16.6.11

bookpost: The Chimney-sweeper's Boy by Barbara Vine

I found this in the English section of a Helsinki used bookshop.

So basically an author dies and his daughters grieve terribly because he was such a great father, but the widow feels liberated because he was a loveless, sometimes cruel husband. One of the daughters starts to write a memoir and discovers that her father was not who he claimed to be, and the novel is, as far as plot goes, about the unraveling of who he really was and why he changed his identity. But on another level, it is much more about this thing that was buried in the author's psyche, and how it affected him, his writing, his relationships, and then his daughters and wife both in his lifetime and after his death.

As a mystery, it's dreadful. I always felt three steps ahead of the characters in figuring stuff out, and I was disappointed that there wasn't more to discover. The big denouement is obvious well before it is exposed.

Yet the novel is still compelling, largely because of the intersection between the psychological and the literary aspects. If I think about it, the predictability of the novel's outcome made the analysis of the characters more enjoyable because we get a privileged view into the psyche of the central character denied to the other characters. In addition, I found the questions raised about the relationship between the writer and his works interesting, even if I don't entirely agree with the book's premise.

I'm interested to read something else by Vine, maybe Asta's Book.

13.6.11

bookpost: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I read The Corrections because I want to read Freedom this summer and thought I ought to read this first. I was ready to dislike it based on its size: I generally don't like The Big Novel with all of its complexity and design and flourishes, and while there was some of that here, and too much in places, what saved the novel for me was the interplay of genres, bouncing between a family saga, satire and social history.

The novel focuses on the Lamberts, a dysfunctional family from Kansas whose three children have fled their home town and disappointed their parents in various ways. (For a better summary, go here.) The novel deals with all kinds of dichotomies -- generational, sexual, social, economic, political and geographical -- and how those gaps in understanding and worldviews manifest themselves and create issues for individuals and families. Because their roles shift as the genres shift, our feelings toward the characters shift as well, so a character who seems sympathetic in one chapter seems less so a few later (with a few exceptions). Franzen has something serious to say about modern society's way of dealing with failure and conflict, and what we will do to try to correct the reality staring us in the face, or what that reality will do to correct us (and how we can ride that out or not).

I have to say, though that while I appreciate the novel, it did not speak to me or hold my attention significantly. I did not grow up in the midwest, nor have I lived in the kind of world he describes. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, just that it has not been my experience. So reading a satire of that world was like reading Candide: I can see the satire and the points he's making, but they are targeted too far away from me to sting. Still, some of his points about the modern world and his assessment of how families work, have stuck with me, but more intellectually than otherwise.

1.6.11

10 years teaching abroad, part 1

This week ends the tenth school year I've spent abroad. In this post I'll explain how I got here, and in the next I'll talk about how international teaching has effected me as a professional.

In the autumn of 2000, I had been teaching English for eight years, six of them at a high school in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles, and to my own mind at the time I was professionally at the top of my game. I team-taught an American Lit/US History course for grade 11s, full of games and simulations and bursting with experimentation; I also taught AP Language, Advanced Composition for grade 12s and Film as Literature, all courses that I loved and had designed myself. I had finished my MA at a local Cal State the year before and had enjoyed it, plus the extra income made living on a teacher's salary with no family a little swank. My students loved me, my colleagues respected me ... all was well.

But I was restless.

When I started making a little more money, the charm of my Burbank studio apartment wore thin, and then the possibility of moving got the ball rolling. Could I move out of state? Could I start a new career? Could I go get a PhD or a law degree? Suddenly the possibilities were endless.

Another factor was travel. During those eight years, I had lived to travel, taking massive road trips across the US and going backpacking around Australia, South Africa, Argentina, the UK, and other parts of Europe. The idea of finding a job that would allow me to travel while I worked had huge appeal.

I met someone at a party whose parents had been State Department employees, and as she talked about her schooling at various international schools around the world the light came on for me. After a few internet searches and some reading, I found myself at a job fair in Miami the following March.

I didn't accept a job there. My position in California was so good that I was unwilling to settle for much less, and many of the schools that were interested in me didn't appeal to me for whatever reason.

Then at the end of May, I got a flurry of phone calls from schools around the world wanting to set up phone interviews and requesting reference letters. I chose Helsinki because it seemed like the best school of the ones I was in contact with. My plan was to go there for 2-3 years and move on to another city somewhere else, and do so every 2-4 years.

So I went to Helsinki. I had small classes (2-20 students), no modal to teach from, and my students learned with relative alacrity and depth. It wasn't perfect, but it was very good.

But after two years, I was ready to move on. I took a job in London, got married to a Finn, and my wife and I were ready to keep moving around the world.

And then we had twins. Living with twin infants was so chaotic that staying in London wasn't really an option -- the school wasn't good enough to sacrifice for -- and moving to another country seemed mad as well. The principal in Helsinki mentioned that they would have an opening, and so I applied, returning to Helsinki where we've been for the last six years.

The school is semi-private and non-profit has about 320 students K-12. (My twins currently attend the K2 class.) I teach IB Diploma English A1 and various IB MYP English courses. My classes are 5-22 students. I'm head of Language A (mother tongue), which is myself and another English teacher, two Finnish A teachers and a part time Swedish A teacher.

Will we stay here? Will we return to the US? We have no long-term plans. We like our current flat, and we can stay here for another three years, and then I suppose we'll have a think about it. But international teaching has me spoiled. It would be hard to imagine returning to the US, both culturally and educationally.