Books High School Students Should Read in 2020

A recent Grumpy Rumblings post prompted much thought and triggered many musings. First of all, I can’t believe A Separate Peace is still taught in high schools. That book was dated and insignificant in my day. That said, I think books should be added to a syllabus because they are great works of literature, not because of newly prescribed requirements. However, there are so many excellent books to consider and add that no one should have any excuse.

Here are the books I would require high school students (from grade 9-12) to read — in addition to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Mark Twain, Dickens, Joyce, the Bronte sisters, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka and Nathaniel Hawthorne — if I was a high school English teacher. These are Great Books, and they earn their place through sheer merit and brilliance.

  • Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Austen should be as important to the “Western Canon” as Shakespeare. She has arguably as much influence on modern day novels, film and TV shows as any other writer of the English language. Here is just a small selection of recent works inspired by Austen: Atonement, Remains of the Day, Clueless, Bridget Jones Diary, Eligible, Ayesha at Last, and of course Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,  I’d argue even the uber masculine Master and Commander series is influenced by Austen. She was a proto-feminist who spotlighted the deeply unfair issues with being a woman during her time period. And she did so with unmatched wit, intelligence and gripping plot twists.
  • Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust. (First novel in Remembrance of Things Past). As challenging to penetrate as the tedious Artist as a Young Man (which I had to suffer through for AP English), but so much more rewarding. No other book I have ever read has actually changed the way I perceive the world. The focus on time, memory, obsession, art and most of all our own senses is unique, as is the outsider perspective from Proust himself, a Jewish gay man trying to assess how, if at all, he could fit into French bourgeois society.
  • The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. More like poetry than fiction, this outsider version of World War II challenges the reader to reconsider such grand concepts as patriotism, colonialism, love and loyalty. I can’t think of the last passage, where one character picks up the cup another character drops a continent away, without bursting into tears.
  • White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. If there is a better book about the modern 21st century multicultural city, I haven’t read it. The clashes and humor that inevitably rise from the confrontation of several disparate cultures in London is inspired by Dickens (and would make a great companion to Tale of Two Cities). This debut from a twenty year old (!) is the work of unique genius. White Teeth is fun, freewheeling, breathtaking, shocking and prescient, and spawned a million inferior copies. The introduction of the fundamentalist organization KEVIN is one of the funniest passages I’ve ever read.‘We are aware,’ said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, ‘that we have an acronym problem.’
  • Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie. My dad interviewed Rushdie back in the fatwah days. He was shuttled to two different decoy locations by security personnel before finally being ferried to a third unidentified, secure location to meet the famed novelist. I love Moor’s Last Sigh too, but Midnight’s Children wins the day. A modern-day telling of India post-colonial times within a fantastical framework, this book is what the more well-known and inferior God of Small Things tried to be, and failed.
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Kite Runner is excellent as well, but I loved this take on misogyny and what strong women can achieve, even during the worst of circumstances.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Swoon city. This ambitious tome, so much better than that other well-known Márquez work, showcases the myriad versions of romantic love, in all its numerous and colorful forms. The last chapter is so beautifully written, it’s almost as if a god came down to earth and possessed a human writer.
  • Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Has there ever been a scarier book about being a teenage girl? Anyone who has seen Mean Girls (Cordelia is a terrifying prototype for Regina George) will recognize the same issues herein, albeit in a much darker version of how awful girls can be to one another. Chilling, yet beautifully told. I read Cat’s Eye on my honeymoon and that was a mistake.
  • Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward.  This is a masterpiece, transposing a teenage coming of age tale within the uniquely American tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I think about passages from this haunting elegy often. More subtle, revealing and devastating than The Hate U Give.
  • Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell. Woodrell’s writing got under my skin and then lived there. Based in the Ozarks and featuring a dysfunctional yet close-knit group of kin, Winter’s Bone features a uniquely determined, grim yet forthright heroine. The movie is great, too.
  • Night, by Elie Wiesel. My public high school had a mandatory Holocaust class requirement for graduation, and this should not be an anomaly. Senior year, after learning the whole long history of anti-semitism until Auschwitz, we watched World War II footage of concentration camp victims being freed, as well as former guards filling mass graves with skeletal corpses of those who did nothing wrong other than be Jewish. No one who sees that footage will ever, ever forget. This book is a stark reminder that the most ordinary people are capable of great evil, as well as unthinkable resilience.

What books would you add to the high school syllabus, if you were an English teacher?

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Not Now, 2020

I saw this phrase somewhere, and it seems apropos to the current moment. There is a lot of scary stuff going on in our neck of the woods.

  • Yesterday, I packed a to-go bag and planned an escape route if we need to evacuate. I donned a mask and went outside into air that isn’t very habitable for humans so I could water down our hill and get rid of anything flammable.
  • The air here is akin to the infamous London Fog, the environ in which Jack the Ripper was able to commit his crimes and disappear. The atmosphere is thick with smoke, almost impenetrable and utterly toxic.
  • Last night we were told by local officials it was possible we would be woken up by another completely atypical dry lightening storm. (We had one last week which started a number of dangerous fires, which are still burning out of control.) We were told the new lightening could set off a firestorm and send us running into the night.
  • The plan, if our neighborhood is broached by brutal flames from the sky, is to get out, and drive as close as we can to the Bay edge.
  • Luckily, the lightening did not come to pass. But I did not sleep well.

In true Stoic fashion, I am trying to live in the moment and savor what is good. And there IS a lot of be grateful for. Here’s my list:

  • My husband and I have a strong, functional marriage. He’s got my back and I have his. He’s more than an equal partner, and there’s no one I’d rather hang with. Which is lucky, since we now hang out 24/7.
  • My kids are kind, bright, funny and precocious. Parenting is hard, but they are good people.
  • My parents gave me everything I needed to thrive. I recently drove up for a visit (I can now drive to see them!), and spending a whole week at their pretty new home was restorative, enlightening and wholesome.
  • My brother and his wife are lovely, hospitable people who live one block from my parents. My nephew is super adorable and good-natured. My brother is my best friend, and his texts make my days brighter.
  • My in-laws are generous, helpful and live nearby. We have a strong rapport, and they are very kind and caring.
  • The twins’ school is an excellent institution of learning. The staff care deeply about their students, and the virtual schooling they set up in the spring was exceptional. While virtual learning isn’t ideal, the way the school structured the day with Zoom classes mimicked the pre-pandemic school day almost exactly – classes from 8-3 pm with a lunch break – and additional homework. Neither Josh nor I had to engage in any type of homeschooling, as opposed to almost every other parent I know, and I don’t think either of the kids regressed. The twins had advisers regularly checking in to make sure they got what they needed.
  • We are lucky to have the resources to BE at this school. But also, almost half of the students are low income (not the case at the local public school). I have seen how this gives our children a different outlook on the world. Their friends are children of single moms who put their whole might and being into providing the best education for their kids. It’s sobering but also inspiring.
  • The Peloton provides the kind of challenging yet inspiring workouts I need right now. Today I did the Ben Alldis “Ibiza” dance challenge, which featured awesome music and a virtual night out in Ibiza. This workout was super fun for a random Monday. Somehow during my world tour of party towns and festivals in my twenties I missed out on Ibiza. (I went through an insufferable “I can be a female version of Ernest Hemingway, but on the cheap” phase, visiting: Pamplona for the opening of the Running of the Bulls, Switzerland for the canyoning, Paris for Bastille Day, Barcelona’s Olympic Village, London during the Notting Hill Festival, Cabo San Lucas and Lake Havasu for Spring Break, as well as Ios, Amsterdam and South Beach  just because.)
  • I have a tight knit circle of female friends, and they have provided well-sourced and wise advice during these difficult times. They are supportive, but they also keep me accountable. And those are the best kind of friends I can have.
  • Sally is a Good Dog. She loves us, and we love her.

Sally

What is keeping you going right now?

Stay safe and be well.

Xoxo, Jjiraffe

 

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The Quarantine Five (or so)

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SHU Box (of the “Best of Both Worlds” podcast) has, I think, written every single day of the quarantine. She’s recently been posting an interesting “habits” feature. The latest one on eating habits–and an accompanying comment by Gwinne–prompted me to come back here for a fairly superficial topic, if you will forgive me.

Part of why I haven’t showed up here regularly, in addition to some insane work hours, has been a hesitation to talk about the scary, serious events that have been occurring (which frankly, I am still processing). So I hope this post doesn’t come across as superficial and tone-deaf during this crazy, awful time. 

Lots of us, I think, have been trying as best we can to stay healthy during the pandemic. Part of that is, of course, diet and exercise. I used to go to exercise classes or the gym pre-pandemic. Now I don’t do either of those things.

As I wrote earlier this summer, I had been doing TV streaming exercise programs, mostly the 30 Day Shred. I also walk my dog once a day, for about 20-30 minutes. I needed minor surgery this summer, which required me to not work out for about a month. Immediately after the surgery (like, the next day!) I gained two pounds, which I was not able to shake off. I made tweaks to my diet cutting back portions, but nothing. I wondered if the daily cocktail we had been making were playing a role, so I took a week off with no alcohol and I gained two more pounds!! WUT?

Before Covid-19, I was already creeping towards my high water mark for my weight, and now I am at that mark.

After the surgery restriction was lifted, my Peloton arrived. Since I am no longer paying any gym or Orange Theory class fees for the foreseeable future, I thought an investment in an at-home exercise machine (my first!) was probably worth it. I love the bike so far, and try to use it every day. SHU wisely recommended adding heavier weights to my routine, and that was certainly something that made me feel stronger and better while I was doing Orange Theory. So I plan to order some for the house, as the Peloton app offers heavier weight classes.

Still, my weight hovers in my high range. I’m not technically overweight, but my body just doesn’t feel great and I want my immune system to be in good shape. I’ve gained weight in my mid-section, where previously I never carried it. I feel sluggish and slower. Gwinne mentioned age as a factor, and as I am in my mid-40s, it is definitely a possibility.

On the food front, I’m not sure what to do. Here is my typical daily menu. I feel like I am starving sometimes, which sucks.

Morning

  • Shot of espresso with 4 oz steamed whole milk, no sugar

Lunch

  • 6 oz low fat cottage cheese with one sliced tomato (I hate whole fat cottage cheese, although I know it’s better for me) or
  • 6 oz Greek yogurt with sliced fruit or
  • 4 oz leftover salmon (although like SHU, I tend to hoard the leftovers for more dinners!)

Snack

  • 12 whole almonds or one peach or 10 cherries or 1 tablespoon peanut butter
  • 1-2 LaCroixs (0 calories)

(Sometimes: One cocktail before dinner. We’ve been working our way through this list.)

Dinner

  • 4 oz steamed salmon or 4 oz roasted chicken or 1 turkey burger (no bun) or 1 BBQ’d Aidells chicken apple sausage
  • Small side salad with this vinaigrette, or steamed / roasted veggies with olive oil and salt/pepper (usually Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, Swiss Chard)
  • (Sometimes: half a baked potato with small portion sour cream)

(Note: We have been half-a**ing it on the cooking front this summer, making the same dishes over and over.)

What the heck am I doing wrong? 

Have you gained weight during the pandemic? Any suggestions to change up my diet? Am I stressing over something stupid and meaningless during this horrible time? 

Hope you all are well and safe

Xoxo Jjiraffe

 

 

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Surgery and Thoughts on Productivity

I had to have surgery last week. While preparing to be out of office for the day, I set up my work email responder to make sure I directed any urgent inquiries to my business partner. I was amazed to see that I had not set it up since August 2019. In other words, I have not taken a single day off since then. Not even a national holiday.

There are a lot of advantages to owning your own business. But there are also a few significant downsides. Under normal conditions, my profession is filled with more deadlines and urgency than almost any other career, other than firefighting and surgery. (I’ve always found this so stupid, given I’m not out there saving lives. It’s the biggest downside of my profession.) Needless to say, 2020 has not provided normal conditions.  I won’t go into too much detail but: it’s been a very, very difficult time to keep a business afloat, especially one that depends on nonstop strategic brainpower, endurance and sheer freaking will. I take our responsibility to the people who work for us very seriously, and can NOT let them down.

Even with this scary climate, I still find myself beating myself up for not being productive enough. By productive enough, I mean: healthy enough, making the right business decisions, working hard enough, being a great mom and parent, being a good person. I just read an article profiling a prolific, famous author, who credits her success doing all these things to her “upholder” tendencies. She said for years and years, she has woken up early and run at least 8 miles and this is why she can do all she can do, even now during this terrible time.

Let me make this clear: I don’t resent the author. She works hard, and she deserves her success. What I fault is my own tendency to seek out and read these kind of articles.

At the risk of boring you all, I’ll remind you that stoicism is what ends up always keeping me afloat.

Especially now.

So. If you are feeling less than, if you are feeling you’re not doing enough or you’re scared about the future (and who isn’t??) – here’s what I can tell you.

Savor today. Savor this moment. We’re alive! We’re still here.

Spend time with your loved ones (within your household, or pod, or whatever). Watch a fun movie together tonight if you can. Or go to sleep early.

Seek mental health resources, if you need to. This is an unprecedented time of stress, fear and anger.

If you can work out, do so (it makes us all feel better). I can’t work out right now, but I can nurture my body with good food as opposed to bad food. I am trying to be better about that.

Take actions you can to make our world better.

These words, from a wise friend, made me feel better.

Screenshot 2020-06-22 at 8.03.32 AM

xoxo,

Jjiraffe

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As the World Burns…

What a week, what a month, what a year.

I don’t want to be silent. Stoicism means taking action. And we need to go further right now than the usual voting and calling of our representatives, congresspeople, etc that I usually push. I’m thinking a lot about my grandmother who had very little money, yet sent small and regular sums to the Freedom Riders. I can’t let her down. Not in this moment, and not ever.

  • Think Global. Donate to the NAACP or bail funds.
  • Act Local. I met with the incredible leader of this organization before as an advocate. She does amazing work in my local community. Every locality has at least one Performing Stars. Find yours, and help out.
  • Read Barack Obama’s words of wisdom. I miss him.
  • Watch this. Most mothers will NEVER have these conversations with our sons.
  • Grumpy Rumblings remains a citadel of weekly actions so we don’t EVER forget. 52 weeks a year, this site promotes progressive actions we all can take. Maggie & Nicole don’t let anything slide, and for that they rock.
  • Patronize Black restaurants. Where we live, Anthony’s Cookies are the best and are our regular treat.
  • Buy from cool Black Creators – a thread.  With not much to look forward to, I AM looking forward to the goods I ordered via this thread, especially the calming candle I ordered from this amazing store.

What else? Please add your actions and suggestions below.

One last note: My suggestions DO NOT include bothering Black friends, asking what to do. They have enough to deal with right now and need our support not nagging.

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