“We should expect no one will understand this.”

Lee2Ed Bok Lee, who won the 2012 American Book Award for this moving collection of poems, is the son of Korean emigrants. The family’s transition from Seoul to North Dakota was difficult. He writes about getting stoned before and after school from the age of 13. John Freeman, editor of Granta, observed that Lee’s poems ask the same question Wallace Stevens’s poems asked many years ago: “How do you bridge the gap between America and its dream?”  There are no easy answers here – instead, images of “…a long line of hungry souls” each of whom is a “spiritual refugee” (114).

Ed Bok Lee, Whorled (Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 2011), 30.

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“With grammar, it’s always something. “

OConnerThis is the first sentence in the chapter titled “Plurals before Swine: Blunders with Numbers” in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner.  The tone is light-hearted, which, as the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer noted, makes it readable “even for those with a deep-seated hatred for grammatical do-goodery.”  The author describes her readers as “…intelligent people who probably never have diagrammed a sentence and never will” and who “don’t know a gerund from a gerbil and don’t care.” The first words that came to me when I read this were “At last!”

Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd ed. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 17.

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“I used to think that if faculty teaching improved, student learning had to follow suit.”

McGuireNow, however, Saundra Yancy McGuire believes that even the best teachers will not see the kinds of learning gains that are possible “as long as students do not come to our classrooms prepared to learn efficiently and independently.” This book shows faculty members how to teach students how to learn by focusing on metacognition, mindset and motivation strategies. Because this book is packed with suggestions and excellent summaries of research, I agree with the reviewer who predicted that this book is one that  “will become dogeared with use.”  I’ve already started making changes in the courses I teach this fall.

Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanic McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2015), 10.

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“Rosa was a perfect example of an only child, thought Claire – she behaved herself, but it was because she was always on the stage and the lights were always up. “

smiley2If you were a novelist, what compliment would you most like to see in a review of your work?  A comparison to Tolstoy, perhaps? That compliment was in fact given in the British newspaper, the Guardian, in a review of Jane Smiley’s novel Early Warnings, the second in a trilogy set in Iowa.  The reviewer, English novelist Christobel Kent, wrote that Smiley’s “faultless skill” in bringing a large set of characters to life, her “feeling for territory and landscape,” and her “combination of impatient intellect, emotional perspicacity and unfailing humanity” were reminiscent of the Russian master.  I agree!

Jane Smiley, Early Warnings (New York: Anchor Books, 2016). p. 45.

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“Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.”

bakerThis memoir by Russell Baker encourages readers to write their stories for the generation that hasn’t yet asked for them.  He shows us why he believes this: he will always regret not knowing better the person who told him how to see the world and his role in it. After his mother’s mind began to wander “free through time” he realizes what he had missed. He writes, “A world had lived and died, and though it was part of my blood and bone I knew little more about it than I knew of the world of the pharaohs” (13).

Russell Baker, Growing Up (New York: Signet, a division of Penguin Group, 1984), 13.

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“I raise my chin and say nothing.”

ChmielarzThis is the final line in the poem “When Are You Coming Back? I’m Getting Tired of Waiting” from a collection of poems about grieving titled The Widow’s House by Sharon Chmielarz.  It is one example of how the poet has achieved a “mastery of tone.” Tone is a slippery thing to describe, much less master.  Chmielarz does it by giving a clear description (in this case, of the lift of the right eyebrow), adding dialogue (with a strident grief counselor) and humor (“As if you have things to do now…”), and then stopping at precisely the right moment.

Sharon Chmielarz, The Widow’s House (Omaha, Brighthorse Books, 2015), 23.

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“A writer’s goal is to light up the sky.”

Kooser 3As a fan of Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Ted Kooser, I couldn’t wait to see what he would say about using metaphors in this little-known book for people who want to start writing.  He writes, “. . .  an apt metaphor opens a door out of a box, gives you a way to express something difficult, a tool to convert something physical and visible into language that is abstract and portable . . . ”  The most effective writing, he says, “seems to reach through the opaque surface of the world and offer a glimpse of that universal order beyond.”

Ted Kooser  & Steve Cox, Writing Brave & Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 104.

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“The difference between landscape and landscape is small, but there is great difference in the beholders.”

emersonRecently, I visited Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, MA, which has the chair that Emerson sat in while he wrote his famous essay “Nature.”  As a fan of what Anne Fadiman calls “You-Are-There Reading” I had to reacquaint myself with this wonderful piece. When it was published in 1836, it startled and confused the public (xxii), which found it rather mystical.  Emerson relies on revelation rather than logic.  He writes, “. . . if our own life flowed with the right energy, we should shame the brook” (387) and “Nature is loved by what is best in us” (387).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981), 386.

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“Asking someone to make a prediction represents a very simple route to raising curiosity and hence represents a very simple route to stimulating the brains of our students and preparing them for their learning.”

LangCan small changes in strategy result in significant improvements?  This new book for college instructors by James M. Lang argues convincingly that they can. While some of the techniques are not new – my mother asked her students to make predictions 40 years ago – all the strategies are supported by the most recent research by cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and biologists.  For example, he notes that curiosity is an emotion that has been recently demonstrated to boost memory when it is heightened prior to exposure to new material. I’m convinced that this book will spark many changes in my approach next fall.

James M. Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand, 2016), 62.

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“I have often pictured her stage-managing a fashion show of monsters.”

schumacherAs unlikely as it sounds, this quote comes from a letter of recommendation for an associate dean of student affairs applicant, who also happens to be the former lover of the creative writing professor who sends all of the letters in this hilarious expostulatory novel. His comments become “more elaborately unhinged,” but I couldn’t help cheering for this flawed protagonist who is on as quest for a fairer, more respected, better-funded program, who writes with “candor, regret, and a whiff of vengeance” (125). Julie Schumacher received the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor. This irresistible book will make you laugh.

Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (New York: Doubleday, 2014), p.122.

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“[L]adies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.”

woolfPurely by coincidence, I was reading Virginia Woolf”s A Room of One’s Own during the week that the first woman became the presumptive nominee for a major political party in the U.S.  In 1928, when Woolf gave a series of lectures on “Women and Fiction,” she described the differences in access to resources – including libraries, formal education, time, money, and “a room of one’s own” – for women and men. She made a case for equality that is as relevant today – sadly — as it was 88 years ago. For context on the existence of barriers, I highly recommend this work.

Virginia Woolf,  A Room of One’s Own (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1989), 8.

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“Why couldn’t she be more like his other teachers, who looked at him blankly the following fall when he said hello to them outside Woolworths, having in a matter of months forgotten his existence entirely?”

russoNo contemporary writer is better at convincing the reader that a person with many faults can be a hero than Richard Russo.  His mixture of empathy, honesty, warmth and wit made Sully a heroic figure in Nobody’s Fool and makes Doug Raymer the equally-unlikely hero in the sequel Everyone’s Fool. I love the way that Russo “out-Russos” himself by tying these two polar-opposite characters together by showing how both have been guided by a person not many would see as hero-material: their eighth-grade English teacher, Beryl Peoples, who the community honors posthumously with an “Unsung Hero” award in this novel.

Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 21,

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“Only she who says she did not choose, is the loser in the end.”

RichAdrienne Rich was a revolutionary. As Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times, Rich “accomplished in verse what Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, did in prose. In describing the stifling minutiae that had defined women’s lives for generations, both argued persuasively that women’s disenfranchisement at the hands of men must end.”  Rich was a powerful poet.  In her National Book Award acceptance speech, she said, “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy.”  Think seriously instead: “Transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together.”

Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 33.

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“If we do not consciously and intentionally seek to change the norms in our classrooms, we are likely to find ourselves . . .with students paying only civil attention.”


Sociologist Jay Howard notes that in 1976 researchers Karp and Yoels distinguished between students who paid attention from students who created the appearance of paying attention, which they termed “civil attention.” If you ever had a hard time getting a discussion going in class, it may be because the students were simply being civil but not engaged.  This book is distinguished by its grounding in research and by the quality and quantity of its useful suggestions.  Because its topic is universally relevant and its advice so applicable, this book is on my short list of “Best resources for faculty members.”

Jay R. Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015), 45.

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“The perennial question of motherhood, Eloise thought, was how honest to be.”

smileyThis is the first book in a trilogy about a farm family in Iowa.  It begins in 1920 and runs for a hundred years, with a chapter per year. I’m among its many fans. As the LA Times says, the significance of moments “becomes clear only with the passage of time.”  The Guardian says this series doesn’t simply observe family life, it’s also “a dissection of the idea of family, and of the truths its facade will shield from view.”  The New York Times says it may be “fashioned loosely after ‘The Divine Comedy,’ itself a trilogy of 100 episodes.

Jane Smiley, Some Luck (Anchor Books, A Division of Penguin Random House LLC: New York: 2015), 256.


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