Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dust in the Wind

I've recently started reading a book called "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" by Timothy Egan. The Dust Bowl is one of those periods in history that I remember studying in school, but don't remember much about. I'm trying to rectify that with this book. I'm not too far into it, but already I'm intrigued.

It's quite interesting to see the lessons we still haven't learned repeat themselves. For instance, when people realized there was money to be had in farming No Man's Land, offers of credit came flowing in during the 1920s. The banks rarely said no, and people started taking out loans for all kinds of stuff, such as tractors, houses, etc. As I read this, I thought, "Well, I can see where this is going..." The outpouring of easy credit and mounting of tons of debt sound awfully familiar, huh? Also, the devastation to the land as people tore it up in search of a quick buck parallels the environmental destruction going on throughout the world today. It's no wonder the land fought back with the Dust Bowl. Another lesson that caught my eye was the swindling of people buying land; the founding of Boise City, Oklahoma, is a great example. Two developers sent brochures to people telling of how amazing this place was, complete with pictures of gleaming houses, tree-lined paved streets, and a train station. It wasn't until after selling 3,000 lots that people realized it was a sham, and not one bit of what they were promised was true. This reminded me of the time I spent as a mortgage banker in 2007, trying to help people who had been swindled into subprime mortgages with shady terms. I'm curious to see what other parallels exist between the days of the Dust Bowl and our modern day.

The dust is beginning to settle on my time here at Ivy Tech. I only have one final left (for Spanish 202 on Thursday), and then I'm done. My graduation ceremony was Sunday, and it felt amazing to walk across the stage and be recognized for my efforts (though, truth be told, it doesn't feel quite as final when you have finals AFTER the ceremony, harrumph), as well as to have my family cheering for me. I've worked really hard to get here, and it's paid off. I graduated magna cum laude (would've been summa cum laude, had it not been for the two classes where I didn't finish with an A, which--surprise, surprise!--were both math classes), I've already been accepted to Purdue, and now I can say I have a college diploma. I've overcome a lot, and though it's taken me four years to graduate, not once did I ever consider giving up. I'm proud of what I've achieved, and am looking forward to what the future holds in store. I'm grateful for what I've experienced at Ivy Tech, and will look back on my time here fondly. Onward and upward I go!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Brain on Fire

'Twas the week before finals, and all through my mind, 
I kept searching for answers that I couldn't find.
The textbooks were opened while I sat in my chair
But all I could muster was a blank, panicked stare.
My brain was addled with figures and facts
And all week I struggled to try and relax.
The week would soon end, that much I knew
But I still had the final exams to get through.
As I buried my face in my papers and files,
I thought of the end of next week with a smile.
I'd lounge in my PJs, hang out with my cats
And not have to study. Amen to that!
'Til then would I work, having so much to do,
Study Spanish and chemistry 'til my face was blue.
So please pray for students like me, whose fate
Is sealed 'til the day that I graduate.
'Til then, back to studying must I delve
These exams, unfortunately, won't take themselves!

That's a fun little poem I just came up with to describe what I've been going through lately. It's been super stressful having 2 exams this week, plus studying for finals next week. My brain feels like it's fried. However, even though it's mentally taxing doing all this work in a short span of time, I'm sure it doesn't compare to how Susannah Cahalan's brain felt in 2009. In her memoir, "Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness", Cahalan describes how she went from a happy, normal 24-year-old to a seemingly possessed woman with a disorder that many doctors tried--and failed--to diagnose properly. One doctor tried to say she was partying too much. Another said she had schizophrenia. It wasn't until a neurologist named Dr. Najjar did a quick, ingenious test that didn't require any technology more advanced than a pencil and paper that the true cause of Cahalan's behavior was determined. She was diagnosed with a rare disorder that caused half of her brain to become inflamed. One million dollars in medical costs later, she managed to come through her ordeal alive and (almost) back to normal.

I enjoyed reading this book. I like Cahalan's writing style; she writes in an engaging, accessible style. Her day job is as a journalist for the New York Post, and she uses her skills as a reporter to piece together the "month of madness" that she doesn't remember. She tells her harrowing tale well; I couldn't put it down! In describing her disorder, she raises the question of how many more people have the same thing and are misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, autistic or bipolar. Perhaps the number is really small, but that small number is still significant in pointing out the flaws in the American medical system. Many people fall through the cracks; Cahalan was lucky. At any rate, if you want an intriguing, yet quick, read, I'd suggest checking out "Brain on Fire". It really makes you think about how complex, yet fragile, our brains are, as well as how much we still don't know about this vital organ. Perhaps someday we'll unlock all the mysteries of the brain. In the meantime, we can still advocate for mental illness awareness and research; Cahalan's descriptions of how some people treated her while she was in recovery are sad, and it makes you aware of how much stigma is still attached to mental illness.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

R.I.P., E.L.

I've just found out that the world of literature has lost someone truly special. E.L. Konigsburg, author of several children's books and Newbery award winner, died this past Sunday at the age of 83: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/21/el-konigsburg-dead-dies-_n_3129444.html

"From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" has always been one of my favorite books. It was one my mom loved, and now my 9-year-old daughter loves it. I haven't read the book in many years, but it still lingers with me. I cannot help but picture Claudia and her brother Jamie whenever I think of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I've only been to New York City once (a school trip in May 2001), but I was disappointed when we couldn't go to the Met. I really, really wanted to see it, and the main reason was because of having read "Mixed-Up Files" many, many times as a child. At some point, I will get there, and I will have to fight the urge to hide in a bathroom at closing time in order to stay in the museum overnight.

Claudia's critique of Jamie's grammar still resonates with me, as well. English has always been my strongest subject, and to see a young girl correcting the grammar of others makes me laugh today (though, when I was a child, I would get into trouble for correcting the grammar of adults...something about adults hating being corrected by children, even if said children are in the right, I think.) As a kid, I didn't realize that not everyone has the same level of language skills, and it baffled me that others would make mistakes that I wouldn't have thought to make. My love of language is becoming my career, as I will be working on a BA in linguistics at Purdue this fall.

The book also piqued my interest in the world of art. I became fascinated with art history as a result. I remember being admitted to the advanced art club in eighth grade, not because I was any good at drawing and painting (to this day, I'm still pretty abysmal at both), but because my art teacher was so impressed by my knowledge of art history. After reading "Mixed-Up Files", I found myself spending hours reading our 1988 set of encyclopedias, poring over the pages about art. I still very much enjoy going to art museums, decades later. I WILL get to the Met one of these days!

It's amazing how much influence a book can have on you, isn't it? I hadn't realized just how influential "Mixed-Up Files" was on me until just now. I can't tell you how many times I read it as a child, but suffice it to say that the number was quite large. I'm glad my daughter owns a copy now (which I bought for her, actually), as I feel the urge to read it again.

R.I.P., E.L. Your works have engaged children everywhere for almost half a century. May they continue to do so into the next half and beyond.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Gulp! Am I a Scientist in Denial?!

I've never been terribly gifted at science. I passed my Introductory Biology class last spring with an A, and I'm currently earning an A in my Introductory Chemistry class as I type this. However, notice that both of those are introductory-level classes. I don't think I'd fare so well in higher-level classes, especially if they feature my arch-nemesis, math, more prominently (which I'm sure they would.) And in high school, I passed biology with a B and barely passed with a low C in chemistry; I'm not sure why I'm suddenly better at these classes in college, which, in theory, are supposed to be more difficult than high school classes, but I digress.

By this point, you're probably wondering, "Um, how does this relate to American literature?" Well, I am currently reading the latest book by one of my favorite American writers, Mary Roach. She's a science (nonfiction) writer, and I have all of her books on my Kindle. The book I'm reading now is called Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. I'll let Amazon handle the description of this book, as I fear I cannot do it justice:

"“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts. Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies."

So far, I'm really enjoying it. Then again, I've yet to be disappointed by her, so it stands to reason I'd like this book, too. The first book I read of hers was actually her third book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, which is as HILARIOUS as it is informative. I love her writing style, as well as the interesting situations she finds herself in and the intriguing people she comes across. For instance, in Bonk, she flies to Egypt to interview an OB-GYN who self-funds some pretty wacky experiments. The best one, in my opinion, was the study he conducted to see if wearing polyester pants has an effect on libido. In order to test this, he put polyester pants...on rats. The mental image of rats wearing little polyester pants--in my mind, they look like something Greg Brady would have worn!--had me howling with laughter! As a control, he also put pants of other fibers on rats (can you imagine seeing rats wearing jeans?!) The thought is making me laugh even as I type this! (Verdict: wearing polyester pants does have a slightly negative effect on libido.)

In addition to Bonk and Gulp, she has also written Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (which, while very interesting, I do NOT recommend as bedtime reading material; trust me, I learned this the hard way), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. I've learned a lot about these topics, thanks to her.

As I was thinking about the fact that I have all of Roach's books, I began to realize something: I read a lot of science nonfiction books. (Science fiction books aren't really my thing, however.) I really enjoy learning about topics that I might otherwise never read about, considering I'm not going into those fields at all. I enjoy learning new things in general, and I fully embrace my nerdiness in that regard. Like a good book should, what I've read has opened me to new worlds, and it's gotten me excited about what else is out there for me to learn. Who knows, maybe what I read will somehow relate to my future career as a linguist after all. At any rate, I will leave you with a quote from Mary Roach herself on science writing, which I think explains why I enjoy her work, and the work of the other science writers I enjoy, as much as I do:

"Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: 'Oh! Now I get it!"

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I Confess, I Love Anne Sexton

We recently finished studying poetry in ENGL 223. I've always liked poetry, but have been a little picky about the stuff I read. I'm not a big fan of overly ornate, flowers-and-sunshine kind of poems...you know, the stuff you find on greeting cards that grandmothers buy. When I was a high school sophomore, I was introduced to the work of Anne Sexton. I was immediately smitten. There was something so real, so raw, about her work, and her poetry spoke to me like no other poetry had before. My high school boyfriend bought me her Complete Poems one day, and that book has gotten me through some really hard times in my life, as well as the not-so-hard times. I competed on my high school forensics team all four years, and two of those years I used some of her poems while competing in the Oral Interpretation category. I recall using a mix of poems for my junior year, while I focused specifically on poems from her "Divorce Papers" (found in her posthumously published book, 45 Mercy Street) my senior year. I honestly don't know how my life would be without having discovered Anne Sexton.

Anne Sexton was a confessional poet, much like her contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. This was a style of poetry that came to prominence in the 1950s and '60s. The content of confessional poetry is often personal, and dealt with topics such as mental illness, sexuality, and other topics deemed taboo at the time. Sexton didn't shy away from the taboo; in fact, part of the reason I love her work is her bravery in writing about things no one else wanted to discuss. Just look at the titles of some of her poems: "The Abortion", "Menstruation at Forty", "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator", "Buying the Whore", "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife", "In Celebration of My Uterus"...I could go on, but you get the point. These were taboo in the mid-twentieth century, and they're still pretty taboo in the early twenty-first century.

One of my favorite poems is one of her most well-known, and I'd argue one of her best. It's titled "Her Kind", and I'd like to share it with you.

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch, 
haunting the black air, braver at night; 
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light: 
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods, 
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves, 
closets, silks, innumerable goods; 
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves: 
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver, 
waved my nude arms at villages going by, 
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind. 

Now, I'd like to leave you with a poem I wrote in my Creative Writing class in the spring of 2010. Sexton's influence on my style here is pretty palpable, isn't it? It's intended to be a confessional-style poem, as it's autobiographical. (For context, this was written about my parents' divorce, which was a big shock to me--and happened while I was going through my own bitter divorce from my first husband--and came about because my mother left my father for a family friend, who she married less than 2 months after my parents' divorce was finalized.) Here it is:

Dear Mother
I was abandoned on a Friday afternoon.
Dear mother, you showed me on that scorching August day
How there are limits on your capacity for love.
For 23 years, I occupied a compartment you’d carved for me
In the sacred space where a mother and daughter’s bond resides.
It was decorated beautifully, with vivid, comforting actions and items.
How I relished being your tenant!

Then came The Interloper.
He assaulted this hallowed place,
And pillaged the love that once bound us together.
And after he razed all he could,
Your heart could only hold so much afterward.
There wasn’t enough left over for both of us.
You escaped our ravaged home with The Interloper,
Leaving me for the vultures and vagabonds.
Not once did you deign to look back to inventory the destruction,
For now you believed it was no longer your concern.

The Interloper promised you a new, exhilarating existence.
He offered to deliver the life you felt you’d earned and deserved.
He bombarded you with gifts, with sweet nothings, with the powers of the flesh.
How could I possibly compete with that?
You galloped off into the sunset with your knight in bloodied armor
And the mother I thought I knew,
The mother that laughed with me, 
Cried with me, 
Comforted me in innumerable ways,
Was now dead.
In her place was an indignant woman-child
Who could not be bothered by those pesky mothering instincts.
After all, they only interfered with your ersatz happiness;
How were you supposed to enjoy the life you left behind in high school?

On a Friday afternoon,
The Interloper was victorious.
I was banished by him,
And you merely shrugged. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

History repeats itself

...well, sort of.

I just started reading a book called "War Brides" by Helen Bryan, an American ex-pat who lives in England. The story, which is a work of fiction, is centered around a group of five women in World War II who form an unlikely friendship. They reunite fifty years later on the anniversary of V-Day to settle a score and "avenge one of their own". I'm not very far into it at this point, but so far I'm enjoying it. Bryan paints rich scenery in this story; so far, she's taken us to the quaint, quiet village of Crowmarsh Priors and a Mardis Gras celebration in New Orleans. The imagery is vivid, and if it continues throughout the story, I'm sure this will be a book I'll love.

I'm fascinated by World War II (well, 20th century history, in general, but mid-century holds an especial point of interest for me.) A little over a month ago, I finished an incredibly fascinating book: "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by William Shirer. It's a very long read--it tops out at almost 1300 pages--but so very, very worth it. Shirer was an American correspondent in Germany as Hitler rose to power, and he documents the Third Reich with a mix of first-hand accounts from not only the diaries of prominent Nazi officials made available following the Nuremburg trials, but also his own first-hand accounts, as well. He was also granted access to captured Nazi documents to help shed even more light on the one of the darkest times in history. What was interesting to me was that Shirer wrote this book in the late 1950s, when these events were still very fresh in the minds of everyone who lived through this part of history. At any rate, I learned far, far more about the Nazi regime from this book than I ever did in history class. I kept wanting to yell at England and France for having so many opportunities to stop Hitler, and yet failed to really act until after millions of people had died. (Seriously, they had SO. MANY. OPPORTUNITIES. It seemed the only one who predicted the coming horrors was Winston Churchill, but he was still "a voice in the wilderness", as Shirer calls him, as the Nazis rose to prominence.) I'd always wondered just how Hitler was able to gain all his power, and this book spells it out pretty plainly: he was very, very good at telling people what they wanted to hear, and ruthless in dealing with his opponents. What's intriguing is that this was the first time in history that a major political takeover was done not by violence, but in a completely legal way (well, almost; more on that in a second) and within the country's political system itself, not to mention in a rather short timeframe. I say it was almost legal in that Hitler was a native of Austria, and he was only able to get himself on the ballot in the first place because the interior minister of Brunswick appointed him as an administrator to that state's delegation at the Reichstadt in Berlin in 1932, which granted Hitler citizenship in Brunswick and therefore Germany. The politics, the battles, the horrific conditions people faced during this time...all the details from Shirer's exhaustive research paint a very vivid picture of this time in history. While this book is long and chock-full of facts, it doesn't read like a stuffy textbook at all; Shirer wrote this book in more of a novel-like format, so it's pretty easy to read. I will say that Shirer tends to repeat himself when describing Nazi officials--yes, Hermann Goering was a large man, we get it--and he has been criticized for his interpretation of Nazism (namely, that it reflected the character of Germany since the days of Martin Luther, not as a form of totalitarianism that was found amongst other European nations in the 1930s). However, if you want to learn about the Third Reich from people who were there--and very much a part of it--you really can't go wrong here. You can find it on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Fall-Third-Reich/dp/1451642598/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0

It will be interesting to see how my views of "War Brides" are informed by what I read in "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". I suppose I'll need to do a follow-up blog post when I finish it, won't I?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Intro to me, Krie!

Hola, fellow readers! The name's Krystie, but my longtime nickname is Krie. I consider myself a voracious reader. I love love LOVE to read, and have all my life. I'm grateful that my parents instilled a love of reading very early on, and that I've been able to pass this on to my 8-year-old daughter, as well. (She is currently reading "The Chronicles of Narnia", and is really enjoying it.) My husband got me a Kindle for Valentine's Day two years ago, and I use it ALL.THE.TIME. I would be devastated if anything happened to that thing.

So, what do I like to read? It depends on my mood and whatever happens to strike my fancy at the time. I recently finished an incredibly fascinating book, and I'd highly recommend it. It's "The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements" by Sam Kean. Now, I should begin by telling you that I took chemistry in high school, and this class gave me my lowest grade in the entirety of my high school career (a low C, boooo). If "The Disappearing Spoon" had been around when I took chemistry my junior year (I hesitate to tell you when that was, but I suppose I will anyway...it was the 1999-2000 academic year), I might have fared better in that class. However, I am currently taking Chemistry 101 at Ivy Tech Community College, and at this point in the class, I honestly feel like I've learned more about chemistry from this book than I have from the class. To be fair, we're still pretty early in the semester, but I'd much rather learn about the role molybdenum played in World War I, or the Boy Scout in Detroit who built a nuclear reactor in his back yard in the 1990s, or why chemistry lab pranksters love gallium, than doing unit conversion problem after unit conversion problem. "The Disappearing Spoon" also delves into etymology, which is what immediately piqued my interest; seeing the longest word in the English language listed in this book was a hoot! At any rate, if this book sounds like something you would at all be interested in, please check it out. You can find it on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003JTHXZY/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title

Anyway, I'll be musing about things that I read in my American Literature II class, as well as things by American authors we don't cover in the class, on this blog. (Sam Kean grew up South Dakota, by the way.) I hope you'll join me in my reading endeavors this semester!

Peace out, readers!