About Me

My Life as a Reader

published January 2, 2012

I’m Mary Jo, and I’m a reader. Ever since I learned to read, I have loved books. My best childhood memories are reading with my mother and siblings, making trips to the library and toting home stacks of paperbacks, and spoiling my eyesight finishing a book after bedtime. When I was in elementary school, I would read the textbooks from cover to cover just to have something to do and to be able to say I did it. When I was in high school, I felt cheated when I discovered that my sophomore English teacher was teaching us straight from Cliff’s Notes. “Isn’t there more to these books than these rote questions and responses?” I wondered. The following year, AP English Lit was my favorite class, where my favorite teacher of all time, Mr. Jim McDonough, who looks just like the British comedian Rowan Atkinson (or Mr. Bean) taught me close reading. I followed my reading bug to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, a small, rigorous liberal arts college where I majored in English and Spanish. At Centre I dove into classes on Shakespeare and Austen, the Romantics, Transcendentalists, and Southern Agrarians, Arthurian legends and Greek philosophy. I also got to spend a semester in Merida, Mexico. I lived the life of the mind and loved every minute.

When it came time to figure out what to do after graduation, I decided to pursue a dream. I figured that no matter what happened later, even if my dream utterly failed, I would feel better knowing that I set out to try for it at the first opportunity, rather than settling early and putting it off. (That might have been a slightly fatalistic way to think of it, but I told myself I was mixing my wildly idealistic optimism with a healthy dose of reality.) I wanted to write, and being the risk-averse, academic-oriented, school-loving 21-year-old I was, I figured the best way to do that was to attend a writing program.

Why did I want to write? Idealizing books had led logically to idealizing their writers, and I thought that the most high and noble thing anyone could do was to create fictional worlds to gift to others, to help them escape whatever they needed to escape and to fill them with joy and make them think, even for just a moment. Ever ambitious, I wanted to try to do the thing that I thought was the greatest and most important thing in the world. I didn’t think much about whether I liked it or was good at it. I wanted to do it because of the value and esteem I held, and mostly still hold, for writers. At that point I actually didn’t have much experience writing fiction. The only short story I wrote in the four years I spent in college was the one I used in my grad school applications. Before that, the only short story I wrote in high school was one that I was assigned to write as a freshman, using a very specific prompt. The one kind of writing I did have plenty experience with was journaling. I have been journaling since I was about twelve. There are boxes of notebooks in my parents’ basement, I think, full of teenage drama. By now, over half of my life has been committed to paper. (Hopefully, this experience will prove useful for blogging.)

I applied to a handful of programs in my senior year at Centre, and was accepted at the University of Cincinnati’s program for a Masters of Arts in English, with a creative thesis and a concentration in fiction. I spent two years there, teaching freshman composition courses, taking classes with intimidatingly intelligent and accomplished professors and classmates, and writing overly serious short stories about shy young women with relationship issues. Also, living in my parents’ house, waiting tables, and traveling to Tennessee about every other month.

At the end of my time at UC, I decided I was moving to Nashville to be closer to David, who was my long-distance boyfriend at the time, and who is now my husband of 17 months. I made some halfhearted applications to Vanderbilt’s MFA and PhD programs, but by then I could pretty much tell that my time in academia was over. I knew I didn’t have the heart for cross-country moves or the academic job hunt, and I doubted I had the intellectual focus or endurance. I figured the bargain I had made while applying to grad schools initially had been fulfilled. I had tried for the dream and failed, and would now be happier in a settled life for having at least tried it. God, that was a bleak way to think of the rest of my life. How about this: more optimistically, I had decided to make a life and a living now, rather than putting off love and gainful employment any longer, and, besides, I could write anytime, and now grad school had given me some of the skills, discipline, and judgment I’d need to make something out of any worthwhile idea I might have later on in life. Whew. That’s better.

So I taught for English composition for freshmen for a year at Belmont University. That was a part-time gig, so I was very, very poor. But it was great to be in a classroom where the students were intellectually engaged and enthusiastic. The low pay created an unsustainable situation for my bank account, though, so I applied to the Nashville Teaching Fellows program, which trains alternatively licensed teachers and places them in urban classrooms. I ended up in McGavock High School, the largest high school in Tennessee, teaching Spanish II and English III. My English classes were all male students from the “STEM Academy,” which in our school meant auto shop. You can imagine how excited those kids were about writing five-paragraph persuasive essays. At the end of the year new teachers were let go in budget cuts, and I ended up at Glencliff High School, the most diverse school in Tennessee. I taught English III and English IV to students in the “Hospitality Academy,” which in our school meant cosmetology and culinary arts. I liked Glencliff because the students were more respectful than McGavock students and the faculty was young and vibrant. But again, at the end of the year, new teachers were let go in budget cuts. Luckily, I had 4 offers, because 97% of my students had passed the TCAP writing exam. I chose the Academy at Old Cockrill, a nontraditional high school which only accepts students ages 17-21 who are making up credits to get their high school diplomas. Classes are small and students are screened through an interview process in order to get in. This is my fourth school in four years, but I want to stay here. It’s challenging, but in a way that I feel I can handle. Because there are so few students, I feel like I’m actually able to create relationships with them. They’re interesting people.

There have been times in my recent history when I stopped reading for fun. Late high school, most of college, all of graduate school, and my first year and a half teaching in public school. It was no fun. Reading is very important to me. But in the past year or two, my reading habit has come back in a big way. I’m reading more than ever, and more widely and systematically than ever. And I have some things to say about what I’ve been reading.

Recent Posts

The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

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This book is Amy Tan being Amy Tan, tackling her pet subject: multiple generations of women traveling between America and China, having complex relationships, being exploited by men and bureaucracy and in-laws, and occasionally fighting back. I don’t say that in a disparaging way: she writes what she knows and is good at it. This book is different from previous books of Tan’s I’ve read in that it’s sexier. The main characters are courtesans, or very high-class prostitutes, in Shanghai circa 1910-1925. In addition to the deceptions and seductions of suitors, the drama here comes from a mother and her daughter both losing children to hostile in-laws from another culture, thanks to false or missing documentation. (Now that I’m a mom, reading about a parent losing all contact with a young child is even more heartrending to me than ever.) It’s a long book, offering the perspectives of the American mother, her half-Chinese daughter, and the daughter’s attendant.

Though she relies heavily on coincidence and other slightly unrealistic plot devices, Tan also interweaves historical events like the flu epidemic of 1918 into the narrative. The characters’ relationships and opportunities are greatly influenced by the qeopolitical climate and the relations between China and the US. This is a story that could only have taken place in a particular moment in history, when China was in the process of opening to the West, but still very tradition-bound, when customs like courtesan houses coexisted with typewriters and telegraphs, after the Open Door Notes, but before the invasion by Japan and the Cultural Revolution. Most action takes place in the International Settlement in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan place where foreigners were safe and respected. It’s interesting to learn this history from a perspective that we don’t often see as Americans.

A while ago I reviewed Rules for Virgins, not knowing that it was going to be part of  a longer novel. Though it stands up well on its own, that chapter also fits well in this book. Magic Gourd, its narrator, only narrates this one chapter of The Valley of Amazement, but she’s an important character, and a funny one.

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