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Summer Reading

It is not often that I’m asked to promote a book, especially by a writer who has recently had her first book published. Such as it was, though, that I received an invitation by email to do just that.

Jackpot Tsipi Keller
Spuyten Duyvil 2004
ISBN 0-9720662-1-7
224 pages

I was reluctant at first because I was five days away from starting my trip out to California, but I did manage to get a copy to read, and I have to say it’s an astonishingly impressive work.

From Publisher’s Weekly:

A Bahamian vacation turns into a nightmarish dreamworld in Tsipi Keller's smart, sly Jackpot. Maggie has long been cowed by her beautiful friend Robin, so when Robin leaves Paradise Island for a spur-of-the-moment sailing trip, Maggie has a chance to shine. Instead, she descends into wild gambling and even wilder sex, though she somehow retains her innocence. Keller expertly charts Maggie's transformation in this accomplished and oddly gripping novel.

Other reviews are equally favorable:

This marvelously engaging and pleasurable novel is like a cross between watching a sly Eric Rohmer film about the spiritual crisis of vacation and reading a Jean Rhys interior monologue of a woman in extremis. For all its horrific aspects, it has a steady undercurrent of humor: the comedy derives from showing the precise mechanisms of low self-esteem, rationalization and self-indulgence. A wickedly readable,psychologically astute and drolly knowing fiction. Phillip Lopate

Keller’s new novel, Jackpot, has the characteristics of something created by a linguistic survivor. In simple, precise yet enticing prose, it tells the story of a conflict between social convention and raw, dangerous appetite. Like a speaker of two languages, it exists on two levels: one appropriate and familiar, the other foreign and disturbing. Such a structure mirrors the immigrant experience. On the surface it is decorous, appropriate, and earnest; on another, muffled plane, all is anguish and confusion. Bruce Benderson

This book is not easy to put down once you begin to read it. You really begin to care about the book’s main character, Maggie, and at times you feel like a parent to a child who somehow seems to have to make all the wrong choices before making that one choice that finally breaks the spell of self-destruction. Keller’s prose is taut, concise, and at times mesmerizing in her account of Maggie’s “fall from grace.”

S. L. Cunningham

"Cadillac Ranch--the ultimate roadside attraction!"

Posted by Hello


"If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66."

Posted by Hello


Seeing the USA in My Chevrolet

"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans,
safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that
after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."
John Steinbeck

I could have flown out to attend my daughter's high school graduation, but instead I chose to make the 7120 mile round trip journey from Belfast, Maine to Arroyo Grande, California and back in my silver 2003 Chevy Cavalier. After spending almost an entire week on the west coast, I finally arrived back home the other day.

And what an adventure. With my cousin as my traveling companion and co-driver, we made the drive out to California in three days flat. Along the way, we managed to find a couple of stretches of Rt. 66 in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona to drive on. But the real highlight of the trip out was Cadillac Ranch. We were just outside of Amarillo, Texas when my cousin spotted the buried-nose-first-in-the-ground vintage Cadillacs. It's a short walk through a grass field to the 10 cars speckled in layers of painted graffiti. Though what I found particularly curious was that all the cars were facing west. "Rust henge with cows for a backdrop," I suggested to my cousin. She laughed and said I spend too much time pondering over things that just should be appreciated for what they are. After taking pictures and bemusing over the display, we headed back to the car and continued on with our journey.

We finally arrived in Arroyo Grande the next afternoon, a day earlier than planned. After I dropped my cousin off at a friend's house, I checked into the Great Western Casa Grande Inn. I called my ex-wife to let her know I made it in okay, and was taken aback when she invited me over for a cup of coffee. We hadn't seen each other since we divorced almost 16 years ago. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. Together, we had two children: my son, who lived with me while growing up; and my daughter, who has lived with her mother.

My ex-wife was very gracious during the entire event, especially when her parents came to attend the graduation. Not once was I made to feel excluded. Both of us were accepting of the fact that this was our daughter's time, and that we were not going to allow anything to interfere with that.

The day of graduation was made to order, an outdoor ceremony on the athletic field under a clear blue sky. Watching my daughter march up to the stage to receive her diploma caught me in a plethora of surprised emotions. The little girl I had helped welcome into the world was now crossing the threshold into adulthood. After the ceremony, my son, ex-wife and I caught up with her for picture taking, a moment that caused me to experience a brief wave of melancholy.

The next day my daughter and I drove over to Pismo Beach to have burgers and fries for lunch. After eating, she dropped me back off at the hotel. We said goodbye, knowing that it might be sometime before we see each other again. She’s off to college this fall, and hasn’t decided on anything firm for a major. “I want to spend the first year exploring possibilities,” she said.

Sunday morning, we began our drive back to Maine.

While cutting through Nevada, we encountered a bug infestation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. About ten miles before Winnemucca, we were blitzed by several clouds of yellow, green flying insects about the size of a rice kernel. We stopped at a gas station there, and spent a good fifteen minutes trying to wash the windshield. Little did we know that it was about to become even worse.

For the next 100 miles or so we had to stop every three of four miles to clean the windshield. Sometimes we drove into a cloud that would result in an immediate pullover. After thirty miles the front of my car and my front license plate were no longer distinguishable. The truckers especially were having a hard go of it. As we traveled along, we saw many of them stopped on the side of the road with the hoods of their trucks up, busy with cleaning their windshields. And every store we stopped at for washer fluid or window cleaner had sold out. Although washer fluid with the wipers proved to be totally ineffective, and created a blinding smear of bug goo that made driving nearly impossible.

Luckily when we got into Elko, Nevada, we found a car wash that had warm water. When I finished washing the car, I noticed I had about a three-inch wide and eighth-inch thick outline of the front of the car on the cement floor. My cousin and I just stood there amazed that what we were looking at were the bugs that had been washed off from the front of the car. She looked at me. “Can anyone say, ‘X-files?’” she asked.

Nebraska proved to be a surprise. Instead of flat, barren land with nothing to look at, we instead found a state lush with green grass and rolling hills that made for an interesting contrast with the small farms, almost all of which were nestled in a grove of cottonwoods and oaks. As the sun set behind us, it became a huge orange ball that slowly sank below the horizon, and as it did so, it created a pastel sky of light blue, purple, and fiery red. Like Arizona, the Nebraska sky becomes alive at night. With a display of stars from horizon to horizon, my cousin and I were treated to several falling stars. The next night at a rest stop in Pennsylvania, we spent a considerable amount of time watching fireflies flit about the grass and trees. Compared to the last couple of nights where it was considerably frigid in Utah and Nebraska, we finally experienced what felt more like summer.

I was nineteen years old when I first drove across the country from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Santa Maria, California. Compared to now I don’t think I had any real sense, nor was appreciative of how vast and diverse this country we live in and call home actually is. Instead of just simply driving or being a passenger, my cousin and I took it all in and became a part of the landscape that enveloped us as we journeyed across America. After seeing the Appalachians, the Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the deserts of Arizona and California, the majesty of the Sierra Nevadas, and the great rivers of the Colorado, Missouri and Mississippi, and the large cities of Boston, New York City, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, Los Angeles and many others that serve as our hubs of government, commerce and culture, it is truly amazing to think of the synergy involved that makes this country work. Whether lobstering off the coast of Maine, or planting corn in Nebraska, or raising cattle in Wyoming, or just going to work everyday with the thousands of jobs we commit to in the thousands of different places we live, each and everyone of us in spite of our heritage or race, political or cultural differences, contribute to making this country such an obliging and magnificent place that we call our home.

S.L. Cunningham
Published in The Republican Journal, 14 July 2005: B10.



"How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - like rags and shreds of your very life."
Katherine Mansfield

This morning I woke up after a good night of just plain sleeping. It's amazing how three days of solid driving from Maine to California can make a bed feel. My cousin and I made it in yesterday afternoon, and after I dropped her off at a friend's house, I continued on to Arroyo Grande where I will be attending my daughter's graduation from high school this Thursday.

It's a perfect sunny day, warm, but not too hot because of the cool ocean breeze. After I had breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and coffee at Corcoran's, I spent the rest of the morning taking a walk on Grover Beach. After awhile I veered off and started following a foot path leading up to the dunes. The vista afforded can only be described as incredible. To the south you can follow the outline of the beach as it wraps its way toward Guadalupe. Running east-west are the
Seven Peaks of the Coastal Mountain Ranges that drop more than 1500 feet toward the coast as you start traveling north toward Avila Beach. When you take it all in, it's hard not to feel overwhelmed with a sense of connectedness--of place--or what the Spanish would refer to as querencia.

Even the town of Arroyo Grande fits within its surroundings--the quaint village and surrounding homes with well landscaped parkways, medians and yards--and features a showcase of civic pride. As much as I hate to admit it, I find that I am really beginning to like this place. Looking back on the Pacific I am struck by how good it feels to imagine what it would be like to live here. In certain ways I'm almost convinced that the quality of my life would improve significantly if I were to move here. Oh, sure, as a drawback, one could argue that it is far too expensive to live here, that the prices are too high, and housing is simply unaffordable. But so is it where I live in Belfast, Maine, which also has incredible beauty punctuated by very long, cold and snowy winters. In comparison Belfast almost seems lethargic to the hustle and bustle of Arroyo Grande.

Saturday morning, though, it will be time to head back to Maine. It's a long drive, but what an experience. You don't really get a sense, nor appreciate how vast this country is until you've driven across it. I can almost hear the line from the Mamma's and The Papa's Creque Alley, "And California Dreaming is becoming such a reality." And so once again I will say, "adios" to this place--my querencia--of hills and mountains of green and golden brown that roll into the ocean, the scrub oaks and sage, the oleanders that bathe the medians of the city streets in reds, purples and white, the green succulents that cover the embankments, and the long, long walks on the beach as the sun begins to sink below the rim of the Pacific. Adios, that is until next time when hopefully I just might return for good.

S. L. Cunningham


Developing A Sound Framework for the Teaching of Composition and Literature

“Thought is metaphoric, and proceeds by comparison, and the
metaphors of language derive therefrom” Richards, Philosophy of Rhetoric (Galaxy Books)1936, p. 94).

In developing a sound framework for the teaching of composition and literature, I should begin by being perceptive to my students’ needs and interests, and to their psychological development in order to facilitate their growth as learners. I should recognize that students should be allowed choices not only with what they learn, but also with how they learn by encouraging students to pursue and make choices “in words, phrases, syntactic structures, ordering of material, modes of discourse, and the like, (Burke, 1966). Thus, my “map” and the strategies I would use to help my students become involved with their reading and writing would be based on the following decision continuums:

· that the teaching of composition and literature is
a facilitative process
· that learning how to read and write is, primarily,
a process that is autodidactic, and as such, requires
active participation
· that discovery and learning is seen as a collaborative
effort between the teacher and students
· that reading and writing is taught on the basis of
helping students understand themselves in a larger context
· that the reading of literature is taught as a process of asking
questions, of understanding the relationship between thought
and word. It is a dialectical process by which we pursue a
method of inquiry (heuristics) for the purpose of
understanding the inter-connectedness of a work, of how a work
is put together and ultimately, helping the students articulate what
a work means to them (Vygotsky, Thought and Language - Rev'd Edition1962, p. 153).
· that lecture or discussion of composition and literature is understood
as the basis for discourse and as a means of guiding students toward
self-discovery and competence.

It is by asking questions in search for answers that we learn how to generate our ideas to higher principles. As a teacher of Composition and Literature, I must continually ask myself what I want to accomplish by the writing I assign to my students, and by the literature I present to them. Writing and reading are the means by which we explore how language is used. Language,
essentially is our only symbol system by which we communicate to others our ideas and emotions. By studying how other writers use words and syntactical structures, students can learn how to make applications that eventually help strengthen their own thinking and writing capabilities.

S. L. Cunningham