Why I’m a Horrible Blogger

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I started blogging four years ago for no other reason than to get my work out there. I liked to write. People had told me I was reasonably good at it. At boredom’s gentle prodding, I developed my first blog. I can’t even remember what I used to call it. At the time, I had only been on Facebook for two years, I barely knew what Twitter was, and Pinterest, at least in my world, wasn’t even a thing yet. There was no “promotion” of posts, no partnerships to negotiate, no real “sharing” to speak of, at least not in the sense that we “share” now.

When the idea for Just Joywriting came to me, I quickly abandoned the old blog (title and content–it all had to go), and I set about reformulating my online persona. I had what I thought was a great new name. The design was, at the time, unique and reflective of my personality. I was getting two or three readers a day. On the surface, I should have been thrilled. But I couldn’t help thinking something was off. The Internet was supposed to be a great tool for reaching readers, a great way to engage in a “virtual community.” I had friends with fashion blogs who were making friends everyday. Somehow people just found them and engaged with them. That’s what I want, I thought. Where are my readers?

At the time I thought that maybe it had something to do with my writing. It just wasn’t that good (maybe it isn’t–maybe I am just trying to rationalize here). I could take it. At least I had been brave and put something out there, right? Then I started really paying attention to these other blogs. I started looking at what they did that I wasn’t doing. The experience was enlightening. From studying and reviewing other successful blogs, I’ve come to realize that maybe it’s not the graphic design of my blog or the writing or the name. Maybe I’m just a bad blogger. Here are some possible reasons:

1. Voluntary self-promotion. The blogs I read seemed to offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the people who wrote them. There were children’s names, pet names, husbands’/wives’ names. There were details about professions and weekend hobbies, pictures from vacations and cozy dinners. I wasn’t offering any of that. Somehow I thought that my blog could be about the writing, the writing, and only the writing. Sure, it was based on things I observed while enjoying weekend hobbies, family vacations, and cozy dinners for two, but my life and the details thereof remained largely removed.

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2. Visual content. I started noticing pictures for the first time as I was studying what made some of my favorite blogs tick. They had not just pictures, but good pictures. The kind that make you want to be wherever they are. The kind that make you wish you were doing or wearing or having whatever the subject was doing or wearing or having. I had nothing of the sort. In fact, I thought I was doing quite well for myself when I included a thumbnail picture of the book I was currently attempting to review. The pictures, though, are what drew me to some of my faves in the first place. Apparently, that’s how to catch and keep a reader’s attention. Part of it anyway.

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3. An aptitude for social media. My favorite bloggers are invested in social media. They use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram and seem well versed in each, using them deliberately based on the post’s content. Fashion posts lend themselves really well to Instagram and Pinterest, as do design and style posts. Twitter allows for daily glimpses into their everyday experiences and how they encounter the subjects and ideas for their blogs. So it would seem. The thing is: I’ve never been a big social media fan. I didn’t necessarily want people to know that much about me. More than that, though, I just didn’t think anyone would care. I’ve given it a good hard try, but I can’t help feeling phony when I post on Twitter, and my Facebook feed, well, you could say it’s a bit neglected. I tried Instagram, but I found myself focusing on searching for subjects and settings rather than enjoying the subjects and settings themselves. It’s an effort I continue to make, though, this social media stuff. I want to connect with people (otherwise I wouldn’t bother with any of this), but the introvert in me wants to cower in the corner at the thought of so much interaction, virtual or otherwise.

4. Platform, Platform, Platform. I’m drawn to book blogs and fashion blogs. I read them everyday, with my mid-morning coffee and biscotti. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if somewhere out there someone else was having their midmorning coffee and reading my blog, my…what kind of blog exactly? When I first started blogging, I had no platform, and I continued that way for awhile. Over the years, I’ve played with the concept of platform, but I’ve never felt truly cemented to one. In my most recent overhauling frenzy, I’ve pulled the DIY section of the blog to focus specifically on reading, writing, and living, as these are the things I find myself doing most frequently. I’ve learned that by doing this I’ve not only given my blog more focus, but I’ve given myself more focus as well. When I think of a potential blog topic, I am now forced to ask myself under which category this topic would potentially fall. If I can’t logically justify its place, I don’t include it. This one, I feel, I’m getting better at.

I’m including a list of blogs I read regularly here. Take one look at any of them, and you will see exactly what I’m talking about. I still have a lot to learn. Obviously. The important thing is that it’s gotten better, this whole blogging experience. If growth is the point, if the process of improving is more important than the improvement itself, then I can honestly say I’m doing pretty well for myself here in my corner of the web.

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Book Riot

Cupcakes and Cashmere

Could I Have That?

That’s What She Read

A Beautiful Mess

Life Abundant

Nerdy Book Club

Brooklyn Blonde

Poor Little It Girl

The Aftermath: A Character Sketch

Inside him is a pool, black in its depth, smooth, dangerous. It is composed of the feelings he’d rather not have, emotions he’d rather not feel, that which has been relegated but remains unavoidable. Most of the time the pool lies still behind the mask of what he wants people to see, the impression he wants them to have. But sometimes a pebble of reality falls through the cracks. Sometimes something from outside wakes the deep inside and wakes that which is better left sleeping.

When small truths penetrate the surface, when he’s made to confront himself, the pool becomes a maelstrom, violent in its intensity, ready to swallow whole whatever is nearest and dearest. Then eventually the water calms. He returns to his normal state but more alone, and those of us who became collateral, that which could be sacrificed, are spat out of the vortex on a side unfamiliar to us, left to wonder where there is left to go and if we can recover.

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Reading Unpacked: How Reading Helps to Cure My Travel Envy

In his song “The Inner Light,” George Harrison wrote, “Without going out of your door, you can know all things on Earth.” I realize he adapted the idea from the Taoist Tao Te Ching and that he is actually speaking about enlightenment, but it sure does make me feel better when I see my empty suitcase shoved in the back of my closet.

The thing is sometimes I feel like everyone I know has been somewhere worth going to, and I can’t help feeling left out. Sure, I’ve been to some cool places:

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But the truth is I can’t help feeling like I’m missing out on something, like there’s this big wide world out there that I haven’t seen and everybody else has (maybe a little bit of an over exaggeration, but just go with me on this).

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Typically, when I start feeling a bit bored and blue, I turn to my books. What better way to forget your own petty annoyances than to get involved in someone else’s fictional ones, right?

Therein lies the Ah-ha! Moment when I realize I couldn’t be more mistaken about my lack of expedition experience.

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I am a firm believer that reading is the only way to get anywhere without going anywhere. Except maybe to the local library or bookstore. This one is my favorite.

Anyway, when I start getting travel envy, I think of all the places my books have taken me and feel an immediate sense of relief, not because I’m proving that I’ve been somewhere, but because my vision of what these worldly places should be is untainted by the experience of reality.

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 Take The Shadow of the Wind.

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It’s one of my favorites, a book I’ve returned to multiple times. In its pages I’ve wandered the streets of Barcelona with Daniel. I’ve seen its best parts. I’ve seen its dark parts, too, at least the way Zafon paints them. And I have to say that the Barcelona I see in my mind is one I have fallen in love with, especially the parts that may or may not really be there (like the cemetery of forgotten books—if you don’t know what it is, you should definitely find out).

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I’m sure the real Barcelona is lovely. I even wanted to go there for awhile (I still haven’t ruled it out.). Then I realized that going there would force me to sacrifice the city I’ve constructed for myself because you know what they say: once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it. And I’m just not sure I’m ready to relinquish the fictional city I love for a real city I honestly don’t know much about. Call it fear. Call it rationalizing. Whatever.

There are a lot of reasons for a lot of people to disagree with me about this. They’ll say it’s a cop-out, that I’m just trying to find a way, any way, to make myself feel better for being state-bound. I suppose there’s probably some truth to that. If someone handed me a plane ticket and said, “Go,” I don’t think I’d say no. But that’s not really the point, is it?

The point, my friends, is this: we are unbelievably lucky, those of us who know what it is to see so clearly in our minds something we’ve never actually seen in real life, because when resources or circumstances prevent it, we are still able to whisk ourselves away to stories, lives, and places infinitely more interesting than our own. So I’m not suggesting a forfeiture of travel in favor of the couch in the living room (although that couch is pretty darn comfy and doesn’t require a passport or a suitcase). What I’m saying is that the stories we read are both a consolation and a prize, but not a consolation prize. They allow us the pleasure of experience AND the beauty of imagination. And who knows? Sometimes what we imagine can feel as good as the real thing.

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Wonderstruck: A Review

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Several years ago, I inherited a children’s literature course from a teacher who was retiring. To make a long story short, she was generous enough to provide her syllabus since I had nothing, nada, zilch in the way of course prep. Scanning the reading list, I noticed Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and I was so stoked for the semester.

Selznick visited Memphis my last year in grad school, and I missed the opportunity to see him (darn you, stupid job). I always regretted not being able to hear him read and speak because I admire his work so much.

When he released Wonderstruck in 2011, I immediately added it to my TBR list, no questions asked. Now, here we are in 2014, and it was finally at the top of my stack.

Selznick’s books are nothing if not behemoths, but their heft is well worth the extra forearm strength it takes to tote them around.

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The books’ content is mostly composed of beautifully crafted illustrations done with pencil on watercolor paper (as per the frontispiece). Selznick’s ability to manipulate light and shadow in his work is helpful to his intended audience, as light and shadow often guide the reader’s attention when it might otherwise have been lost. He also has the uncanny ability to use his characters’ eyes to radiate emotions as powerfully as real people. My favorite illustration in Wonderstruck is a depiction of Rose’s mother, who is angry that her deaf daughter has come, unaccompanied, to visit her in the city. The mother’s back is turned away from the reader in the illustration, but we are able to see her angry reflection in the mirror on her dressing table. Masterful!

Ben’s story in Wonderstruck felt very familiar to me, as I couldn’t help comparing his story to Hugo’s. There are quite a few similar elements: a young boy searching for his place in the world, trying to connect himself to family members who are no longer present, a rediscovered familial connection that might have been lost if the main characters had behaved as their guardians wished them to, a benevolent friend who provides information without realizing it and without whom the connections would never have been made.

While some readers may find the repetition story elements to be tiresome, I think the technique works really well in Selznick’s work. Children who love The Invention of Hugo Cabret will find the themes reinforced in Wonderstruck, and sometimes reinforcement acts as the equivalent of validation.

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The coolest thing about Selznick’s books (depending on who you ask and on what end of the eBook vs. pBook spectrum they’re on) is that he doesn’t make his books available electronically. That’s right. You can’t download Hugo or Wonderstruck. Read more about that here. When you consider that the illustrations make up the biggest part of both books, it makes sense for the author/illustrator to be biased towards an actual physical product. As a lover of both e- and pBooks, I find it sort of comforting that there are authors who are willing to hold out in favor of ink and paper (or, in this case, pencil and paper), and there is something intrinsically satisfying about watching a child’s self-esteem blossom after realizing he can finish the whole thing on his own.

So far I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read of Selznick’s. The stories and plot lines are tightly woven, and he doesn’t allow the reader to get distracted, an important quality in a text intended for children. His illustrations are more expressive than many similar books in the genre, and he provides his readers, both young and old, with a sense of comfort, of knowing that someway, somehow, we all belong, and we all have a purpose, accomplishing not just the goal of children’s literature but of capital-L Literature as well.

Have you read The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Wonderstruck? What did you think?

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What I Learned When I Crawled

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Not this past weekend but the weekend before (sorry…I’m a bit behind. Must be the cold weather? Anyway…) Matt and I decided to go to the First Saturday Art Crawl in Nashville. We had no clue what to expect, never having talked to anyone who’d been, but by the end of the night, both of us were so very glad we went. My only regret of the evening was that I didn’t bring my camera. There are some things (lots of things, actually) to which an iPhone camera cannot do justice. For that reason, I apologize for the photos in this post; they are not what they should be, and next time I’ll know better.

The concept for the art crawl is really simple: local art galleries open their doors to folks interested in local art culture. There’s a little bit of everything to see, from photography to oil-on-canvas to abstract to sculpture. You name it. The best part about the whole evening: it’s free.

Yep. We were able to spend time downtown touring some beautiful galleries, and the whole night cost us only ten dollars (typically that’s what you’d spend in parking downtown, but the meter fairies were on our side that night, and we lucked out and didn’t have to pay anything). We started out in the convention center. Neither of us had ever been there, and since that’s where we parked, we figured we’d check out Hatch Show Print first. The museum looks like an authentic production studio (maybe it really is? I should have asked), and some of the wood blocks were cut back in the thirties. There’s something nostalgic about seeing today exactly what someone would have seen back then. Matt and I particularly liked a Purity Dairy cow print for our kitchen. We love anything that comes with its own story. The original design for the print was intended to teach art students about the art of woodblock cutting.

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From there we took the (free) trolley over the to Arcade, which is where most of the action took place. The energy was almost overwhelming, so many people, so many galleries, so much to see. I didn’t know where to look first. So I didn’t. I smelled instead.

Matt and I didn’t spend our money that night on art (although we did see several pieces, like that cow, that we’d like to get pretty soon if they’re still available). No, we spent our ten dollars on the food. The Arcade is full of yummy local places to eat, and there’s a little bit of everything, like Greek food, pizza, doughnuts, and this place.

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I don’t know much about Sophie Isabella’s the Royal Wedding Cakes, never having been in need of a wedding cake in Nashville before, and typically they close at four on Saturdays. But they stayed open the night of the art crawl, and I was more than happy to indulge my cupcake habit there. Let me tell you: if you ever have the chance, you should check them out.

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I am a self-confessed lover of cupcakes (read more about that here), and I like to try new places every chance I get. So far Matt and I have developed quite a taste for The Cupcake Collection, but the cupcakes we had from Sophie Isabella’s were top-notch as well. They weren’t as sweet as the cupcakes at The Cupcake Collection, so if subtle is your favorite kind of sweet, these are awesome. Now, no more cupcake talk. I promise that’s not the only thing I think about.

Some people would probably say that I’m easily overwhelmed, that it doesn’t take a lot to Wow! me. Maybe that’s true to a certain extent. But the truth is that I’ve lived in places where culture and expression aren’t valued, at least not as much as they ought to be. I know what it’s like to crave a night of entertainment, interaction, and exploration, and those of us who live in (or near) Nashville have the opportunity, at least once a month, to realize that kind of night.

Being a member of the community means knowing what’s going on, not just politically and economically but culturally as well, and Nashville’s art scene is very much alive and kickin’. When stuff like the Art Crawl is made available to us, we owe it not just to ourselves but to our city as well to get out there and find out what’s happening and to support our neighbors in their attempts to put something beautiful into the world.

Have you ever art crawled? Do you have any tips for our next one (because we will DEFINITELY head back

When Around the Bend Doesn’t Matter

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Middle Tennessee is home. It always has been. Matt and I agreed a long time ago that we wanted to end up here somehow, and after a LOT of rambling around the country chasing Uncle Sam’s dream, we’ve finally managed to get here. While we’ve had the opportunity to live in different kinds of places (El Paso and Richmond, VA are vastly different, let me tell ya) and to visit a lot of places (Washington DC, Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, New York City), both of us are glad to finally be home, couched in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains.

Having lived in Memphis for a few years, I know what it’s like to love a city and to want to claim it as your own. I dearly love Memphis and cherish all the time I spent there. Naturally I wanted to replicate the sentiment when we got back to Nashville, so I immediately set about developing a plan of attack. My mission was simple: find the places I could call my own, the places I would love and frequent. It’s taken awhile for us to get the opportunity to really settle into our exploration, but for the last few weekends we’ve finally gotten the chances I’ve been waiting for. And Nashville has yet to disappoint.

We started with an evening at Ugly Mugs.

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I’d read about this place during my search for potential favorite coffee houses, and it turned out to be pretty cool. Located in the East Nashville neighborhood, it is situated down the street from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and The Wild Cow, a vegetarian restaurant (also super-tasty). Matt and I ordered our coffee (call me boring: I got a pour-over decaf), and Matt chose a drink called The Hoodie, a combination of cinnamon, honey, espresso, and milk. He always orders exactly what I didn’t know I wanted.

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It’s common knowledge that weekends are Live Music nights in Nashville (wait, that’s every night), and Ugly Mugs is part of the party. In the all-too-short time we were there, we heard three really talented acts. If I hadn’t been so excited to be there, I might have paid closer attention to their names, but I was so enthralled by the experience of being exactly where I wanted to be, exactly how I wanted to be there that I completely missed out. Sorry, guys. I’ll catch ya next time.

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For our next excursion, we ventured into yet another neighborhood of note. The Germantown historic district has received a lot of the TLC kind of attention over the last few years, and now it’s a reasonably quiet hamlet nestled in the middle of metro Nashville. I went there, initially, for one reason: The Cupcake Collection. A few months ago I had the chance to sample their strawberry lemonade cupcakes, and man oh man, I couldn’t wait to get my paws on some more.

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This time I tried the plain lemon cupcake, and as I knew it would be, my yearning for spring was fueled by the sour sweetness. Memphis has Muddy’s, a bakery I dearly love, and their cupcakes have been my favorites for years. But The Cupcake Collection gives them a run for their money. Being a cupcake fiend I’m stoked to have something so scrumptious so close.

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As entertaining and delicious as our adventures have been so far, I have to say that the most impressive part of them has been what they’ve shown me about myself and the life I want to live.

When you can honestly say you love your own life, that you wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s, then you know you are truly blessed. And I wouldn’t. I have come to realize over the last few weekends that even though my life may not always be ideal, it is mine, and it is the life I love. Sure, there are things I’d like to change, and things could always be better. But they could also be worse, so that’s something. Looking at the places I’ve been and the opportunities I’ve had, the people I’ve met and love, the people who love me, I cannot imagine any other life but this one. Being able to see things from this perspective has given me a greater appreciation for experience and the lessons to be learned from it. It has inspired me to focus not so much on where I’m going and what’s around the bend, but on how I am going to get there and who is going to go with me. Of course, a cupcake every now and then doesn’t hurt.

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I know I’m not the only person who’s had these ah-ha! moments (at least I hope I’m not). So tell me: where are you going? How will you get there? And who will you take along for the ride?

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The Group by Mary McCarthy

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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Set in the 1930s, the book follows the lives of eight girls as they enter the real world after graduating from Vassar. Think Mona Lisa Smiles meets Mean Girls but wittier and with more biting social commentary.

It’s fairly easy for us to look back with mild condescension on previous generations as being stuffy and overly conservative. However, McCarthy’s depiction of life for the women in The Group is far from what we might consider prudish. McCarthy deals with birth control, infidelity, homosexuality, sex, and, of course, love in no uncertain terms. Readers are reminded of the decade in which the story unfolds only by way of the characters using graduation years as identifiers (i.e. Vassar ’31), making it easy to forget that the story was not written more recently.

One girl’s sexual awakening, another’s struggle with her tortured artist husband, and yet another’s jaunts around a much more accepting sexual climate in Europe reinforce the cliche that times change, but people don’t. We watch as the girls struggle to maintain the social class perpetuated by their parents, but we also learn that the only girls who are truly happy seem to be the ones with the simplest lives, the ones who have strived more to be themselves instead of concentrating so forcefully on being different from their mothers, which has really made them just the same.

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I don’t mean to suggest that the girls always got along well with one another. College was a tumultuous time for many of them, and cattiness, apparently, is an unavoidable biological (it seems) disposition from which even Vassar girls cannot escape. The struggle for the position of authority as well as membership in the desirable group begins early for the girls, and it never really ceases, although it does become more of an undercurrent than a preoccupation.

I first learned of The Group through the book club at Parnassus Bookstore. It was chosen for last month’s book club read because of its anniversary, and I was immediately intrigued when the hostess talked about having read it for the first time when she was in college. She then, reluctantly, admitted that she wasn’t even sure how she got her hands on it, as it was considered more than a little risqué, even in the ’60s. Call me captivated. I love a good banned book as much as the next girl. I jotted down the title and author and quickly moved on to the next book on my stack, which happened to be 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Coincidentally (or not, if you’re into that kind of thing), Jake, the narrator, also makes reference to The Group (his girlfriend reads it), though no one comments in detail on its content. It will suffice to say that King’s choice of literature for Jake’s girlfriend is deliberate and appropriate. (If you haven’t read 11/22/63, I also highly recommend that book but for completely different reasons.)  So I eventually made my way down to the library and checked out this copy:

They just don't publish books like this one anymore. This well-thumbed copy has belonged to several different libraries and has been "annotated" in crayon on the first few pages.

They just don’t publish books like this one anymore. This well-thumbed copy has belonged to several different libraries and has been “annotated” in crayon on the first few pages.

I was not disappointed.

Coincidentally, Getty Images recently launched this picture collection of women in leadership and professional positions in an effort to inspire us to change the way we think about women in general. If you haven’t had a chance to browse the photo gallery, I suggest that you wander on over to their site and do so. It’s totally worth it. But I think it’s equally important to remember that efforts to change the perception of women and their capabilities have been ongoing, that women have, for decades, been trying to overcome the obstacles placed in their professional and personal paths. I don’t mean to be a gender crusader here, but in honor of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, I think it’s relevant and appropriate to give a nod to those who went seeking change before us.

Have you had a chance to read The Group? What did you think?

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Novel Thoughts: The Girl in The Blue Beret by Bobbi Ann Mason

The Girl in the Blue Berettells the story of Marshall, World War 2 veteran and newly-retired commercial airline pilot. Marshall returns from the war, after having crash landed his B-17 Flying Fortress and escaped to Spain with the held of the French Resistance, confused and withdrawn, content to follow the pattern established for him by society. After years of flying for commercial airlines, Marshall is forced to hang up his pilot’s uniform in favor of retirement. With the rest of his life looming in front of him, Marshall decides to revisit the site of his crash landing, hoping to find both traces of those who helped him to escape German-occupied France and traces of the person he might have been had the war not intervened.

Character development seems slow through the first few chapters. Readers may find themselves curious as to why they should invest their time and mental energy in caring about Marshall’s story. He reveals very little about himself, and more often than not seems like an old man who’s simply gotten too big for his britches. However, over the course of the story, readers will find themselves understanding and sympathizing with Marshall without their even realizing it. They will realize that Marshall reveals little about himself because he doesn’t have a firm grasp on who he really is. His lack of sense of self becomes something to be pitied, and readers will inevitably be drawn to his quest to seek out the missing parts of himself. By the end of the novel, Marshall has solidified himself as a character worthy of attention and commiseration. He seems to slowly relieve himself of the detritus of his past so that he can work towards making a better future.

Pacing, at first, seems a bit sluggish. Readers can expect several chapters of Marshall’s reminiscence both of the war and of his days as a pilot. However, Mason disguises the quickening pace of her novel beneath the mystery of a missing character. Before the reader has a chance to realize what’s happening, the story’s pace has accelerated, and readers find themselves hurdling towards the end of the story. Mason’s manipulation of her story’s pace is commendable and will keep readers engaged until the last page.

A discussion of the novel’s ending is difficult without giving away too much information. However, it will suffice to say that readers are able to choose, in a way, the ending they prefer, and regardless of which path a reader wishes Marshall to take, that reader can be satisfied that Marshall has indeed learned some things about himself as a person and about the overall cause that bound the characters in his story together: the war.

The Girl in the Blue Beretis based on a memoir left behind by Mason’s father-in-law, which lends it a hauntingly relevant and personal feeling, a feeling that lingers long after the last page has been turned. For more information, see the author’s website here.

How to Judge a Book by Its Cover

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There. I said it. I told myself this was not my battle, that I should remain an casual observer rather than a participant. But the debate rages on, and I can’t help myself.

In what I assume (in my limited knowledge of the publishing world) to be true publishing style, the book has been re-released with a new cover, informing those of us who might not have been aware before that this is, indeed, an anniversary edition. No problems so far.

Yeah, right.

Critics, teachers, readers, and writers have latched onto the cover with steely fervor, berating it as misleading, confusing, and contradictory. Readers, they fear, will think The Bell Jar is nothing but chick lit, a “light and fluffy read.” The cover gives the wrong impression, they say. The book has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with angst. It is an offense to Plath as an author and an offense to The Bell Jar as a literary work.

I see the merit of these arguments. However, I think we’re all being nearsighted. We are missing the point.

Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on the fact that after fifty years readers still find The Bell Jar hauntingly relevant, that despite the social changes that have occurred readers still find something with which they identify? There’s something to be said for the fortitude of such a book, published first under a pseudonym. Instead of focusing on the book’s cover, can we instead give readers the benefit of the doubt? Can we allow the unknowing to make the glorious mistake of stumbling accidentally, if that is possible, onto a work from which they might otherwise have shied away? Critics of the cover seem to be under the impression that readers today are not discerning enough to know what The Bell Jar is, that readers today cannot read the blurb on the back of the book (or inside the front cover flap) and tell that Plath’s work is not a sip-on-a-soda-and-read time killer. 

I find it odd that in a culture that so values the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mantra for every other aspect of life we so willingly embrace that judgement when it comes to actual books. There is a lot to be said for a cover, yes. And generally speaking it is, perhaps, the first thing to which we are drawn. That, however, does not form the only basis on which we choose what we read. It does not negate the reader’s ability to distinguish content from presentation. 

I say that to say this: given that Plath’s novel has withstood fifty years of readership and criticism, it is possible that we are allowing the cover too much importance. For some the cover will never be right; certain people will always be finding fault. And while the cover is a visual representation of the novel, it is not the novel itself. The Bell Jar can and will speak for itself, whether it is accidentally or deliberately read. 

 

In Praise of Profession

Most of us begin our adult lives with some vague optimism about the future. Even if things aren’t ideal in the beginning, we reason, surely the harder we work the better life will be. Growing up we all harbor some deep-seated hope that our jobs, whatever they may be, will in some way influence the world for good. We are told to dream–dream big, dream often, don’t stop–and we begin to believe in ourselves.

The truth is that most of us, upon being launched into adulthood, become satisfied with jobs that pay the bills. World changing? Perhaps not. Life-altering? Yeah, potentially. We trudge through each day, each week, paying the bills and wondering what all that dreaming was for. But a lucky few are able to carve out more than that for themselves. For some of us, reality and occupation are not combatants. Rather they coexist, and we are able to have one without falling prey to the other.

Arguably, no one ever goes into teaching for the money. Education is seldom, if ever, championed as a lucrative career choice. But I would argue that those of us who have chosen this profession have duped the rest of the world. Ours is a secret so delicious it must be told. 

Every day I go into a classroom where I sit with my books. Some of these books have been with me for awhile, since I was a student myself. They are worn; they are tattered and coffee-stained. They are old friends, keepers of solace. I go into a classroom with my books, and there are students there waiting for me, waiting for me to tell them what’s in the books. But instead of dryly delivering information for them to file away and regurgitate later, we have conversations. We talk about theme and plot and symbolism and all the things that make my books tick. And my students begin to know what they’re doing. When my day is finished, I find myself sitting at a desk trying to figure out when the actual work is going to begin.

Being a teacher is like being on the inside of a joke. The powers-that-be couldn’t possibly know what I do for my paycheck. Of course they don’t; if they knew how much fun I was having they probably wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I don’t mean to suggest that being a teacher is not without its problems. Anyone who has ever done it or tried to do it before will tell you that it’s tough. The grading and the grade-grubbing and the constant reminders that our work will never be done are, at times, maddening. Then payday roles around, and for one brief moment we all feel like the joke’s on us.

But at the end of the day it is my job, it is my occupation, to go into a classroom and discuss “Jabberwocky.” It is my job to watch my students develop confidence in themselves, my job to watch them come to appreciate and love the very same books that have meant so much to me, my job to help them find their own voice and figure out what to say and how to write with it. And while no job is without its problems, it’s not a bad way to earn a living.