Category Archives: Book Review

Daring Greatly to be an Imperfect “Good Enoughist…”

Pure Barre 100 club Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.
Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. 

Back in February, I set this small goal for myself:  before Easter, I would attend 100 Pure Barre® classes at the studio here in Naples.  And I did – I attended my 100th class on Good Friday, with two days to spare.  For me, this is no small achievement.  I am still in disbelief that I managed to accomplish this tiny feat (not to mention I got these “100 club” sticky socks for my feet).

As I have hit my mid-50s (in only a few short months I will be closer to 60), my listing of body trouble spots has grown to an impressive catalog –with bone spurs, herniated discs, menopause and osteoarthritis to name a few.  I would love to say that these practical signs of aging are the reason I’ve been out of shape, lost my core strength, and gained a few pounds.  And, when I’m practicing the art of self-compassion, I believe there is some truth to that.

But until recently, I haven’t been that compassionate towards myself, especially my body.  Over the past 50-odd years, whenever I do think about my body, it generally is with strong feelings of shame and remorse.  If only I was more perfect, was more athletic, ate the right foods, I would look better and be a better person.  I’ve had shame-free moments, of course.  Some even lasted for a few months.  But, overall, when I think about it (and I hate thinking about it), I generally have been totally ashamed of my body for most of my life.

I won’t bore you with the litany of sins that my body reflects or its countless flaws.  I often thought I learned about my body’s many shortcomings when it was too late to really do anything permanent about fixing them.  I learned about these many defects through interaction with a variety of sources, including messages from family and friends, as well as mass media (including but not limited to: Noxzema commercials, the cover of Seventeen Magazine, the Sears Catalog and TV in general).

As it happens, I’ve spent the bulk of my life (well, since 1971) focused on my diet: I’m starting a diet Monday, I’m on a diet, I need to diet, I can’t thinking about a diet right now.  I was always hesitant to be physically active as I had been teased (sometimes people can be unthinking) about how I looked (fat and/or stupid) when I rode my bike, ran, jumped or danced.  Many felt the need to instruct me on what I should eat and exactly how I should exercise – because whatever I was doing was wrong, in their eyes.  And I burned within from the shame of it all.  I also hid – a lot.  The scrutiny sucked the energy from me.

I had fleeting moments of “success” at different stages of my life and deep panic as I struggled in vain to maintain a certain weight.  But, overall, the idea of “healthy striving” was foreign to me and the goal was always unachievable:  perfection.  Judgment, shame, and blame framed my view of my body.  Despite the fact that I gave birth to a healthy son, finished college, law school, made partner at the firm, finished grad school, and managed to teach for 5 years, my body (which houses my mind, heart and spirit) was disgraceful, loathsome, vile.  I have pretty much talked to myself using these words on a daily basis for more than 40 years.

The two men in my life – my husband and son – are the antithesis of me.  My husband, despite his years, is an adept tennis player, swimmer, biker and hitter of groundballs. My son is a certified personal trainer who fields ground balls and played soccer and baseball in high school.  In fact, I don’t believe there are many sports my son doesn’t like, except maybe curling.  These two can get me on a tennis court (if no one else is playing) but I usually try to wiggle out of it somehow.  I’m petrified at anyone watching me swing a tennis racket, despite my husband’s encouraging words and shouts of, “great hit.”  My husband and son find me beautiful.  But I don’t believe them most of the time.

I am still slightly shocked that I ever walked into the Pure Barre® studio.

gifts of imperfection

Upon reflection, I think it has something to do with this work I started doing (imperfectly) on perfectionism, thanks to Brene’ Brown (check out The Gifts of Imperfection – it is a goldmine!).  I picked the book up in Target to give as a gift – and kept it.  As I have aged, I have grown so cynical about the “self help” books and theories as I find it all a bit self-absorbed.  But what is more self-centered than the human who spends so much time seeking the unattainable?  The idea that my flaws could be viewed as gifts was the hook. So I’ve read the book.  And for me, it has been so helpful.  Brown provides “ten guideposts” to help cultivate what she describes as a whole-hearted life.  The book is pragmatic, short, to the point, and full of resources and ideas that can help us change how we live our lives.  Not overnight, mind you.  Like Brown’s book “Daring Greatly,” The Gifts of Imperfection focuses on the power of being authentic and vulnerable.

 God, I hate not to be invulnerable.  Really.  I must be indomitable.  A badass.  Goes with my big ass. Vulnerability is not intuitive, let alone the concept that perfectionism is anything but the ideal.  And authenticity?  As Brene’ admits, it is not always the safe option.  For me, a daunting choice.  So much risk when I put myself out there.  The pursuit of perfection is the “perfect” suit of armor.  Who can criticize me when I already am criticizing myself?

not good enough itis

I have come to believe that, as Brene’ so wisely points out, seeking perfection is soul-sucking and obstructive and self-destructive.  Perfection is unattainable, but if it is our primary goal, it leads to self-blame (and self-centeredness):  “I’m not good enough.”  Brown makes perfect sense to me when she writes that we need to embrace our imperfections to find our “truest gifts:  courage, compassion and connection.”

So I’ve started to work on overcoming my desire to be perfect and to become a “good enoughist.”  And I started in my most vulnerable, imperfect place:  my body.

I’d done the BMI calculations and checked out the weight/height charts and knew that I was hovering on being unhealthy.  I needed to exercise and eat a healthy diet.  I worked to incorporate some fruits and veggies and more protein into my diet.  I added regular exercise: I rode my bike (wore dark sunglasses) and took Pilates (small or private classes so no one could see me) but had to stop Pilates because of bone spurs in my right shoulder.  Honestly?  I think I was hiding out in these forms of exercise and I wasn’t being “self-compassionate.”  In a way, I was still suffering from total perfection paralysis.

But one morning, after refusing to play tennis (again – worried about what the real players would think), I stared in the mirror at my aging 50-something face (artfully lined by life’s unalterable progression) and thought, “why do I work so hard at not working out rather than work hard at working out?”  So, rather than just agreeing philosophically with the guideposts in The Gifts of Imperfection, I actually began to deliberately and intentionally practice Brene’ Brown’s formula (she doesn’t say it this way exactly but it helps me to think of it this way) for letting go of perfection: (1) engaging in self-kindness (“I am trying my best”), (2) understanding that feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the human experience (“I am never alone in my struggles”) and (3) being mindful of, but not exaggerating my “painfail” emotions (I recognize my feelings but I try not to be “swept away by negative reactivity.”).  Practice is the key word here – some days are better than others, and I often am reminded of that phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.”

So – I walked into Pure Barre® Naples last November.  It was risky and I felt ever so vulnerable. I chose Pure Barre® because I love to dance (it is a low-impact, full body workout based in part on ballet) and I love losing myself in music. Of course, I took the introductory class first (the one that teaches you the basics so you can move precisely and perfectly (ahem – I added those “p” words) when you actually take a regular class…) but then signed up for ten classes. And then for a month of unlimited classes…every month.  I loved it but I really had to work hard at self-kindness (you do look in the mirror a lot and I had been hiding not just from others but myself – lord, my butt is huge – but booty’s are in, right?).   The studio set up is about a common humanity – the group classes are about a community working toward strength, energy and good health, all to the beat of the music.  The instructors are all incredible, supportive and encouraging (every time I hear an instructor call out: “great form, Karen,” it still takes a minute to realize they are talking to me).  The idea is that the 55 minutes at the Barre is a “time for you.”  It is not about comparing my body or my ability to someone else’s.  It is not about reaching some impossible standard.  It is about my physical well-being and me.  What a magical gift.   I even began to dress differently for class after the first month – hiding in baggy clothes didn’t help my form.  And yes, my body is still imperfect and flawed. But it is getting stronger and it feels healthier every day. And I’m not hiding it so much anymore.

pure-barre-4  100 club

And sure, a few people in my life have freely offered some negative critique of my new-found joy in working out at Pure Barre®  (and yes, they are poking at my vulnerability) and I’ve had to work hard on my “shame-resilience.”  But, after attending 100 classes, I realize I own this piece of my life.  And somehow, through a daily (sometimes hourly) practice of self-compassion, I achieved a minor milestone. I am looking forward to more moments like these, but I am savoring and celebrating this moment. Because many days I might still feel afraid, but still, more and more days I feel grateful and joyous – and very brave and very alive.  Maybe I can be a courageous and vulnerable badass.

-KarenDSC02405

The Silver Lining: An Insightful & Supportive Guide to Breast Cancer, By Hollye Jacobs, RN, MS, MSW

Silver LIning Cover

“Cancer.” Loathsome and foul.  Relentless. The treatment is brutal.  My most immediate experiences with Cancer have been as an outsider: daughter, sister, friend of patient.  Over the years, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about breast, colon and liver cancers*, stumbling through complex medical jargon.

And I searched high and low for something resembling a handbook that addressed, in “people-speak,” a patient’s day-to-day realities of dealing with “Cancer.”  My search has ended, thanks to Hollye Jacobs, an RN, licensed clinical social worker and  palliative care provider, who was diagnosed with Breast Cancer at the age of 39.  Hollye has published an insightful, compassionate, practical, graceful, honest, and humorous guide to dealing with breast cancer titled:  The Silver Lining.

The book is drawn, in part, from Hollye’s blog,  The Silver Pen which, like her book, looks to serve as a guide and inspiration to “navigating the realities of cancer.” The chapters center around Jacobs’ own life journey with cancer (she writes a heartfelt explanation of why she does not personally view cancer as a battle) and each includes a memoir portion, a section on “practical matters” (key clinical details about managing the patient experience), and some silver linings.

hollye jacobs 2 holly jacobs

Hollye’s narrative is accompanied by beautiful, uplifting and elegant photographs taken by her friend and gifted professional photographer, Elizabeth Messina, whose words in the introduction resonated with me:

“The day that Hollye told me that she had breast cancer, I felt haunted with helplessness. I wanted to hug her, to bring her flowers.  I wanted to do something, but nothing seemed quite right.  I did not want to burden her with my fear and sadness.  I also knew that I could not eliminate the intensity of the path that lay in front of her.”

I’ve felt this way – with my mom, sister, dad, and my dear friend, Nancy – after they were diagnosed with Cancer and during their treatment and recovery.  You do what you know how to do to help them, and it never ever seems quite right. Messina offered to take photographs to help Jacobs record the journey. The photos were initially intended as a personal gift of love.  The two of them only began to envision the book a year after Hollye’s diagnosis.  An inspiring collaboration of healing and friendship.

silverliningphoto

Jacobs’ guide in the early pages of the book of  what to do when facing a cancer diagnosis is invaluable, in my own experience, as there is a mental fog that envelops patients and families during these initial weeks.  She offers  a primer on medical tests and types of breast cancer/staging,  a list of coping mechanisms for needle phobias, questions to ask during tests and questions to ask at the time of diagnosis. And that’s just Chapter 1.

The subsequent chapters cover:

  1. communicating with children about your cancer diagnosis,
  2. navigating the surgical experience (Jacobs had a double mastectomy),
  3. and the unique experiences of chemotherapy and radiation.

Her humor is ever present (the chemotherapy chapter is titled “Chemo Sobby”) and she doesn’t sugarcoat the side effects of treatment, reporting that she had all listed side effects except seizures, with details on vomiting, pernicious diarrhea, mouth sores, and constipation.  Jacobs offers practical advice as to how to deal with these and other treatment side effects and, in her eternal optimism, views them as a “silver lining” as she is able to write about her experience with them and offer guidance to others as to how to navigate them.  Her chapter on the emotional impact of cancer treatment is also a must-read for cancer patients and families.

The final chapters of The Silver Lining include a list of comprehensive resources and address the ebb and flow of recovery once treatment ends and what life after cancer looks like. I think Jacobs’ focus on her marriage and working her way back to intimacy with her HOTY (Husband of the Year) make for compelling  and inspiring reading.

I love the “Lifelines” set in the margins of each chapter in The Silver Lining. These brief notes offer worthwhile, thoughtful and practical advice or encouragement:

photo 3  photo 2

photo 1

Many of these “Lifelines,” and much of Jacobs’ practical advice about chemo and radiation, could be applicable to other forms of cancer as well, despite the books focus on breast cancer.

I follow Hollye’s blog and I was thrilled to win an advanced copy of the book from the publisher (Atria Books) in a giveaway on Goodreads.  But, honestly?  Before reading it, I was pretty skeptical about the “silver linings” bit.  I’ve witnessed Cancer from a variety of angles and I struggled with the idea that there are any silver linings to be found in the living with  all that comes with it.  Here are some of Jacobs’ personal silver linings:

  • seeing a hummingbird outside her window when she was wretchedly ill from chemotherapy
  • vile tasting medicine managed pain
  • feeling isolated from the world helped her tap into her “inner resources”

To me, these “silver linings” made sense – they  gave Jacobs a focal point (and some days she had to look really hard to find the silver lining) and helped her endure a painful, rotten Herculean journey. Jacobs is no Pollyanna – she is emphatic in stating that CANCER IS NOT A GIFT.  But she writes that she had two choices about how to handle her diagnosis:  from a place of fear or a place of optimism.  I admire her courage and her resilience.

This is a practical and hopeful book for anyone with breast cancer, especially those in the initial stages of diagnosis, undergoing treatment or in the early days of post-treatment. There isn’t much specific information for those faced with a recurrence of breast cancer (and I pray Jacobs never has to walk that path), but I do think there is a great deal of supportive material in the book for patients who experience recurrence, especially in her chapter on “Sustenance & Soulfulness,” which describes nutritional and complementary therapies to help with cancer treatment.

The-Silver-Lining-Maureen-Abood-1024x768My personal “silver lining” or “lifeline” in the book was the section for friends and family, Being With, where Jacobs compassionately sets forth the “practical ways TO BE:

  •  PRESENT
  • PATIENT
  • CALM
  • A GOOD LISTENER
  • HONEST & COMMUNICATIVE
  • NORMAL
  • PERSISTENT….and
  • DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY!  

No, not all of us are wired to look for “silver linings” in hard times and individual personalities have to find their own coping mechanisms for dealing with Cancer. Nonetheless, even for those with different approaches, The Silver Lining offers practical, insightful “lifelines” for people impacted by Cancer.

silver lining door

*A great book that discusses Cancer  from a medical/scientific/historical perspective is The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  Accessible to the non-scientist, it lays out how society has dealt with Cancer through the ages.  Fascinating read.

 -Karen  DSC02405

In Their Own Words (A Book Review)

When I was about ten, I spent a full year checking out, then renewing, my favorite book from the library. Finally for my birthday my mom and dad gave me a gift certificate to my favorite bookstore, The Red Balloon, who special ordered the book for me. What was the name of the book? My Prairie Year, based on the diary of Elenore Plaisted.

my prairie year

The book was put together by Elenore’s granddaughter. I made my mom read the book to me over and over again. I loved hearing about the different tasks involved in living out in the prairie. I imagined running through the sheets drying on the clothes line. I was thankful I didn’t have to warm the irons up on the stove before pressing my clothes. I loved reading about how Father tied a string from the barn to the house so that he wouldn’t get lost when he went to the barn to milk the cows during the winter blizzard. (I thought about tying a string from my house to my garage several times this winter, just in case.)

The book made homesteading in the Dakotas in the late 1800s come alive for me. And the pencil drawn illustrations are beautiful.

When I started teaching, I came across another book that I loved almost as much. It has become a “sacred text” in my classroom, which means that we read it again and again. This book, also a memoir, is called When I Was Young In The Mountains by Cynthia Rylant.

when

Though the setting is in the mountains of Appalachia, there are many obvious comparisons. Rylant uses incredible imagery as she tells of visiting her grandparents home in the mountains. In prose so lyrical it almost reads as poetry, she illuminates everyday events, such as eating so much okra that she makes herself sick, warming up water for the evening bath in the old wood stove, being baptized in the local pond, and killing a snake as long as a room.

My love of memoir has grown with me as I have gotten older. The stories we tell of our lives are some of the most precious gifts we can give. Both these women have given incredible gifts of time, place, and adventure. In continuing the Women’s History Month theme, I wanted to highlight their voices and their stories.

In my own classroom, I use these books as “mentor texts” to highlight personal narratives in writing. In my home, I can’t wait to read stories to my little boy that tell of women like these two, strong and courageous. (Because it’s important to grow strong daughters, but it’s just as important to grow sons who respect strong daughters.)

My hope is that they will be well loved books in many others’ libraries.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Intended Audience: All ages

Book Review: The Strong Women Who Lead the Way

She’s relatively well known at this point, but I stumbled upon Jeanette Winter’s book The Librarian of Basra at the closing of an art show featuring the silk road. It was my first year of teaching, and they were selling huge bolts of satin fabric, perfect for my bulletin boards. There, in the middle of the room, was a copy of the Librarian of Basra. No dust jacket. On sale for $5.

That was a little more than I would usually pay for a used book, but something about the book grabbed me, and I added it to the mounds of fabric and brought it to check out. I didn’t know it at time, but I had just found my new favorite picture book author and illustrator.

Jeanette Winter has written and illustrated many books. My favorite of her books are biographies about various women of note. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are a few of my favorite titles, featuring three brave women:

The_Librarian_of_BasraThe Librarian of Basra: This book was my first introduction to Jeanette Winter. In it, she tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, a librarian in Iraq. When the Iraq war started, Alia could not get the officials in her city to approve the relocation of the library. With incredible bravery, she took matters into her own hands. This story tells of one woman’s courage to fight for what she knew was right. The pictures show some very important images of war, which always capture my students’ attention, and leads to meaningful discussion.

indexWangari’s Trees of Peace: Not knowing my budding appreciation of Winter, my mother bought this book for my students after reading about Wangari Matthai’s incredible testimony of bringing back green to her homeland of Kenya with the simple and powerful act of planting trees. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, this book tells her story, and like Alia Muhammad Baker, details the bravery and courage it takes to stand up for change. Along with the book, my mother sent a package of dates, since many of the trees planted were date trees. Not all of my students were convinced, but it was fun to try something new.

georgiaoGeorgia:  In Georgia, Winter tells the story of Georgia O’Keefe, starting from when she was a small child, and going through until her death. Though her story of bravery is somewhat different from Alia’s and Wangari’s, Winter explains how she was willing to stay true to who she knew she was, despite that necessitating going against the grain. “When my sisters wore sashes-I didn’t. When my sisters wore stockings-I wore none.” This is an excellent book to use to celebrate the beautiful creations that come from being willing to leave the crowd and march to the beat of your own drum.

Like I said, Winter has many, many books. I get excited each time I see a new hardcover picture book with her name printed on the spine. They are well worth making a trip to the local library or bookstore to check out.

Intended ages: 8 and up

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

In the aftermath of horror and in the midst of grief, we must dance to heal and survive – or bake cakes.

Baking Cakes

Baking Cakes in Kigali  by Gaile Parkin

Cakes.  Birthday Cakes.  Bat Mitzvah Cakes.  Graduation Cakes.  Christmas Cakes. Humans the world over bake cakes to honor, to celebrate, to mark an important ceremony.   The cutting of a cake at a wedding is a symbolic, social ritual: the bride and groom cut the cake together and share a piece  to symbolize their union and their promise to forever provide for each other, before distributing it to wedding guests. Cakes signify celebration and sharing, no matter where one is from or what language one speaks.

Gaile Parkin’s soul-warming story centers around cakes and celebrations  in the most unlikeliest of places:  Kigali, Rwanda, scene of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The novel opens only six years later, in the living room of a philosophical  and “Professional” cake baker, Angel Tungaraza.  Angel is a pragmatic, hopeful and proud native Tanzanian, who has relocated to Rwanda with her husband, Pius, and their five orphaned grandchildren to build a new life after the death of their only two children.  Angel is undergoing the “Change”, putting on weight, but still enthusiastically creating colorfully-iced cakes which she sells to friends and neighbors to help support her family.

africa cake

Parkin’s debut novel was first published in 2009 and is divided into 14 chapters.  Each chapter centers on a specific celebration and Angel plays the role of the “everywoman” cake baker as the stories of the celebrants, the attendees, and Angel’s family, friends and neighbors unfolds.

Angel is determined, good-natured and warm-hearted and seeks to help other others find their inner strength and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the genocide, “”those hundred days while violence was tearing this country to pieces like a chicken on a plate”. Much of the narrative centers on Angel’s apartment block in Kigali, the home of aid workers from around the world and native Rwandans whose paths cross and whose lives intertwine.  These characters experience a shared humanity despite their varying origins, races, traditions, and cultures.

rwanda_map

Despite the many beautiful cakes, celebrations and seemingly simple stories, painful, heart-wrenching pasts lurk in the background and the complexity of our world emerges from the pages with startling clarity.  At its core, the book tell us about love, acceptance and the ability to look forward and celebrate a hopeful future in the wake of an HIV epidemic, mass murder, suicide, and hate.  It also looks hard at the ideas of truth, unity and reconciliation and what it means to not only say, but live, the words “Never Again.”

As I was glancing through the pages of this book while writing this review, I realized how much this story – and Angel – stuck with me, even though I first read it 3 years ago.  It is an engaging read – but the hope in this book is a vital force and simply encouraging.   The ability to make something positive, especially at times when there is little hope and much to mourn, is an essential tool to living this gift of our life on this planet to its fullest.  It brings to mind a favorite philosopher of my husband’s, Zorba the Greek, who, after his son died, danced  –

It was the dancing When my little boy Dimitri died…and everybody was crying… Me, I got up and I danced. They said, “Zorba is mad.” But it was the dancing — only the dancing that stopped the pain.

I think Angel would have baked the cake for Zorba’s dance party – and there would have been even more healing and hope.

Suitable for ages 14 and up.  It is helpful to have some background of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 prior to reading (or, like me, you can always zip to the web).

-Karen261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n - Version 2

Talking, Language, Memory, Anthropomorphism, Mirrors & Love

  missing fern

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, By Karen Joy Fowler

“The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff.” Rosemary

The written word also reveals secrets so I will start this review by saying that I will do my best not to go over the cliff in order to allow anyone who reaches for this book – as the result of reading this post – the opportunity to experience it as the author intended.  Whatever you do, don’t read the book flaps or the back cover.  I read this unique novel on my kindle and for once, I feel I am the better for it.  I downloaded it after reading a 2013 Great Book Picks (or something like that) and didn’t recall what it was about when I decided to begin reading it the other day.

This is a superb read – loaded with suspense, cleverly written, fascinating characters and compelling subject matter.  It is full of beginnings.  Read it through to the end (it won’t be hard to) and I can almost guarantee that you will be enthralled by the narrative and the narrator.

fowler book

I immediately fell in love with the voice of Rosemary, Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the prologue of this story of families, academic scientific research, college towns, science,  ethics and the animal rights movement.  Rosemary immediately reveals that she was a “great talker” as a child and that her parents valued her “extravagant abundance” and “inexhaustible flow” of words; nonetheless, her mother’s tip to polite social behavior was to pick one thing to say (your favorite) when you think of two or three things to say. Her father advises her early on to begin in the middle of any story, especially given her propensity to use her words to prolong her encounters with anyone who will pay attention to her.

And so she begins to tell “the middle” of her story, ten years after her older brother disappeared and 17 years since her sister vanished.  And we begin to learn about Rosemary, a college student in her fifth year at UC Davis with no degree on the horizon.  She is arrested after throwing a glass of milk in the cafeteria for no discernible reason. And it is through the aftermath of her arrest, and the days that follow, that the reader learns about her unusual family, her struggles in Kindergarten (“kindergarten is all about learning which parts of you are welcome at school and which are not”), her journey away from talking to silence (“I’d come to silence hard”), and how a family will always struggle to be together even when staying together seems impossible.  

And as the narrative unfolds, past sins and secrets are revealed and mysteries are deciphered.  And Rosemary slowly begins to find herself in her search for her missing siblings.  She ponders: “I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one spending my life making the same mistake over and over again or if that’s simply human.  Do we all tend toward a single besetting sin?”  And we begin to understand why Rosemary must look more carefully in “the mirror,” despite her rejection of her own reflection, made ironic as she lectures a self-important college guy on the “mirror” test and how “we’ve been using it to determine self-awareness” since Darwin.

I loved this story and its thoughtful presentation of animal research ethics. Pieces of ourselves can “go missing” for years, much like Rosemary’s siblings, and sometimes the only way to find them is to look hard in the mirror and truly see what is there. Because who in this life has never been completely beside themselves?

beside ourselves Fern

Ages: 14 and up.  Some profanity.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame… A Triple Play Review!

Spring Training is underway and pitchers and catchers in both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues reported last week, with position players reporting this week.  And for many, this winter’s fiercely frigid weather has made us anxious for the baseball season to officially begin as that first pitch is a definite sign that spring is in the air!  So in honor of all things baseball, together with recognition of Black History month, this review looks at a few titles that explore baseball before and during the Civil Rights movement and the efforts to break the color barrier on the baseball diamond.

I love books about baseball, well, because I love baseball.  It is a quintessentially American sport and its history reflects the challenges we have faced as a culture (and those we continue to face in this age of desperate measures to be the very best).  My classroom library has always contained a bursting bin with books about every aspect of baseball, including one on the physics of baseball.

My favorite books in the baseball bin are the picture books — which capture the beauty and movement of a sport that is demanding, exacting, front-loaded with failure, torturous (extra-inning games), but always (almost) unpredictable, with great potential for dramatic action.   Three of my favorites are laden with pictures, paintings, and photographs which can be enjoyed by baseball fans of all ages and can be meaningfully incorporated into a K-12 ELA and Social Science curriculum.  They can be used alone or together.

We are the Ship (The Story of Negro League Baseball), by Kadir Nelson

front of we are the ship

Kadir Nelson’s breathtaking narrative about the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues is packed with punch.  Hank Aaron penned the foreword and the story is told from the point of view of an unnamed “Everyman” who provides a “first-hand” chronicle of life as a black player beginning not too long after Abner Doubleday was said to have invented the game.  The book is divided into nine chapters or “innings.”  The “first inning” details the story of Rube Foster, the founder of the first Negro League and the “ninth inning” accounts the journey of Jackie Robinson as he crossed the color line into the previously all white major leagues.  The paintings of the players, the stadiums, the baseball cards, the ticket stubs all add to this detailed and compelling story of baseball and many important players, who may not all be as famous as Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, but who forged a path that led to Jackie Robinson’s dramatic debut.  The pain of bigotry and segregation is detailed in the words and the eyes of the players Nelson so beautifully depicts.  And yet the joy of playing baseball leaps from every page.

back of We are the Ship

Satchel Paige, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, with paintings by James E. Ransome

 satchel paige

“Some say Leroy Paige was born six feet three and a half inches tall, 180 pounds, wearing a size fourteen shoe. Not a bit of truth to it. And some argue that when Mrs. Lula Paige first held her precious Leroy in her arms, she noticed his right fist was tightly curved around a baseball. Pure fiction. It would take him eighteen years to grow to that size and about half that amount of time to realize that his hand and a baseball were a perfect match.”

Lesa Cline-Ransome and her husband James Ransome have collaborated together to create a number of extraordinary books and “Satchel Paige” was their first joint work, and is a lovely tribute to the first black player named to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.   James Ransome’s paintings bring the amazing Leroy Robert Paige to life as we learn how he came to be called Satchel (from carrying bags at the train station in Mobile, Alabama where he grew up).  Lesa Cline-Ransome’s narrative is enthralling as the reader learns that Satchel was caught shop-lifting and spent five years in reform school where he perfected the art of pitching.  “And no one pitched  like Satchel Paige.”  The writing, the paintings, and a chart of Paige’s vital statistics at the book’s end make this book an informative, entertaining and visually compelling read.

  Teammates, by Peter Golenbock, Illustrated by Paul Bacon

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“The general manage of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was a man by the name of Branch Rickey.  He was not afraid of change.  He wanted to treat the Dodger fans to the best players he could find, regardless of the color of their skin.  He thought segregation was unfair and wanted to give everyone, regardless of race or creed, an opportunity to compete equally on ballfields across America.  To do this, the Dodgers needed one special man.”

And so begins the story, as told artfully by Peter Golenbock, of Jackie Robinson’s early days in what has been called “the great experiment.”  This short but powerful narrative of the many challenges faced by Robinson in making the Dodgers and traveling with the team is told simply and directly.  And the stark truth of the death threats and the constant cruelty and humiliations by fellow players and opposing team players is seen in the short, muscular, declarative sentences describing Robinson’s life in the major leagues.  Golenbock’s dramatic description in the closing pages of  Pee Wee Reese’s bold move (for the time) in support of Robinson is direct and powerful.  Paul Bacon’s watercolor illustrations are combined with black & white photographs and headlines from this important time period in the history of baseball – and civil rights.

This book can be read by all ages and, despite its complexity (of subject matter) and simplicity (in words and pictures) be understood by all who read it.  We all want to be as brave and talented as Jackie Robinson and as brave and fair-minded (not to set aside the talented) as Pee Wee Reese.  These two baseball greats made history in more than one way – they helped change our world for the better.

Useful Resources:  Here are some additional resources to learn more about the Negro Leagues, the integration of major league baseball and James & Lisa Cline Ransome.

  1. Lisa Cline-Ransome’s website
  2. Negro League’s Baseball Museum
  3. Negro League’s Legacy
  4. Negro League’s Baseball Player’s Association
  5. “A Long Toss Back” (Smithsonian Magazine)
  6. Scholastic Lesson on Negro League’s (with a link to a “Breaking Barriers” essay contest for grades 4-9)  Essay deadline is March 14, 2014
  7. Negro League Baseball website
  8. National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum

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