CBR9 Review #99

Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger

I’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter books since I was a freshman in college (it’s amazing how going to college opened up my world in so many ways). I like to read and engage with the books at theoretical levels, and when I was taking an independent study, I encountered John Granger’s critical work on the novels. He writes from the perspective of a Christian academic who was at first skeptical of the novels and then became a fan after engaging with them theologically.

Granger discusses the novels in context of Christianity, and the themes that engage with spiritual issues important to most Christians. He touches on major themes and ideas then goes in-depth into the first six novels (The Deathly Hallows had not yet been published at the time of publication—I also have Granger’s The Deathly Hallows Lectures, which I am sure will update his readings). He touches on some interesting themes and Christian contexts which are sure to resonate with Conservative Christians who prioritize faith in their fiction.

I greatly appreciate Granger’s perspective, as it is more effective in appealing to Conservative Christians than a more liberal approach might have been. Granger himself sounds fairly conservative, so he knows his audience well and uses his academic skills in order to be persuasive to the people who can most benefit from his book.

That said, because I am not his target demographic, I chafed a bit at some of his arguments. For example, his cultural criticism is a little backward in that it talks about human rights issues being pro-life versus pro-choice while completely side-stepping issues related to the Iraq/Afghanistan wars waging during the early 2000s. Further, it does not delve into Rowling’s own complicated class politics which come into play with the house elves or strata of wizard families. Nevertheless, the book is useful and strong in the arguments it makes.

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CBR9 Review #98

The Pigman by Robert Zindel

When I was a college student, my teaching mentors had young adult book recommendations for high school students. Let’s face it, high school English classes push classics but kids often read “easier” and more accessible picks. One of the classic young adult novels that my advisor and mentor teacher recommended was Paul Zindel’s The Pigman. I picked it up at a thrift sale and then promptly never read it until now.

Sophomores John and Lorraine play a prank on an old man, and it goes awry. But Mr. Pignetti, or The Pigman, is kind and lonely. He draws them into his world of imagination and childish joy in the simple things. Of course, this kind of utopia cannot last, and the teens must find a way to face the consequences of their careless and selfish actions.

I get the moral that Zindel was trying to convey, and it’s an important message in kindness and consideration for others’ boundaries and spaces. But I found the story profoundly irritating, because I hate reading about irresponsible teens who make inexplicably stupid choices. It’s not even just self-destructive choices, it’s really bad choices that affect other people in hurtful ways. I’m not going to say anything else, because I don’t want to spoil it for those who would consider reading it. But it was not a pleasurable or instructive reading experience, and I will not personally be recommending it to other readers. I think it’s more about content than any datedness—I’ve had several students read The Outsiders and love it, despite its clearly dated content and tone. This book was just…odd.

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CBR9 Review #97

Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet

Have you ever met a book and fallen so deeply in love that finishing is a kind of regret? Welcome to Make Your Home Among Strangers, which gave me a major book hangover and inspired me to plan my fall semester courses, a task that had me dragging me feet for a few weeks. The book is moving, but it had special poignancy for my profession, and it inspired me to do and be better for my students.

Jennine Capó Crucet’s novel is set in two locations: a Cuban-immigrant Miami neighborhood, and a northern East Coast college (something along the lines of Brown or Amherst college). Our protagonist is Lizet, who went to a poor high school, decided to apply to a bunch of colleges, and miraculously got into an Ivy League-type school. The problem is, she is overwhelmed by the assumptions of her knowledge, racial stereotypes, and the sense that she doesn’t belong. When she goes back home for vacations, however, she doesn’t fit in there, either. Her neighborhood is caught in the crossfire of an immigrant conflict: Ariel Hernandez is a small boy whose mother died getting him to the United States, and how his father is suing for custody back in Cuba. Lizet watches the struggle unfold on a national stage, just as she tries to find her own footing between her old home and the new.

This story hit home for me, because I see Lizets every day. At my community college, I see students all the time who are trying to figure out their lives. Many are struggling to connect their home life with their own ambitions. And I cannot over-emphasize the importance of empathy towards these kinds of students. I was so fired up by this book that I’ll be teaching it in my Comp. 1 class this fall and pairing it with Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the film Moonlight. I’m really looking forward to the discussion.

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CBR9 Review #96

The Battle for Middle-Earth by Fleming Rutledge

As a kid, I grew up with C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, but I missed out on The Lord of the Rings until much later. Several of my classmates in high school were huge Tolkien fans, and I was curious enough to give him a try once I graduated. I read The Hobbit between high school and college, and with the last film coming out, I spent the first semester of my freshman year in college reading The Lord of the Rings books in preparation for marathoning the films with my sister over Christmas break. It’s been a love affair ever since. I always find interesting tidbits in the books each time I read, although I confess that the theological threads have been more difficult to pick up.

This is where Fleming Rutledge’s most excellent The Battle for Middle-Earth emerges. Rutledge, a priest, emphasizes the theology behind The Lord of the Rings and sticks to a theological reading of the texts. Because he is clear about his methodology and does not focus on the literary aspects, it works. Rutledge explores the divine aspects of the texts, Christian fellowship, and the many thorny problems that tangle up the text and make it an unclear allegory. He argues that unlike Lewis’s texts, Tolkien’s are not traditionally allegorical and instead mirror the complex process of Christianity.

I’ve always struggled with the Gollum storyline at the end of The Return of the King. I wondered if this was a book about the Christian journey, how could Frodo possibly fail his quest? Rutledge declares that it’s the crux of the Christian experience: you can’t succeed on your own. You require Divine intervention to be able to do anything. This, to me, was a freeing concept, and one that has spurred me to rethink my journey a little less simplistically.

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CBR9 Review #95

Dearie by Bob Spitz

My aunt gets me an eclectic variety of books for birthday and Christmas presents. Traditionally, an Alexander McCall Smith book works its way into the rotation, and thankfully, he writes enough to make for an annual present, but for some reason there was an off year. My aunt is a huge Julia Child fan, and so I found in my Christmas package one year the Bob Spitz biography Dearie. I knew who Child was growing up, and I’d enjoyed her boozy banter and casual ease in the kitchen (I don’t drink, so boozy banter is out for me, though I have worked for YEARS to feel easy in the kitchen). And, of course, I adored the Meryl Streep-led adaptation of Julie and Julia (the less said of Julie the better, right? Right). Therefore, I had few expectations of any biography but enjoyed my time with Julia immensely.

Julia Child wasn’t always a cook, and in fact, she didn’t really learn how to develop a palate or an aptitude for cooking until she moved to France. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Spitz lovingly covers her biography, starting with her parents’ meeting, family life, her childhood and adolescence, college years, and participating in the War effort. I didn’t realize the extent of her overseas life, nor that she met Paul through her international work. Once they marry and move to France, the familiarity of her biography starts to begin. I was fascinated to hear about the immense work that led to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as the history behind her television show (hooray for public television!). I also vaguely remembered her death, and I didn’t realize her agency in asserting the ability to die on her own terms without suffering, and it inspired me to see her courage till the very end.

You don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this biography, because it balances vivid anecdote with faithful detail to her life. I’m not much of a biography reader, but Spitz is a natural storyteller, and his subject was a colorful, interesting person whose life inspired me to live mine with more intentionality.

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CBR9 Review #94

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Family drama is a hit-or-miss genre for me, same with mystery. When I picked up Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You at my community college’s book sale, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I *was* happy to support the English department for a dollar. I have seen a few reviews around Cannonball Read, and I was interested to see for myself what the book would entail.

Lydia Lee disappears in the middle of the night in her 1970s suburban Ohio town, and is found dead in the nearby lake a few days later. This is not a spoiler: it’s the premise. The book starts with Lydia’s death and then moves backwards and currently in time to get us to this point. We get her parents’ backstory—her mom is white and her dad is of Chinese descent—which adds to the tensions that lead to Lydia’s disappearance. We see the family portrait that emerges from her death, as well as the varying perspectives from the characters enmeshed in the family drama.

Ng’s strength comes in addressing the questions whenever a young person dies: “How could this happen?” “Why did this happen?” Two of my husband’s former students were killed in a car accident before Thanksgiving this last year, and there was a surge of grief in our community as we grappled with the unfairness of death in people whose potential had not been met yet. I felt a resonance with the experience in the book, as family and acquaintances struggled to understand Lydia’s death or possible motivations.

Yet for me, this was not a five-star book. I feel like the drama heightened to melodrama—it just didn’t feel quite real or believable. Despite the time-travel aspect, the pacing felt off, and I sometimes got pulled out of the story with her flashbacks. It’s an interesting story, and Ng makes a provocative commentary on race relations in American history. It’s trying to achieve the status of a Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott novel, though it’s not quite there yet.

 

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A Time for Boldness

Last week, I held a video conference with one of my distance learning students to discuss her last two papers for the writing course she was taking from me. One paper instructs the students to write an analysis of a word’s origin and history, the other is a traditional research essay. In discussing the etymology of her word, American, she said that she was interested in the changes to the concept of nationality as an American, particularly in context of immigration. I nodded enthusiastically, and then I made a fateful statement: “You could also think about this in the context of the phrase ‘Make America Great Again,’ particularly because we’ve come to see that it’s really referring to white America.”

My student nodded, and I could see the wheels turning. “Do you mean I can talk about politics in my essays? I’ve tried to avoid getting too political in my essays.”

I replied, “Absolutely, you can.” I paused for a brief second, weighing whether or not to say what I really wanted to include. I try to be neutral, I try to be nice to students who fall into different political camps, I try to keep communication open, and I try not to ignite inflammatory sentiments from unstable students in an effort to preserve my life and those of my other students. But sensing that my student had a need, I decided to forge on. My intuition told me that this was no time to be afraid. I added, “I don’t see how we can avoid politics, especially in this administration.”

She gave a quick laugh, and then she launched into what she was really thinking about for the paper: the idea of “American” and the racist ways in which it has been configured, especially recently. It was a terrific argument, but I was completely startled. Where had this been? Would she have mentioned it if I hadn’t said anything? It makes sense, though. She is a woman of color, and I am a white woman. 55% of white women voted for Donald Trump, a statistic I will bear with shame for the rest of my life, even though I ardently voted for and support Hillary Clinton. There is a major power inequity between us, not only because she is my student and I am her professor, but because I am white and she is dark-skinned. By virtue of my skin color, I hold social capital that she must fight to possess—and, frankly, may never possess for reasons that are never her fault. Because I am her professor, I can exploit her race and mine and cloak them under excuses: “insubordination,” “disrespect,” and other disgusting terms that hide fragile hurt feelings, guilt, and defensiveness.

Therefore, it is up to me to bridge the divide and invite her freedom of expression, even if—especially if—she disagrees with me.

And this is why I spoke up. I felt that it was crucial to let her know that her ideas have a place at this table and that it is my responsibility to hear them with professional respect. The rest of the conference was an eager and engaged dialogue about how she would organize her ideas. We ended with a brief note about the research essay (problems in bullying) and how much I looked forward to reading her final work.

Today, I read her research essay. From the very first page, she discussed the way Donald Trump bullied women, the way he bullied Hillary Clinton. Sexual assaults by Bill Cosby and Brock Turner. The way men bully and abuse and exploit women for their own gain and get away with it time and time again. It was a powerful moment of reckoning, because it relayed the routine contemporary injustices that she faces, that we face, as women. I don’t think I’ve read something this angry before—but what a genuine, necessary anger it is. It’s anger at being held hostage to fear, anger at mistreatment, anger at the minor and major injustices enacted against women by virtue of their gender. How long has she had to hold on to this anger alone? How long must she have hidden behind a “brave” face, because she knows the retributions for expressing herself are swift and brutal and even more damaging than hiding?

I never understand the power that vulnerability holds until I find myself in conversations or situations in which I make a choice to be vulnerable (often at very little cost to myself) and then invite my students to do the same—knowing that the stakes for them are much higher than they are for me. I remain respectful when they do not reciprocate, because I can only guess at the kinds of social and cultural chess matches in which they are enmeshed in all their personal and professional relationships. But when they accept my invitation and share, I have learned to sit and hold their words, because it is the very least I can do.

I write this, because it’s reminded me of the solemn duty I must acquit every day as a Christian feminist professor: to treat other students with fairness and respect and to cultivate a safe environment in which to invite their intellectual honesty, even if, especially if, it makes me uncomfortable.

In the weeks following the 2016 Presidential Election, I careened between fear and hurt. I sobbed over stories of naked bigotry and racism, over the hurtful words of a minority white population who had spent eight years being angry that a black man became one of our most beloved and popular presidents of all time. I worried over my safety and that of my fellow women, cis and trans, straight and queer. I kept my tone in class as politically neutral as I could muster, venturing to make a few “safe” statements in the spring. But I knew, somehow, that it wasn’t enough. It’s taken me a long time to emerge from the fear and face it without flinching, but what has awakened me is seeing other women, less privileged women, dealing with that same fear at far greater cost to themselves and with greater consequences than I would face. Surely I cannot leave them to carry this fight alone.

Conversing with young women (and women of color especially) has taught me that in order for them to be safe, I must not be safe. I must take enormous risks for them, because they cannot and I can. I must take up the torch for those of my friends who are in much more vulnerable positions than I, and so I must make the most of my cisgender, able-bodied, straight white privilege and channel it in ways that help people who are not me. Crucially, I must do so without fanfare or acclaim, because acknowledgment of my part in this fight is not the point of fighting. I cannot be silent, and so, I am moving into this next semester with fearlessness, determined to be as judicious and fair, yet vulnerable and honest, as I can possibly be.

This, my friends, is a time for boldness.

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*If you are white and would like an excellent resource, I highly recommend Robin DiAngelo’s What Does It Mean To Be White? which helped me frame and understand my privilege in the classroom.

**If the concept of female “anger” is uncomfortable to you, I urge you to read Laurie Penny’s essay, “Most Women You Know Are Angry–And That’s All Right.”

***You may notice and want to point out that I do not address male students in this post. I absolutely do engage with male students in respectful and open ways and wish to address this, but that’s a completely different post and requires a different kind of focus and vulnerability in light of gender power dynamics. What I’m saying is, stay tuned! I’m already thinking about the next post. 🙂

****Finally, for the sake of disclosure, I do monitor my comments, because this is my private blog. I accept respectful conversation and disagreement, I do not accept trolls or porn bots.

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