Rest in Peace, Bellatrix

A Photograph of Bellatrix, a cat
Photo courtesy Steve Huff

On Thursday, June 30, 2022, my husband Steve and I took Bellatrix to the vet for the last time. She had rapidly declined in the weeks preceding her death. I suspect she may only have lived a few more days, but she was clearly suffering. We consulted with the vet to be sure that we were doing the right thing, and the vet agreed that it would be kinder to her to put her to sleep. She had trouble getting around and confined herself to the kitchen, bathroom, and our daughter Maggie’s room. I’m glad she spent so many of her final days with Maggie. We often joked that Maggie was her nemesis because Maggie doted on her so fiercely, and sometimes Bella just didn’t want that attention. She was not the kind of cat who wanted to be in your lap. She didn’t like being held. She loved being petted and sitting close to you, but not too close.

We didn’t notice any signs of trouble until April, and the vet couldn’t really find anything wrong, but she didn’t improve, so we took her again in May, and this time, the vet found a mass in her abdomen. She recommended a trip to an emergency vet. We couldn’t get her to one for about a week, but the ER vet confirmed our worst fears. Bella didn’t have long to live. She said we could try cancer treatment, but the absolute best-case scenario, and not a very likely one, is that we’d buy her a year. We couldn’t do it to her, knowing how much she hated getting in the car and going to the vet. It would have been a horrible final year, and it didn’t seem like a kindness.

In spite of so many people telling us we were doing the right thing, it was very hard. Selfishly, I wanted her to live forever. I loved her so very much. Taking care of her in the final six weeks of her life was so hard. She declined so rapidly. She was a beautiful cat. She was a fierce mouser. She was independent and intelligent. I am just heartbroken over this loss, and I thought I was more ready. I expected my daughter and husband to have a harder time with their emotions, but actually, I’m the one who has been crying for days. Today is actually the first day I can think about her at all without immediately tearing up, though I’ve still cried twice (and it’s not noon).

Bella was 13, and we’ve had her since she was a 12-week-old kitten. She was a member of the family. As much as I say that and believe it, part of me still feels like it’s wrong to be as upset as I am, especially given the state of the world. I know on an intellectual level that I should feel whatever I feel and not worry about the other stuff, but it’s hard. It feels like lacking perspective. I know that’s not true, but it’s something I’m wrestling with.

The first thing I did was toss out all of her things: her cat box, her brush mitt, her cat food… I washed out her bowls really well and put her cat carrier in the back of the car so I can take it to our storage locker. I scrubbed the areas where her box and food were. There’s no trace she was there. Yet I find myself looking in those areas. I cried yesterday because I stepped on something tiny and hard in the kitchen, and it wasn’t a stray piece of her kibble. Naturally, I would have cried if it had been her kibble, too. I thought getting her things out of the house would make it easier, but it’s depressing how quickly I was able to excise her presence from my view. I keep thinking I see her out of the corner of my eye. Yesterday at dinner, I thought I felt her nuzzling my legs. She used to do that a lot when we ate dinner: she didn’t want handouts—she wanted pets.

I held her paw the whole time, and it struck me that if she had been conscious or feeling like herself, she never would have allowed that. Bella did not like it when you touched her paws. The vet asked us about how we got her, and it’s a fun story. My ex-husband has this thing about naming all his cats Dexter, regardless of gender. He and I had the first Dexter together, and our daughter Sarah had picked the name. One of his subsequent Dexters had kittens, and we wanted a cat. We asked Sarah to pick one for us, and she picked Bellatrix.

Her death was peaceful, and I’m grateful for that because I could not have borne it if she had died in pain. I know I took good care of her and that she had a good life. Yet, I find myself wishing there was more I could have done. I don’t know what it would have been. I just wish she had not had to have cancer. I am so sorry it happened to her. My friends and family have been so wonderful and kind as I grieve my beautiful cat. She was truly one of a kind. I cannot bear the thought that I will never see her again.

Rest in peace, Bellatrix. 9/4/2008-6/30/2022.


Bellatrix the Cat
Bellatrix, photo by Steve Huff

The Huff family includes a 13-year-old black cat named Bellatrix after the Death Eater in the Harry Potter series. She’s a wonderful cat. She is incredibly independent. She has never liked sitting on laps. On the few occasions when she has sat on a lap, she sits stiffly like she’s not sure what she should be doing. But she will sit near you to be petted. She joins me in the bathroom most mornings so she can be petted. She will tolerate being held for a few seconds only. She’s wicked smart. She’s an excellent mouser. In many ways, the household sort of revolves around her.

This week we received the horrible news that she doesn’t have long to live. She has cancer, and it’s fairly aggressive. We knew she was sick, but we had hope that she might be able to be cured and be with us for a few more years. Sadly, the best-case scenario, even if everything worked perfectly, would be about a year, and it would be a horrible year of chemotherapy and vet visits. She hates vet visits. She is incredibly anxious in the car and at the vet. We didn’t want to spoil her last days like that. We are making her as comfortable as we can until we have to say goodbye. We’re talking about things like internment at a pet cemetery where maybe she can have a real headstone. She has been loved fiercely.

We took her to the vet last week, and our vet told us that she really needed to go to the vet ER. Unfortunately, we had trouble getting her to the ER. I’m not sure it would have made a difference. We likely would have received the bad news a little sooner is all. But I have to shout out Angell Animal Medical Center for their compassionate care. We arrived at the hospital about 9:30 Wednesday night after our vet called and said they would see Bella. Other animal hospitals are diverting patients. There is apparently a shortage crisis in veterinary care right now.

I do not think I will ever forget the scene. The lights were too bright. A triage nurse took Bella’s vitals and said they looked good. That made me feel hopeful. A man with a cat named Brownie had been told her temperature was too low. At least Bella’s temperature was normal. A man walked out from the back, wailing and being comforted by a woman. I looked at my husband. Of course, he must have just lost a beloved pet. I was hoping we would not be leaving the same way. We waited. And waited. I was shaking with anxiety.

Once we were called in to see the vet after waiting perhaps two hours, I could just tell. I could tell as the vet examined her that she was trying to figure out how to tell us. She was incredible. She looked at Bella’s bloodwork and X-ray’s on my phone. She leveled with us, but… I know I keep saying this, but it was in the most compassionate way. She took Bella to do an ultrasound on her mass, and we broke down sobbing, knowing that we would be saying goodbye to Bella soon. We talked things through with the vet when she came back, and she said, and I’ll never forget it because I needed to hear it, “Do not feel that you are giving up on her.”

We waited in the lobby for Bella’s medicine for a good while. A little dog with a cough trotted after his owner. Another dog had eaten a pen. I went to the restroom and passed by a woman with a cat in a carrier. A vet had a stethoscope pressed to the cat. She said, “I’m sorry, her heart has stopped.” The woman burst into tears. This place was too much.

We got home after 2:00 A.M., exhausted, deflated, utterly devastated. Then we had to tell our daughter, who had stayed up waiting for news and having a dreadful feeling that the news was bad or we’d have just texted her. My husband and daughter sobbed together on the couch while I felt useless. I went to bed and barely slept two hours before going to work. I cried all day at work. I was completely useless.

It’s now Sunday, and we have been living with the news of Bella’s imminent loss for a few days. I’m just trying to take the best care of her that I can. We are trying to pet her and show her our affection as much as we can to make her last days happy and filled with love. But we are all just gutted. She is just the best cat, and we love her so much.

Penny Black, Penny Red

My grandfather passed away in April, two weeks before his 95th birthday. He was my last living grandparent, and we were close. When I was about nine, he got me started on a stamp collection. He took me to the hobby shop in the shopping center about a quarter of a mile from his house, and he selected a starter stamp album for me. He bought a package of hinges to fasten stamps into the album. He probably also bought me a grab bag of loose used stamps, some of them still stuck to a corner of an envelope. He showed me how to use the album, which had tiny pictures of the stamps. These albums are helpful for beginners because once you find the picture of my stamp, you just affix the stamp to the image using a hinge. Papa showed me how I could put a used stamp that was still stuck to the envelope in a small bowl of warm water, and it would separate from the paper without tearing. Then I could dry the stamp on a paper towel and affix it to my album with a hinge.

He donated stamps from his own collection to help me get started. He collected stamps from all over the world. I remember being confused about the country of origin of one of the stamps, and he helped figure out where to put it, explaining that there were “two Chinas.” I didn’t understand what he meant, but I realized later it must have been a generational difference—I had only ever known the country he called the “second China” as Taiwan. I learned a lot about history and geography from collecting stamps.

My own collection was never large. I took up the hobby again in my 20s, but unfortunately, I couldn’t really afford it at the time, so I set aside the collecting for a while. I inherited my grandfather’s collection, which might not be considered large in philatelic circles, but it’s much larger than mine ever was. He appears to have stopped collecting stamps himself around the time I was born, or at least his albums don’t appear to date past the early 1970s. He has albums dedicated to the countries of France, Germany, Japan, Great Britain (the United Kingdom), and the U.S.A. He also has many stock albums and a few handmade albums with carefully drawn templates and typed on what I recognize as his old Royal typewriter.

The stamps in his U.S. album are mounted, while the other stamps all appear to be affixed to their albums with hinges. I think a long time ago, hinges were considered relatively harmless, but these days, many collectors prefer mounts. Mounts are affixed to the album, but they do no damage to the stamps themselves, unlike hinges, which sometimes disturb the gum or the paper on the back of the stamp.

Stamp albums are really expensive, and I wouldn’t be able to find some of the albums Papa used anymore—maybe on eBay, but certainly not easily. I plan to preserve his collection and perhaps add to it, but I wanted to replace all his hinges with mounts.  This is the title page of his British stamp album.

Stamp Album Title Page

Its copyright date is 1959. I don’t have much to compare it to, but I suspect it might be a more comprehensive British stamp album than one made in the U.S. Stanley Gibbons is a stamp merchant in the U.K. The edges of the page are lighter. I am not sure what caused the discoloration, but I suspect maybe the paper on the part of the cover touching the title page is not acid-free. The pages in the rest of the album seem fine, but all the more reason to mount the stamps. I wouldn’t want them to become discolored, too.

I discovered the pre-cut mounts I ordered were a bit too big, so I ordered some mount strips and a little craft guillotine so I could cut the mounts to the correct size. My last supply order arrived today, so I started working on Papa’s Great Britain album. This is the first page.

The stamp in the upper left is known as a “Penny Black.” Penny Blacks were the first postage stamps. They’re not exceedingly rare, but I think just about every collector wants one. If you are collecting stamps, you want to have the first postage stamp in your collection. The Penny Black was issued for less than a year—May 1840 to February 1841. The reddish cancelation you can see on the stamp was apparently easy to remove, and people reused the stamps, so the British postal service decided to change the stamp’s color to red and use black cancelation, which would be harder to remove. This stamp was called a “Penny Red.” I don’t know if you can tell, but the first stamp with the letters J and I in the corner is actually on blue paper. The three stamps in the second row date from about 1841.

This next page includes stamps with a similar design, but they were issued later. The stamps at the top date from 1854-1857. The ones on the bottom date from 1858-1879. You probably can’t see this because I can only barely detect it with a magnifying glass, but the stamps on the bottom row have plate numbers in their frames on each side. The plate number is what it sounds like: the number given to the plate used to print the stamps. Plate numbers started appearing on Penny Reds in 1864.

Papa doesn’t have a complete collection of Penny Reds with each plate number, but it’s clear the album was designed for a serious collector who might want to have a copy of a Penny Red from each plate.

Here is another page of Penny Reds with plate numbers. I took a picture of this page in the middle of replacing the hinges with mounts. You can see the mounted stamps on the bottom and the hinged stamps on the top. While I admit I love the way the hinged stamps look in the album, the stamps will be better preserved in mounts. Papa placed the stamps into the album so carefully.

Partway through this project, I realized that someone had written the stamp’s Scott Number and plate number on the back of the stamps.

The Scott Number is the individual number given to each stamp by the Scott Catalogue, a comprehensive list of every stamp produced. Most collectors use Scott Numbers to refer to stamps. The Scott Catalogue also sets the basic value for a stamp, though the value is generally fluid and something that the buyer and seller agree on rather than anything fixed. The Scott Number for this stamp is 33, which was produced from 1864-1879. The plate number for this stamp is 103. The stamps vary in value depending on the plate number. This is not my grandfather’s handwriting. I am not sure who wrote the Scott and plate numbers on the backs of his stamps, but most of his Penny Reds have this information penciled on the back of the stamp. I suspect Papa may have bought or traded for another philatelist’s collection, and perhaps a previous owner penciled these numbers on the stamps. It was a fascinating find, though I suspect it would decrease the value of the stamps. The handwriting is extremely small. Even if I wanted to erase the numbers, I might damage the stamps in doing so.

Further on into the collection, I found this stamp with what might be a partially handwritten cancelation. In any case, there is some black handwriting on the stamp.

I think Papa thought this stamp was a Scott 34, but I think it’s probably a Scott 43 based on the color and the way the letters in the corners of the frame look. I don’t know the corresponding Stanley Gibbons Windsor Number for the stamp. I guess I’ll need to get a copy of the Stanley Gibbons catalogue so I can compare. To be fair to Papa, the previous collector who penciled numbers on the backs of the stamps wrote the number “34” on the back, and the two designs are pretty similar.

I found Papa’s first mint (not used) stamps dating from about 1887 (the stamp in the upper left).

While this stamp is beautiful and is in great condition, it’s not worth very much (less than $2.00). I also think Papa has the order of the stamps 197 and 197a reversed. The one labeled 197 should be vermilion and the 197a is orange vermilion. I think the one above the label 197 looks more orange.

These stamps are on the bottom half of that same page. You can see a few more mint stamps: in the top row, a blue half-penny stamp featuring Queen Victoria, then in the next row a blue-green half-penny featuring Edward VII. In the third row are a scarlet one-penny and a 1½-pence in two colors. Stamps that are unused or mint and centered nicely with gum on the back (if any) intact, are more valuable than used stamps and/or stamps that are poorly centered or missing the gum.

It’s interesting how quickly all of this came back to me as I examined Papa’s stamps. It definitely made me want to build on his collection. It’s strange that I still think of it as his rather than mine. I am starting to think of them as my stamps, but not completely. It made me feel close to him again, to spend some time caring for his stamps and remember him sitting next to me at the coffee table in his house, showing me how to place my stamps into my album.

I don’t think I ever saw these stamps while Papa was alive. I know I would have wanted to spend hours flipping through the albums. I’m not sure why Papa stopped collecting stamps. As far as I can tell, based on what I see in the collection and based on what my Uncle Wayne told me, he collected stamps during the 1950s and 1960s. When my mother and Wayne were little, Papa worked in the post office, and I think he must have picked up the hobby at that time. Papa was something of a serial collector. He would spend a great deal of time on a collecting hobby and then move on to a new one. Wayne looked and looked for this stamp collection, and I think he had just about given up hope of finding it. When he finally found it, he called me and told me he’d bring it to me in person, as he and his girlfriend were going to stay in his girlfriend’s sister’s cottage on Cape Cod. We spent the day together. I was really moved that Wayne went to all that trouble to make sure I could have these stamps. I will treasure this collection. This is us at Cape Cod when we connected a couple of weeks back. (Don’t worry, we kept our masks on indoors, and I have had two negative COVID tests since—I wouldn’t risk his health, nor he mine).

Wayne looks so much like Papa. He told me all about how he used to go to stamp shows with Papa and collected a bit himself when he was young. He said that if not for those stamp shows, he might have started playing drums, which he’s done for 50 years. He said the stamp shows had live music, and he remembered being enthralled by the bands.

As soon as we arrived at the cottage, Wayne pulled out Papa’s stamps to show me. He had an old apple box full of albums. I don’t know that I can bear to toss out the box, even if I put the albums on a bookshelf at some point because Papa wrote “Automobile Quarterly” in his clear print on the top. At one time, he must have kept his issues of the magazine in that box. It was a publication devoted to collectible cars—another of Papa’s hobbies. Wayne will keep that particular collection. It isn’t that I don’t have anything in Papa’s handwriting. Once he sent me the longest letter I’ll probably ever receive, written on tablets, because I asked him to write down some of his stories.

I thought about Papa and my grandmother, who passed in 2016, this week as the 27th would have been their 70th wedding anniversary. I feel really blessed to have had them in my life and to have some of their things—a pair of Granna’s Gingher scissors and some spools of thread, a sewing machine foot, some thimbles, a packet of needles dating from the 1950s, an old package of stale Freedent gum, a tape measure, a business card… and Papa’s stamps.

My Grandmother


I think most people who read this blog do not follow my education blog, so you likely have not seen my post from this last Tuesday.

I will be flying to Denver early tomorrow morning. I will give a eulogy at her funeral. I wrote her obituary, which doesn’t begin to capture everything that is important and everything I will cherish about her.

I love her, and I am looking every day for that feeling that she is with me and watching over me. She said she would be. But all I feel is her absence. I will keep hoping. This poem by Emily Dickinson (Fr. 428) has been my lifeline:

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye—


A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—


And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—


The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—


Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin, Cambridge, Belknap, 2005.

Fall is for Leaving

autumn leaves new england photo
Photo by SGPhotography77

I have already decided I need to quit NaNoWriMo. Before anyone gives me a pep talk, I have two really good reasons:

  1. My heart isn’t in it. My grandmother, one of the most important people in my life, is gravely ill, and I think it’s just a matter of time. My head is not right for writing right now, at least not something like NaNoWriMo.
  2. I have a great idea, but it’s becoming extremely clear to me that I need to do more research on the topic before I feel confident enough to write about it. I have the materials I need to do the research, but not the time or the focus (see #1).

It bothers me to give up so soon, and I hate kicking myself for something that I need to do for my own good right now. I keep wondering what Granna would want me to do.

I went out this morning and had my hair cut. I picked up some coffee and washed and vacuumed my car. The leaves are gorgeous right now. A riot of gold, red, and orange. There just isn’t anything in the world like fall in New England, even in an old industrial factory town like Worcester. The beauty of the trees just pierces me right through the heart. I hate it that my grandmother is lying in a hospital bed, 2,000 miles away, when everything is so beautiful right now. When it’s my favorite time of year.

When I visited my grandparents in July 2014, I had an opportunity to talk with both of them about whatever they wanted. While talking with my grandparents about how they met and married, I realized that my own marriage story was similar. My grandparents were married 66 years on October 27. I made a video about our two marriage stories.

I have a great deal of interview audio. I am so lucky to have it. I also made this video about my grandmother’s work as a seamstress.

I don’t know when my grandmother is going to leave us. She nearly left us two weeks ago, but she rallied. The last few days, however, it seems as if she has had one more medical issue after another. She’s really scared. I’m really scared. I don’t really know how to be without her. I know that it’s part of life—getting used to losing people. I am really lucky I have had my grandmother for 45 years. I really am. I am also really lucky that I haven’t lost an extremely close relative like this before now. But selfishly, I wish there was a way that she could stay. I wish she didn’t have to leave me behind. I don’t know how you get ready to say goodbye. I’m not really sure it would have mattered when she left; I probably never would have been ready. I just love her very much. I am so grateful she is my grandmother because she is absolutely the best grandmother in the world. I don’t even want to imagine what my life would have been like without such a grandmother, and I don’t want to imagine how different it will be without her. But I know this: I am extraordinarily blessed to have had my beautiful grandmother in my life.

I have to give credit to my husband. I borrowed the idea in the title of my post from a poem I remember that he wrote some years ago.

Birthday Weekend

Birthday petit-fours from my husband
Birthday petit-fours from my husband

It was my birthday this weekend. I have moved into a new demographic!

I decided I wanted to go to Northampton and Amherst for my birthday. There was a Poetry Festival in Amherst, but unfortunately, most of the events I wanted to go to were on Thursday or Friday before I could get there. Bummer. On Saturday, the Emily Dickinson House was sponsoring a marathon reading of all 1789 of her poems, but I really didn’t want to just dip in and out of that, so I wound up deciding to spend Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Northampton and Amherst are college towns. Between the two of them, I count U Mass Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, Mouth Holyoke College, and Hampshire College. I may be forgetting some. At any rate, they are close together, and with all those colleges, you can imagine the college-town vibe is strong. Northampton is definitely fairly funky, at least the downtown area.

We found a wonderful used bookstore. I loved it because the books were mostly in pristine condition. So many used bookstores don’t have really nice books, and most of them certainly don’t have the kind of selection Raven Used Books has. Here is my haul from Saturday.


We went back today before leaving for home, and I scored two more books: Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations and Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13 Rue Thérèse. The Club Dumas looks like it might be perfect for the R. I. P. Challenge, and who knew that there was a historical fiction novel about Hildegard von Bingen (Illuminations)? Byatt’s novel doesn’t have great reviews on Amazon, but I’ll give it a go. I loved Possession so much.

For my birthday lunch, we went to a burger place called Local Burger. Back when I was in college, I could get an excellent hamburger for about a buck at the cafeteria on campus. It had a nice charbroiled flavor, and it was juicy without being pink (pink ground beef skeeves me out). I hadn’t had a burger as good as those old cheap cafeteria burgers since. Until this one. And the fries were amazing.

We drove into Amherst and stopped into Amherst Books where I found a remainder of Remembering Shakespeare by David Scott Kastan and Kathryn James and Living with Shakespeare edited by Susannah Carson with essays by so many people—F. Murray Abraham, Isabel Allende, Brian Cox, Ralph Fiennes, James Earl Jones, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others.

Last night for dinner, we had some excellent Italian food at Pasta e Basta. I was “that person” and took a picture of my pasta because it was so pretty.


I wish I could have brought my leftovers home. There was at least another meal left on that plate. I didn’t think it would travel well, though.

After dinner we picked up some cookies at Insomnia Cookies. Had such a thing existed when I was in college, I have no idea how big I’d be by now. We got four kinds of cookies, and I can definitely recommend the Double Chocolate Mint. I also tried Peanut Butter Chip, but the Chocolate Chunk and M&M cookies were all gone too fast.

This morning, we went to Jake’s for breakfast, and I had some fantastic eggs, potatoes, and toast. We walked around and did some more shopping. I found myself this glorious Brontë sisters mug with quotes from the sisters’ works.


Northampton and Amherst are nice places to visit, and they’re only a little over an hour away. They have a different feel from other places in Massachusetts—perhaps because they’re college towns, or perhaps because they’re in the western part of the state. We don’t really have indie bookstores in Worcester, either (that I know of)—just B&N, so it was nice to go book shopping in those places and score some deals on some great-looking new and used books. In addition, everything was pretty reasonably priced—another of the virtues of a college town, I suppose.

Steve and Dylan at dinner
Maggie and Me
Maggie and Me

Once I was home, Steve presented with two more books: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century by Jerome Charyn and The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight. He had already given me Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. My parents sent me a gift card for more goodies from Amazon, too. I really need to do some reading!

P. S. I have no idea why the last image is upside-down on some devices. I can’t figure out how to fix it without deleting and starting over, though, so I just left it.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi

[amazon_image id=”0545477115″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft” ]The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle[/amazon_image]I realize that [amazon_link id=”0545477115″ target=”_blank” ]The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle[/amazon_link] has been around for a while, and it’s been on my list, but I didn’t actually read it until my daughter chose it for one of her summer reading books. She said she had read and excerpt of it in school and thought it sounded good.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is the story of thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle, who has been away at school in England and is returning home to Providence, Rhode Island aboard the Seahawk. Through a confluence of events, she winds up being the ship’s only passenger, a fact which makes her very uncomfortable. Both the cook, Zachariah, an older sailor from Africa, and Captain Jaggery, the ship’s master, try to befriend Charlotte, but she doesn’t know who to trust. When the crew rises up against Captain Jaggery’s cruelty, Charlotte is even more confused about her place and winds up getting herself into a heap of trouble.

I have to admit it starts slow. I really wondered if Charlotte was going to become likeable and get some sense. She eventually does become likeable, but I think sense is a hopeless case. Once the book gets going, it’s pretty good. I think Avi was attempting to create a 19th century cadence through the first-person narration of Charlotte, but some of the sentences were awkwardly constructed, and I had to read them a couple of times to get them sorted out right. There is quite a lot of naval terminology, but the book has a helpful diagram of a ship and a glossary in the appendix. My daughter gave it two thumbs up. I’m glad she liked it. We read it together, and it was really nice to hear her say she didn’t want to stop at just two chapters once we reached the end of the book. This from a girl who says she doesn’t like reading. So that has to count for something.

If my daughter hadn’t chosen it for summer reading, I might not have gone past the slow start, but I did like it more once the action started, and towards the end, it was a regular page turner. Avi’s characterization brings all the players to life, and he has a true knack for setting, though I think he over-describes a bit. I don’t need to see “everything.” Then again, he is writing for children and may feel he needs to describe a bit more. I don’t know.

It’s a solid YA story, and I’m very glad my daughter liked it.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake: A NovelHow strange it is after such a long reading dry spell, I’ve been whipping through books again. I finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake in the matter of a couple of days. I think I may have started reading it Saturday.

The Namesake is the story of Gogol Ganguli, named for his father’s favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol. His father, saved when his copy of Gogol’s short stories is noticed in the rubble following a train wreck, must give his son a name before he will be released from the hospital. Since his wife’s grandmother has been given the honor of choosing his “good name,” the family settles on Gogol, thinking later they can change it.

Each chapter is a vignette in the lives of Gogol and his family, from his parents’ arranged marriage to Gogol’s rediscovery, at the age of 32, of a copy of Gogol’s short stories that his father gave him when he was a teenager who hated his name. Gogol, born in America, straddles two cultures all of his life, never seeming to feel completely comfortable in one or the other. In one poignant passage, his father finally tells Gogol the true story of how he got his name, and Gogol is moved:

And suddenly, the sound of his pet name, uttered by his father as he has been accustomed to hearing it all his life, means something completely new, bound up with a catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years. “Is that what you think of when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night?”

“Not at all,” his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. “You remind me of everything that followed.”

The one thread that runs through this novel is the importance of looking forward instead of looking back. One of the interesting things about this book is that it is not a grand adventure. It’s the story of an ordinary life. In part, it is a coming of age story. It’s engaging, nevertheless, and Gogol becomes a sympathetic character that I rooted for and hated to see disappointed. He became very real, and by the end of the book, I felt I knew him. I wondered what happened to him on 9/11. I wondered if he found happiness. If he had children. If he went to visit his mother in India.

The lush descriptions of food were one of my favorite parts of the novel. Whether it is home-cooked Indian food or dinner at a restaurant, meals are central to this novel—they bring the characters together. They are the agents of assimilation (Thanksgiving turkey), and they are the vestiges of a home left behind.

My own family has lived in America for hundreds of years. I don’t have any idea what the immigrant experience is like. Sure, I have moved to new places, but the culture in each place I have lived is more or less the same, and if I have to do without restaurants that have become favorites, it’s no small price to pay when I find new favorites and quickly assimilate to the new place. I can’t imagine what it must be like to move thousands of miles away to a completely different culture, where I am unsure of the language and customs. However, I feel like I caught a glimpse of what such an undertaking must be like after reading this book, and it made me admire immigrants for what they are willing to do in order to build a life for themselves. More Americans should read this book. I was moved by a passage near the end, as Gogol reflects on the fact that his mother is selling the house he grew up in so that she can go to India:

And then the house will be occupied by strangers, and there will be no trace that they were ever there, no house to enter, no name in the telephone directory. Nothing to signify the years his family has lived here, no evidence of the effort, the achievement it had been.

On a lark, I searched through census records to see who had lived in my current house. The names changed each decade. In 1910, the Anderson family, Swedish immigrants whose children had been born here in Massachusetts, lived in my house. Arthur Anderson was a carpenter. I wonder if any of his work survives. My husband often says this house was built like a ship. In 1920, the French Canadian Cartier family lived in my house. Frederick Cartier owned a shop, but the census doesn’t say what kind. His three children, all teenagers between 14 and 18 years old, worked—the two girls in a corset factory and the boy in a cotton mill. In 1930, Albert Dupont, a carpenter who had been born in Massachusetts to French Canadian parents, lived here with his family. In 1940, the O’Briens lived in my house. John O’Brien was a salesman. The names change every ten years, and but for a whim, they would have been completely forgotten. I was fascinated to discover a few scant facts about each family. Worcester is a city with a strong immigrant population, even up to the present. It’s one of the things that makes this city interesting. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes Massachusetts interesting. It makes a great deal of sense to me that Jhumpa Lahiri brought the Ganguli family from Calcutta to Boston. Something about this state has attracted people who have set off thousands of miles away from home to build a new life, from 1620 when the Pilgrims sailed The Mayflower and landed at Plymouth to the present day.

Rating: ★★★★★

Overdue Updates

Worcester Academy on Flickr

It has been some time since I updated this blog, and as I have explained before, a job search was taking up quite a bit of my time. Not only was I not blogging much, but frankly, I wasn’t reading much, either. I’m pleased to announce that particular search is over. I accepted an offer and signed a contract for the position of Technology Integration Specialist at Worcester Academy in Worcester, MA. We currently live in the Atlanta-area, so needless to say, this is a substantial move. I haven’t moved this far away from a current residence in over 20 years, and I haven’t even moved to a different state since 1996—and that was moving from North Carolina back to Georgia. We have no family in Massachusetts, nor do we have that many friends, but even though it’s a bit of a scary prospect, we are excited about the adventure, too.

Now that a decision has been made and I can refocus my free time, I am hoping that you’ll see more frequent updates here and that I will also have more time to read. I’ve missed that.

If you are familiar with the area around Worcester, please feel free to offer information or advice. I’m all ears. The only time I have been there was when I visited the school in March. I have only been to Massachusetts twice before. Once on a school trip with my students the first year I taught at Weber, and once on a trip to Salem with the family. Both times I thoroughly enjoyed myself. My daughter Maggie is a real history buff, so I think she will like the historical aspect of living in Massachusetts. A part of me has always been interested in the state, but I never dreamed I’d have an opportunity to live there.