Mrs. Winkler’s Last Summer Book, but She Keeps Reading

The last book I finished before the craziness of teaching all online, synchronous and asynchronous, was a book my brother gave to me a while back, and I finally pushed through the stack to get to it.

I’m glad I did.

No one Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts is marketed to be a retelling of The Great Gatsby, and there are certainly echoes of Fitzgerald’s iconic novel here. The twists, however, make the novel rise above a simple re-telling. Jade Chang in her New York Times review describes the novel as a “skillful riff on ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which revolves around a contemporary black family in a declining North Carolina town,” an apt description of the novel.

Jay Gatsby is recast as JJ Ferguson, a young man who has left Pinewood, a small town in the Piedmont, to seek the American Dream. He returns a wealthy man, and begins to court Ava, our Daisy, who is now married to a weak man who is unfaithful to her.

Sound familiar?

Yes, some of the same themes are there, but the novel reveals the importance of setting in a novel. This is not a New York story. It is not one Nick Carraway could have told. It is not a story that any one person can tell, so we discover the hidden truths from multiple points of view, all circling around the most unlikely of Nick-type characters, Ava’s mother Sylvia, who is rooted in the soil of her Southern home.

Perhaps because I am about the same age as Sylvia, her perspective resonates the most with me. Her transformation is quiet and not earth-shattering– acceptance of herself, her past, and her place in life. Forgiveness. During the extraordinary days that have been the Summer of 2020, I have found myself learning these things, too.

And feeling good about it.

Here is a passage that captures Sylvia’s self-deprecating mood at the beginning of the novel, one of the passages that drew me into this amazing woman’s story:

“None of that hoping and believing girl was left in Sylvia now or at least she couldn’t be found. The woman she was now didn’t yearn for sophistication, and as far as she could tell she’d stopped yearning for much at all. The woman she’d become was fat and weighed down, but not just fat, dumb too, and always in the process of adjusting, like there was two of everything, the real thing and the shimmering copy that her brain had to work with focus and concentration to integrate. Her brain in slow-mo or she felt slow–same difference. The result was the girl she’d been had evaporated from her body like an emancipated soul.”

What I like is that Sylvia makes an honest appraisal of herself here. She is not eliciting pity–simply telling the truth.

I find that refreshing.

That is why I liked No One Is Coming to Save Us. Although it first seemed to focus on the deprivation of a black community in the South, I quickly saw it isn’t only about the African-American South or even about poverty in the contemporary South. It is about the American Dream and how these people, in this special place and time, define it, how they lose it or make it come true.

My next book review will be about the next Western Carolina University Book Club read, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I have seen the movie version of the book, too, so maybe it will be a book/movie comparison. Spoiler alert: the book is better than the movie, but the movie is very good.

Also, I will soon be unveiling the 2020 fall/winter edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal, slated to appear October 1.

So come back!!

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.

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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!!

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.

CAMPUS

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My summertime project is to complete a rough draft of my new novel, CAMPUS: The Novel That Wants to Be a Musical. Full disclosure. It started out as a musical, but then it decided that it wanted to be a novel but one that wanted to be a musical.

I know. It’s incredibly weird, but so am I, so it seems fitting. I am afraid, too, that it might offend because it’s horribly, deliciously satiric, a social and political satire of higher education in the South.

Many of my colleagues already know about the book. Back when it was a musical, I shared some of the ideas and songs with them. I have worked on the project off and on again for several years already, especially when I became particularly infuriated with perceived obstacles blocking my path to providing my students with the best education possible.

Oh, my. I can be so pompous at times.

But

My attitude is changing. Perhaps it was attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference with five of my fellow English instructors, talking about our work and seeing how passionate we all our about our work, but also enjoying each other as human beings–as fathers and mothers, as friends, like family.

My attitude is changing. Perhaps it’s all the months teaching in isolation. Did it take that for me to value the roles of others in my institution? Perhaps. Not that I didn’t appreciate it before, but now, wow, I appreciate it more.

My attitude is changing.

But my convictions have not.

So the play wanted to become a novel, but the novel did not want to lose all of the biting satire of the play because it’s just so darn fun. So, it didn’t. Still a satire. A kinder, gentler satire, perhaps (It hasn’t decided yet), but a satire nonetheless. And I’m still keeping the “I want to be a Nazi” song. I can’t help it. I just want to. And it’s my book, so I will.

But you say, Katie, how can you have musical numbers in a novel?

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And I say, how can I not? I know it’s weird and different and really out there. It may not work, but who cares? It makes me happy. It’s creative. It’s about work but not about work. It is helping me vent my frustrations so I will be less likely to take them out on my colleagues, supervisors, and students. Plus, it’s more than just satire. It’s also an Appalachian fantasy with gnomes, elves, the Moth Man, Moon-faced people, hellhounds, wizards, fairy godteachers (yes, really), vampires, zombies, and at least one boojum (aka Bigfoot). It’s also a love story (actually more than one) and a glimpse into the heart and soul of an aging teacher (guess who).

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Can you tell I love my book and don’t care that it’s goofy?

So, I’m writing this summer, and it’s time well spent.

Here is the first verse one of the songs:

BEAUTIFUL TRUTH

BY

KATIE WINKLER

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” From “Ode to a Grecian Urn”~John Keats

Truth and Beauty

That’s all there is and ever will be

I see truth and beauty

When I look into her eyes

It’s been an amazing ride

Since I’ve met her.

My world has opened wide

I’ve only just met her

The Belle dame sans merci

This beautiful lady

And her eyes are wild.

Just to have her near

Just to see her face

Just her voice to hear

Just to feel her fingers brush my cheek

Nothing else remains but she

The belle dame sans merci

Have mercy, have mercy

Help me to see

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

But I feel it, but I know

Truth and Beauty

I see it when I look into your eyes

Truth is beauty.

I see it when I look into your wild eyes

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

That is all there ever will be

I see truth and beauty

When I look into those wild, wild eyes

Are you a teacher writing this summer? I would love to read your work and consider it for my literary journal Teach. Write. Submissions are open for the 2020 fall/winter edition until Sept.1 See submission guidelines for more information.

Encouragement

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One of the employees in our public relations department at our college had a great idea to encourage students during this difficult time by compiling short videos from faculty, staff, and administrators. I have been enjoying watching them as they’ve come out and was finally able to record my own, but alas, I was too late to be included in one of the compilations, so I decided to show it to you. I will also link this blog post to my students.

This video took only a few minutes to complete. I used the camera on my laptop, which automatically downloaded as an mp4 file, uploaded it to YouTube, copied the link, and pasted it on the blog. Wallah!

This little video may not make it to many students at my college to encourage them, but making it sure encouraged me for some weird reason.

Mrs. Winkler in Quarantine

If you haven’t had a chance to read the latest edition of Teach. Write., I encourage you to take a look:

Note: Edited version available for download. I will post the print version when it is available.

Teach. Write. Spring/Summer 2020

The 2020 Spring/Summer edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal is here! You can access the journal by clicking the Download button below:

The cover of this edition represents the theme of the one-room schoolhouse, which seems appropriate at this time when so many of us are teaching and learning from our own little rooms.

I hope reading this journal will provide you with a sense of unity and solidarity in the midst of our forced separation.

Until we meet again.

I will post the link when the print version of the journal is available.

Publication of Fall/Winter Edition of Teach. Write. Delayed

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Preview of Fall/Winter Cover by ttroslien via morguefile.com

Teach. Write. is a one-woman show, but it is important to me, and I have some wonderful writers whose works I want to share with you soon.

However, life is life, so although my publication date for the fall/winter edition of Teach. Write. is September 1, today, I know I am not going to make that deadline. My hope is to publish no later than September 15.

So, hang on, Sunday’s coming!

 

Best Laid Plans

balancing rock formation

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I intended to keep up better with my blog.

I intended to finish a novel and a play.

I intended to market my plays and obtain an agent, or at least work more toward that goal.

I intended to have all of my classes completely ready to go for the new semester by this time.

It didn’t happen. Life intervened in fabulous, fulfilling ways as well as horrible, heart-breaking ways.

The privacy of my family will not allow me to go into details, but I am learning that life and work will rarely ever be in balance. Perhaps for a few fleeting moments, but the balance we all seek, and should, is a lofty one and largely unreachable. We will be out of balance more often than not, but we will find ways to cope, to compromise, to hope, to find our way.

These best of times feed and hinder my work.

These worst of times feed and hinder my work.

It isn’t a balance.

It is something else altogether.

It is a body.

A mind.

A spirit.

Altogether corrupt.

Infinitely holy.

Intertwined. Inseparable.

All of this is crazy. What do I mean?

I don’t really know what life is.

But I love it.

I just wish he had, too.

cover_springsummer2019

The submission deadline for the Fall/Winter 2019 edition of Teach. Write. has come in the midst of this frenzy. I contemplated extending the deadline, but I couldn’t even wrap my mind around the things I would need to do to make that happen.

So, I will print the lovely pieces that I have, and I will find the other work I need.

Or I will write them myself.

Publication is still slated for September 1.