The overall message of The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams far outweighs anything else I can say about the book. Are the characters relatable and well-developed? Yes. I found myself cheering them on throughout the entire book. Would I say that they are the best or most important aspect of the book? No. The relationships they develop with one another are much more interesting. Above all, the role that the local library and the reading list plays in the plot and the development of the relationships between various characters is the real story.
The main protagonists, Aleisha, a young teenage girl with a troubled home life who works at the library over the summer at the suggestion of her older brother, and Mukesh, a widower who struggles to regain his sense of purpose after the loss of his wife of decades, Naina, meet at the local library. The unlikely friendship that unfolds after their first unpleasant meeting sets the stage for all that follows that fateful summer, changing both of their lives irrevocably.
Set in the quiet London Borough of Ealing, the local library serves as a focal point for the community, even if it is well-loved and in search of additional patrons. The reading list Aleisha finds, labeled “just in case you need it,” ultimately brings several people together in unexpected ways. It is this list that I find to be the most interesting aspect of the book. It is obvious that The Reading List was written by a bibliophile for bibliophiles.
The following reading list is found in the book:
In Case You Need It …
The Time Traveler’s Wife * (discussed in the book, but not included on the list)
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Kite Runner
Life of Pi
Pride and Prejudice
A Suitable Boy
From the Author …
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Katherine Heiny, Standard Deviation
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Hiromi Kawakami, Strange Weather in Tokyo
Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Attia Hosain, Sunlight on a Broken Column
Ali Smith, There But For The
Ultimately, The Reading List is about how books and libraries can bring us together. It is a great message that more people need to hear. While I don’t often hear it anymore, there are still some people who do not recognize the modern importance of libraries. Personally, I believe that they are more important than ever. I am grateful that my local libraries appear to be doing well and have a lot of local support. I can’t imagine life without them. What makes The Reading List so powerful is the demonstration of how various characters connect over books and how those connections impact their lives. The right books seem to appear at just the right time. I feel for anyone who has not had that experience. I cannot recommend The Reading List enough.
Yes. I do intend to eventually read through both lists.
It seemed appropriate to share a beautiful song by an Irish band on St. Patrick’s Day. I fell in love with the entire album when it first came out, even though it wasn’t exactly the music I was into at the time. It certainly has held up.
I hope to revisit Ireland one day. I only spent a long weekend in Dublin while studying abroad in the United Kingdom, and yet, it left a deep impression on me. I have yet to travel anywhere where I felt so at home.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! More to come on Ireland in the week ahead.
As with so many writers, I fell in love with reading first. Over the years, I have found my reading life crucial to my continuing education as a writer. The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to read as widely as possible. The best part: Most of the tips, resources, and suggestions I am sharing here are little to no cost. One crucial requirement: a library card.
The following is a continuation of the list I started in Part 1. You can find it below.
I currently belong to three book clubs, and all three serve different roles in my reading life. First, as a writer, I would encourage you to join a book club similar to Mid Michigan Writers’ own Scribblers and Scholars. We meet every-other month to discuss books from the point of view of writers. Lately, we’ve been working on comparing Educated by Tara Westover to The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Scribblers and Scholars aims to provide writers with a book club focused on dissecting the craft of writing, although we tend to discuss just about anything related to the books.
I’ve also belonged to the Standish-Sterling Book Club for years. It is the first formal book club I’ve joined, and while we certainly discuss the books we picked, there is an in-person social aspect to the club that I love. In fact, two of my former teachers also belong to the club, both of whom have had a profound impact on who I am today. We meet monthly, and there is truly no judgment if you don’t quite finish a book that is less than thrilling or if you can’t make a meeting.
Last but not least, I’ve also joined the Spartan Book Club, which resides entirely online, as an alumni of Michigan State University. In fact, it has its own forum and much more. Books are selected quarterly, and once again, members are free to participate as much or as little as you’d like. I’ve met some wonderful people online and have thoroughly enjoyed the book selections. I’ve also used the Spartan Book Club for reading suggestions, as there are also several wonderful books mentioned not chosen as a book club selection.
I mention all of my book club experiences because they demonstrate that there is one out there for every type of reader. As a writer, all of my book club experiences led me to books I would not have picked up otherwise. I am a better writer for it, and it provides yet another outlet in which to discuss books. Think about what you would like out of a book club, and with a little research, you will find it.
If you haven’t discovered the benefits of ebooks yet, here are a few things I’ve noticed as a writer. First, I tend to be a collector. I intentionally collect certain books, hopefully to be read more than once. While there is nothing quite like the smell of a good book, collecting hundreds of ebooks takes up a lot less space in my home. Second, with Kindle, my preferred ereader and type of ebook, I can have my entire ebook library not only on my phone, but on my Chromebook and Kindle Paperwhite as well. Last but not least, I have a hard time highlighting or writing in traditional books. Ebooks allow me to highlight and make notes to my heart’s content without marking up a traditional book. My notes and highlights are waiting for me when I return.
Ebooks tend to be more cost effective as well. Often, the Kindle version is less expensive than either paperback or hardcover. While the prices of Kindle books are rising in some cases, there are also several websites and offers for free or low-cost Kindle books. BookBub is one of the best. I actually had to quit because I found too many great free books. It became overwhelming. Of course, libraries are increasing their access to ebooks as well. The beauty of ebooks from the library is that, not only is there no cost, you don’t need to physically visit the library or remember to return the book either.
Research and Read Book Reviews
There are countless places to find good book reviews and research book suggestions. Goodreads has everything and provides access to all kinds of reviews. Personally, I enjoy book blogs. My favorite is Modern Mrs. Darcy. She has it all: endless book lists, audiobook recommendations, her own book club, a podcast, and so much more. If you are into the reading life, you need to check it out. It might take some research, but once again, there are book blogs and review sites aimed at every type of reader. It is a matter of finding your niche.
Take a Class
I admit, pursuing my English Language Arts (ELA) endorsement in secondary education (grades 6-12) forced me to branch out as a reader. I’ve learned so much from my formal writing and literature courses. Yet, it isn’t necessary to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on tuition to take a literature class.
Two trusted, established sites I’ve used in the past are Coursera and Canvas. While I haven’t taken writing or literature courses specifically on either site, I do know that they are readily available at little or no cost. Other courses I’ve taken on those sites, mainly on educational technology, have been wonderful. On the clearinghouse site ClassCentral, a quick search under literature resulted in free survey courses offered by the likes of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania on a wide variety of subjects relating to all aspects of literature. You can find my search result here. There is also The Great Courses Video BingePass available on Hoopla that allows patrons access to the The Great Courses Video Collection for free for a week. The possibilities are endless.
Curate Your Own Lists of Books/Literature
Of course, there is always the DIY approach. Take the time to make your own lists of books and other forms of literature that interest you. I’ve made several of these lists over the years, and it helps me keep track of things that I came across years ago. I’ve found creating lists of authors and major works to be helpful. Make the list you are seeking if it doesn’t quite exist yet – and have fun.
Have you ever fallen so in love with a place that you still dream about it years later – and you fall so in love with your memories of that particular time and place that you instinctively know that reality will never come close to what you remember? It can happen. In 2002, I fell in love with Austin, Texas. In reality, I fell in love with a time and place that no longer exists.
It started out innocently enough. When I began planning my year abroad – one semester in Quito, Ecuador and another in Caceres, Spain – I knew that I would also need to make plans for the summer after Spain. I lucked out. The spring of my sophomore year at Michigan State, I landed a position as a paid intern at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota. I must have been on a roll that semester because I also landed a paid co-op opportunity (6 month contract) with Applied Materials (AMAT) in Austin, Texas. Ultimately, I accepted the position with IBM and asked Applied Materials if I could pursue the co-op opportunity the following summer/fall. They said yes, and I left East Lansing for a series of adventures that would take me away from campus for over a year and a half. I was well on my way to pursuing several of my dreams at once, including a career in tech.
My time in Austin did not start off well. When I arrived in June 2002, I didn’t know anyone. I ended up subletting my first apartment from a UT student. It was OK, but my only roommate in our four bedroom apartment spent all of her time with her boyfriend. Often the only trace of Carly was the reeking skunk smell of pot. Soon, things would change.
The first week or two at Applied consisted of orientation classes and touring facilities in what’ve been loving termed bunny suits. What I loved about AMAT was their place in the tech industry. We didn’t make the chips; we made the machines that make the chips. After a long day of orientation, an engineer I’d just met, Melissa, asked if I wanted to go get a drink and have dinner after work. Little did I know just how much she would impact my time in Austin.
Melissa and I became fast friends over dinner. Once I began describing my experiences studying abroad in Ecuador and Spain, she began telling me about her former coworker at Motorola, Andy, a fellow engineer. She thought that we should met, and frankly, I think she was trying to set us up. There was only one catch: Andy was currently exploring Machu Picchu in Peru and wouldn’t be home for some time. It would be worth the wait.
In the meantime, on July 24th, 2002, on my way to work, a huge moving truck made a left-hand turn in front of me when I had the green light. He hadn’t seen me. In the accident, I broke my big toe and the metatarsal. The molding on the driver’s side door of my car also sliced me behind my ear. If I had had a passenger, he or she probably would not have survived. In the aftermath of the accident, things somehow came together. My mom flew out to Austin to help me find a lawyer and a new car. She couldn’t believe how well I knew the city even though I had only been there just over a month. I had to help navigate in the days before Google Maps due to my cast.
By the time I had a walking cast, all bets were off. I quickly found out that the six month sublease I’d been promised was really only for three. Livid, I needed a new place to live within a few weeks. In the end, I found a much better place to live just in time thanks to Applied Material’s internal listings. The months living with Karen and her toddler son were great. It was almost as if I had the good fortune to live with a fun aunt for several months. Things were finally looking up.
In all the chaos of the accident and moving, I finally met Andy. We ended up on a blind date at the type of place that could only exist in Austin – Flipnotics. The first floor was a quirky retail t-shirt shop. The second floor included a restaurant/bar with a small performance space for live music. We were there for the music. I wish I had a video of Andy’s face when I opened my car door. He was horrified to realize that I had a walking cast up to my knee and that he had invited me to a venue requiring climbing a large set of stairs. Fortunately, we hit it off right away.
One of the best things about Austin, then and now, is the live music. It isn’t called the live music capital of the world for nothing. Andy was the perfect companion with whom to check it all out. It turns out that as a hobby Andy had a radio show – ATX Live – on the local co-op radio station KOOP. Soon I would met his friend and manager Cheryl. Andy would later serve as president of KOOP for several years. It isn’t every day that a man you admire and respect introduces you to someone who soon becomes one of your best friends. That is precisely what happened.
Over the next few months, Andy, Cheryl, and I had numerous adventures. I admit, I had a huge crush on Andy by this time. Cheryl did her best to try to get us to end up together, but it wasn’t meant to be. However, the fun I had that late summer and fall are never to be forgotten. The three of us attended the first Austin City Limits Festival in Zilker Park. Cheryl “conveniently” couldn’t join us the second day. The antics that took place that weekend are stories in themselves that belong with other songs. At the end of the festival, Andy and I ended up at a favorite local restaurant called Shady Grove. As it was within walking distance of the festival, we had to order takeout and eat/drink on the lawn, it was that crowded.
Later, Andy had LASIK surgery, and unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned. He ended up blinded for a week. As it was near his birthday, Cheryl and I threw him a party at his house once he regained his sight. I finally got to meet a bunch of his friends, coworkers, etc. It ended with Andy having to smooth things over with local cops late in the evening. Our “dress to be seen”/birthday party was a complete success.
As Halloween approached, Andy asked if I wanted to go to a house party hosted by local musician Chelle Murrey. Once we arrived, I dressed as a gypsy and Andy dressed as Zorro, Andy told me that he had a surprise for me. It turned out that a Beatles’ tribute band were going to play at the party, and knowing that I was a Beatles’ fan, he wanted me to have the opportunity to check them out first. I will never forget it. I bought Chelle’s CD that evening, and even though the music hasn’t quite held up, it will always remind me of Austin.
Shortly after one more party – this time a birthday/going home/Christmas party for me in mid-December at Karen’s house – I had to pack up my new-to-me 2002 silver Grand Prix and make the long journey home – alone. I arrived back in Michigan right before my birthday and Christmas. A year and half and a thousand adventures later, I would be returning to Michigan State in January 2003 to finish my degrees. I would graduate in May 2004. I never wanted to leave Austin behind.
On December 15th, 2002, a cold, foggy day in Austin, I left, listening to Chelle Murrey, trying to keep it all together. Austin represented everything I wanted after graduation – a good job, great friends, beautiful place to live, and for the first time in my life, a social life that actually felt like me.
My senior year at MSU, I did everything in my power to land in Austin. I made it to second round interviews with both Dell and Applied Materials. Unfortunately, my manager at AMAT left a few weeks before I did. He didn’t even get a chance to do my review before he left, that was left to someone I had only known for a week. In essence, I had no one on the inside fighting for me. Only half of the engineers and supply chain grads were hired. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them.
I did put my time back in Austin to good use, however. I met up with Andy and finally told him how I felt. In essence, he told me that he viewed me as a little sister. He explained that he was at a completely different stage in life. At 22, devastated doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Looking back, I completely understand where he was coming from at that point. At 29 and about to finish his MBA, he already owned his own home and was established in his career. I still needed to finish undergrad.
It is funny how I should have seen it coming. He bought me a cowgirl hat at the Austin City Limits Festival because he was afraid I was going to fry otherwise. As cold weather set in, he warned me about trying to drive on ice in Texas. In essence, I may know how to drive on ice being from Michigan, but others in Texas do not. My dad would have been impressed.
Today, Andy is married and still lives in Austin, now owning his own business. I’d love to track down Cheryl. I have a feeling that if we were able to catch up after all these years, it would be as if no time had passed at all. The only person with whom I am in contact is Karen, who keeps reminding me from time to time that Austin has changed – and not for the better.
In essence, this is a love letter to the Austin I knew in 2002. Some of my favorite landmarks and haunts, namely Flipnotics and Shady Grove, no longer exist. I still follow AMAT and the semiconductor industry. How could I not after 2020? The Austin City Limits Festival has grown beyond all recognition. I can only imagine how the city has changed and evolved. I just hope that it is still as weird as I remember and remains a welcoming place for young undergrads trying to find their place in the adult world. Those memories of Austin will always be a part of me.
As with so many writers, I fell in love with reading first. Over the years, I have found my reading life crucial to my continuing education as a writer. The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to read as widely as possible. The best part: Most of the tips, resources, and suggestions I am sharing here are little to no cost. One crucial requirement: a library card.
I read Reading Like A Writer well over a decade ago, but it is one of those books that never left me. I can’t recommend it enough for any writer. Prose makes the case for reading widely and for looking carefully at the literature you love most. Ask yourself: Why do I love this particular author? Why do I keep coming back to this particular genre, series, or author? What techniques is the author employing to keep readers interested?
There are endless opportunities to learn the craft of writing by reading if we know what questions to ask. Bonus: The reading list Prose includes for writers is wonderful.
Make Use of Your Local Library and Get to Know Your Local Librarians
A library card is a no brainer. These days, I tend to use mine to discover and borrow audiobooks via the service Hoopla, as well as borrow ebooks for my Kindle. Yes, I still checkout traditional books from time to time. The advantage to ebooks, including Kindle books, and anything from Hoopla is the simple fact that it isn’t necessary to visit the library at all. It is easy to borrow them online. Once they are due to be “returned,” the borrower simply no longer has access to the book. If not quite finished, readers may be able to renew online, depending on the popularity of the book.
Over the years, librarians have been extremely helpful. As an English teacher during the COVID 19 pandemic, I was fortunate to have local dedicated librarians who were willing to Zoom with my English classes in order to teach students how to borrow books digitally. Once restrictions were lifted, those same librarians helped me prepare a “book tasting” for my classes in an effort to help students figure out what genres they might enjoy. As a patron, if you ask, a librarian will nearly always be able to at least point you in the right direction. They, indeed, should run the world.
As a writer, if you find yourself in a rut in your reading life, there is no better place to seek inspiration than the library. I’ve been known to take pictures of the covers of books I find interesting in order to add them to my to-be-read pile later. At times, just the creative grouping or display of books at the library is enough to spark ideas. If nothing else, pick up a copy of the magazine BookPage to find out what’s new.
Utilize Audiobooks to Energize and Expand Your Reading Life
Sometimes, a book is just better via audiobook. I admit, I was skeptical. It felt like cheating. Frankly, the book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim changed all that. As a fan of both The LIttle House on the Prairie book series and TV show, I knew that I didn’t want to miss Nellie Oleson herself reading her memoir. I was not disappointed. Currently, I am listening to The Storyteller by Dave Grohl. It is another example of the audiobook format being well worth it. Right now, with audiobooks, I am focusing on memoirs read by their authors. It seems a natural fit.
Personally, between work and school, I drive quite a bit. As much as I love listening to the radio and music, audiobooks are a great way to make the most of my time in the car. It gives me more time to devote to books, which is always a good thing.
Catalog – and Share – Your Reading Life
Before there was Goodreads, there was LibraryThing. While I have used other benefits of LibraryThing over the years (I am a lifetime member), it offers a way to easily catalog your collection of books or simply track your reading. Similar to Goodreads, LibraryThing also connects communities of readers.
Sadly, I don’t use either website to track my reading as I am trying to come up with a good system that I will continue to use. However, both Goodreads and LibraryThing are both excellent ways to find new titles, connect with other readers, read book reviews, and so much more.
Personally, one of my favorite annual features of LibraryThing is SantaThing during the Christmas season. After choosing a participation level between $20-$50, someone else in the LibraryThing community is tasked with finding books for you to enjoy within that dollar amount. As a participant, you get to pick for others. Fortunately, there is a form to fill out that helps avoid duplicates, detail favorite genres/authors, and more. It is fun to both pick out books for someone you don’t know and see what others have selected for you. I have participated for several years at this point, and I have yet to be disappointed. I view it as an annual birthday/Christmas present to myself. It is yet another way in which I’ve come across wonderful books I would have never picked up otherwise.
Sharing books is equally important. Frankly, I can’t imagine my reading life without having opportunities to share what I’ve read with others. I’m fortunate to have grown up in a family that shared and discussed books. Today, I share book reviews on my blog, Ramblings of a Misguided Blonde, and I still share my favorites with family and friends. Beware, I tend to review books I love. I rarely write a negative book review as I can think of only one exception.
It seems so obvious, and frankly, it is a piece of advice that everyone loves to share with writers: “Write what you know.” It just isn’t quite that simple. There are things you know – and then there are things you know – the gut-wrenching realities that no one wants to truly admit. I’m beginning to see the difference. For me, that is passion. There has to be a lot of enthusiasm behind whatever it is that I’m sharing if it is going to be any good. I have to love what I am about to write.
Early last week, I found myself writing an article outlining different tips for writers regarding their reading lives. In short order, I had nearly 2,000 words. It is something I know and perfected over the years. I take reading seriously. It simply amazes me how I tend to have almost too much content when I write about certain subjects. If it involves reading, books, music, or education, I could keep going for hours.
Why, then, haven’t I been focusing on just those topics all these long years? The simple answer is I don’t know. The full answer is a bit more complex. WIth music, copyright laws surrounding song lyrics are tricky. I needed to come up with a unique way of sharing the music I love. I think I may have finally accomplished that. When it comes to books and reading, I spend so much time reading and discussing books in person that it seems silly to write about it much, book reviews aside. In essence, I need to get over myself.
Then there is education. As at least a 5th generation teacher (yes, I’ve traced the teaching tradition in my family back at least that far), I have definite opinions and insight – far more than my actual experience in the classroom would suggest. I have to be extremely careful. Sometimes when a writer is a little too close to the subject, it is easy to get burned. In private conversations, I’m content to know that I am not alone. One day, once I’ve made some definitive decisions regarding my teaching career, it is going to get interesting.
It may have taken me quite some time to find my voice, niche, and style, but I am just getting started. In spite of the fact that I am 42 and a certain TV “personality” – I refuse to use his name here or mention the network – stated that women reach their peak in their 20s-40s, declining once they hit 50, I have so much more to accomplish that it isn’t even funny. It will take me well beyond 50. Stay tuned!
Where do I begin? First, if you are or were a fan of The Little House on the Prairie TV show in the 70s and 80s, I can’t recommend this book enough. Be aware: This isn’t saccharine. Far from it. If you are easily offended, this probably isn’t for you. However, if you loved to hate Nellie as a little girl and wished each week for Laura to give Nellie exactly what she deserved – in spades – this book is for you. If you ever thought that playing the most outrageous villain possible on TV would be fun, once again, this book is for you. Last but not least, if you count Nellie Oleson and her overbearing mother Harriet among the favorite TV characters from your childhood, you need to read this book.
Frankly, both The Little House on the Prairie TV show and the children’s book series were a huge part of my childhood. I can’t imagine growing up without either. I do know that by 2nd grade, I was hooked. Mrs. Butz reading Little House in the Big Woods to our 2nd grade class saw to that. In early elementary school, I would fly off the bus to make sure I didn’t miss the start of Little House on the Prairie at 4 PM, in much the same way I made sure I was home at 4 PM during my high school years to watch Oprah. It was simply what I did, and I loved every minute of it.
I know that there are still a lot of adult fans of the show out there – millions of them, in fact – but I’m not really one of them. As an adult, I couldn’t get over the increasingly bizarre storylines that strayed further and further from the books – Albert’s opium addiction, anyone? Then there was the issue of no mountains in Minnesota, where the show was supposedly set, and the fact that the Ingalls family spent a big part of Laura’s childhood in DeSmet, South Dakota. In reality, the Ingalls family didn’t live in Walnut Grove for long. Still, there was something special about the show. It might be a little too sweet for my taste now, but back then, it was the best.
Nellie and Harriet made the show, of course. The Ingalls were so wholesome and down to earth that they needed Nellie and Harriet as foils. Personally, I think the show would not have worked without their over-the-top antics. They had to be just that outrageous. In the book, Alison talks lovingly about her TV parents. Supposedly, in real life, they were similar to their TV characters, although Katherine MacGregor (Harriet) was much nicer, even if just as bold. Alison’s descriptions of Katherine alone make the book worthwhile. As fun as Harriet was to watch, the best scenes were the ones in which Nellie and Laura actually fight.
About Laura and Nellie … in real life, Alison Arngrim (Nellie) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura) were best friends. They spent a lot of time together on and off set and at each other’s homes. One of their favorite pastimes happened to be simply appearing in public together. People freaked out. I can only imagine how much fun they had playing up their “rivalry.”
Alison’s antics with Melissa Gilbert are a great part of the book, but there is so much to unpack here. First, there is that voice. I chose to listen to the audiobook version as soon as I learned that she read her own book. As soon as I started listening, I knew I had made the right choice. Regardless, the book would have hit me with a huge wave of nostalgia, but Alison reading her book in a voice that I have always associated with childhood evil personified: priceless.
In all fairness to Alison, she comes across as extremely down to earth in her book to the point that I’d actually love to meet her. She spends quite some time discussing the perils and perks of playing one of TV’s greatest child villains. Can you imagine growing up playing a character people loved to hate? Once, during a publicity event at a private school, an event that she attended with Katherine MacGregor (Harriet Oleson), both in full costume, some of the students shoved her so hard that she laid face down on the pavement for a while until her father realized what had happened to her. He ended up taking her home immediately. It was the last time she attended a publicity event in costume. How do you deal with that all before adolescence?
In the book, Alison uses the trauma she experienced as a child as a way to frame her memoir. No, her trauma isn’t exactly what comes to mind with young stars and Hollywood, but sadly, it seems all the more common – and of course, very real. I’m not going to discuss it here for many reasons; the main one being that, in a way, it is the point of her memoir. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it. She has used that trauma to try and help prevent others from experiencing the same thing. In essence, she uses her “inner b*tch” to create real legislative change in an effort to protect kids – all kids.
One of the more interesting tidbits I learned in the book is the history behind why the TV show deviated so much from the books. Michael Landon supposedly exclaimed at one time: “My God! Have you actually read the books? There are descriptions of churning butter!” In other words, they had to up the action. I get it, I do. What makes a great book doesn’t necessarily make great television.
I suppose that’s what has always bothered me about the TV show. As an aspiring writer, it sickened me to think what happened to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original work. Now, older and wiser, I can see the value of the TV show too. I am sure it inspired millions of kids to pick up the original books. All publicity is good publicity, right? For people who grew up with the TV show, I can’t recommend Confessions of a Prairie B*tch enough. There are so many great aspects to Alison Arngrim’s memoir. It is a wonderful combination of nostalgia, good story, and humor. By the way, Alison’s voice impression of Melissa Gilbert is hilarious. Several other memoirs have been written by the child stars of Little House on the Prairie. In fact, I plan on reading both of Melissa Gilbert’s books. I will be surprised if Confessions of a Prairie B*tch doesn’t remain my favorite.
What can I say about Don McLean’s American Pie that hasn’t already been said? Not much, actually. Yet, that song is so ingrained in my love of music, my childhood, and more. It can safely be called Americana at this point – a modern American folk song in the best sense of the term.
I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard the song, but I have always loved it and could deeply visualize the lyrics. For whatever reason, I imagined the high school gym as the same high school gym where I’d watched my dad play old man basketball countless times as a preschooler – his alma mater – Arenac Eastern High School in Twining, MI. I think it has something to do with how rural the setting appears to be in the song. Sadly, Arenac Eastern High School no longer exists. The building, now a community center, still sits among acres of farm land and a tiny village. When I think of the quintessential rural American high school, Arenac Eastern immediately comes to mind. It has always felt like stepping back in time and into my family history.
Whatever the case may be, I do know that I had the lyrics practically memorized by 4th grade. Mrs. Currie, my 4th grade teacher and my first teacher at Standish Elementary, used the lyrics to teach us the terms “levee” and “dirge.” In fact, at this point, I can’t listen to the song without thinking about 4th grade and Mrs. Currie. None of the kids were getting it. She then began to sing the song, basically saying “Come on! You know the song.” Except, they didn’t. As I remember it, I was the only kid who knew the song and lyrics – at least well enough for the purposes of her vocabulary lesson. It was funny, irrelevant, and frankly, kind of summed up that school year.
Years later, as a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity, with a bit of caution and specific directions from the regular classroom teacher, to show high school Spanish students the movie La Bamba. After the movie, I had just enough time to explain the term “the day the music died” and the lyrics to American Pie. They left singing Oh Donna, moved by the true story, which completely took me by surprise. It also happened to cement it in my memory.
I’m glad that I had the opportunity to explain the lyrics to American Pie and help them make the connection. I may have known the song longer than I care to remember, but it wasn’t all that long ago that I learned that the lyrics referenced a true tragedy, much less the death of Buddy Holly, JP Richardson (the Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens. I suppose that is the true tragedy of American Pie: What if they had lived?
The musical legacy of Buddy Holly, of course, is staggering. Modern pop and rock music would not have evolved in quite the same way without him and the Crickets. He inspired the Beatles to write their own music, among countless others. In fact, it could be said that Buddy Holly was one of the main influences of what became known as the British invasion. JP Richardson (the Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens were just getting started. Again, what if?
If nothing else, American Pie taught me that lyrics can indeed be a form of poetry.
Ah, Michigan State and all of my Alternative Spring Break (ASB) memories in Mexico. Some of my best ASB memories involve W.M., and one in particular, November Rain by Guns N’ Roses. It takes me back to nothing less than the most romantic evening of my life.
I met him at the airport as we headed to Merida, Mexico for a week of working hard doing volunteer work and playing even harder. I was listening to Here Comes the Sun, ready to relax in the Yucatecan sun in the middle of a busy, crazy spring semester, and here was this guy – our site leader for the week – chatting me up. He flashed me this great smile and asked me what I was listening to at the moment. We bonded over George Harrison.
It didn’t take us long to become friends. By the end of our first day of volunteer work, we were hanging out eating pizza and drinking Mexican beer, getting lost in deep, meaningful conversations. I had lost my grandfather almost exactly a year before – at age 20, the first real loss of someone so close to me – and I was happy to find someone who understood. That was the thing – W.M. and I should have had everything in common.
A year ahead of me, he studied marketing and Spanish to my supply chain management and Spanish. No wonder we had found one another. Later, the only time I actually met up with him on campus in East Lansing – or the United States for that matter, and for lunch no less – he told me all about his semester in Quito, Ecuador. I don’t remember if I had already decided on a semester in Ecuador, but after hearing about W.M.’s experiences there, it was a forgone conclusion.
I’d love to say that this story is a college romance that ended well, but that simply wasn’t the case. Instead, it is a story of friendship spanning years, countries, cultures, and continents that didn’t end so well. It is also a story of unrequited love on my part. I fell. Hard.
The thing is that I was never going to change my plans for anyone, muchless a man who hadn’t shown the least bit interest in anything more than friendship. We left it as friends and that was it. We were both driven with much to do. That is, until Spain.
Fast forward nearly two years, and I was in the middle of my semester abroad in Caceres, Spain. I’d resigned to myself that W.M., unfortunately, wanted to remain friends, nothing more. Then I received the email. The week before Valentine’s Day, I receive an email from him stating that he had landed an internship in Madrid – an easy train ride away – did I want to meet up? Did I!
In the end, we spent a fun weekend in Madrid hanging out. He booked me a hostel near wherever he was living. We spent Saturday hanging out, eventually ending up at the Hard Rock Cafe and a beautiful park nearby. We talked for hours. Too good to be true, right? Right. When he walked me back to the hostel and didn’t even so much as kiss me goodnight, I wept.
In 2004, I returned to Mexico and ASB as a site leader myself. Now a senior, I juggled interviewing for full-time positions in Texas with classwork along with all of my extracurricular responsibilities, including ASB. As a result, I had to fly into Mexico City on my own and take a bus to Puebla to meet up with the rest of the group. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but W.M. got ahold of me once again. Would I like to meet up for dinner in Puebla one evening? He happened to be working in Mexico City at the time.
Beyond confused, I, of course, said yes. I had no idea what to expect. Why would this man take a bus at least two hours each way just to spend the evening with me? He knew no one else in the group and the plan was just for the two of us to meet up. We were friends, but seriously, what else was going on here?
I met him in the zocalo, or town square, and we quickly found an outdoor table at a local restaurant. In my mind, the only thing better than Mexican food is authentic Mexican food. The cuisine in Puebla tops them all. Pollo en salsa mole anyone?
After watching the sunset over an incredible authentic Mexican dinner, a little red wine, and the ever present great conversation, W.M. and I somehow found our way into the Mexican equivalent of a dive bar. Now, I am not much of a drinker, but I love the atmosphere in dive bars from time to time. This one happened to be perfect.
I never really did see any sign advertising the place, but I could not have had more fun. W.M. and I ended up holding court with a group of Mexican young men roughly our age. We, two gringos who spoke Spanish who happened to end up in this cool unadvertised bar, stood out. In fact, they thought we were married. So, in this ambiance, we all start singing along to November Rain – very poorly. It is still among the most romantic nights of my life – and he never even so much as kissed me. Yet, there was at least enough chemistry between us for people to think we were married.
That was the last time I ever saw W.M. In 2008, I looked him up on Facebook, and unfortunately, it ended up in a political argument that ended our friendship. I still have no idea how he could have attended the same business school as me, and yet not understand the impact government can have on business, good or bad – small business in particular. Time had not treated him well. In fact, Diego Rivera comes to mind. I recently watched Frida and it all came flooding back, much to my amusement. The passion between Frida and Diego gets me every time.
Over the years, I’ve tried and tried to capture our friendship in writing, and I’ve never been able to do it well. I once even brought an effort for critique, and the reaction of the men in my writing group still cracks me up. Every last man in our group believed him to be gay. All I have to say is this: If he is indeed gay, he didn’t know it himself at the time. The last I knew, he had a Mexican girlfriend and lived in California.
I can’t help but think of him every time I watch Casablanca, particularly the line “We’ll always have Paris.” Indeed. We’ll always have Merida, Madrid, and Puebla.
Some songs just immediately take you back to a certain time and place. Sometimes, you have to dig to learn the actual name of the song, artist, or band, especially when it is included in a soundtrack. Such as the case with Change by the Lightning Seeds.
First, a little history. My little sister Erica spent much of her early adolescence obsessed with the movie Clueless (1995). She wanted to be Cher. I have a feeling she can still recite large sections of dialog from the movie. Yes, she adored everything about Clueless.
I vaguely remember seeing it in the theater with her, and I loved it too, but it wouldn’t inspire me as Evita (1996) would a year later. Still, there was much to love in Clueless if you were a young teenage girl in the midwest – or anywhere for that matter. In addition to Cher and friends, there was Josh (the incomparable Paul Rudd) and Cher’s incredible closet. I bought the soundtrack.
The entire soundtrack fit the movie perfectly – early alternative rock smack dab in the middle of the 90s. Change always stuck out in the soundtrack, but when I sought out the song with the lyric “stuck on drive” for a piece I planned to write on learning how to drive (I have yet to write that post, and frankly, it is quite the story), I didn’t come across it right away. I finally discovered the right song, Change, and its incredible video. Seriously. Check out the official video and lyrics. It is definitely worth it.
I’ve never come across a song that summed up the high school experience in the 90s quite as well. It resonates with me in a way that makes me wish I had discovered The Lightning Seeds back catalog decades ago. It is a perfect introduction to the pop/rock perfection that was 90s “alternative.”