Mrs. Winkler’s Summer 2020

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Thanks to the pandemic, this has been a unique summer for me and almost everybody else, but not all bad. My reading continues, I have attended several interesting online seminars, and the work on my novel progresses. I am also making plans for the upcoming semester of teaching.

The big difference is not traveling, which I do greatly miss. I have family and friends in Alabama, Colorado, Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Germany and elsewhere. I like traveling to visit them, and I also like to explore within my own state, attending meetings for the North Carolina Writers Network and the Dramatists’ Guild of America as well as “adventuring” with my daughter Hannah.

This summer I am at home almost always–weird.

I have developed routines, which is actually a novelty for me–I tend to improvise, but I am doing more of the things that are good for me, including exercising, reading, and writing more than I usually do.

The cover of Wolfie: A Cat Beyond Time shows a large cat tossing an hour glass into the air.

I have been posting about my reading, which I have really ramped up this summer. My friend Joe Perrone, Jr. (check out his blog) asked me to read and review his wife’s debut middle-grade novel, Wolfie: A Cat Beyond Time, which I was glad to do; Becky is my friend, too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and if you have YA readers in your life, I highly recommend that you purchase it for them, especially if they like cats as much as I do.

Here is the review I posted on Goodreads:

History is best learned through storytelling, and that is why this middle- grade novel would be a good addition to any middle school classroom bookshelf or young readers’ collection. It is part historical fiction, part adventure story, and part fantasy, a compelling combination that balances fact with fiction. The two young protagonists are charming, and Wolfie, the big cat that serves as a catalyst to their adventure, well, he is magnificent. One of the aspects that I like best is the balance the book brings to the history of the Old West. We get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, but infused with enough humor and positivity to be appropriate for the targeted age group. An enjoyable and educational read for any youngster.

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

I have also been writing. Boy, have I been writing–30,000 words since May 19. I have never written almost every single day, but this summer I have. The two secrets for me have been determining how many words a day, approximately, I need to write to have a rough draft of my novel completed by the time school starts in August and then meeting or exceeding my quota each day. So far I have written six days a week and exceeded my goal most days, so I am ahead of the game. I should mention that I started out with 26, 000 words already written from November’s National Novel Writing Month. ( I wrote 50,000 but only half were usable.)

Of course, a first rough draft is a long way from finished novel, but I feel encouraged because I have wanted to finish a novel for four summers now but haven’t met my goal. I am determined to this year.

I am also busy attending webinars, submitting short stories to journals, and preparing for my classes in the fall, but I will save thoughts about those activities for future posts.

So come back and check them out!!!!

Are you writing this summer, too? Do you have a poem, essay, flash fiction, short story, or short drama you would like to share? Why not submit to Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal?

You can find submission guidelines HERE.

I look forward to reading your work!!

Two More Books

It was gratifying to read Meagan Lucas’ debut novel Songbirds and Stray Dogs because Ms. Lucas contributed her story “Daisy Mae Returns” to the Spring 2018 edition of Teach. Write (43-45). Something special about that for me as an English teacher, especially since Ms. Lucas is one as well.

Taking place in the early ’80’s, the novel tells the story of Jolene, who finds herself, pregnant, alone, and abandoned in a small coastal town. She makes her way to the mountains of Western North Carolina, where she encounters more loneliness and hostility until she meets someone as lonely and broken as she and learns to trust, love, and hope again.

I liked the way the story develops with the distinctive alternating perspectives of a woman and a man. Ms. Lucas effectively captures the struggle of how two ordinary people find a way despite loneliness and despair. Our world needs more of their spirited perseverance.

The book is published by Main Street Rag. Hope you will buy it and support a promising new voice in Southern fiction.

A very different book I finally finished is an extraordinary biography of Johann Sebastian Bach by German musicologist Christoph Wolff.

I started reading this book quite a while ago, but it is difficult reading for me because I am not that knowledgeable about music, and the book goes into great technical detail about Bach’s compositional style.

I am, however, knowledgeable about scholarly research and can recognize the incredible achievement this book is, giving readers a detailed look at Bach as performer, composer, scholar, theologian, husband, and father. Also, even though I didn’t understand it all, I was fascinated when Wolff explains Bach’s music in detail.

Well worth the time.

At the end of the last chapter, Wolff quotes from another Bach biography, the New Bach Reader, relating an anecdote about Mozart upon his first hearing of the motet Singet dem Herrn, ein neues Lied:

“Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him. Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out ‘What is this?’ And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: ‘Now there is something one can learn from!'”

And I did!

The text, in translation, of the aria:

God, take us to Yourself from now on!
For without You we can accomplish nothing
with all of our belongings.
Therefore be our protection and light,
and if our hope does not deceive us,
You will make it happen in the future.
Happy is the person who strictly and firmly
abandons himself to You and Your mercy!

Now listen, dear reader, to Vocalconsort Berlin singing Sing to the Lord a New Song:

Mrs. Winkler Keeps Reading

Updated June 16, 2020

NOTE: Scroll to the end to see additions to this review. CAUTION: SPOILERS

I joined an online book club for Western Carolina University alumni, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is the first book we are reading. The book has given me some food for thought and its simple formula for changing habit (cue, routine, reward) has been actually working for me. I have completed short yoga routines for 80 days in a row and am regularly meeting my quota of 600 words a day towards completion of my novel, writing six of seven days a week for the past three weeks, just to name two examples.

Not bad.

One of the main themes of the book is not trying to suppress bad habits but to replace bad habits with positive ones through changing the routine. Duhigg explains and gives examples of the idea that habits are born of cues that trigger the behavior and lead to some kind of reward. He calls it The Golden Rule of Habit Change: “You can’t extinguish an old habit. You can only change it.”

He shows how this works by using a multitude of examples. In the first part of the book he shows how mainly positive examples, including Tony Dungy, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who changed the team’s habits to eventually lead them to the Super Bowl and Bob Wilson, the founder of AA, how the program’s success for so many people comes in part from establishing new habits.

But in both cases, Duhigg talks about belief, not necessarily a spiritual belief, but some sort of faith must be present to successfully form good habits and this faith is normally found by being part of a group.

The chapter that will be most useful to me as a teacher is “Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success.” This chapter talks about how Starbucks had become a powerhouse coffeehouse chain by, simply put, teaching willpower. At the same time, Starbucks has found that giving employees a voice is one of the ways to help develop the self-discipline and willpower needed to train and retain productive employees.

The implications for teaching are obvious–our students need to have more power over what they are learning. If they feel they have choice, they will be more likely to exhibit the self-control necessary to complete their studies

Interesting.

One of the most relevant parts of the book for today is “Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis.” Duhigg gives an example of a Rhode Island hospital that made radical changes for the better by changing institutional habits following the senseless death of one of their patients.

Following the example, Duhigg states:

“But sometimes, even destructive habits can be transformed by leaders who know how to seize the right opportunities. Sometimes, in the heat of a crisis, the right habits emerge.”

Updated June 16, 2020

In response to a question posed by our book club leader, I wrote the following about the chapter in the book I appreciate in some ways but took exception to in others:

Overall, I have a positive reaction to the book and its author, but my perspective changed quite a bit towards both as I was reading Chapter 7, especially the Target example. The author seemed to treat this example in a positive light at first–as if intrusion into a woman’s reproductive privacy is no big deal. It is only when the marketing team and the data researcher finally question whether his intrusive data collection would actually make money or not that they apparently begin to question how pregnant women might feel.

Interesting also that the author gives an example of an angry father to make his point about negative reactions from the public. I found myself wondering what was happening to the poor young woman who was the daughter of that angry father. How did she feel about the father talking to a manager at Target about her pregnancy? Did the father kick her out of the house because she got pregnant? Did father and daughter reconcile? Is he forcing her to keep the child or marry, or not marry, the father of her child against her wishes? How does the young woman’s mother feel about all of this? But none of this matters to the data collectors or the author of the book, it seems. Maybe it does, but not enough to find out and give examples of how any individual woman feels about this kind of marketing strategy, I guess.

Perhaps the author being a male and the subject of his example being a male was my cue to go to the routine of rolling my eyes at this obtuse behavior. The reward is another great example for my students of sexism and manipulative advertising tactics.

After reading this chapter I was reminded how important it is to continue teaching my students about the power of persuasive techniques that are legal but border on, or are downright, unethical but widely accepted as the norm because they make a lot of money. It is up to my students as consumers to use critical thinking when viewing advertising and recognize the incredible powers of data-driven marketing. It is up to me as their instructor to provide proof of these questionable tactics and for that, I am grateful to the author and his book.

One final question: Why did the author not comment on the initial question the marketers asked the mathematician to solve?

Here’s the question: “Can your computers figure out which customers are pregnant, even if they don’t want us to know?” (182). (Emphasis mine).

That’s okay? I guess so because “Figuring out whose pregnant…could make Target millions of dollars” (184), and this little gem “So for companies, pregnant women are goldmines” (192). Oh, I get it. Priorities.

I think if there is a new edition, Duhigg should consider leaving out Chapter 7. It was the reason I gave the book four stars instead of five. At the very least, he should spend some time trying to get at least one pregnant woman’s view of this kind of advertising.

I know I have harped on the bad, but there is much good to be gleaned from the book as well, so I am glad I read it and have taken part in the discussion.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Redux

I finished reading Wendell Berry’s Life Is a Miracle, written 20 years ago but still relevant today. I don’t know where to begin talking about it. There are so many things it touched on, including cultural and creation care, the dangers of corporate control of the arts and sciences, of people whose primary interest are wealth and power having control of higher education. I suppose that latter point is the one that resonates with me the most as an English instructor at a community college during this time.

This time. How strange it is. There are so many questions, and I can’t say that reading Berry’s book has offered me any specific answers, but perhaps it gives me something more important.

A new outlook.

At first Berry seems to be criticizing modern science, but it doesn’t take long before the reader realizes that his objections are more towards the commercialization of science and how it is being isolated from other academic disciplines–how undergraduate programs in our colleges and universities are moving away from the traditional idea of one student embracing multiple disciplines, working across curriculums for the good of all, to more and more isolation and specialization. Ironically, this movement is causing us to be less and less concerned with specific problems, and more importantly, the people who are right around us.

Early on, when Berry introduces his thesis, he caught my attention, discussing what he means by professionalism, which is not what most people think when they hear the word:

“All of the disciplines are increasingly identifiable as professionalisms, which are increasingly conformable to the aims and standards of industrialism…The professionals don’t care [his italics] where they are….They subscribe to the preeminence of the mind and (logically from that) of the career. The questions of propriety, calling as they must for local answers, call necessarily for small answers. But small local answers are now as far beneath the notice of porfessionalism as of commercialism. Professionalism aspires to big [his italics] answers that will make headlines, money, and promotions. It longs, moreover, for answers that are uniform and universal–the same styles, explanations, routines, tools, methods, models, beliefs, amusements, etc., for everybody everywhere. And like the corporations, whose appetite for ‘growth’ seems now ungovernable, the institutions of government, education, and religion are now all too likely to measure their success in terms of size and number. All the institutions seem to have learned to imitate the organizational structures and to adopt the values and aims of industrial corporations. It is astonishing to realize how quickly and shamelessly doctors and lawyers and even college professors have taken to drumming up trade, and how readily hospitals, once run according to the laws of healing, mercy, and charity, have submitted to the laws of professionalism, industrial methodology, careerism, and profit” (pp 14-15).

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Do you know how relieved I am that someone who is so widely respected, a prophet of our time, has written these words that my soul has been shouting for years?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

A publically funded college is a place where learning is fostered for all of the people in the community, not to be centered on corporate or government interests. Not that these interests are unimportant. Of course, they are, but they are best served by a faculty dedicated to teaching students to think and communicate clearly and critically, a staff that supports students and their instructors toward that end, an administration that is devoted to the welfare of ALL students, faculty, and staff. No matter what career the student is interested in pursuing, even if she dreams of being a writer, an artist, a musician or, God forbid, an actor. No matter what subject the professor teaches, even if he teaches the history of jazz. No matter what the staff members do, whether they be registrars or receptionists.

It is not the job of any administrator, board member or government entity involved with a college or university to decide what learning is valuable and which is not.

The quote above raises another issue that has long been heavy on my heart– the insane idea of trying to standardize college-level instruction. Why do so many in higher education think it is a benefit to a young adult to encounter the same material, assignments, activities, grading rubrics, online platforms? Why this emphasis on sameness? How can students learn to navigate an ever-changing world if they don’t start learning to adapt to change while they are in college?

Wendell Berry gave me the answer–because sameness comes from the corporate mindset of “producing” as many “successful” graduates as cheaply and quickly as possible. And what is the sign of success?–a job.

But, I digress. Sorry, it’s the way I’m built. Just ask my students.

Berry discusses three institutions he feels are most affected by this professionalism–science, the arts, and religion. He begins with science and much of what he says has great relevance to two crises in our world today–do I need to even name them?

When discussing the limitations of science due to the deficiencies of our mental capacities (we don’t like to think we are limited but that we are is beyond doubt), Berry says the following:

“The fallibility of a human system of thought is always the result of incompleteness. In order to include some things, we invariably exclude others. We can’t include everything because we don’t know everything…. The incompleteness of a system is rarely if ever perceptible to those who made it or to those who benefit from it. To those who are excluded from it, the incompleteness of a system is, or eventually becomes, plain enough. One weakness of the present system,… is that it excludes all inscrutable and ineffable things, including the life history of the human soul” (pp. 34-35).

When a writer like Wendell Berry, not only a writer and a poet, but also a farmer and conservationist, some would even call an environmental activist, writes about science, he embues his words with the inscrutability and ineffabilty that he sees lacking in modern science. How he strings the words together, how he brings more than simple meaning but part of his soul to the page is evidence of what is at the crux of what I think is his intended meaning.

Science, the arts, religion, they need each other, depend on each other.

We need the complexity, the exactness of science, we need the mystery and symbolism of the arts, we need the sanctity and hope of religion to help bring us together and to help us include those who have for too long been excluded.

I don’t have time to talk about all of the many great ideas in Berry’s book, so I will conclude this scattered review with one piece of advice: Read it!

And with one last quote from the book:

“If we were as fearful of our knowledge and our power as in our ignorance we ought to be–and as our cultural and religious traditions instruct us to be–then we would be trying to reconnect the disiplines both within the universities and in the conduct of the professions” (p. 145).

Amen.

Work Cited

Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle, Counterpoint, 2000.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Continues

I will be adding more to this post in the near future to give more details about these two books, so stay tuned!!!

Also, updates on the novel and on Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

I have had this book for years and started reading it but put it aside. I’m not sure why; perhaps the time is right for it now, but it is a marvel. So much of it is resonating with me now, especially as I am working on a novel that satirizes higher education in the world today. It’s like I’m doing accidental research.

One of my alma maters, Western Carolina University offered an online book club for alumni, so I joined. Why not?

This is the first book we are reading. I am about half way through, but I got distracted once I started reading Berry’s book. However, I am going to be excited to get back to it because I am definitely learning a great deal.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading

The Book Worm, 1850 by Carl Spitzweg

One of my favorite places to sit in the summer is on the front deck we had built a few years ago. Soon after it was built, my husband bought me a nice little bistro table and chairs that fits perfectly there, where I love to sit, sip ice tea, lemonade, or an occasional glass of wine, and read. Every now and then, I will look up to admire another great gift from my husband, our now full-grown Japanese maple.

I squirrel away books I don’t have time to read all year and wait for the precious months without teaching to sit on the deck and read. This summer is no different.

I have never been a fast reader, which may seem strange for an English teacher. Of course, if the writing is not particularly special or the characters are not deep, but the book has a good plot, I have been known to flit through it pretty quickly, but when I want to live with the author and the world she or he has created, ahhhh, what a pleasure to have the time to linger.

And that’s why I love our deck, my pretty bistro table and chairs, the cool Carolina mountain mornings, and the time my profession allows me to read.

So what is Mrs. Winkler reading this summer?

The first book I finished since my school duties have been over is The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash, who was one of the speakers at a North Carolina Writers’ Network Conference I attended a couple of years ago. I had heard him speak when his first book, A Land More Kind Than Home, was beginning to enjoy considerable success and had enjoyed that book, so I was eager to purchase The Last Ballad, especially after hearing him speak. I had The Last Ballad at the top of my stack to read this summer.

The Last Ballad is a historical novel, based on the 1929 North Carolina cotton mill uprisings and attempted unionization of the mills. The protagonist, Ella May Wiggins, is based on a real historical figure. The real-life Wiggins, the mother of nine, became a union organizer after four of her children died from whooping cough. She had asked to be put on the day shift so she could tend to her sick children but was denied. Cash’s book fictionalizes the story but is obviously well-researched and stays true to the time it was written.

Because my paternal grandmother worked in a cotton mill in Alabama from the time she was fourteen until she retired, part of that time as a single parent, this story particularly resonates with me. Some of my family members say that my great-grandfather had been part of an attempt to unionize the mill and was blacklisted, but I have been unable to verify that. Again, my personal connection to the work helped make it an especially meaningful read.

The historical novel is one of my favorite genres. If the book is well-researched and written, I love learning something new about history as I read an interesting and thought-provoking story with vibrant characters, like those in Wiley Cash’s book The Last Ballad.

Way back in July 2014, I wrote about my wonderful Uncle El, who introduced me to the works of Georgette Heyer. Although she is known mainly for her Regency romance novels, Heyer was also interested in history and wrote several novels outside of the early 19th Century time -period of most of her well-known novels, all of which I have read–some of them multiple times.

I thought I had read all of her books until I discovered The Great Roxhythe, Heyer’s 2nd novel, written when she was only 19-years-old. It takes place during the Restoration Period following the British Civil Wars, telling the story of the deceptively foppish Most Noble Marquis of Roxhythe. Like many of Heyer’s heroes, he is decried as a rake and a libertine, but to King Charles II, he is a most trusted and devoted friend, using his sullied reputation as a way to secretly serve the king.

Like The Last Ballad, The Great Roxhythe is impeccably researched and offers great insight into a time period that I am eager to learn more about. At the same time, the novel has the rich characters, witty dialogue, and insight into the culture of the time that I have always enjoyed about Heyer’s romances, but it is not typical of her work.

Jennifer Kloester, whose book Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, is a must read for anyone interested in the period, writes in the biography of Heyer that the author actually repressed sales of The Great Roxhythe, calling it “This immature, ill-fated work” (57).

Before I read Kloester’s biography, I supposed that Heyer’s distaste for the book was based on immature writing or poorly drawn characters, but the novel has neither of these. Since she was a stickler for accurate historical fact, perhaps she felt the research was not up to the more mature writer’s standards? But now that I am reading the book, I see things differently.

There is romance in the book, but not between a man and a woman. The romantic love shown so strongly is the kind of love men have for their leaders and leaders have for those men they must trust with their lives. The Great Roxhythe and the king share this kind of platonic love, but they are not the main ones.

It is Christopher Dart, the young man who becomes the secretary to Roxhythe, who is absolutely smitten with his Lord and expresses his devotion in the most romantic of ways. Kloester notes in the biography the manner of the relationship between Roxhythe and Dart did not seem to stir any controversy when it was published in 1921, but that in 1951 when it was republished against Heyer’s wishes, some may have started to see homosexual overtones in her work that Heyer did not intend and that this is what caused the author to reject the work (58).

I tend to agree; however, as I read more and more of the book, I am saddened that she felt the need to suppress her work for any reason. After all, if one studies and reads the literature and history of the 17th Century, it was not uncommon at all for older men to have proteges that they found beautiful (think Shakespeare’s sonnets). And those proteges had great love for the older men who guided them to manhood.

Heyer’s work, written when she was very young, is charming in its innocent approach to a close relationship between an older and a younger man. It may be naive, but I find it refreshing to read a book, written by one of the greatest romance novelist of the 20th Century, whose central romantic relationship is a platonic one–between two men.

Works Cited

Cash, Wiley. The Last Ballad. William Morrow, 2017.

Heyer, Georgette. The Great Roxhythe. Important Books, 2014.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer. Sourcebooks, 2013, pp. 57-58.

—. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. Sourcebooks, 2010.