Tag Archives: reading

It Isn’t Only a Diary: How Bridget Jones Helped Me Find Myself

Dear Bridget,
I’ve wanted to write this for some time now, but whenever I sit down to draft a letter, the words get stuck between my brain and the page. It seems odd, really, to suffer an attack of writer’s block when addressing a woman who was once famously accused of verbal incontinence. You, with your candor and ready wit and your lack of (or perhaps refusal to activate) your brain-to-mouth filter, have often inspired me to practice greater honesty in my life, with others and, more importantly with myself. I have also discovered, as have you, that alcohol, while a seemingly effective tongue lubricant for confessing honesty, occasionally does more harm than good. Over the years, I’ve tried to express to others how much your story means to me, but nothing I’ve ever said has felt like an adequate tribute, so in honor of the 20th anniversary of your story’s publication this year as well as your return to the silver screen this month, now seems a fitting moment to thank you.

I first met you as an overwhelmed, twentysomething, budding feminist graduate student in English Lit, between crying over my inability to grasp Michel Foucault and eating entire cartons of ice-cream. When not slaving over novels that I seemed destined never to finish reading and feeling intellectually inadequate because I couldn’t use the word epistemological in a sentence, I gradually discovered that my social life had slunk off into the darkness, crawled beneath a pile of dirty laundry, and died. As I slumped on the sofa with a bottle of wine and a bag of pretzels, I convinced myself, in a fit of despair reminiscent of my elementary school days, that no one wanted to befriend the strange, bookish blind girl; never mind that I was pursuing a graduate degree in English and was entirely surrounded by strange, bookish people. I imagined everyone was attending swanky wine and cheese parties on Saturday nights and couldn’t be bothered inviting me because no one wanted to give me a ride. The fellow graduate student on whom I’d been crushing turned out to be a Mormon divorcee with three kids who flirted blatantly with me while being engaged to another woman and then tried to set me up with one of his friends. Had I known the textbook definition of a fuckwit at that time, I might never have landed in that particular mess, but I digress. To add insult to injury, my roommate (an undergraduate who was also blind) told me one night that “you dress like a woman twice your age, and it’s really off-putting. People think you’re older than you are.” So now I was not only unpopular; I was so criminally unfashionable that even other blind people shunned me.

Thus I found myself, during winter break after that first semester, de-fogging my brain with your diary. As you poured your heart into my lap, counting calories and alcohol units, self-consciously scrutinizing yourself in dressing-room mirrors, and worrying about dying alone and being eaten by an Alsatian, I realized something. Your struggles, your insecurities, your doubts, your fears were mine too. When I agonized over whether or not the size of my butt was the reason I couldn’t get a date or sulked about not being invited to any fabulous parties, you were doing the same. For one of the few times in my adult life, I experienced the thrill of bonding with another woman over the struggles of, well, simply being a woman.

I had spent most of my life struggling to fit comfortably in my own body, let alone fitting in everywhere else. Rationally, I knew that I couldn’t bow to the stigmas of disability; I couldn’t conform to the image that many people associated with a blind person who groped every day for one of three identical pairs of jeans to avoid a citation from the fashion police. How though, I wondered, could I construct a body image that reflected my personality without having my physical appearance and fashion trends filtered through the eyes of others? Trips to the mall were my personal purgatory, spending hours in front of a mirror that reflected nothing to me, relying on others to tell me honestly whether or not horizontal stripes made me look like a circus tent. This reliance on the judgement of others’ opinions of my body, believing that I couldn’t construct a self-image without the ability to see my own reflection, instilled me with a deep sense of self-loathing. I believed that if someone else told me that I was too tall, or too fat, or my hair looked like a bird’s nest, then it must be true, because they could see what I couldn’t. My body was disabled, abnormal, and therefore unattractive, and this, I gradually learned to believe, explained why I seemed to be a social pariah.

Then, Bridget, I met you, and I felt, for the first time, that someone understood me. My struggles, my self-scrutiny, my feelings of inadequacy had nothing to do with my disability and everything to do with the realities of being a young woman trying desperately to keep up with, as you put it, “Cosmopolitan culture.” You, Bridget, helped me to recognize that what I see in the mirror every day is as much a projection of what I believe my self-image to be as what is actually reflected there. On the one hand, you critically yet comically revealed a sadly enduring pressure on women to maintain unrealistic body image standards; on the other, you revealed to me that I wasn’t alone in my insecurity. My seeming inability to maintain a steady, healthy relationship with a mature adult male had nothing to do with my so-called disabled, abnormal body or the circumference of my thighs and everything to do with the fact that I simply hadn’t met the person who was ready and willing to love me just as I am; moreover, it didn’t (and still doesn’t) matter if I ever do, because being a woman of substance means loving myself with all of my flaws, not defining myself in terms of how others, especially others of the opposite sex, choose to see me. You gave me the courage to believe that if I choose to pursue love, I should settle for nothing less than someone who celebrates my strength and values me as a strong, independent woman; if I choose to remain single, my life and my work make no less valuable contributions to society because of that choice.

In the same way that you dramatically imagined that everyone had forgotten to invite you to their Christmas parties, I allowed my acute loneliness to exaggerate the perfection of everyone else’s lives. I imagined that everyone else had a successful job, a fashion magazine-approved BMI, glamorous circles of friends, and wildly sensational sex lives. Their reality, I gradually discovered, was far closer to my own. You gave me what I’d spent most of my life searching for: the validation that my lived experiences as a woman were, in many ways, no different than those of other women despite sometimes being constructed through the lens of disability.

After connecting with your story, my life didn’t magically change overnight, but that reading experience opened a space for me within the communities of women I began to encounter. You helped me to find a voice to participate in the narratives that women told and bonded over every day, from agonizing over the seemingly unattainable quest to find a perfectly-fitting pair of jeans to wondering if the barista at Starbucks who always gave me extra foam was hitting on me. Having reached this realization, I gradually found myself forming deep, enduring female friendships with women who have loved me, laughed with me, cried with me, eaten countless trays of chocolate chip cookies with me, drunk through enough bottles of wine to fill a black hole, and endured hours of agonizing dressing-room scrutiny and relationship analysis as only women can. You, Bridget, with your self-deprecating humor and your willingness to keep buggering on, taught me to embrace the wonderful, tumultuous, imperfect beauty of simply being a woman.

5 Classic Christmas Stories to Read This Season

Deck the halls and gather round; Christmas time is upon us once again, and amidst the hustle and bustle of Black Friday, big deals, packed shopping malls and parking-lot disputes, I hope you’ll take the time to pause, pour yourself a glass of mulled wine or a cup of hot coco and curl up by the tree with a classic Christmas tale. This festive season has yielded some of the most magical stories Literature has known—celebrations of family, friendship, hope, and healing, all in homage to the one season, as Charles Dickens famously writes, when we see one another for who we truly are: “fellow passengers to the grave.” If you’re looking for a bit of Christmas cheer, here are five classic stories sure to fill your heart with the spirit of the season.

Image of Ebenezer Scrooge in 2009 Disney's a Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge, portrayed by Jim Carrye (2009) image credit Walt Disney Pictures

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Possibly one of the most famous Christmas stories of all time with numerous adaptations starring everyone from George C Scott to Kermit the Frog, Dickens’s tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey through his past, present, and future in search of Christmas spirit still speaks as poignantly to us today as in Dickens’ time, if not more so because of the ever-increasing commercialization of the season. With a host of memorable characters including the kind-hearted Bob Cratchit, gentle Tiny Tim, the elfishly exuberant Fred ,and Miserly Scrooge himself, this classic story is sure to remind us all how to keep Christmas and keep it well.

2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

Another classic from celebrated American author O. Henry, this story tells of how Jim and Della selflessly, if impulsively, sacrifice their greatest treasures to buy each other a special Christmas present. As you’re haggling over the price of the latest apple Watch, remember the girl who cut off her hair to buy her husband a chain for his precious timepiece. “Of all who give and receive gifts,” O. Henry reminds us, “such as they are wisest.”

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

Join the Whos down in Whoville and give a great cheer. No time to be grinchy, for Christmas is near! The good doctor delivers a dose of wisdom in this well-loved story of how the Grinch discovers the true meaning of Christmas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the perfect pick-me-up when your Christmas spirit seems lost in the clamor of commercialism.

4. The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans

First published in 1993 and later made into a television movie starring Richard Thomas and Maurine O’Hara, The Christmas Box tells the story of a young family who comes to share the home of the elderly widow, Marianne Parkin and discovers a secret at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, particularly poignant against the backdrop of the Christmas season. This story reminds us to pause and celebrate the true gifts of Christmas—family, friends, and the ribbon that binds them all together–love.

5. “Christmas Every Day” by William Dean Howells

The department stores would probably love this concept, but this, as the wise Papa in the story reminds us, is a tale with a moral. “Christmas Every Day” is a story about a little girl who wished and wished for it to be Christmas every day, until her wish came true and she discovered that the whole thing was really quite a bother with all the presents and the turkeys and everyone running themselves ragged buying presents for one another until they didn’t know what to do with them. The kernel of wisdom, of course, is quite simple; it is Christmas every day without all of the material reminders, if we keep its message in our hearts.

Question

What are your favorite Christmas stories?

Mark Twain and the Magic of Reading: a Reflection on International Literacy Day 2015

One Saturday afternoon, while languidly grading essays on my couch as the rain pelted my windows, I received an unexpected jolt of surprise when a student’s essay informed me that, apparently, Mark Twain was the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Oliver Twist. As a Victorianist, I found the latter particularly amusing; apparently I have been reading all the wrong books. Once I had indulged in a brief chuckle over what Dickens might have thought of this misappropriation of authorship, I kindly made a notation in the student’s essay, correcting the mistake—or misinformation.

When I shared the story with several friends and colleagues, they expressed incredulity at the error, exclaiming, “These students went to high school, right?”
“Yes, presumably,” I answered. “but we can’t know where they’re coming from and what their educational experiences or access might have been like.” It’s easy to arch a brow in astonishment or weap in despair over such student errors, and I’m the first to admit that many English teachers spend hours in such comiseration. Yet while this serves as our coping mechanism to maintain relative sanity during grading marathons, such moments should also provide a sobering reminder of our responsibility as educators not to chide students for what they don’t know, but to broaden their knowledge base as we share our own.

As I scribbled a comment in the margin of my student’s essay, a memory suddenly dislodged itself from the fog in my brain. I saw myself, 7 or 8 yrs old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she regaled me with the story of Huckleberry Finn, from her memory.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, image source Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, I lost count of the number of times my grandmother told us how important it was to get an education, because she never had the opportunity to finish college.
“You’ve got to study,” she used to say. “You have to learn, because you have to go to college.”

So-called “lack” of formal education notwithstanding, Grandma was perhaps one of the most well-read peple I have ever known. She always had a book with her, and was always ready to share her stories.
“What are you reading, Grandma?” I’d ask, sneaking into the living-room on the nights she used to baby-sit, after I was supposed to be in bed, to find her sitting by the lamp, bent over a thick volume with close-printed pages. “Isn’t it boring?” I’d ask. “There are no pictures.”
“The pictures are in your mind,” she’d explain. “You have to use your imagination.”

And that was when it all started. That was when I began to understand that, tucked between sheets of paper were entire worlds—worlds where people fought battles, hunted for buried treasure, faught crime, made friendships, fell in love, lived, and died as many times as I wanted them to. They were there to talk to me, to tell me their stories over and over again; all I had to do was open the book. Before I even picked up my first Mark Twain book, Grandma had told me the story of Huck’s journey with Jim and his adventures (and misadventures) with Tom Sawyer. It was Grandma who introduced me to O. Henry, master of the American shortstory. “Tell the one about the Red Chief,” I’d beg, for the 10th or 20th time. It was Grandma who taught me the didactic value of stories; with Huck Finn, she taught me about the wrongs of slavery and the prejudice of the American South before I could pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation or even knew that there was such a thing. With “The Gift of the Magi,” she taught me about the enormous love behind the simplest acts and the meaning of selfless giving. She taught me to treasure stories for the lessons they taught me as well as for the hours of enjoyment they brought me.

I find myself reflecting on those memories today, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, because that love of literature, that passion for sharing stories, is the reason why I teach. I want to open the world of stories to students the same way my grandmother did for me, to be their guide through the magical land of Narnia or the packed throngs of Dickens’s London. I want them to know the wonder of traveling through time and living an entire life in the pages of a book.

Question

Who are your favorite storytellers?

Improving my Mind by Extensive Reading: How Pride and Prejudice Taught me to Read Romance

Several days ago, a conversation emerged on my Twitter feed about romance novels—specifically, what had been the “first” romance novel people had read. It might surprise readers who know me well, but this question gave me pause. I can list any number of romance novels I’ve enjoyed over the years, but as a child and teen, I gravitated more toward mystery and fantasy—some of which had strands of romance woven through them but that I couldn’t squarely locate within that genre.

Then I remembered that lonely Saturday afternoon when I was 13, just after the Valentine’s Day dance at school, when I lost myself in the comfort of a fictional universe to drown my sorrows over the fact that not a single boy had asked me to dance. Quite by chance, the novel I plucked off my shelf featured a heroine in the same plight as myself: a girl who, for want of a partner, had been forced to sit down because the gentleman who’d been suggested to partner her was “in no humor to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” Yes, I’m talking about Pride and Prejudice. What a comfort that, as if bestowing a smile on me from the netherworld, Austen introduced Elizabeth Bennet to me when I needed her most.

Portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra Austen. Image credit Wikimedia Commons
Jane Austen (1775-1816)

Why I didn’t immediately pluck this title from my brain when asked what the first romance novel I’d ever read had been likely stems from a (admittedly pretentious) tendency to only categorize Pride and Prejudice as literary fiction by default, as if the “romance” genre cannot bestow enough literary distinction on Miss Austen. As someone who encourages and even participates in conversations about the blurred boundaries between literary and genre fiction, I’m almost ashamed to admit my mistake. Joshua Rothman, in an article published in the New Yorker, poses the question, “What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it about “the literary” that resists genre?” Appropriately, perhaps, he cites Austen’s Northanger Abbey as one of the earliest examples of the collision between literary and genre fiction.

Pride and Prejudice, in as much as it’s been categorized as literary fiction, also fits fairly snuggly within the romance genre because the major conflict, after all, arises from a “matter of the heart.” The choices that the characters make, both wise and poor, have a ripple effect on more than one romantic relationship in the novel; Darcy’s interference in Bingley’s courtship with Jane, for instance, not only causes them both heartache, but loses him points in his pursuit of Elizabeth. Ultimately the novel follows that formulaic construction in which we know who will wind up marrying whom, but we read because we want to find out how they reach that conclusion.

To return to the conversation about romance novels with which I opened, thinking about Pride and Prejudice in relation to the romance genre also challenged me to reflect on the extent to which Pride and Prejudice has shaped my overall reading tastes. For one thing, I learned at a young age that I could, and should, expect strong-minded heroines in fiction. Even if Lizzie Bennet’s narrative follows the traditional trajectory for that period (ending in marriage) she’s still a relatively forward-thinking female for her time primarily because she holds strong opinions and has no qualms about voicing them. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is the moment when she stands up to Lady Catherine and refuses to promise never to enter into an engagement with Darcy. It matters not in that moment whether or not Darcy does propose to her a second time. It only matters that she make it clear that she, and she alone, will decide what will make her happy.

I credit Austen with guiding me toward romance fiction in which the couples are not only sexually/romantically attracted to one another, but worthy sparring partners on the intellectual playing field, which deepens their romantic attachment. I learned at a young age that both in my reading tastes and my own romantic choices, I could and should demand a man who values my brains as much as if not more than my beauty—a man who doesn’t feel intimidated by a self-sufficient, intelligent woman.

Having given Jane Austen tremendous credit for the extent to which my feminist principles inform my relationship choices, I’ve strongly considered implementing a sort of relationship version of the Litmus test, effective immediately, in which I ask each of my dates to name his favorite woman writer. I imagine the conversation proceeding something like this:
Me: so, who’s your favorite woman writer?
Date: I’m…not sure. Name a few.
Me: Contemporary or classic? British or American? Fiction or nonfiction?
Date (looking a bit like a deer caught in the headlights): I…have to go to the bathroom. *he abruptly leaves the table and climbs out the window*

This seemed like a perfectly sane screening practice for a college English teacher; then I remembered that I haven’t had a date in two years, so I might be better off casting a slightly broader net, at least for the time being.

question

What was the first romance novel you remember reading?

Walking on the Words: a Reflection on Braille Literacy (Living Blind Blog Post)

Today, I’m over at the LivingBlindBlog, where I’m discussing some of the questions and concerns surrounding the issue of Braille literacy–a hot button topic in the blind community. Head over this way to check out the post and join the conversation!