Review: Bring Me Back

One of summer’s most-hyped releases hit the shelves last Tuesday, and I was fortunate enough to have received and early copy for reviewing from St. Martin’s Press. The good news: Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris is a fast read. One might even call it a page-turner. The ARC came in at just 230 pages, although the finished edition is a bit longer (due to formatting, etc.). I read it in just a few hours, so I don’t feel so bad about the bad news, which is this: Bring Me Back is another run-of-the-mill thriller in a market oversaturated with relatively unoriginal concepts and one-dimensional characters.

I’ll admit that I was engrossed enough to keep reading, so it wasn’t all bad. The plot was compelling, if not a touch cliche. Writing was simplistic, but that’s pretty par for the course with thrillers these days.

Ultimately, I can trot up quite a few more dislikes than likes when making a list for Bring Me Back. The story is absolutely unoriginal in its telling: an unreliable narrator recounts circumstances that led to the disappearance of a loved one. (I don’t know about you all, but I’m SO READY for the alternating viewpoints/non-chronological timelines fad to give way to something…anything…else.) He’s damaged goods — has an anger problem, like so many murder-suspects-turned-narrators before him — and the novel starts off with his alternate telling of the past + the present. Interestingly enough, the present entails an engagement to Ellen, the sister of his previous live-in girlfriend, Layla. You know, the one who went missing twelve years previously…

Cliches abound in the writing of chapter conclusions, in what seems an attempt at suspense. Red herrings are sprinkled in here and there, enough so that I wasn’t entirely correct in my conjecture of how things would turn out; but ultimately, much of what I suspected came to fruition.

Mostly, I just found myself underwhelmed by the book in its entirety. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, I didn’t care too much for any of the characters (again — in my humble opinion, they were underdeveloped), and I felt like a majority of what happened was predictable.

Overall: 2.5 stars. This is a pretty standard thriller with some relatively predictable twists and turns and average writing. It’s a fast read, so give it a whirl–you might find more to like than I did.

Read Next: For Lovers of History

At least once a week, I get a text from a friend saying something along the lines of Hey, what’s up? I need a book list — stat! These requests come in from new mamas needing to unwind, busy teachers looking for an escape from reality, out-of-practice readers looking to rekindle their bookish flame but not sure where to start.

I absolutely relish these calls to action, certain that I can find something among the titles on my shelves to capture their interest. And here’s the thing: I can never choose just one title to share with them. It’s almost a burden, loving books so much . . . 😉

One of my favorite genres to recommend from: historical fiction & nonfiction. To be quite honest, I didn’t retain much from my high school/college history classes and I’m quite certain that 85% of what I know about past events comes from my obsessive reading of historical nonfiction and fiction. (Also a major reason I advocate so highly for frequent reading, as a teacher.)

To the point, though — here’s a list of some of my favorite historical reads, in both the fiction and nonfiction categories.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Fiction. This multigenerational tome centers on the often-grueling circumstances of Sunja’s family: poor Koreans living in the shadow of Japanese racism post-WWII. Actually, the novel starts much earlier, at the start of the 1900s, with Sunja’s father’s birth; so readers gain a very insightful look at the relationship between Koreans and Japanese as well as both cultures. The writing is stark and though lengthy, the novel demands to be read diligently and without pause (when possible). Read more about it here.
  2. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. Quite possibly my favorite work of nonfiction, ever, Seabiscuit is an endearing and emotional tale of one of the nation’s most formidable racehorses — and an absolutely thrilling comeback story. The story opens in the early 1900s and follows the lives of Seabiscuit’s owner, jockey, and trainer before introducing the legend himself. In the tumultuous and dramatic times of the Great Depression and World War II, Seabiscuit became an American hero and a symbol of the working class. Hillenbrand’s novel offers a fascinating portrait of this era, as well as a heartwarming and rousing emotional read. (Bonus: the film adaptation is also fantastic.)
  3. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Fiction. A searing tale of two young girls bound together by slavery — one, slave; the other, master — well into their adult years, The Invention of Wings is more than an engrossing narrative. It’s an uncomfortable, disturbing account of a piece of American history based on the very real lives of the Grimke sisters — born into a prominent Southern family of slaveowners, the pair were decidedly abolitionist in an unprecedented way for women of the time.
  4. October Sky by Homer Hickam. Nonfiction – Memoir. I originally discovered this gem in high school, some time after having watched the film adaptation. Originally titled Rocket Boys, this piece of NF is at once charming, laugh-inducing, gut-wrenching, and hopeful. Nestled in coal mining country in West Virginia, October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam’s quest to be more than a miner and break free of the predetermined path set forth for boys in his town. Inspired by Sputnik‘s race across the sky, Hickam dreams of building his own rockets to send to the stars. His dad’s not happy about it, his mom can’t offer much in the way of open support, and he and his friends are the laughingstock of the drab community; but Hickam persists in his pursuit of outer space and the resulting narrative is an absolutely magnificent tale of perseverance and the heartbreaking nature of dreams.
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Fiction. This World War II-era novel is a bestseller for a reason: the gripping coming-of-age tale is absolutely stunning in its own haunted way. With an omniscient narrator (Death himself), the novel kicks off in Nazi-occupied Germany at the end of the 1930s. Liesel Meminger, given to strangers by her mother who cannot care for her any longer, comes to live on Himmel Street with the Hubermanns — a jovial man and his crabby wife who come to love Liesel like a daughter. I’m a huge fan of coming-of-age stories and the beautiful narration in this novel — coupled with the dramatic backdrop of a menacing time period — makes this an unputdownable read.
  6. ‘Tis by Frank McCourt. Nonfiction – Memoir. I didn’t know how much I loved memoirs until I read this gut-busting (and often tearjerking) tale of an Irish immigrant’s arrival in the “promised land” that America has been to so many over the decades. Frank McCourt arrived in America in 1949, fulfilling a dream of his and at once leaving behind the dismal poverty that had marked his life in Ireland (only to find more troubles in the land he’d so long dreamed of making his new home). I was fascinated by the tidbits of history and laughed out loud at the naive observations of the young Catholic boy in the big city of New York.
  7. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Fiction. Set in post-WWII Germany, this brief novel (200 pages in my rather small edition) is utterly captivating. “When young Michael berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears. Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a heinous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.”
  8. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Nonfiction. This thrilling account of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, is closely woven into the history of the planning, design, and spectacle of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As a work of narrative nonfiction, I found this novel relatively easy to read and only dry in a few places. The telling alternates a bit between Holmes’ arrival in Chicago (and his subsequent planning stages) and the World’s Fair architects and planning committees, offering readers more than just a glimpse at a serial killer’s timeline. I was fascinated to read about the birth of several modern-day amenities such as shredded wheat, sliced bread, and Juicy Fruit gum.

What are some of your favorite historical reads, both fiction and nonfiction? Tell me in the comments section below!

Review: Looking for Alaska

Four years ago, I was wrapping up my first semester of teaching and coaching, headed to a league track meet that would be the end of our middle school season. The eighth grade students on my team wouldn’t be at school much longer, and the girls had been hounding me for weeks to read this newly popular YA novel called The Fault in Our Stars. I’d never heard of John Green, and I hadn’t a clue what the premise of the novel was, but I knew I had to finish it before the girls graduated or I’d be just another teacher that didn’t listen to their reading recommendations. So I made the dumbest decision of my teaching career to date: I borrowed the book from Lourdes, hunkered down in a brown faux-leather seat, and started reading. The trip was two hours one way, and I figured I could knock out a good portion.

Fast forward seven hours: the track meet is over, I’m icing what I’m certain is a torn meniscus (#coachprobs), and a herd of middle school students is hovering on all sides as I furiously attempt to stop tears from rolling down my cheeks while I finish the damn book. Guys, I ugly cried in front of thirty-seven boys and girls for a half hour. A HALF HOUR. Like I said — not my finest teaching decision.

So, anyway, after I was scarred by the traumatic events that day, I kind of avoided Green’s works though I knew him to be widely praised. I couldn’t even watch the movie adaptation of TFIOS — really, I mean, who would want to experience that kind of emotional trauma a second time? — and I wasn’t in any hurry to pick up another of his novels.

When our local bookstore went out of business, though, I picked up a hardcover copy of Looking for Alaska for a few bucks and finally committed to reading it this month. As with TFIOS, I had a few gripes that I’ll outline below; but overall, it was a pretty good YA read.

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Synopsis: Looking for Alaska is a story about an outsider high school student from Florida who is obsessed with the last words of famous people. Miles, who later earns the nickname “Pudge,” has a sort of knack, actually, for memorizing the last words of former presidents, military generals, authors, and other people of import. Hell bent on finding his “Great Perhaps” before the end of his life, Miles applies to a boarding school in Mississippi that his father attended as a high school student. Once he’s been accepted and moved in, Miles quickly makes friends with his roommate — tough guy Chip “The Colonel” Martin — and Alaska Young, a beautiful enigma admired by many. He also grows close to Takumi and Lara, minor characters that round out the fivesome that finds its way into some pretty tight situations involving firecrackers, cigarettes, pornography, and much more. As Miles works his way through his first year at Culver Creek, he finds himself striving to not do a number of things: get expelled, let Alaska discover his unrequited love for her, fail World Religions. His quest for the Great Perhaps may be a bit more finicky than he anticipated, but Miles is no quitter.

The story is a study in a number of deep themes: hope after loss, finding meaning in life, surviving the transition to adulthood. When approached from a thematic standpoint, the novel really has a lot to offer and would make a great exploration of life, loss, and choices for high school reading groups/English classes. That being said, this novel is also highly controversial . . . because parents are certain that reading a book that mentions — gasp! — sex and drug use (alcohol and tobacco) is somehow more damaging than watching things like slasher films and trashy television shows. I know — I’m scratching my head, too.

The Good: I really, really appreciated this novel’s thematic basis. I felt like Green had a few meaningful points to make and he didn’t overextend himself in the writing of this novel. As always, I’m fascinated by novels about children who go to boarding school (this has been a lifelong obsession of mind, not really sure why?), so I also particularly relished that aspect of the work.

The Not-So-Good: As with TFIOS (and some other YA I’ve read recently, not by Green), I rolled my eyes more than a few times at the adultishness (new word, hit me up Merriam-Webster) of the teenage characters’ language. I realize that there are some very intelligent young adults roaming the earth, y’all, but I feel like Green (and Yoon and Niven) sometimes gets carried away with character dialogue, which results in pretentious-sounding teenagers. Add to this my annoyance with Miles, who somehow manages to get into a prestigious boarding school but — as a high school junior — has never heard of Robert Frost, doesn’t know the difference between end and slant rhyme, and has no clue that Macedonia is a country. I’m sorry — What? I don’t buy it for a minute.

The Verdict: 3 stars. High school me probably would have enjoyed this impactful-but-highly-dramatic story; adult me was kind of just like, eh, it was okay.

Review: The Snow Child

“‘There,’ he said. He stepped back. Sculpted in the white snow were perfect, lovely eyes, a nose, and small, white lips. She even thought she could see cheekbones and a little chin. . . . As they stood together, the snow fell heavier and faster, making it difficult to see more than a few feet. ‘She needs some hair,’ he said. ‘Oh, I’ve thought of something, too.’ Jack went toward the barn, Mabel to the cabin. ‘Here they are,’ she called from across the yard when she came back out. ‘Mittens and a scarf for the little girl.’ He returned with a bundle of yellow grass from near the barn. He stuck individual strands into the snow, creating wild, yellow hair, and she wrapped the scarf around its neck and placed the mittens on the ends of the birch branches. . . .”

Nestled in among the many wonderful books I had lined up for this month was a title that seemed ideal for Christmastime and those blustery winter days: The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. (Side note: I’m obsessed with the author’s name. It’s so lyrical and marvelous! Good job, parents.) It’s been years since we’ve had a white Christmas in Kansas — truly, I can’t remember the last — and I was craving the magic of snow one way or another. This novel did not disappoint.

Mabel and Jack are newcomers to the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s. Middle-aged and devastated by their inability to have a child, they decide to move from all they know “Back East” and start anew without the burden of neighbors, family, and friends whose lives are rich with children. Alaska seems the perfect place to isolate themselves, and it is; at least, until Mabel realizes that her winters will be one long darkness after another for days on end, and her summers filled with an unceasing sunshine that seems to mock her quiet unhappiness. Although the couple is no stranger to struggle, Jack quickly finds his farming skills are no match for the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness and the couple is faced with a bleak predicament: they must clear the land and produce a bountiful crop in the coming summer, or tuck tail and head home. As winter looms closer and money runs out, Jack and Mabel realize fears they hadn’t even considered possible before.

While the two face increasingly dire circumstances, their relationship (unsurprisingly) grows more and more strained. But with the first snow of winter, the magic of fresh beginnings also descends, leading Mabel and Jack to build a snow child that somehow seems to hold all the hopes and tenderness they’ve reserved for their own child throughout the many years. In the morning, the snow child is gone — but a mysterious little girl and her fox roam the woods nearby, and Mabel is inclined to entertain some very fantastic possibilities.

Based on the Russian fairytale “Snegurochka,” The Snow Child is a luminous story of hope, magic, and the unfailing nature of parental love. I adored the characters developed by Ivey, particularly Faina, whose being remained pure and otherworldly throughout the story’s unraveling.

The Good Great: The storyline is tight, with no gaping plot holes or aimless ramblings. Characters are attentively crafted and unique — no overlap in this novel! A prevailing sense of wonder hovers throughout the novel. There’s truly no other way to put it: this book was magical. Not in a fantasy/Harry Potter sort of way; rather, in the subtly wonderful way of children’s dreams about woodland fairies and Santa’s elves.

The Bad: No complaints on my end. At times, I felt like the build up was becoming tedious — I wanted to know, dammit — but by the end of the novel, I was convinced the entire thing was flawless.

The Verdict: 5 stars! The Snow Child is officially one of my new favorites of all time, and I wholly intend to reread this beauty in winters to come. I can’t recommend this sweet, endearing tale enough.

Ode to the Matriarch

First she was a daughter and a sister. Then, a wife to a hardworking blue-collar man for sixty-odd years. A mother to three children, one of whom left her arms far too early; two who live on, bearing their own stamps of her personality like badges of honor. An aunt. Each of these roles prepared her to fill the shoes I selfishly like to believe she loved most: Grandma.

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When we were small (enough that three of us could squeeze into the cab of the Blue Bomber alongside Dad), we loved traipsing along for chores in the mornings. Mom would fix up a hard-egg sandwich for each of us, which we’d scarf down at the table in our cowboy boots and t-shirts. Dad would fill a mug to the brim with coffee, seemingly in pursuit of some sort of daredevil quest to see just how much jostling and bumping his steady hand could withstand before a drop could slosh over the top and onto my leg (or his).

Without fail, minutes after breakfast each morning, Barrett wanted to know: “Is it time for snackies?!”

We’d drive the half mile to Grandma’s, each of us a Real Cowboy reporting for duty, and hop out of the bumbling old pickup and race to the front door, yelling the traditional “Knock! Knock!” before we were even within hearing range. As politely as snackie-minded children could manage, we’d burst through the doorway and into the kitchen that never changed even once in my lifetime. There, she waited: dark eyes glittering, soft wrinkles intersecting on her joy-mapped face, lips stretched upward in a teasing grin. In her soft hands, empty Ziploc baggies waited for each of us.

I’m not sure, anymore, who loved morning snackies more—us kids, or Grandma. She’d shovel fruit snacks and chocolate chips and Gushers and peanuts and orange slices into the baggies until Dad firmly said, “Okay, that’s enough, Mom,” for the second time—and with a wink, she’d drop in just one treat more. The price was all but free: a kiss or three and a tight hug before whoosh!—we were out the door, off to feed cows and check fences and revel in the dynasty that Grandpa and Dad had built: Simon Angus Ranch.

* * *

During summers, we wore the road thin between our house and Grandma’s, riding our bikes with squeals down the Big Hill (and groans up the Bigger Hill). It was there, in the comfort of her sunken living room, that we learned of Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. She cherished these classic musicals and fostered a love of theater in the heart of my sister, who later became Grandma’s favorite actress. In this same space, I also learned to appreciate Dirty Dancing—though it didn’t strike me as odd that she allowed a 12-year-old to watch this until just a few years ago. It is here that Barrett spent an entire summer—nearly every single day—watching Miracle and discussing the Cold War and hockey plans with Grandma, who had never seen a game of hockey in her life. While we reveled in the classic films that came from the treasure trove that was Grandma’s TV cabinet, she’d perch in her armchair with a magnifying glass, reading some article or completing a puzzle; or she’d disappear into the kitchen for a while, from which savory fragrances would emanate later on.

Mom felt guilty sometimes, I think, for all the days we pestered Grandma; but I know Grandma loved these unsolicited visits. Sometimes we’d call (forced by Mom in an attempt to establish something resembling manners), but even when we didn’t, Grandma was somehow never caught unaware. I think it’s safe to say our daily visits were more valuable to her than gold.

* * *

Grandma is most often tied to memories of food and family in my mind, and with good reason: summers and school in-service days meant lunch at Grandma’s. We children would salivate with anticipation in the hours leading up to lunchtime, usually abstaining from breakfast in order to more fully appreciate the glory that would come at precisely 12:15.

In the small, dark wood-paneled dining room, a crowded table waited: decorative seasonal napkins on each plate; glasses filled to the brim with sweet tea any Southerner could appreciate; serving bowls piled high with corn on the cob and heavenly hash, roasted potatoes and her famous cherry Pepsi Jell-O. We learned self control at that table as we waited, squirming, for Grandma to bustle in with the main dish—if we were lucky, tater tot casserole; if we were luckier, pot roast—and beam at the faces that she so loved. Grandma’s table was a bit like those of the dining hall at Hogwarts: even when Tyler and Jacob and Barrett were all three present with their formidable appetites, food somehow continued to appear in dishes until all were stuffed to the gills.

Those who were fortunate enough to join family at that table (most often Jacob’s buddies, come to haul hay or fix fence in the summer) never left hungry—Grandma made sure of that. She made it her top priority on those beloved lunch days to ensure that we were fed like a troupe of the Queen’s finest soldiers, even if that meant we left to work cattle with our pants unbuttoned and pleasurable groans escaping from our lips. (We also may have learned a thing or two about Gluttony at that table. . . . )

* * *

We could all count on Grandma for a few certainties in life. First, her front door was always open to visitors—and you’d better yell “Knock! Knock!” on your way in. Second, she’d always have a pile of lemon crap prepared when Jacob visited from college (we used to think this meant he was the favorite, which I’m sure he’d love to believe, but I’m also sure is completely inaccurate). And third—the most certain and meaningful of all—Grandma could be depended upon to never miss a game.

She became something of a fixture at Flinthills High School, always arriving to games at least 45 minutes in advance (which became a bit of a running joke in the family), her cushioned #1 Fan! seat settled in prime viewing location for the activity at hand. During football, that seat could be found as far as possible from the “Ding-a-Lings,” whose cowbells were Grandma’s archnemises. During basketball games, her stark head of curly black hair could be spotted smack dab in the upper-middle section. I often marveled that she didn’t bring high-focus binoculars—all the better to see her grandchildren with, of course.

No matter the distance, Grandma was always there, decked out in red and black and gleaming saucer-pins from which our faces beamed outward. On weekends, she’d follow Courtney and Brianne’s volleyball teams to day-long tournaments, scribbling notes from the game in her program in that loopy calligraphy so unique to her. When the boys were in high school and lost most of their games by the 45 rule, Grandma didn’t care—she was still in the stands an hour before, watching warm-ups with her eagle eyes; often driving hours to watch forty-five abysmal minutes of football and offer a few hand-squeezes and whispers of tender encouragement before hopping back in the car for a long drive home. She braved long trips and ninety-degree afternoons on sun-baked golf courses for fifteen-minute cross country races, during which she was lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of me running.

Distance did not matter to this woman—only Family. Nothing was more important to her than ensuring each of us were adored to full capacity.

* * *

Grandma’s fridge is a testament to her greatest love. It is a collage in the truest sense, papered from top to bottom: newspaper clippings from Jacob’s college games, ticket stubs from Brianne’s performances, photographs of Seth’s matriculation and Courtney’s family (and Grandma’s first great grandchildren), Mother’s Day envelopes with Dad’s signature hidden “MOM” heading. Over the years, the collage changed to reflect her family’s newest accomplishments; the fridge eternally a billboard of all that she held dearest.

She is gone, now, and those words leave a hole in each of our hearts. Decades of matriarchal devotion to her children and grandchildren have come to a close, but she’s left each of us something far greater than material wealth or tangible objects.

Grandma never missed an opportunity to make it clear just how dearly she loved each of us. With each return home, she’d grasp us in a tight embrace, peppering our heads and cheeks and shoulders with kisses as she’d squeak out in that high-pitched, excited squeal of hers, “Grandpa and I have missed you so much! You’ll never know how much you mean to us . . . we think of you every single day.” Her soft, thin hands—surprisingly strong—squeezed ours tightly at every opportunity, as if she could somehow transmit this fierce passion to us through touch.

It worked. She is gone now, and there is a hole in each of our hearts. But over that aching gap, Grandma is already at work, papering a new collage of old memories to tide us over. A Christmas stocking here, a snackie bag there, and nearly-world-famous chocolate brownies filling in all the spaces between.

WOI: An Ode to Frau

When I first started high school, a mysterious figure arrived at the front doors of Flinthills High.

She wore her dark hair in a boyish pixie cut, which struck us as odd since the only women we knew with hair that short were our moms. Her skin was pale, as though she was too busy reading novels to spend time outdoors. Her slim, athletic figure was often masked by chunky knit sweaters and loose-fitting polos that sometimes rose just high enough to tease us with the edge of a tattoo (we thought?); and her semi-angular face, framed with expressive and prominent brows, rarely displayed more than the slightest hint of artificial color.

Her effortless manner of existence was unlike any we’d seen before. She was so damn comfortable in her own ordinary skin, that she became anything but ordinary. Her very being suggested both careful consideration of her place in the world, and a quiet but firm refusal to adhere to societal expectations.

We came to know her as Frau.

Frau was our ninth and eleventh grade English teacher — and she was exotic, right down to her obviously-European sneakers. She spoke German fluently, we discovered, due to a year-ish stint in Karlsruhe — or was it Düsseldorf? (This life abroad, we came to understand, did not entail evangelizing or studying at a university or teaching young children to speak English; I seem to recall her admitting she spent much of her time washing dishes. I forget the specifics, now, but the puzzlement remains.) We were exhilarated by every mysterious layer of her being.

She kept miniature squares of Ritter Sport Schokolade tucked away in odd desk drawers: coveted rewards for particularly skillful writing or unusual participation in classroom discussions. She instigated heated debate sessions, forcing us to take a stance just so she could flip the tables and require us to defend the opposing point of view; all the while enabling us to understand the complexities of not-so-black-and-white issues, unbeknownst to us fumbling teenage idiots. She welcomed original student works, and suffered through many samples of my angsty teen poetry: some, she submitted to contests or anthologies; most, she returned, riddled with suggestions, scribbly stars, and questions.

One February afternoon when the grass lay buried and brown beneath mushy gray-sky snow, Frau read a poem to us: “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I have never forgotten how innocently the poem floated up from the silky pages of those Holt Literature books, right up to the last two lines: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / went home and put a bullet through his head.”

After a brief moment of silence following the sound of the last period, my peers issued immediate exclamations: That was STUPID! Why’d he do it?! I hate this poem. But I was enamored. How remarkably odd, indeed, that Robinson could so nonchalantly introduce the man’s abrupt suicide. My heart ached with startling pity: Robinson’s words had touched me, at the very core of my being. I don’t remember a time before this in which an author’s work had such a moving effect on me.

While many of my peers likely forgot the poem and the record player upon which Frau shared the musical version by Simon & Garfunkel, I still think of this poem often, ten years later. I remain haunted by Richard Cory.

Frau set the wheels in motion: my literary awakening.

* * *

She’s a bit romanticized in my memory, I’ll admit. It’s quite possible that some of the details of this recollection are a bit skewed. But I suppose that is normal: those rose-colored glasses are some sort of due process for a person with whom one has formed such an intimate but distant personal relationship.

Frau claims ownership (or perhaps, contributing-editorship,) to a fair chunk of what I claim as my actual self. She planted a seed of hope in the palm of my teenage soul that has never stopped growing. Certainly, sometimes that seedling has shriveled a bit or needed some coaxing to emerge from a particularly crusty layer of neglect and doubt; but the seed remains. She showed me how to nourish that seedling with exceptional prose and tidbits of poetry.

She also cultivated my appreciation for literature and writing into something much greater, something much more fulfilling. Because Frau walked through the doors of USD 492 some twelve years ago, I learned how to accept criticism of my writing, though sometimes frustrating or nettling. And through her steady stream of feedback and encouragement, a foundation was built for a lifelong need to write.

In the meantime, she hurled book recommendations at me like literary bullets. I grew whole in the fibers of those pages, filled with competing desires to read my life rich and to please this woman I had grown to love in the manner of student admiration. Few things became more satisfying than the affirmation Frau bestowed upon me when I completed another noteworthy novel. My appreciation for this beloved teacher grew into something a bit like friendship, and a bit like worship.

* * *

I’m a teacher of high school English, now, and more often than not I have a little cry at my desk at the end of the day, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. My students can be belligerent and cruel, my colleagues are often sharp-tongued and more critical than helpful, and society as a whole seems to have few kind things to say about educators. On those days, I usually end up calling my mom, who sits patiently on the other end of the line as I weep loudly and feel pretty sorry for myself. I wonder aloud why I even bother, what is even the point of being a teacher.

When the gasping cries subside a bit, she always asks, “Are you done?” and I nod, as though she can see my head bob through the phone. “Good. Do you remember Frau Krehbiel?” she starts.

And that’s really all she has to say.

WOI: True Grit

Last weekend, I laced up my Brooks Launch 2s, threw on a ratty old race t-shirt, and chugged what seemed like a half gallon of Arctic water from my Yeti Rambler as I passed through the doorway of my childhood home. It was race day, and I was not even remotely prepared.

At 7:00 on a muggy Eastern Kansas morning, I maneuvered the F-150 in robotic fashion toward a destination only somewhat known, the deeper part of my brain engrossed in a one-sided conversation that could aptly be dubbed WTF Have I Signed Up For? Meanwhile, my passenger sat only two feet away, equally silent — though her silence seemed much more serene, determined.

Sheila and I were on our way to our second race together, and our very first OCR (obstacle course race): the True Grit Challenge 5k.

In the weeks leading up to the race, we nervously shared photos and videos from Oz Events’ Instagram and Facebook accounts, often with nervous giggles that resembled desperate hiccups (at least, on my end of the line). I grew increasingly wary: I’ve been a runner for 14 years, competitive for 9 of those, but this OCR thing was unknown territory. Sheila, on the other hand, who has no history of running, only offered words of support and encouragement in the days prior to our race. We can do this, she texted me. We are warriors!

Though the course was not the most extreme or difficult of OCRs around the country, the back half would have been an agonizing tenth circle of hell if it hadn’t been for Sheila, who pushed and pulled and encouraged through her own exhaustion — she was a beacon not just for myself, but for others, as well. While my mantra was something along the lines of “OMG I’m out of shape – please don’t let me die today,” Sheila’s was an even, confident img_3866“We will succeed – we will finish this race.” Her tenacity was nothing short of incredible.

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I’ve known Sheila for three years, now; two of those years we spent as colleagues and friends as teachers at the same school. My first impression of Sheila was that she was remarkable: her 2nd grade classroom ran like a well-oiled machine, her own children were respectful and kind, and her faith — that, my friends, could move mountains.

I quickly discovered Sheila to be an unstoppable, striking model of everything that a woman could be — everything a woman should aspire to be.

Sheila is a Woman of Interest (I know — I slipped up a bit on blogging about those) for a number of reasons; truthfully, too many to list in this post. First and foremost, Sheila is a fountain of encouragement. Seriously. In every frustrating situation I’ve endured over the past three years, Sheila has bombarded me with goodwill and heartfelt words of encouragement. Sometimes, these tidbits come from the Bible. Most times, these nuggets of inspiration come from the depths of her beautiful heart.

Perhaps due to this perpetual stream of support she supplies for others, I know Sheila to be resilient. During a physically grueling OCR, nothing could phase her; haybale mountains, cattleguard crossings, log carries — all of these obstacles were merely annoyances to be dealt with prior to crossing the finish line. A year ago, she ran her first half marathon; and though the going got rough, she finished with a smile on her face.

She is the picture of grace. Even in the face of divorce, Sheila has prevailed in her efforts to remain composed, dignified, and kind-spirited. Pettiness is not the stuff she is made of. At her core, she strives to better the lives of others around her, regardless of her personal feelings toward any given individual or situation.

I find myself awed, often, by her ability to go far beyond proclaiming a faith in Christ or her own status as a Christian; Sheila truly embodies the loving, forgiving, and compassionate nature that her faith asks of her. In her, you know that these elements are authentic; usually, they seem effortless.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines grit as “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” It’s almost as if the entry was composed with Sheila in mind.