Catholic School Girls by Casey Kurtti

Rating: 3 Stars

Synopsis:  This Off-Broadway Play is a satirical recollection of attending Catholic School in the 1960’s.  Four actors each play two roles, one as a student and one as a nun.  It explores the challenges and expectations set for Catholic School students as they grow from first grade through eighth grade.

Reflection:  Catholic School Girls is a play by Casey Kurtti.  I picked it up at a used bookstore because I attended Catholic School from kindergarten through eighth grade and thought it would contain funny commentary that any Catholic School attendant could relate to.

Based in the 1960s, the elements of Catholic School are more harsh and dramatic than what I experienced in the late 1990s early 2000s, but nonetheless it was relatable.  Some similarities include how the youngest children fully embrace the words of the parents and teachers as truth and are fearful of what will happen if they sin.  Sin and following God’s rules were the classroom management techniques.  “Keep room for the Holy Ghost” lives on in every Catholic School dance.  Finally, as students age, questioning the faith and rebellion become the center of the school.  This in particular is true for the girls in the play.

Despite the comedy, several things upset while reading the play and made me dissatisfied with my religion.  The Sisters’ treatment of their students was often cruel and vicious; it was certainly not conducive to learning, growth, or self confidence. For example, Sister Mary Thomasina and Sister Mary Lucille insult the children with personal attacks on their intelligence, character, and family.  Another thing that left me disgruntled, but could unfortunately relate to was the students’ inability to ask questions.  While some of my experience allowed questions, there were some teachers you didn’t ask and some questions you never let out in fear of getting in trouble.  For Elizabeth, Wanda, Collen, and Maria Theresa, questions were ignored or caused them to be isolated, judged, and disciplined.  In Catholic School Girls, students asked almost no questions and were berated if they did.  This refusal to consider and discuss question of youth, is in my opinion one of the greatest causes of weakened faith, more so than the practices or religious doctrines.

Kurtti sets Catholic School Girls up with a simple cast: four actress with two roles each – a student and a sister.  Their shifts from student to sister happen fluidly as a scene takes place.  Initially, I thought the girls would play an older nun version of themselves, but that is not the case.  Instead it appears as though the girls are remembering the sisters and how they treated their students.  If it is based on memory that may explain some of the extreme behaviors seen in the sisters.  Each girl also receives the chance to monologue in the play.  These monologues give insight into their background and their Catholic believes. The choice of a simple cast allows the characters to develop and create intrigue.

As Catholic School Girls by Casey Kurtti reminisces and satirizes attending Catholic School in the 1960s, it exposes problems that still exist and gives any Catholic School student a laugh.  While religion is important, if it does not allow questions and treat its followers with respect, it is doomed to lose some along the way.

-M.R. Gavin

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The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Synopsis: Detective Inspector Lottie Parker is struggling in her personal life and dealing with a sudden series of murders in her small quiet town.  The victims, suspects, members of the town, and cold cases all seem intertwined, but what connects them is a mystery Parker and her team must solve in order to prevent more death, and uncover a dark secret.

Reflection:  What happens when one murder unveils decades of crime and cover ups?  A lot of sorting seemingly unrelated things and putting them together.  In The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney, Detective Inspector Lottie Parker and her team do just that.

Generally, I am not a mystery or crime novel reader, but I did enjoy The Missing Ones.  It had a bit of a slow start, despite the initial crime happening in the first pages, but once the story unfolded, it was hard to put down.  Like any good mystery or crime novel, the reader tries to make connections and predict the bad guys next more.  The book compels the reader’s need to know who did what and why.

Lottie is a single mother, having been widowed, and the detective inspector.  With three children, inner turmoil, and a massive case on her plate, the reader empathizes with Lottie.  She struggles with the same struggles many others have, job taking over, kids left to their own devices, but without the job, the kids wouldn’t be able to eat or have a home.  Her struggles paired with her tenacity toward solving this bigger problem make her not only relatable, but likeable.  In addition to Lottie, the supporting characters, especially those tied to the murder, are very interesting.  Perhaps their intrigue comes from being involved in the crime.  Because they are shrouded in mystery and the unknown, I took a greater interest in them and wanted to know more about them and their motives.  (This may be a general mystery and crime novel feature, but as I am not well acquainted with the genre, I will have to explore more to decide if it is a feature of this novel, or the genre itself.)

With these suspects and victims comes the crime.  The crime is what interested me most, of course.  While subplots of love, family, and loss played, the murders and the events surrounding them are so dark and integrated into so much, everything else pales in comparison.  So much darkness concentrated in one small town and connecting the lives of so many different people is terrifying and unbelievable.

Gibney’s structure of the novel is not what I was expected, but was well done and led the reader to draw conclusions, while further developing the characters.  I expected the entire book to focus and follow one character (Lottie), but while most chapters follow her and her investigation, it is sprinkled with sections following others: the victims, the suspects, Lottie’s family, and flashbacks.  This structure is pleasant, but I think it contributed to my biggest complaint with the book.

The cover says, “An absolutely gripping thriller… with a jaw-dropping twist.”  I am not super smart, but while the novel was gripping, I never experience the “jaw-dropping twist.”  In part, I think the structure of the novel sets the reader up to play detective alongside Lottie’s, and make connections that Lottie can’t see yet.  This happens because of the omnipresent narrator that follows more than just Lottie and allows revealing flashbacks.  With those, putting the puzzle pieces together were easy.  I kept expecting something to be revealed that the reader hadn’t read to change the way the story was going.

The Missing Ones was hard to put down.  The writing style, characters, and overall darkness of the situation had me reviewing the facts, and asking questions of the victims and the suspects.  I enjoyed trying to piece together bits of information and trying to find connections alongside Lottie and her team.  I don’t know that I will read other D.I. Lottie Parker stories, but that is based more on a personal disinterest in crime novels than on the quality of this novel.

-M.R. Gavin

Night by Elie Wiesel

Rating: 5 Stars

Synopsis:  Elie Wiesel describes his experiences as a Jew during World War II, particularly his experiences in a concentration camp.  A terrifying, heartbreaking memoir of the final year of World War II.

Reflection:  Night is an intense memoir of the Holocaust as Elie Wiesel experienced it.  Despite the book’s short length, it provides an eye opening look into the horrors of the Holocaust.

Two things struck me while reading this book, which I read in basically one sitting.  First, the author’s loss of faith and second, the honesty of his descriptions.  From the opening moments of the book, Wiesel shows his reader everything.  He doesn’t overwrite; he doesn’t philosophize; he doesn’t create metaphorical images for the reader to unravel; he doesn’t make himself extra likeable or a hero.  He writes exactly what he saw with precise language and horrific simplicity.  The most gruesome scenes in the book occurred during his movements to and between camps.  Despite knowing every camp meant more death, he and the others always seemed to have some hope that relocation meant something better.  This hope, though vague and limited, made each arrival all the worse.  The thick black smoke, the mass graves, the hanging bodies, and the burning children are so clearly remembered by Wiesel.  He gives them to the reader to carry and remember – to share the burden he carries.

Wiesel’s loss of faith happens gradually during the war and in the camps.  The first time it seemed clear to me is when he loses faith in his father.  He is constantly worried about his father, and admits to wishing to no longer having that burden.  Wiesel shows that during the time in the camps, people lost so much outside of themselves that losing themselves became nearly inevitable.  The prisoners could only follow their instinct to survive.  With this he doubts his faith and questions God.  Despite his constant questioning, in nearly every moment of pain and stress he thought would break him and send him to the sky in the black clouds of smoke, he prayed.  Although the entire time in a concentration camp could easily be considered a breaking moment, Wiesel defines these moments and the occur less than one might imagine, but more than anyone should have to endure.

Night should be read by everyone.  It may not shed light onto the cause of the terrors Wiesel and some many others experience, but it demonstrates with clarity what can happen if power is left unchecked.  It serves to remind the world that these horrors happened; they must not be forgotten and we must work tirelessly to ensure nothing like that is repeated.

-M.R. Gavin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Rating: 2.5 Stars

Synopsis:  A.J. Fikry is a grumpy widower and bookstore owner.  His life changes when Maya crawls into it.  A heartwarming and easy read for any bibliophile.

Reflection:

As the title suggests, this is the story of the life of A.J. Fikry.  At least it is the “collected works” of his adult life.  A.J. is a man greatly impacted by his circumstances: traumatized by his wife’s death, compelled to care for an orphaned baby, forced out of his antisocial shell to become a “curator of culture” for his small town. He allows himself to influence and be influenced by those around him.  In my opinion, the characters are all a bit underdeveloped.  Ismay, the sister of A.J.’s dead wife, seems the most complex, Maya, A.J.’s adopted daughter, the most compelling, and Lambaise, a friend, the most likeable.

The structure and tone of the novel is light, pleasant, and easy to read.  This is where Zevin allows herself and A.J. to discuss the meaning and wonder of life.  Each chapter begins with a brief reflection of a short story A.J. has read.  These reflections are directed to Maya as suggested reading.  They also provide insight into the greater meaning of each short story and what A.J. hopes Maya will learn.  These snippits of A.J.’s writing provide insight into his character, and how he changes over the years.  Additionally, with the fast paced tone, Zevin skips over years of time that lack interest and highlight the events and times in A.J.’s and Maya’s life together.  At one point A.J. refers to life not as a novel or a short story, but as a collected work.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is structured just like that: collections of moments explaining and demonstrating who A.J is.

I would say this book gets its interest and intrigue from the structure of the book, the novelty of A.J.’s profession, and its appeal to bibliophiles.  A.J. owns the only bookstore on Alice Island; he is picky about the books he selects to sell and prefers quality literary fiction.  The novel discusses the challenges for book sellers and bibliophiles in the media age with e-readers, online buying, and lack of support for book retail in general.  These discussions are things book lovers have passionate opinions about.  A.J.’s life explores some of the day to day experiences of a bookseller meeting with sales reps, reading galleys, planning events, hosting book clubs.  For A.J. committing to these things changes his life and the lives of others in so many ways.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was a quick and easy read.  While it was enjoyable, and used an interesting structure, I felt like the characters lacked enough development to make them compelling and the story felt gimmicky.

-M.R. Gavin

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Rating: 4 Stars

Synopsis: This is the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, a champion for education, particularly of ensuring women, children, and the poor are educated.  In 2012, she was attacked by the Taliban and shot.  Despite her injuries, she still fights for the right of all to learn.

Reflection: I Am Malala, written by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb chronicles the life of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012.  This autobiography sheds light on the unsettled political state of Pakistan, the impact of the Taliban and outside countries, and the state of education in Pakistan.  Malala’s goal is to promote education for all children, regardless of their sex, race, political views, or socio-economic position.  

Yousafzai, does an excellent job telling her story and including important historical facts that had an impact on how her life and the lives of many in Pakistan have proceeded.  For example, before even talking about her own life, she discusses the upbringing of her parents and grandparents: where they are from, how they lived, what they believed.  In addition, she takes time to explain important historical occurrences and political changes impacting Pakistan during and prior to her lifetime.  The political climate has been unsettled for most of modern history.  Pakistan has been used as a proxy in several wars, by countries of much greater wealth.  She clearly describes the oppression Pakistan has suffered.  While reading about Malala’s home in Swat, the reader learns how the people of Pakistan have been oppressed.  A lack of resources, a lack of education all contribute to a cycle of oppression.  This part of her story allows the reader to understand the life that Malala and many others are experiencing.  It made me consider my own life, my perspective, and my privilege.  

While Malala tells the story of her upbringing and mixes it with the history and politics of Pakistan, she integrates the memories and perspectives of others into her story as well.  Malala was shot in the head on the bus home from school in October, 2012.  It is not a spoiler that this occurred or that she survived.  However, I was surprised she tells her story entirely in first person.  Generally speaking when someone experiences a traumatic injury, his or her memory of the incident itself is spotty at best, and often non-existent.  Malala doesn’t remember anything other than being with her friends on the bus, and waking up in a hospital in Europe.  Everything else is fuzzy.  Yousafzai and Christina Lamb do an excellent job integrating what Malala does recall – include her false memories – with the experiences of those close to her at the time: her mother and father, her teacher, and her doctors.  This provides a holistic view of the event without disturbing the first person prose of Malala’s story.  She relates the facts of what happened in what feels like a retelling of a story told to her.  She specifically refers to the feelings of her father and mother, their hopes, their doubts, and their prayers to enlighten the reader’s understanding of the faith, luck, and science involved in saving Malala’s life.

This is an incredible story.  I recommend this book to anyone who values education for all, for young women and men fighting for equal rights, for educators, for students, for those who simply wish to read an inspirational book.  As a former educator in a low-income, high-needs area, I thought this book would help me understand what my students need or want.  In truth, it didn’t meet that expectation, but it made me realize how lucky my students and I are to have the opportunity to learn.  Not all of my students value education in the same way Malala does, and many people her book do not value it in the same way.  That is where I see the greatest need for change.  Education should not be for only the privileged, or the wealthy, or the western nations.  Education must be for all.  Parents must be encouraged to support their children’s education.  Malala was taught the value of education and didn’t waste one minute of it.  I think often times, students who have the opportunity for school view it as an obligation, instead of something to be coveted.  Malala calls everyone to arms, to support the education of all people, young and old, poor and rich, male and female.  That begins with every individual person taking stock in the education they have and supporting the ones they love to see the value in education every day.

-M.R. Gavin

Dying

2.  You find out that you will die in five years or less. How do you find this out?  What do you do with those last five years? (Andrew Kinder, 1000 Awesome Writing Prompts)

 

We ArE coMinG fOr You.  yOu HavE fiVe YeaRs leFt to liVe.  ThEN youR DeBt is DuE.

 

I reread the magazine letter clipped note again.  I found it on my door four years earlier.  I knew who it was from, I knew why it was there, and I knew without a doubt in one year, I would be dead.  When I first got the note, I didn’t believe it.  They couldn’t have found me.  We made a deal, but then I hid, changed my name, my looks, moved across the world.  I hid the note for a long time from my wife.  She wouldn’t understand the deal, or the death sentence.  She would be devastated.  Last year I told her.

I woke up, took out the note and set it on the bed.  I went to make coffee and bring her a cup to help get through the conversation we were about to have.  She was awake when I returned, but hadn’t seen the note. It had fallen to the floor.  It was my chance to just let it go, to die in two years and have her find out and mourn for me the way most widows do.  The burden was too much.  I needed to tell someone.  Picking the note off the floor, I handed it to her.  

“What’s this?” she said, her smile fading as she read it.  

“What is this?  Is this some kind of joke?”  I took her hand, and started talking.  I was amazed at the pace I used to explain everything.  When I was finished, tears rolled down her cheeks, and she asked the one question I knew she needed to know, but I didn’t want to answer.

“How long ago did you receive this letter? You are too calm for it have been today.  Please don’t tell me it was five years ago.”  

“No,” I said, “It was three.  I have two more years.”  

We spent the rest of the morning in bed.  Her asking me questions, me being completely honest about my past, and the dogs snoring.  Around noon, I dozed off.  When I awoke, she was gone.  For a moment I thought she left me and was gone for good, but then I heard bustling downstairs and her voice as she chastised the dogs for barking.  

I got myself ready for the day, and went downstairs.  Across our table where maps, and travel books, her computer had  thirty-two tabs open to different hotels and cities.  

“What is this?” I asked.  

“You have two years right?” she said

“Can we not talk about this anymore?”

“You have two years?”

I nodded.

“Then that simply ruins all the plans I had for traveling together when we retire, because you will be gone by then.  So I have decided that we will spend the next two years in retirement, and when you are gone and I have mourned you, I will go back to work.  I’ve already checked the retirement accounts, we have enough sitting in our life insurance.  We can do it. We can travel wherever we want.” She said.

“What if I want to stay here and just see you?”

“Cheesy. I will allot time for us to relax at home.”  She proceeded to tell me her list of places to visit over the next two years.  She asked if there was anywhere I wanted to add.  I told her no.  Then came what I was waiting for:

“In exactly two years we will be in Tokyo.  Amidst millions of other people.  They will just have to wait until we get home for you to pay your debt. Or maybe they will just give up and leave you alone.”

“That’s not how it works, sweetie.  If that’s what all this is about, I appreciate it, but no matter where I am,  two years from today they will get what they are owed.”

She sighed, more tears flowed.

“Well,” she said at least, “get the checkbook, this is too much for me to organize without a professional’s assistance. We are going to the travel agent.”

A year has past since that day.  Right now we are on some private tropical beach in the Pacific.  There are others on the island, but this beach hut and white sand shore we have completely to ourselves.  She made me promise never to reminder her how much time was left, but to pretend that this two year vacation is infinite.  She even went as far as to plan – although not book – trips after the two year mark to make it seem real.  

Maybe she thinks it is real.  Maybe it is what she needs to wake up and not cry, but I know she sometimes does.  Whatever the next year holds, in one year I will be home – I made her promise to have us at home – and then, I will be gone and she will be free.

-M.R. Gavin

The Vessel

The Vessel: Write about a ship or other vehicle that can take you somewhere different from where you are now. (365 Creative Writing Prompts)

Colorful paper hangs on the walls highlighting the things I have tried to embed in my students over the course of the year.  My desk is cluttered with papers needing grading, broken pencils, and drawings given to me by my students.  While I want to feel enlightened, positive and smiling like the posters on the classroom wall, I feel far more like my desk – drowning in clutter and monotony.  

Any teacher will tell you the challenges of teaching, the  work at home, the pressure of standardized tests, the behaviors of students, but I want to tell you the secret wish of teachers – or at least of myself.  To leave.  To get up from behind the piles of grading and planning, to be staring at a room full of faces that aren’t listening, to drop the white board marker or chalk in hand and to walk out.  

Now under normal circumstances, I would never even consider doing this, despite my wish.  Students may be a pain, but I am committed to my job.  I chose it after all.  But this is not a story of normal circumstances.  This is a story  of the day things changed, of the day my wish came true and I left.

The morning started as normal, students shuffling in, grabbing a breakfast bag, talking loudly across the classroom, while I walked around and chatted with them.  After eating, we moved right along and began vocabulary.  Coincidentally, one of our words was “wanderlust.”  We discussed its meaning and where we might go.  Many of my students have never left the city.  With that their concept of the world and all its possibilities are limited.  Some said they would want to travel “downtown,” other expressed interest in New York City, Atlanta, and Disney World.  One student said he would want to travel to Japan.  

Lanae asked, “Where would you want to go?”  

The question caught me off guard, although it shouldn’t have, my students always almost ask me the same questions they are encouraged to ponder.

“Well,” I replied, “there are so many places I haven’t been or seen, I would want to travel everywhere.  All across the United States, all across the world.  There are so many things I would be interested in seeing and learning about.  It would probably make me a better teacher.”

The students considered this, and we moved on to our next word.  The day continued uneventful.  We read our novel, The World According to Humphrey, the students went to gym, and to lunch.  

After lunch the day started to get weird.  When I picked my students up, I was angry.  Three of them had been throwing food, which is a big deal and were in a lot of trouble.  Someone else had one of their snacks stolen and we couldn’t figure out who did it.  The rest of the class was talkative, amplified by all the things that had happened at lunch.  It gave lots of fuel for conversations, arguments, and accusations.  Nonetheless, we tried to continue with our day.  While the lesson progressed I glanced out the window regularly.  What had been a beautiful spring day was becoming overcast.  Rain was almost a guarantee, meaning no outdoor recess – the highlight of the day.  There was a lot of noise in the hall.  Students, feet, grumbling.  All of the sudden the sound turned into more of a rushing of wind.  I could see the trees blowing outside, but that did not explain the blowing coming from the hallway.  The whooshing got louder.  Even my students began to notice the change.  Some anxiously looked out the windows.  Several tried to get out of their seats to look out the door.

The howling wind slowed, but a sloshing sound took over, a trickle of water started coming through the door.  I looked into the hallway, but in front of the normal brick and locker covered walls, was several feet of water and a large pirate esque boat.  I blink.  My jaw dropped.  

Edward said, “What’s going on?”  

“I don’t know,” I replied.  

I felt a pull toward the ship.  An urge to open the door and leave.  I always wanted to, didn’t I?  Was this my opportunity?  I had to take it, but I paused.  Where would it go? Why was there no announcements?  Why was there no administration in the hall?Despite my questions, the ship tugged at my body and soul, my hand tightened on the door knob.  I turned to face my class with a smile.  

“Line up silently.  We are going on a field trip.”  

I don’t know what made me line them.  Perhaps it was faith in something amazing happening.  Perhaps it was momentary insanity.  Perhaps it was the feeling of responsibility that came with being a teacher.  

The students at the front of the line could now see what made my jaw drop.  There eyes were wide with wonder and awe; some were shocked with disbelief.  But each of them trusting me.  

I said, “Something magical is happening.  I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think it is important that we embrace this opportunity.  It could be scary; it might be a little dangerous.  You must listen and follow my directions no matter what.  If you don’t want to participate, I will send you to the other second grade.”  

No one protested.  The class was quietest they had been in days.  

“Ready?”  

“Yes!” Some shouted.  

I turned the knob and pushed the door open.  It didn’t resist despite the water.  

A voice yelled from the ship, “A’HOY!  Are you looking for adventure?”  

Edward shouted back, “Are you a pirate?!”  “Come aboard and find out,” he offered.  A plank emerged from the side of the boat and stopped at our door.  I boarded and counted each student as they followed.  

The man appeared in front of us, at the wheel of the boat.  He had a white sailor’s cap and a blue pea coat.  

“You don’t look like a pirate,” sighed Edward.  

“No,” said the man, “but I can show you anything in the world on this ship.  We can sail across oceans, fly over mountains, float into space.  That must be a fair bit better than sitting in a boring classroom.  Where shall we go first?”

A myriad of answers was flown from my students, but the man looked at me.  

“We want to see everything.  How much time do we have?”  

“I can get you everyday.”  

“Then let’s get started.”  

He smiled and the wind began to howl. The student held onto the polished wood railings, the white sails billowed in the wind, and suddenly we were flying over America. Perhaps I could escape and be a good teacher at the same time.  Only time will tell.

-M.R. Gavin