in my head.  What I notice from the language alone is how very shallow the connection between Daisy and Gatsby really seems to be.  As a teenager, I infused her coyness with my imagination of depth, but if you read the words on the page they are surprisingly flat.  It's obvious from the first moment that Daisy comes to the cottage that she's used to (and thrilled by) people falling in love with her, a chaotic penchant if there ever was one.  Ultimately, it strikes me that the phrase "first world problems" perfectly describes Tom and Daisy.  And I can see why teachers thought high schoolers would get this ("I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.")  Except that no high schooler can imagine what it will mean to be thirty...

Also just finished: watching the first season of Orange is the New Black on Netflix, based on a prison memoir by a woman who was briefly involved with a drug cartel via her girlfriend.  I heard about this story first on the Moth ( and I've placed a hold on the memoir of the same title that it's based on.

Speaking of memoirs, I read two on either side of my trip to Seattle:

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? both by Jeannette Winterson.  The first one she wrote when she was only 26, and the post-traumatic distraction of her writing comes across as poetry.  She was adopted into a family with a domineering mother whose Evangelical beliefs were unusual in England at the mid-century time period.  Even the other Evangelical folks saw her mother as crazy, and she was.  Things went from bad to worse when Jeannette grows up to be a lesbian, and various church exorcisms and abuses are followed by her permanently leaving home.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? offers a later-in-life look back, filling in some of the gaps about her father and also about her own approach to claiming her life, albeit with some real damage in her ability to sustain lasting intimacy.  At the same time, her mature reflections on life lived and damage survived are poetic in their own right, with a depth of clarity and presence that her earlier memoir lacked.  There are too many wise quotes from this book to capture them all here, but I know I'll revisit them on my kindle copy.  The title itself is a quote from her mother.

Finally, a dear family friend had a stroke recently, just a month after we were all working together to clear out Elizabeth's grandmother's home in Urbana. He looks poised to recover, thankfully, but in the meantime I've been enjoying the memoir/brain anatomy book...

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, which starts out with an overview of brain anatomy before interspersing brain hemmorage pictures with Taylor's own story of left-hemisphere stroke survival.  The brain works in odd ways, obviously, and who can say if her recall of the stroke event is influenced by her neuroanatomy training, by adrenaline, or by some other factor.  In any case, it's a startling clear picture of what happens when someone has a stroke.   Most fascinating, and this is what gained her TED talk status, Taylor describes the sense of sacred oneness with everything that was generated by her right brain once her left brain was disabled.  The chapter "Finding Your Deep Inner Peace" presents concepts familiar to anyone who is familiar with Buddhist ideas, but frames it within left/right hemisphere understandings that connect to Western science.  It's a fascinating dance that she does between these ways of understanding.  As Taylor says:"Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think." (p. 19)

She also writes about her choices in life now, to ignore some of the old anxiety-producing loops that her left brain would take her through and focus on that right-brain sense of being and connection. "Since the stroke, I steer my life almost entirely by paying attention to how people, places, and things feel to me energetically.  In order to hear the intuitive wisdom of my right mind, however, I must consciously slow my left mind down so I am not simply carried along on the current of my chatty story-teller.  [...]  I simply listen to my body and implicitly trust my instincts." (p. 168)

keep calm and carry on reading

The Urbana Free Library controversy rages on.  Without decisive action on the part of the board, I predict that the conflicts will escalate until we're back in national media in a much bigger way.  I think this has potential to become the poster-child case for discrediting a particular outside consultant's methods as well as for what it looks like when leaders attempt to quietly implement visions not supported by their community.  And refuse to compromise.

Meanwhile, I'm returning some books, including Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night.    Initially, I was captivated by the poetry of this book, and excited to see a chapter on "Library as Space" (p. 65-104).  But the content of that chapter ends with Carnegie, and he'd make a better starting point than ending point.  It's a soothing read, but not one I'll be finishing all the way through.  Also returning City Reading:  Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York, which goes into depth about the emergence of signage and the ubiquitous written word in public spaces.

Slowly reading my way through Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke, and I just started a fantasy novel, Throne of Glass, that is gripping so far.  I'm midway through What is the What by David Eggers, though it's a bit traumatizing, and just started Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson, which I started but then stopped to go back and read...

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterson--beautifully written poetic memoir-novel about growing up adopted into a fringe Pentecostal group in England.

And other summer reading so far:

Happens Every Day and the follow-up memoir A Year and Six Seconds by Isabel Gillies, about her move from NYC to Ohio for her husband's professor job and then her loss when he is cheating on her and divorces her.  The second one is about her return to NYC and year-long recovery.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post--a novel about Cameron losing her parents, gaining a born-again aunt, and then being sent to a Christian camp to "cure" her of lesbianism.  This was the first growing-up-hyper-Christian novel, that led me to Jeannette Winterson, below.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou--great memoir about her mother's abandonment and support, steadiness, wildness, and inspiring non-conformity and power.

What is the What by David Eggers--haven't finished, tough to read memoir/novel about a man's survival as a boy in worn-torn Sudan and his subsequent trauma in the U.S.

Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton--a blog-turned-book with more god-talk than I prefer, mostly about the emotional sides of raising three kids.  Parenting:  a hard job.

Are You My Mother? by Allison Bechdel (author of the Dykes to Watch Out For series)--follows Fun House, but this time about her mother.  Although this is really a psychological-theory-applied book, as Bechdel reaches broadly to try to connect Freud, Virginia Woolfe, Donald Winnicott, that Drama of the Gifted Child book, and much more to understand her own personal life and path.  In pictures.  I forgot to say this was a graphic novel...

best summer reading quote so far

The best-quote-so-far prize goes to Moonbird:  A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B965, by Phillip Hoose.  This is a children's/YA nonfiction book about an incredible migratory species and one amazing little bird, and the quote comes from p. 25.

"This bird has to be among the toughest four ounces of life in the world."

Inspiring.  And it's well-written science for kids.  The book won several awards last year, so it has seen greater accolades, but I'm delighted to share this little gem of a quote.  And it's worth reading!

Open Letter re: Weeding Issues

To Whom It May Concern:

This recent nonfiction collection weeding situation has damaged public trust, and the only remedy for that is greater transparency in government.  I believe that we, as citizens of Urbana, should be advocating for televised meetings of the Urbana Free Library Board of Trustees. Other city meetings are televised via Urbana Public Television (UPTV,  City council, board of education, park district board of commisionners, and many other local governmental meetings are regularly televised (, to name a few examples.

Apologies are a start; concrete measures to enhance accountability would be a prudent next step to begin to rebuild public trust. Joining the other local governmental groups that televise their meetings on UPTV would be a good-faith effort to address, rather than avoid, public criticisms. I advocate televising the meetings of the The Urbana Free Library Board of Trustees to encourage greater public oversight and more deliberation and care in library communications with and actions on behalf of the public that it serves.

Kate McDowell
Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science
Former Board member, children’s librarian, circulation clerk, and shelver at The Urbana Free Library

For more context, see:

and the pursuit of happiness

I knew Maira Kalman's work from her having illustrated the classic writing handbook Elements of Style by Strunk and E.B. White of Charlotte's Web fame.  Her book And the Pursuit of Happiness is a graphic tribute to America, from coast to coast, from the halls of the federal government, through the lives and complexities of historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and neighborhoods in New York including a Brooklyn sewage plant that looks like a sculpture.  Her strategy of zooming in on the smallest details amidst big stories makes the book feel both epic and, somehow, very intimate.

Across from an image of the original patent on the safety pin (1849) is my favorite quote of the book:

"Everything is invented.  Language.  Childhood. Careers.  Relationships.  Religion.  Philosophy.  The future.  They are not there for the plucking.  They don't exist in some natural state.  They must be invented by people and that, of course, is a great thing." (p. 242)

Thank you Eti for the gift of this book!  It was the best read of April, and it carried me straight through to May in small, deliciously lovely bites.

Also-reads of this past few weeks of post-tenure-vacation:

  • Three Times Lucky by Turnage (middle grade mystery, a bit twee at moments, but suspenseful enough to be readable)
  • Best Shot in the West by McKissack/DuBurke (graphic novel history of Nat Love, African American cowboy)
  • Liar & Spy by Stead (outstanding middle-grades tale of the slow developing of an apartment-building friendship between a new kid who has just moved in and a mysterious kid with a spy club)

Public libraries and information history

Public libraries are a cornerstone of my professional and academic passions.  The kinds of questions I've asked have always been:  how did this come to be?  Not in myself, but in the world... how did libraries, particularly public libraries, come to be the the places they are?

I answered some of these questions for myself in my dissertation and subsequent publications for Library Quarterly, Book History, Libraries and the Cultural Record (a journal that has changed names so many times it makes your head spin... it's now Information & Culture), and in a handful of book chapters.

But there's always more to learn, and I recently came across a great syllabus by my colleague Greg Downey at UW Madison who teaches in Journalism as well as LIS

Here's a sampling of the readings from the week on Public Library Purposes:

  • F. B. Perkins, “How to make town libraries successful,” in United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, Public libraries in the United States of America: Their history, condition and management, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: US GPO, 1876), 419-430.
  • Sidney Ditzion, “The humanitarian idea” and “Conclusions” from Arsenals of a democratic culture: A social history of the American public library movement in New England and the Middle States from 1850-1900 (Chicago: ALA, 1947), 97-109, 190-193.
  • Michael H. Harris, “The purpose of the American library: A revisionist interpretation of history,” Library Journal (15 Sep 1973), 2509-2514.
  • Phyllis Dain, “Ambivalence and paradox: The social bonds of the public library,” Library Journal 100 (1975), 261-266.
  • Elaine Fain, “Manners and morals in the public library: A glance at some new history [with commentary by Michael Harris and Dee Garrison],” Journal of Library History 10:2 (1975), 99-116.

And another course from UNC's R. E. Berquist of readings on the public library:

Comedic Comedian Memoirs

Laughter may or may not be the best medicine, but it's what I craved over this past winter, especially during the holidays.  I had many January plane rides as well this year, and comedy is of the essence when trapped on a plane.  All of these have strong YA crossover appeal, and, I have to say, if you gave something like Moranthology to your 17-year-old niece, you'd probably be about the coolest aunt in existence.   Here's a sampling of what I read:

Girl Walks Into a Bar by Rachel Dratch
Part comedy and part memoir, this is about Rachel Dratch after the TV appearances dried up.  She bemoans the Hollywood looks machine, but she also goes about inventing a remarkably interesting and appealing life for herself.

Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
If you loved How to Be a Woman, then you want More Moran.  This is a collection of her essays, and her characteristically smart and cranky British humor is going full force here.

A Bad Idea I'm About to Do by Chris Gethard
Depression and mental illness are not laughing matters, but Gethard takes it upon himself to laugh at his own bad judgment over the years.  He turns the lens on his family and himself, owning some real problems that they have had but also showing how he grew through them, even when he did some really bad ideas.

People are Unappealing by Sara Barron
If you're ready to look back at your younger years as the delusional time they were, this snarky memoir might be for you.  From unrealistic dreams of theater success to an unsuccessful waitressing gig at Coyote Ugly in very little clothing, Barron showcases her own raw efforts to grow up.  This one has the least YA appeal, except for the terminally snarky, who will probably eat it up.

grief and healing

Life goes on, and, for anyone who is awake, the list of losses grows over time.  So does the list of joys and wild moments of freedom, if you're paying attention.  This is the space we take up in the world, sad and joyous and all states in between.

In the midst of late winter, our little cat died.  He brought us over twelve years of great joy, and saying goodbye was so hard.  I miss him everyday.  He was not just our cat, he was our clown, our cranky old guy, our sweet companion.  He was an amazing jumper, a selective nose-rubber, and always an enthusiastic friend at the food bowl.

Three things I read helped me tremendously.

First, Mary Oliver's words from the poem "In Blackwater Woods"

( and also in her Pulitzer-prize-winning collection American Primitive), particularly the last few lines:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

The second was a memoir of a stillbirth, a poignant story of loss and of coming to terms with what has been lost, even when the losses are mostly a loss of dreams of things that hadn't happened yet.  This first-person memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, covers territories of grief that are not for the faint hearted.  Surviving requires strength, and reading about this story of survival gave me so much solace as I faced the last days of our companion's life.  The way a set of experiences can turn your stomach on a whole landscape, as McCraken's stillbirth in France did, is so well-described and familiar to anyone who has faced traumatic losses and then moved away from that place.  While this is entirely adult stuff, there are some young adults who would relate, and it's a book worth knowing about.

The third was the gentle voice that got me through, the strength of a radical empathizer who knows how to to hold her own perspective while she generously offers her kindness to others. (Yes, this sounds like my friend Marie too!)  With some of the best boundaries ever created, no doubt through hard years of experience, author Cheryl Strayed (famous for her Oprah Book Club selection, the memoir Wild, a story of her solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail)  brings us Sugar.  He book Dear Sugar is a compendium of her online advice columns.  The problems are the usual range of issues with parents, partners, children, spouses, as well as all the self-abusive, aggressive, and otherwise damaging things humans to do one another in the name of love or just survival.  But the answers are pure poetry.

Sugar/Strayed shares her own experiences while she's giving advice, taking on the tone of a close and honest friend who wants to show her own limits.  This is one book I'd love to see young adults, especially female young adults get to read, even though some of the specific life crises and conundrums won't apply to them yet.  My favorite quote by far comes from a letter to a woman who is shattered by her husband's affair with the nanny, and Sugar captures the essence of being let down, betrayed, and disappointed by someone you love.  She also outlines the only way forward:

 "Acceptance asks only that you embrace what’s true.

"Strange as it sounds, I don’t think you’ve done that yet. I can hear it in the pitch of your letter. You’re so outraged and surprised that this shitty thing happened to you that there’s a piece of you that isn’t yet convinced it did. You’re looking for the explanation, the loop hole, the bright twist in the dark tale that reverses its course. Any one would be. It’s the reason I’ve had to narrate my own stories of injustice about seven thousand times, as if by raging about it once more the story will change and by the end of it I won’t still be the woman hanging on the end of the line.

"But it won’t change, for me or for you or for anyone who has ever been wronged, which is everyone. We are all at some point—and usually at many points over the course of a life—the woman hanging on the end of the line. Allow your acceptance of that to be a transformative experience. You do that by simply looking it square in the face and then moving on. You don’t have to move fast or far. You can go just an inch. You can mark your progress breath by breath."  

(quoted from  but it's also in the book)

The time came to let it go, to let grief in, as simply as we could.  This time comes, from time to time, and it's never easy to accept.  And acceptance is all we have.  Mary Oliver's words always bring me back to foundations of loving, which is always loving impermanent things.  These are the kinds of words that bring me solace, and my heart sings with gratitude at the honest writers who risk so much to bring back real stories of survival.

The arts of losing, of disappearing

This poem by Naomi Shihab Nye is so remarkable for waking its readers up to the realities of a finite world, difficult choices, and the price that comes with not having any solitude:

It makes me think of another famous poem, One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop, which starts with the line "The art of losing..."

Of course, on a day when bombs went off in Boston, losing feels poignant in a different way, even if the loss is just another perceived loss of safety.

Wasteland, Aristotle + Dante, Splendors and Glooms

These are quick reviews; they have to be done now so that we can return these library books and leave for an international spring break adventure!  Very exciting.  So here are some books I read during the last few weeks:

Wasteland by Francesca Lia Block

I heard about this at the ALISE conference, when my fellow professors were talking about the kind of YA fiction that would really push some buttons and provoke conversation.  In Block's signature poetic style, she dances over and around the complexities of incest between a sister and a brother.  The scene itself is never shown, and the lead-up to this one sexual encounter is intertwined with tales of its aftermath.  Specifically (BIG spoiler) the aftermath of the sister's experience is overwhelming grief and loss, because now her brother is dead.  In the end, the two "siblings" turn out not to have been related, and, while it's easier to stomach their attraction that way, the revelation comes so late in the book that is feels somewhat apologetic compared to what came before.  Still,when Block can pack a punch, writing some of the simultaneously grittiest and most lyrical fiction out there for teens.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sanez
When Ari meets Dante at the pool, they are laughing like old friends within minutes.  Their friendship seems perfect, until Dante is saving a bird and is nearly run over by a car.  Without thinking, Ari pushes him out of the way, and when he wakes up in the hospital, things are, well, awkward.  Sanez does a beautifully rich job of detailing the development of this relationship, interweaving questions they each have about their Mexican heritage--whether they are really Mexican, compared to their cousins who live in Mexico or the neighborhood guys, some of whom are getting into gangs and drugs.  There are layers of family secrets, though Ari's deepest secrets are buried inside of himself, and he needs family help to understand himself, ultimately.  Sanez has crafted an amazing realistic contemporary novel that will become a classic of (spoiler) LGBTQ YA lit for years to come.  Teens of all sexual orientations, but especially LGBTQetc.

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are apprentices of the creepy puppeteer Grisini.  But there's a witch after Grisini, and also Grisini has kidnapped and enchanted one of their recent patrons, a rich young girl named Clara, turning her into a doll for the marionette puppet stage.  The creepiness here is richly atmospheric, and, while there is some violence (real and remembered), the audience here could easily go down to the 6th grade set, possibly lower for relatively jaded young readers.  All does end well, but it looks like it will not several times.  Fans of Coraline (the book, not the graphic novel or movie) will adore this Dickensian story of orphans who, eventually, find a home.

once upon the natural world

I've mentioned it before, but it's worth saying again:  this blog is not about promoting books or authors or attempting to break into the blogosphere in some public way.  It's not particularly about my academic life, although what I read certainly fuels my academic life.  It's also not about my life or sharing news, except those friends who are devoted readers themselves and understand that what we read often is the news of our lives.*

This blog is about what I read.  That's all.  I'm not fishing for merchandise or debates.  It's a record that I keep for mostly personal reasons, but I'm always glad when my reviews of particular books lead someone to a reading discovery, for themselves or for their libraries.  Who I am is so tied up with libraries and the ideals of librarianship, from intellectual freedom to public service, that it is inevitably relevant to almost any aspect of my way of reading that I'm thinking about to whom a book might appeal and for whom a book might be collected.  For today's post, however, I'm thinking about what has appealed to me lately.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

This is a terrific adult book, albeit raw and difficult beyond what most young adults (but not all) will be ready to handle.  Be forewarned, it will sound totally bleak, but its saving graces are the natural setting of the river and the fact that this is a story of survival.

Our heroine is no heroine, just a very confused teenaged whose mother is gone.  She is coming of age when her uncle takes advantage of her teenage curiosity to lure her into a shed and rape her.  Whether her acceptance of this situation is strategic compliance or just being completely emotionally shut down, the reader can't know, and yet there's a glimmer in Campbell's writing that she is not simply a victim.  What we do know is that she shoots him in an especially private place, which sparks her cousin shooting her own father.  And, once her father is dead, she has no way to survive but to run away and live off of the bounty of the river.

She attaches herself to men who will have her, partly out of survival and partly out of this same sense of utter disconnection that accompanied her uncle's attack.  Written out in stark description, the book sounds like a horrific story, and yet there's something about the unflappable stamina of the main character that makes it hard to stop reading this book.  The river itself is both setting and character, as the protagonist repeatedly draws her strength to survive from the water and the bounty that the river brings.

Winter Hours by Mary Oliver
American Primitive by Mary Oliver

I'm blogging these two together because I read them together, as my companions on a month of six (!) plane rides.  They are slender volumes and full of heart.  Reading them all at once made my brain feel over sated, like my stomach feels after the richest chocolate cake.  Winter Hours is more of a semi-public, semi-private epistolary book for her readers.  Oliver is still and always Oliver, but there are slivers of opening up as she mentions her domestic partner and her thoughts on various writers (Poe, Hopkins).  Mostly, this book is prose, essays about life.  I've turned down the corners in my copy so that I can always get back to my favorites of her reflections, and I won't try to recapitulate them all here, so these favorite quotes are just excerpts of excerpts:

"I was playing.  I was whimsical, absorbed, happy.  Let me always be who I am, and then some." (p. 10)

"All things are meltable, and replaceable.  Not at this moment, but soon enough, we are lambs and we are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond water itself." (p. 23)

"In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose." (p. 102)

American Primitive is the book for which Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize, and it is such a perfectly balanced book of poetry about the sublime fecundity of the natural world.  These are poems that detail flight, chance encounters, death as part of life and how it can be honored... it starts with a poem called August, and so brings to mind Natalie Babbitt's opening of Tuck Everlasting, "The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning."  She moves through seasons and nature, seemingly erratically, but will all the pleasures of the best possible mixed tape, with peaks of delight and troughs of despair throughout.  It's hard to pick favorites, they flow so well together, but "The Bobcat" stands out as especially appealing, to me, being palpably philosophical.  At the end, there is a crescendo of joy, starting with "The Honey Tree," and the final poems of the book are almost too real and too glad to absorb.  If I were ever to get tattoos, these are the kinds of words I would be thinking about:

"What should we say
    is the truth of the world?
         The miles alone
in the pinched dark?
     or the push of the promise?
          or the wound of delight?"

from "The Bobcat" 

When I read this next set of lines, I found myself wondering why oh why these words aren't distributed to every young person, as a poet's guide to life?  They are sacred, that's why, and we shy from sharing or promulgating truly sacred things.  But still.  If there's one thing a grown up could have told me when I was a teenager that might have made some sense of this crazy existence, it might have been something like this:

To live in this world

you must be able 
to do three things:
to love what is mortal; 
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go."

from "In Blackwater Woods"

And it almost seems like a crime to even quote these lines out of context, because the entire poem is so wonderful.  You can read the whole thing here:
Oliver's work has gained wide acclaim, of course, and perhaps the Oprah-based quoting of her work would turn some readers off.  But I'd urge those readers to reconsider, because the power of Oliver's work lies in its simplicity, accessibility, and rootedness is minute observations of the natural world.  As she says in Winter Hours, "All narrative is metaphor." (p. 33)  And most of her poems are miniature narratives, all of them metaphors for the various sweetnesses and bitternesses of life.

*But, really, I use facebook and goodreads to keep up with those I have chosen as friends or friendly acquaintances.  There's no preventing it, occasionally someone will read this whom I would rather not invite into my reflections, but that's the price you pay for sharing in the age of the internets.  

The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima

I learned in late high school that the way for me to survive long, stressful days of testing was to read fantasy novels.  During the two-week period when I and my classmates were subjected to AP and IB exams--oral as well as written--I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and to this day I think having that parallel fantasy world through which I was imagining traveling allowed me to do better on those tests.

Being up for tenure this year is a similar test, only with a much longer period of endurance.  I have passed the test of documenting my accomplishments effectively, with the help of a supportive committee (October).  I have passed through the second gate, the test of school-level approval (December).  I await the final test, approval or denial by the campus-level tenure committee that looks at all tenure cases in the university, results to be announced on May 15.

As I wait, I read fantasy, and over this winter I was looking for a really long and hearty fantasy series to carry me through.  First, I read both books by Patrick Rothfuss:  The Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear, and I may blog about those another time, but the chutzpah, swagger, and yet touching personal tragedy of the main character Kvothe was enough to have me flying through many hundreds of pages.

Then I found The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima:  The Demon King, The Exiled Queen, The Crimson Crown, and The Gray Wolf Throne.  This series, with its dual narrator perspectives of princess Raisa (aka Rebecca Morley) and ruffian Han (aka Hunts Alone), fit the bill perfectly for a long, engrossing set of reads with captivating plots and likeable characters.

The Demon King was slow to start, in great part because it takes so much of the book to understand that there will be an ongoing connection between our two characters, Raisa and Han.  Raisa, after all, is next in line to be queen of the realm, and she meets Han when a secret excursion from the castle reveals to her the deep suffering of the people (not unlike the tale of the young Buddha).  On this excursion, she is briefly kidnapped by the streetlord of Ragmarket, Han, and while he is clearly clever, the precise attraction between them is a bit difficult to buy, at first.  After all, she is strong and determined, and he is a streetlord who kidnaps her, however kindly.  But, somehow, the connection is forged, and suspending disbelief for this first book is worth is for the second.  And Raisa is a likeable--if not always believable--character who is enjoying the blooming of attractions in her teenage way, sharing passionately distracting kisses with a warrior, a wizard, and the head guard's son who has been her best childhood friend.  Ultimately, Chima is being clever in stringing the reader along, but it takes longer than it might for the core characters to be connected and the allegiances to be clear enough to launch such a complex court-drama plot.

However, by the end I was entirely hooked, and The Exiled Queen was astonishingly satisfying, as each of our characters is revealed to be more layered and nuanced than they were in the previous book.  At this point, I won't go into great plot detail, knowing how frustrating it can be, but the title and first pages are enough to let you know that Raisa is exiled from her beloved queendom and its peoples.  Here, by getting outside of this country, we begin to learn about the different groups:  the Grey Wolf line of queens, the wizards and the Bayar family, the clan people who live in the mountains and their Demonai warriors who are sworn enemies of wizards.

The Gray Wolf Throne is mostly politics, and to give much of this away would be to take from you the opportunity to read it!  I'm nearly through with The Crimson Crown now as well, and, from all I can tell, the excursion into The Seven Realms will have been worth it.  Recommended for patient readers at the high school level and above who want pages and pages of well-crafted fantasy.  Especially recommended on Kindle/Nook/iPad/etc., because these are thick books!

Looks like The Heir Chronicles series would be the next thing to read by Chima.  We'll see if the two-plus remaining months of tenure suspense take me there.

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate won the Newbery Medal for the 2012 publishing year with good reason.  Written from the perspective of a gorilla named Ivan whose life is circumscribed by his glass cage in a rather grimy shopping mall, the story moves along in miniature chunks and very small chapters, bit by bit.  At first, there's plenty of time to get used to the voice of a gorilla as narrator; not much happens for awhile except the dour and repetitive life of the main attractions in a failing shopping center, and Ivan's companion Stella the elephant also begins to fail physically in her old age.  But then, with the introduction of a new baby elephant, Ivan's wistful loneliness as he longs for gorilla companionship turns to urgency.  Mack, the owner of the place and Ivan's one-time human "dad" (before he grew to be an enormous silverback), begins to threaten to abuse Ruby, the new baby elephant.  These are difficult issues, and, despite the fictionalized gorilla voice, they are handled fairly realistically, especially when Stella the elephant dies in her cage.  But Ivan is determined to save Ruby from this fate.  He is an artist, using crayons and then fingerpaints to draw the world around him and then to draw a world of his imagination for the billboard outside, which he hopes will attract attention to Ruby's plight.

There's a happy ending, but a lot of suspense along the way, which is especially impressive given how short and succinct each chapter is.  The animal banter is engaging, especially when the little "homeless-by-choice" dog, Bob, gets involved in the dialogue.  But the real treat here comes in the afterword, when we learn that this is a fictionalized version of some factual events.  A gorilla who liked to draw and paint was indeed rescued from a shopping mall, and it is his story upon which Ivan's tale is based.  Children's authors have engaged in interesting factual/fictional experimentation more in recent years, but Applegate takes this odd between-genres genre to newly accessible and engaging heights.

While this goes as young as about fourth-grade level, the story itself would reach all ages, with special appeal to animal lovers everywhere.