Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Book of Unknown Americans

I sit on a committee at UT to help choose the common read for incoming freshmen students.  It is pretty cool that I get to be a part of this group as a non-faculty member, and I absolutely love reading all of the books as we narrow down our lists from around 75 to a single book.  This year, we chose Cristina Henriquez's The Book of Unknown Americans.  We have a ton of criteria for our selections (live and affordable author to come speak, diversity topic, not too long, appeals to the freshmen life transition, etc), and I am always amazed at how many great books are out there that would be excellent choices for our students.  I led two different discussion groups this year, and these 18 year old kids had some really great thoughts about this particular book and the themes it raised for them.

The novel is about two immigrant families living in Wilmington, Delaware.  The Rivera family has just moved (legally) from Mexico to gain special education and care for their teenage daughter Maribel who suffered a head injury back home.  They make friends with the Toro family, who live in the same apartment complex, and immigrated many years earlier from Panama.  Eventually, a love story develops between Maribel and the younger Toro son, Mayor.  But, as happy endings are rare in contemporary literature, a series of miscommunications occurs, and a grieving Maribel moves back to Mexico leaving a heartbroken Mayor behind.

I very much enjoyed this book.  It was easy to read and I came to really came about the characters involved. I was genuinely saddened by the events that lead to the ending, and I enjoyed reading about a population I did not know much about previously.

As an instructor leading college freshmen through a discussion of the novel, I enjoyed the variety of themes it brought up for conversation.  The book has a dual narrator structure (for the most part), so we were able to compare the narration of Maribel's mother (Alma) with that of Mayor.  Most students felt that they trusted Alma as an unbiased narrator more than Mayor, which was interesting and not my personal opinion. I guess I understand the concerned parental bias more than my students do.

We also talked a lot about "home" and the meaning of the "American Dream" in today's United States.  Most UT students are Tennessee natives, so there was a fun discussion as they admitted/realized their eyes were opened to new perspectives they had hitherto not recognized or valued properly.  This then led us to explore ideas of parent/child relationships and the role of community in assimilation.

Probably the most enthusiastic discussion came, not surprisingly, when I tied the book directly back to them personally.  We talked about life transitions and while for the Rivera family that meant immigrating to a new country, taking on new jobs, learning a new language, and forging a whole new life; for them it meant starting college and living on their own for the first time.  It is really not a fair comparison, but they bought it and told their own stories of excitement, confusion, hesitation, and nerves.  This led to a conversation about the "outsider" and what it means to be the person who is teased or not immediately in the know, exactly like out main characters.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in a realistic and character-driven look at the plight of immigrants in today's America.  It is well-written and provides a frank and honest look at a commonly misunderstood community without being preachy, needlessly sentimental, or condescending.  (And Cristina Henriquez was a great speaker for the students, and she was fun to meet!)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Summer Nashville Trip

I am so bad at blogging.  Ok, so a million years ago, we took a trip to Nashville to hang with the family, and I have all these great pictures and never posted them.  Oops.

We visited the Tennessee State Museum in Downtown Nashville with Jennie, Rob, and cousins Jude and Levi.  The museum itself was ok, but they did have great kid interactive stations set up all throughout, which was fantastic.  And it is free, so I will never argue with that.  Fun times.

Jude in the stocks!

Huge Cinderella carriage (just go with it...)
Playing dead - I have no idea why
Jeremy being sweet to Vi and dancing with her in the "ballroom"

Then we hit up the Spaghetti Factory for lunch. Yummy.

After lunch (poor Levi had to take a nap in the car since this day turned into a marathon of events), we visited Fort Negley.  The kids had a blast digging for fossils and hiking up to the actual fort.

We met up with Graham, Katherine, and cousins Philip, Pete, and Tommy for a trip to the St. Jude Dream House (alas, we did not win), and it was beautiful.

We had a great cookout/ swim party at Graham and Katherine's house with ALL the cousins, and the kids were just in activity heaven.
Yeah, this is one corner of the pool.  Craziness.  Vi is the pink blur on the slide.

Kids are so special


Oh with that face!

Brian is a sweet uncle


Thanks to our Nashville crew for an amazing visit!!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Labor Day Fun!

We had a really great long weekend as a family.  I love long weekends, because I freaking work too much and a regular weekend barely give us time for errands and chores and fun is often sacrificed for "more important" things.  Sad day.

We were so happy to meet up with Teddi, Jared, and the kids for Cage's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.  Since they moved to Greenville, we obviously don't see them as much, so it was great to see the kids.  It has seriously only been a few months, but i feel like Mallory and Zoey are so much older.  Kids change so much so quickly at these ages.  I miss seeing Teddi every day at work, so I was so happy to catch up with her world.
I miss my Teddi!

How am I so lucky that these handsome men are mine?!

I love that Vi is in the awkward smiling phase of life.

All the kids!

Girlfriend loves a photobooth.

We struggled to find the camera.  Oops.
Sunday was the last ever Boomsday in Knoxville, so we wanted to make sure we saw it in person.  We went up to swim on campus in the afternoon, then hung out until the fireworks started.  I introduced the kids to cheese bings at Goal Post Tavern on the Strip and then we let them get milkshakes from Cookout.  Jeremy was so excited to hang out where the college kids do.  We watched the fireworks from one of our buildings and it was absolutely beautiful.  We will miss you, Boomsday!
Jeremy is SO sweet with her.  I do not understand where he got the patience he has, because it sure did not come from me.

Jeremy convinced Violet to jump off the side and he would "catch" her by being totally knocked over.  

At one of the "college kid hangouts" with his rootbeer.  He was in heaven.

Again with the pictures.  If I take one of Jeremy, she demands one of her.

Dancing at the tavern.

Milkshakes from Cookout at the Clement Hall picnic table where we played several rousing rounds of Duck Duck Goose with poor UT students looking at us like we are nuts.

It was pitch black, but I tried to get some photos of the firework watching.

Violet has traded me in for Elise, the wife of my newest co-worker.  They are total BFF.

Enjoying the last Boomsday. :(
Monday we ended up with the entire neighborhood in our house.  I did not take photos, because it was too crazy.  Brian was out, and I swear as soon as he left the neighborhood kids descended.  We had full on Star Wars battles in the living room (Jeremy has a scar on his neck from a light-saber hit) and I had to yell at them all about locking the girls out of the bedrooms.  I love the chaos, and the kids had a blast.  It was dark before I sent them all home and no parents even came to check on them - I do love the trust and familiarity we have created with our neighborhood unit.

It was a fun end to a great weekend of family nonsense.  I did not fully complete a single "important" item from my to-do list but I had an absolutely great time creating memories with my babies.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


When I originally started this blog my intention was to have an outlet for my brain.  I used to write a lot, and I hold a Master's degree in Literature.  As a Residence Life professional, I don't really use that skill set much.  I am the editor of our regional journal, but writing and editing articles about housing issues is not really the same thing.  So, I am going to be trying to use my blog a bit more for its original intent - as a space for me to share my thoughts, which, shockingly enough, are not always about my children.  Feel free to skip over these posts if you are just here for the achingly adorable monsters - they will be back soon.  :)

I recently picked up a copy of Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith at the local library.  It received good reviews in a few magazines I read, and lord knows I love me some Jane Austen, so I decided to give it a try.  I was also a fan of McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency from a few years back.  The novel is basically a modernization of the classic Emma story.  All the same characters and plot lines, just plopped into the twenty-first century.  I feel like it mostly succeeds in providing the experience promised: a fun, light-hearted, comical take on a classic love story and comedy of manners.

Now, it must be noted that any modernization of Emma will be immediately compared to the amazingness that was/is Clueless.  I am not going to beat around the bush here: Clueless did it first and did it much better.  But, this Emma stays truer to the original with its English countryside setting and faithful plot progression.  It is not in any way a new take on Clueless; it is very simply, a new take on Emma, and should be treated as such.

To start off bluntly, I will admit that I was not immediately taken with the book.  It is not a page-turner.  This is a vacation book or for an Austen-lover.  It is sweet, cute, and harmless.  It is not life-changing.  It begins with a very long, drawn-out description of two important but supporting characters: Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor.  Emma's father is a comic icon, but he is not the focus of the book.  Spending a third of the novel focusing on him and his hiring of Miss Taylor is a waste of pages.  It is fun to read their silly backstories, but too much time was spent setting up characters that do not drive the action of the book.  Similarly, reading chapters devoted to Isabella (do you even remember Isabella from the Austen novel?) and John's courtship are fun but way too long.  Give them a few paragraphs and get to our heroine, please.

When Emma does arrive as a grown adult (at last), the plot finally kicks in and begins to move along at a more normal pace.  What I am struck with, though, is that I don't know Emma.  She was described to us only as a child, not as an adult.  Jane Austen famously said that Emma was "a heroine whom no one but myself will like much."  However, time has told a different story and Emma is beloved as a flawed but enchanting character.  This novel takes the former approach and Emma does some pretty horrible things.  Philip Elton (I am still not used to using character's first names as is done here) is actually arrested and publicly shamed due to Emma's scheming, and poor Harriet is pressured to pose nude (which could actually be considered rape by current standards) by her overpowering friend.  The Emma of Austen's novel was misguided, yes, but she did not give anyone permanent felony records or force them into sexualized situations against their will.

Emma is not all bad, though.  She retains that spark of humor and well-meaning.  She never intends to cause harm to other people, she acts with the best of intentions.  She is beautiful, smart, quick, and rich.  I still like her at the end of the day, but not as much as her predecessor.  If Austen did mean to create an unlikable heroine, I would say that McCall Smith was more successful at doing so.

My issues with Emma's mean streak are not my biggest disappointment with the novel, though.  Mr. Knightley (or George, as he is referred to in this version) is practically a non-entity.  There is no real build-up to the ultimate relationship that blossoms between Emma and her long-time family friend.  It has been long bemoaned that the Austen-created Mr. Knightley is a bit too Henry Higgins and molds Emma into his eventual bride. All references to that are wiped out here, which is fine and dandy.  But nothing is inserted in their place.  If you take out the fatherly interest he initially has with Emma, you are really left with no foundation for relationship.  The jealousy over Frank Churchill is also eliminated with the modernization of that plot line.  What is left is a very abrupt and unearned final coupling that feels less than satisfying.

This is all not to say that the novel is unsuccessful.  I really enjoyed most of it.  The main conceit of taking this classic story and literally dumping it in present time with the same characters and plots is fascinating to read.  Most of the updates are fun and hilarious.  Mrs. Goddard, a throw-away character in the original, is my absolute favorite in this reality as an ESL-teaching, hiding pot in cakes for unsuspecting picnic goers, carrying a torch for Mr. Woodhouse hippie.  Love her.  The most happily hated Mrs. Elton is here a reality-TV personality and aspiring singer/idiot.  Delicious.  Emma is an interior designer (perfect), Frank Churchill goes for the pretend-I'm-gay rather than the pretend-I-love-Emma rouse (cute), and Harriet's dubious parentage is via anonymous clinical sperm donor (totally works).  There are a few clunky misses in the update: Miss Taylor is still a governess, which is strange and does not really exist anymore, as actually noted in the novel, and Jane Fairfax's piano playing prowess is not really a source of jealousy to Emma's 21st century woman, so they sent her to Cambridge to (rather weakly) college-shame Emma.

There were also several laugh-out-loud moments that I still giggle at as I type this.  John and Isabella's self-centered pretensions and literal voice lessons to achieve trendy cockney accents are hilarious.  Throw away lines about their children's missing r's had me rolling.  I already mentioned Mrs. Goddard, but it bears repeating that I love her.  Miss Bates, an Austen masterpiece, is transformed into the victim of a pyramid scheme and has a fun twist to her character at the end of the book that I totally adored.

It is not a perfect book, but the sum of its parts is positive and funny.  If you love Austen or are looking for a fluffy read, I recommend this as an enjoyable diversion for a few days.