Monday, December 9, 2013

35: City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments Book One) - Cassandra Clare

"Is there anything I could get for you?" he asked. "Something to drink? Some tea?" 
"I don't want tea," said Clary, with muffled force. "I want to find my mother. An then I want to find out who took her in the first place, and I want to kill them." 
"Unfortunately," said Hodge, "we're all out of bitter revenge at the moment, so it's either tea or nothing."

At the start of the year I asked my students to write about what their favorite book was and why. The books that had the most votes were put on my To Read List so that I can be hip with the kids and make the connections that might make what I'm teaching them more meaningful. Based on the cover, I would never by this book. Too shiny, too shitty tribal tattooey, too shirtless. I have spent too many years poking fun at my mom's shirtless romance book covers to carry this around, except that I did. FOR THE CHILDREN!

Like all young adult books, it's an incredibly quick read. It weighs in at almost 500 pages, but I read it in a few days which were not particularly reading heavy. The book is incredibly formulaic. One girl. Two guys. Secret world that the girl (and one of the boys) is a part of, but never knew it until her true identity is revealed. Missing parent. Quest to reunite. Mentor. Danger. Romance. Torment. Etc. The secret underworld is predictable when considering what has been popular lately. There are vampires, werewolves, demons, warlocks, pixies, fae, etc. 

The twist is in the Shadow Hunters who are part human, part angel, and hunt down demons from different dimensions. Their power comes from training, education, and the magic wands (called a stele) runes that they temporarily tattoo on their body to give them different powers and protection.

It holds up well if you like your characters sarcastic, sexy, and self-absorbed (the Shadowhunters), your love life triangular, and your plot with some rather convenient timing. It made me laugh at time (see above quote), surprised me with its inclusion on topics other young adult novels sometimes leave out (a gay character, teenage drinking, lots of hints about all the sex that is happening in the background), and included some genuine plot twists that I didn't seem coming.

On the other hand, this novel has some SERIOUS problems with how it portrays character development and teenagers. Two female characters spend the entirety of the novel hating each other. A male character later correctly identifies their conflict as being based on teen girl jealousy, which is fine, but it's wrapped up when one girl tells another, "And I guess I resented you at first, but I realize now that was stupid. Just because I've never had a friend who was a girl doesn't mean I couldn't learn how to have one." The other girl replies, "Me too actually." Ummmm, no. Nope. No. No way. Not happening. I work with teenage girls for a living - that is not how they talk and that is not how they conflict solve. That conversation is how teenage girls problem solve in health class when they are forced to do conflict resolution roleplays by adults - and they are rolling their eyes the whole way through I promise.

I am sure the girls will be best best besties in the next two books (did I mention that it's a trilogy?) which I will find annoying throughout. Will I read the next two books? Sure. They're easy reads and I'm still curious about how the characters will turn out. I also have a crush on Clary's best friend who makes Star Wars references and plays D and D, so I really want to see what happens to HIM - the rest of the gang is kind of meh.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

34: This Is How You Lose Her - Junot Diaz

Editor's Note: In spite of having not read a book for 11 weeks, I am still the 3rd best read if you compare me to the Fifty Books Boys (speaking of which - why are they all boys?) I do think that with my upcoming Winter Break, my re-dedication to being good to myself before I'm good to my students, and my decision to no longer work 10 hour days, I will be able to get into second place before the year is over. Watch out!

"About a month later, she started making the sort of changes that would have alarmed a paranoid nigger. Cuts her hair, buys better makeup, rocks new clothes, goes out dancing on Friday nights with friends. When I ask her if we can chill, I'm no longer sure it's a done deal. A lot of time she Bartlebys me, says, No, I'd rather not. I ask her what the hell she thinks this is and she says, That's what I'm trying to figure out. I know what she was doing. Making me aware of my precarious position in her life. Like I was not aware."                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you're a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together. You claim that you were sick, you claim that you were weak - It was the book! It was the pressure! - and every hour like clockwork you say that you're so so sorry. You try it all, but one day she will simply sit up in bed and say, 'No more,' and 'Ya,' and you will have to move from the Harlem apartment that you two have shared."

I love Junot Diaz like Oscar Wao loves cake and comic books. Love him. LOVE HIM. I saw him at a really fun event in town (take that everyone who is like "blah blab blah Las Vegas has no culture") and that allowed everything I felt for him as an author to turn into a Mega  Crush - to the point that I COULD NOT GET MY BOOK SIGNED BECAUSE I FELT TOO STUPID. Yup. My heart broke when I received a text message from a grad student colleague.
Him: You like Junot Diaz, right? 
Me: I love him. LOOOOOOVEEEE him. 
Him: I don't think you're going to love him after you read his new book. A story from it was published in the New Yorker. It's called "The Cheater's Guide to Love."

I didn't read the story right then - I didn't want to get it out of context. Surely there was a reason for this? I waited for the book to come out. Then I waited desperately for the paperback to come out because hardcovers are not in my budget, even for Mr. Diaz. 

This book is a collection of interconnected short stories about our standby Diaz character: Yunior. We are back with Yunior, and Rafa, and their crazy mom, and their shitty dad, except this time Yunior is an adult - as the reader who is growing up with him, it's nice that we are in the same place in our lives: professionally established, looking for love, ready to get serious, right in that age bracket where people are getting pregnant both on purpose and on accident. Yunior's voice is perfection, and much like Diaz's own, it is a mix of ghetto and incredibly well educated. The fact that our narrator uses 'nigger' just a breath away from a Melville allusion is completely and utterly satisfying for me. Although we never see Yunior in his campus life at Rutgers or his professional life as a university professor in Boston, these little moments reveal this complex character who obviously code switches between his two different worlds, but has developed his own perfect language in his head. As someone who drops enough F-bombs in real life that people are often incredulous that I am a teacher of children, I appreciate the depiction. I really do want to talk to Yunior about his usage of the n-word though, and after some googling to satisfy my own curiosity about Diaz's reasoning (see below), I hope that this is a conversation that Yunior has some day in some book. A man who is capable of blaming the patriarchy for his infidelity can certainly talk about his African-diaspora-Dominican-claim to the n-word, and what he is trying to establish by using it.

The stories are tied together by the common motif of infidelity, but it would be selling them short to say this is a book about cheating. This is a book about immigration, loneliness, learning patterns of behavior from your family, loving someone and completely fucking it up, and knowing you're fucking it up, and not being able to stop yourself. It's a study in the psychology of what makes a really smart, really talented, really lucky person act like a damn fool.

It's hard to describe how Yunior can be such a sympathetic character while also being such a ______ (offensive word taken out because I'm not ready to have a conversation about whether it's okay to use a super offensive Spanish word if I am half-Mexican even though I certainly did not grow up in a neighborhood or family that used that word, but I spent four years teaching kids who did?). 

Perhaps it's as simple as: the writing is beautiful and it's from him. Maybe it's because, outside of the cheating, he captures the complexity of any relationship and the mistakes that everyone makes. We take each other for granted. We don't go the extra step. We handle things without care. The second excerpt above is absolutely my favorite section of the book: the desperate ways that people try to put back together a relationship that is already too broken. It is utterly childish to think that a Neruda poem or a salsa class can save such massive betrayal - but people try those things all the time. We see it in movies and songs and TV shows and music video narratives. We want to believe that everything can be FIXED, that hurts are never so devastating that they cannot be undone with something as simple as a sonnet. 

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way than this:
where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep. 

"Let’s talk then about the kinds of words that are okay to use and the kinds that aren’t. You use the word “nigger” a lot in this book [Oscar Wao]. Have you gotten any pushback from people about being a Latino writer and using that word?
It's one of those things, I mean -- there's a ton of child rape in this book too. Does that mean I'm a child rapist, I endorse child rape? I mean, the word nigger exists in the world. And some people aren’t okay with a Latino writer using it, and you know what? That's really cool! That's the difference that we're talking about, is it real life or is it art? When it comes right down to it, so child rape should only be represented by child rapists? Or if you represent child rape in a book, does this speak to your relationship with child rape? Or is there something far more complicated going on, with the concept of representations, or the concept of deploying "taboo" language and who deploys it? I don't ever remember Oscar calling anybody nigger, or Lola using that word – it's coming from Yunior specifically.
It's easy to assume that because there's one person in a culture or group using that word, that everyone's using it. But I find that part of what the book is about is about who uses what language and how they're using it. There is something about the way Yunior uses language that is worth really interrogating. I totally understand people's political decisions about language, vis-a-vis their decisions about their practice and their life, but I just feel like when issues of representation are up in the air, you have to use a much wider palette. We're trying to talk about the world. I guess this isn't an essay about for or against the "n word", it's sort of a larger argument about the world, so that everything in the world, positive and negative, should find its way into a book. There's something surprisingly reductive about how people are always trying to scratch books out of existence. That means we've got to get of almost everything by Mark Twain!
I mean, after all, Malcolm X is of Caribbean descent. He's not purely African American descent, if I remember correctly, part of his family is either from St Lucia or St Croix. [Editor's note: Malcolm X's mother was born in Grenada, in the southeastern Caribbean sea]. So he shouldn't use it either, right?!
What I find interesting is that I'm neither for nor against who should use certain words or not. But there's a tremendous amount at stake in trying to control how language is used."

Saturday, September 14, 2013

33: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra

"Why do they even care? What could they possibly want with a child?" "No one is off limits because there are no limits. The why and the what aren't for us to consider. Those are questions for philosophers and imams and not for people like us, whoever we are."

If you haven't heard of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it's only a matter of time as the book just came out in May. It's being hailed by everyone as brilliant and wonderful and Foer-esque; I am completely in agreement with everything good said about this book. My only complaint is that I read it while camping and without any internet access, which made it a little difficult because if I don't know something, I want to know it. A book about Chechnya when you have never even heard of Chechnya is not a book to be tackled without the google machine.

The book has interconnected stories that span space and time which is always a quick way to my heart. It focuses on an eight-year old, Havaa, who manages to escape the Russian raid that takes her father to a torture camp. The neighbor, Akhmed, takes it upon himself to keep her safe. They journey to a hospital where Akhmed offers his medical skills (he is the worst doctor in Chechnya, but a brilliant portrait artist) in exchange for the Head Surgeon (and only doctor) Sonja to keep her safe. 

The book is a long one, and I also didn't have a pen with me to keep track of people's relationships to one another which I could have used. It's been compared to Everything Is Illuminated and the comparison is apt - we get people's back stories, it's a war torn country, incredibly terrible things happen to very good people, and everyone is just trying to get by. The writing is beautiful, the story is beautiful, and I cried several times while reading it. 

One of my Facebook book groups recently posed the question: how do you feel when an author is telling a story about a group of people that they're not a part of? (It was in reference to Lisa See who has one Chinese great-grandparent and writes novels mostly centering around China). This book is an example of me being so utterly impressed that an author is able to capture something so outside of his own personal experiences. Much of the book is written from the perspective of women - from the child, to the doctor who defies gender roles, to a woman who is forced into sexual slavery. He is not Chechan or Russian, but this area of the world is obviously his passion. Not knowing anything about Chechnya, I can't speak to his ability to capture that. He does a wonderful job capturing the female experience, so I can only hope that he does the same for this small part of the world that has not received a lot of literary treatment. 

32: Eden Close - Anita Shreve

"Jim is dead," said his father. "Eden's been shot, but she's still alive....It looks like...a man broke in while she and Jim were out...a man broke in...He was...assaulting Eden, and the man had a gun - we heard the shots...Eden somehow got in the way..."

Eden: Your father was a brave but foolish man. 

Anita Shreve is one of my guilty pleasures that I indulge in frequently because Las Vegas women love to read her and donate her to Goodwill, so I pick these up sometimes.

This one is a mysteryish returning-to-homeish romanceish type of a book. It opens on a moment back in time when our main character, Andrew, is lying awake in bed as a teenager and hears a scream, a shot, and a wail from the neighbor's house. His good friend from childhood, Eden, has been sexually assaulted, her dad, Jim, attempted to stop the assault and was shot. Eden gets caught in the scuffle and is also shot in the face, blinding her for life. Andrew hasn't seen her since she was taken out of her house in the ambulance. As an adult returning home to take care of his mother's affairs after her death he's curious about Eden, who still lives next door with her mom.

There's not much more to say without giving everything away. Is it worth reading? Meh. If you're into fluffy reading that's really heavy and depressing, sure!

31: To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

"Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

"Scout," said Atticus, "nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don't mean anything - like snot-nose. It's hard to explain - ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody's favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It's slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody." 
"You aren't really a nigger-lover, then, are you?"
"I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody."

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand."

"He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad."

I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird since I was in middle school, and I was either an unevolved middle schooler or middle schoolers as a whole are just too unevolved to appreciate the book. I didn't have any particularly fond memories of the book and thus it was the last that I read on my list of books for my upcoming classes. 

I don't know what else to say besides: every moment of this book was pure magic. Scout made me laugh, the town made me cry, and Atticus Finch made me a better person. This is the kind of book that makes you a better person after you read it.

It has definitely become one of my favorite books of all time which doesn't happen very often these days. I am very much looking forward to teaching it. I'm actually looking forward to reading it again, but I know how teaching a book over and over can ruin the magic a little bit, so I am refraining as I have four freshmen classes to teach it to this year.

If you haven't read it, or haven't read it in a while, you absolutely must. It is that good. I promise. 

30: Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare


"One of the oldest adages about Romeo and Juliet, one which every director and every actor in the part of either lover has to tackle, is that once actors are old enough to understand the play's rhetoric they are usually too old to play the lovers' parts."

"Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight, / For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night"

It has been so long since I last posted that I have forgotten how to even put my text in line with the foto of the book cover. I have read a few books, but between teaching summer school, getting ready for the school year, and trying to enjoy the last bits of summer, I have just not felt like writing. However, last night I met Billy from fiftybooks and remembered that I had this whole plan to read and blog and y'know, it's time to get back to that. 

Romeo and Juliet is another read for the adventure of teaching freshmen. Although I've seen many stage and movie productions and studied it before, I don't think that I've ever done the whole text in its entirety. I'm still in love with the Ardens, so that was my version of choice. The introduction tells you everything you never know you needed to know about the play, from all the source material to all the variations to information about Shakespeare's boy actors ("In 'How old were Shakespeare's boy actors?', David Kathman remarks that '..all between twelve and twenty-two years old, with the normal range being roughfly thirteen to twenty-one'. Kathman notes that Richard Sharpe was between seventeen and twenty-one when he played the Duchess of Malfi and that 'The very youngest boys seem to have played only minor parts, but boys across the entire rest of the age range can be found playing demanding lead female roles" (54). <- I have always been under the apparently mistaken impression that Shakespeare's boy actors were pre-pubescent and very young). 

I don't think that there's anything to say about the plot, but what struck me most is how actually romantic it is and how gorgeous the writing is. Unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet is SUCH a worn out cliche that all of the best parts get lost. I would have loved to be able to see a really great production of it without having any ideas in my head about it - then I would probably feel all moony eyed and sighed and wonderful. As it is, it was a pleasant surprise to find all those bits. I made the unfortunate mistake of taking a few days off very near the end lost all the momentum of the play which made it a very slow and unexciting ending which tells me that I am going to have to push my students to get through it before they lose the momentum too.

Since I am now teaching at an arts school where the kids are much more familiar with plays and Shakespeare than my previous school, I'm very curious to see how it goes. I feel like I'm learning to teach all over again.

Monday, August 12, 2013

29: The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."
It would be incredibly awkward if J. D. Salinger were my terrific friend because I really would not want to call him up after finishing it. In fact, I am already a book and a half ahead of this book, but have been dragging my feet on writing a review because I didn't feel that I could justify my mixed feelings that land on the side of disliking this book. I still don't think so, but I really want to talk about my next book which handles growing up, recognizing evil in the world, etc so much better (To Kill a Mockingbird ftw).

"I don't know exactly what I mean by that, but I mean it."
"You'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior."
Oh Holden. The way he says things passionately (with much cursing and repetitive turns of phrases that feel very much like I'm-trying-to-develop-my-catch-phrases) without knowing what he means but feeling self-righteously angry about what he means is...boring to me. When his former teacher reveals that Holden is going through a universal experience about being confused, frightened, and sickened, my thought is...get some real problems. Well, he has real problems (Allie's death), but he pretends that that is not what is bothering him at all - and maybe it's not, I really can't speak for him. However, he is too much of a bored rich kid whose 'problems' (everyone is phony, everything is boring, everything and everyone is stupid, high school sucks) are too dumb to get my sympathy. [Full disclosure: I have a real problem with people with money (especially that was not earned by them). It is not fair, but everyone has their prejudices, and this is mine. I am not particularly worried that my prejudice is affecting my reading of books - I think I (and the book) will survive this injustice.]

"People never notice anything."
"People never believe you."
"People are always ruining things for you."
"People never give your message to anybody."
"People never think anything is anything really."
"Sex is something I really don't understand too is something I just don't understand. I swear to God I don't."
Sometimes I actually liked Holden. I am a high school teacher, and I love my job, and you cannot love teaching high school unless you love teenagers. Teenagers are hyperbolic and absolutists (see above lines about people are always and people are never - very typical) and very confused by the world while pretending they're not (see above line about sex in the midst of quite a lot of apparently fake confidence about being sexy and making it with the ladies). I get that - I was there, and I see my students there, and when Holden is very teenager (in the moments where he cries, admits he doesn't understand something, has honest emotions) I sympathize. However, these moments are so few and far between (the betweens just being him acting like an asshole and a richie) that it doesn't sustain my sympathy for him throughout the text. 

"I started giving the three witches at the next table the eye again...they started giggling like morons...I'm not kidding, they were three real morons...God, could that dopey girl dance...she came out with this very dumb remark...she really was a moron...I let it drop. It was over her head anyway...they were too could hardly tell which was the stupidest of the three of you think you could get an intelligent answer out of those three dopes?"

Having just taken a gender studies class, I couldn't help but rereading this scene (where Holden encounters the three tourists in his hotel's bar) and looking for all the misogyny. Holden is really afraid of women or has an inferiority complex or just hates them. This scene plus kissing a crying girl who gives no appearance of consent plus his worry over his roommate making it with a girl while he is also talks about making it with girls plus his hiring of a prostitute....ugh. I hope some day someone has a serious conversation with him about how damaging his thought process is. 

This is my second reading of The Catcher in the Rye. My first was near the end of high school/beginning of college (it left that much of an impression on me), and I really felt like I was too old for it. I definitely had more of an appreciation for it, but it just doesn't hit anywhere near the top of my Great Novels List. I read many reviews around the web about why people loved this book and noticed that the people who love it love it unreasonably. Ask why it's so great, they will roll their eyes at you and tell you to go back to reading Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer, because clearly you cannot understand any great literature if you cannot understand this book. 

Catcher in the Rye is one of my juniors' summer reading books and while I am curious to see what the contemporary teen thinks of it when I grade their homework, I'm totally okay with the fact that we probably won't spend a heck of a lot of time talking about it. 

I do think that I will try to buy myself this T-shirt because I think it's funny. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

28: Maus I and II - Art Spigelman

I have been carrying these graphic novels (Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began) around for the past few years waiting for the right time to read them. I thought that after Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies (where I think a common essential question is: How could people do this to each other?) they might be a good place to find some materials that helps answer that essential question in a different way. I am kind of a genocide weirdo. Sitting in an undergraduate class talking about the Rwandan genocide, a classmate said, "I can't believe it! I remember learning about the Holocaust in school and thinking, that was a bad idea, good thing we don't do that anymore, but we do? We still do it?" and I was doing my very superior eye roll and decided I never wanted to be the girl people were rolling their eyes at superiorily in this field. I went on a genocide-story-reading kick, went to a conference on teaching the Holocaust, saw Gerda Weissman Klein speak (while clutching my best friend's hand and sobbing together. If you read ONE Holocaust book, read All But My Life. It has the happiest ending a Holocuast book can have), and then proceeded to burn out on genocide and need a break from everyone dying. 

These graphic novels are the end of that break. First, the art is great. I really dig the black-and-white style, it reminds me of Persepolis in the best way (although it came first). The animal species for people totally makes sense, especially with all the "Jews are vermin" propaganda that was everywhere. Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, French are frogs, Germans are cats, and Americans are dogs. (For the record, this is something that some people find VERY offensive. I read some of the low-star reviews on Amazon because I couldn't imagine how someone could NOT like these books, and apparently they find the Polish pigs and American dogs to be terrible ways to portray all the good Americans and Polish people.) The story is a Holocaust story, but the author's father, Vladeck, is such an interesting and unique person, both as an older man in the 'current' part of the frame story and as a young man in the flashback part of the story. The way he manipulates situations in order to come out of the Holocaust alive is truly impressive and creative.

The structure of the story - a frame story where AS is IN the story surrounding the flashbacks while he visits with his father to GET the story - works well for many reasons. It's fun because it gets meta (the mouse-author has a conversation with his French-converted-Jewish wife about what kind of animal she should be, or at one point the cartoon author runs away to take notes on the conversation that we just saw). It also works because AS asks his father many of the questions that people ask about the Holocaust: why didn't anyone fight back? why were some Jews complicit and working with the Nazis? what happened to the people who weren't? why didn't you do x, y, z? and his father addresses all of his concerns. At the how-to-teach-the-Holocaust conference I attended, we spent a lot of time discussing how to talk to students who are unsympathetic and feel like they would have 'done something different.' Ultimately, the Holocaust was about people being forced to make IMPOSSIBLE choices. 

In this book, parents are trying to decide whether they should send their child away with X family to hide. They are too afraid to be away from their child, so they do not. Later they are given the chance to send their child away with Y family to hide. They are too afraid to stay with their child, so they do. X family survived, Y family (and the child) did not. Two impossible choices with absolutely NO WAY to know which was going to be the right choice. Over and over in this book we see people die and people survive and there is so little that separates the survivers and the dead besides just dumb luck.

This is an absolute recommended book - it did not win the Pulitzer for nothing after all - but if a teacher were ever going to teach anything about any genocide, I think there are many panels from here that could be pulled to teach that will help grab more students' attention.

Monday, July 29, 2013

27: Animal Farm - George Orwell

"Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth." 


I am a little burned out on the Classic Books Every High Schooler Should Read, as I am reading two years worth of a high school curriculum in one summer. Animal Farm is the other summer reading book selection for my future honors freshman, coupled with Lord of the Flies. I remember reading AF in 7th grade reading and really NOT getting it at all, and in retrospect I think it was an inappropriate choice for my teacher to have made. Reading it as an adult, I still felt like I didn't have enough of a solid background to 'get it' and have been brushing up on related wikis of the Russian Revolution, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, as well as the North Korean Famine, Chinese Re-education Farms, and the Rwandan Genocide. With all that said, I feel like it's a pretty hefty novel to give students who have just finished up 8th grade to read on their own over the summer.

As an adult who has now lived through a handful of governments toppling under people's desire for revolution, I have a much greater appreciation for the novel. It was powerful, moving, angering, and ridiculous. Napoleon's coming to power under a revolution and then turning the farm into a police state was scary (particularly after watching the Ai Weiwei documentary two nights ago). Squealer's propaganda machine was so eye-rollingly bad but I have no doubt to its effectivenss. The animals' acceptance of information and philosophy was maddening, but I've also listened to a high school senior give a very serious presentation about the Illuminati (in case you're wondering, they control everything from Presidential elections to Superbowl winners) and then seen an entire class of seniors regard that student as the upmost expert on the field of Illuminati conspiracies and BELIEVE HIM. I also know a college educated person who works in the math field post on Facebook links to articles that show that global warming is just liberal propaganda, so....yup. Squealer, eye-rollingly bad, yet effective. The way history is re-written is evident in the way that North Korea exists in the world. My only critique is that GO gets a little NH and at the end is like, "HEY DID YOU GET MY ALLEGORY? DID YOU GET IT? IF YOU DIDN"T GET IT I AM GOING TO EXPLAIN IT TO YOU! DO YOU GET IT NOW? YEAH YOU DO BECAUSE I TOLD YOU." That part I could have lived without, but what do I know? I am not an author and have no alternative ending suggestions for GO.

So, actually, as an adult who has now lived through a bunch of experiences, I have a much greater appreciation for the novel. I am very interested to see what my students reactions are to it, but I wish I could guide them through it because I feel like it's the perfect text to explore what function you think a government should have in society. Also, the kindergarten teacher in me totally wants to have my students make a flag for our country and our school, and the government teacher in me totally wants to have my students make their X# COMMANDMENTS, and the soft science teacher in me totally wants to have my students look into social science experiments on how advertising works, and the English teacher in me wants to bring it all together brilliantly. Especially when paired with Lord of the Flies! My previous school required social contracts, which I was a fan of; I am thinking of bringing the practice over to my new school, so my freshman will have at least one opportunity to create a democratic contract among themselves as to how they want the society of my classroom to function - if nothing else it could be a great starting point for our discussions of summer reading.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

26: Lord of the Flies - William Golding

He wanted to explain how people were never quite what you thought they were.

I first read Lord of the Flies in middle school, but have very little memory of the experience - no idea whether I loved it or hated it or cried or anything. I did remember that horrible things happened on the island, so I re-read it with a sense of doom. I had vague images of beatings and betrayal, but I couldn't remember who had done what to whom, so I was very anxious throughout and after each awful event I hoped that there wouldn't be any more. I also honestly could not remember how it ended, so as we follow the end of the novel I felt like a first time reader wondering, "Would an author really let it have such a terrible ending?" Great book overall, groundbreaking for its time, perfect reminder that the children-being-horrible genre is not new. Stephen King writes this edition's introduction, and he says "My rule of thumb as a writer and as a reader is Feel it first, think about it later. Analyze all you want, but first dig the experience." This book is a perfect example of something that can be read as pop lit, fun and page turning, or more academically analytical. 

This is one of the summer reading assignments for my honors freshman next year, so it's a little weird to think of it as a teacher because I don't actually know how much time I am supposed to spend on their summer reading and what I'm supposed to be covering with them. If I were handling it during the school year, I would probably go crazy with this book in a few different areas. 

First, I couldn't stop thinking about all the horrible things that supposedly normal people do to each other which makes the book so utterly believable. Honestly, I would expect more people to die than do in Lord of the Flies. With my students, I would want to talk about the Stanford prison experiment, about Abu Ghraib, about Child Soldiers, about the 7 kids (ages 12-15) who beat a 13-year-old girl unconscious on a school bus. There are endless stories about teenagers being horrible to each other and people being horrible to each other that this could last forever.

Second, I couldn't stop thinking about all the survivalist stories that I read as a young adult that I loved: Hatchet, Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, Life of Pi, Hunger Games (ok, I read that as an adult). If I were teaching this, I think I would require students to find a more contemporary novel to read as a companion to it. 

Third, I couldn't stop thinking about survivalist skills in general. I have a friend who is learning about edible plants of the Pacific Northwest, and I have a friend who is a pretty hardcore survivalist (he can make fire and suture with agave and all kinds of cool stuff), and I know...almost nothing. And my kids also know almost nothing, so I think I would have them research and learn a survivalist skill and then give a short how-to speech that demonstrates their knowledge. My hardcore survivalist friend was talking to another survivalist guy who said, "Society is where it's hard to survive because you cannot survive without money. Most of the rest of the planet has everything you need to survive." Of course that is assuming that the rest of your planet isn't an island with horrible teenage boys who will kill you. (A really fun assignment would be to imagine what the island would be like if there had been girls trapped there with them. Would having both genders have inspired everyone to keep up society longer or would it have descended even faster into brutality with the possibility of rape? Imagine what the island would be like if there had been only girls trapped on the island. I once subbed in an all-girls middle school math class (it was an experiment to segregate girls and boys in math and science) and I was very surprised to see how un-girly they were without any guys around. Burping, farting, and cheeto-dust wiped all over everywhere was totally ok in that room. 

Ralph was running with the swiftness of fear through the undergrowth.

Now having the experience of running away from a bear, I was totally like, "Ralph, I know EXACTLY how you feel." Fear makes you a swift and silent runner, that is for sure. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

25: The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway

"First you borrow. Then you beg."
"Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so."
I am not good for many more turns. Yes you are, he told himself. You're good for ever."
"But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
"Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is."

2013 has really been an epic reminder of how much I haven't read and how much I don't know. So, once again, let me display my ignorance for all the internet to see: I HAVE NEVER READ AN ERNEST HEMINGWAY NOVEL. Yes, I know, I know, that's terrible. I own quite a few of them, but they always seem to be shuffled to the bottom of the To Read Pile by basically any other book I pick up. This book is another one of the texts on my curriculum for American Lit, so I decided to chase the marlin and do it. I fell asleep multiple times. I took many Girls With Slingshots breaks (I read all 1659 comic strips in the series). I did laundry.

Reading it as a reader/teacher I kept thinking: how am I going to get my kids into this? We live in Las Vegas - not exactly a fisherman's paradise. I took to the internets and found some really great videos that I will be using for teaching.

Interestingly, in all of these clips the fishermen talk about the fish in the same way that Santiago does. I'm hoping that seeing these videos will help make the fish and the fisherman and the struggle more real and therefore more interesting.

What did I think of the book as a reader? I thought it was boring. A thoughtful aphorism (see above) would appear and I would think, "That's so true. What an important thing to say about life." Then I would think, "What is this? Zen and the Art of Marlin Fishing?" I really feel like my next step is to read another Hemingway novel so I can have a fair opinion because this just didn't do it for me. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

24: The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

"I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life." 
"In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." 
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...And one fine morning ----
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Five years ago, I walked into my student teaching classroom while the students were taking their semester exams, my master teacher decided I seemed absurdly competent, and she put me in charge of creating two units for the following week: The Great Gatsby and Macbeth. The only problem was that I had never read either, and I had never taught outside of small chunks of time, and I had never planned a unit for a novel or play  (sure, my best friend and I had come up with an epic plan for Fahrenheit 451 in college, but that was for the Magical Dream Classroom, not real life); that is the life of an English student teacher. 

I went on a reading and planning frenzy and then started learning how to be an educator. This experience left me less than charmed with Gatsby. I thought it was overrated and I believe my common response to anyone who asked me why I didn't like the book was something like, "Maybe he was the first to write about bored rich kids, but Ellis and others have done it since in a way that's more interesting to our times." I was working at a fairly wealthy school (one of my students had a custom Louis Vuitton Hummer and another had a pink Paris Hilton-esque Mercedes and all of my students looked like they walked out of an episode of Laguna Beach) which is not the kind of school I ever wanted to work in, so it is very possible that my bitterness towards people who have lots of nice things without having to bust their ass for those nice things was being projected onto this novel. (Of course, like the characters in Gatsby, their lives weren't perfect. One student lived alone in a mansion while her father essentially lived with his much-younger-girlfriend because she wasn't really interested in step-momming a 17-year-old). 

Let's repeat the past, prove that we're a rotten crowd, and miss the longest day of the year. Please bring: voices full of money, green lights, vehicular homicide, owl eyes, and minds that will no longer romp again like the mind of God. Cardinal virtues not welcome.

And then I met a rather charming gentleman who did things like force me to recreate his favorite Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald foto while hosting parties that had the above description included in invitations. To say that he likes Gatsby is an understatement. 

I will once again be teaching The Great Gatsby, so I decided it had been long enough that it deserved a re-reading. I am so glad that I did because I had a totally different experience.  This time around I ached for Gatsby...I have spent the last four years watching some of my students' dreams get crushed, and honestly not all of them are 'good' people, but that has nothing to do with whether or not I like them and whether or not I still want them to have all the possibilities of their potential. I have so much sympathy for the rags-to-riches, for loving the idea of someone instead of the actual someone, for the dream crushing, for trying to be an idea instead of trying to be a person. With all this emotional attachment, the book  becomes this horrible roller coaster (especially because I know how it all ends) of watching people you like made terrible decisions and deal with the consequences. And watching people you hate make terrible decisions and have no consequence besides their fake fake lives and their awful marriage and their guilt.

I also can't believe that the writing didn't strike me before. I don't feel like I do a terribly great job of being able to articulate what is the difference between 'good' writing and 'bad' writing, but I do know that FSF creates these PERFECT sentences that are almost painfully good.

If you're into Gatsby at all, I highly recommend this podcast about Gatz, a play that uses every word of The Great Gatsby (it is 8 hours long). I will absolutely be having my students listen to it before we start the novel as it builds hype beautifully without spoiling anything. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

23: The Crucible - Arthur Miller

"Why do you  never wonder if Parris be innocent, or Abigail? Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God's fingers? I'll tell you what's walking Salem - vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!"

"I have signed seventy-two death warrants; I am a minister of the Lord, and I dare not take a life without there be a proof so immaculate no slightest qualm of conscience may doubt it."

"In an ordinary crime, how does one defend the accused? One calls up the witnesses to prove his innocent. But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? ...Now, we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims - and they do testify, the children certainly do testify...I think I have made my point. Have I not?"

The Crucible is another classic text I hadn't previously read that I will be teaching next year. It was an incredibly painful read because of my own fluffy emotions. Miller is, of course, brilliant in it (although I found it very annoying that what should have been endnoted commentary interrupted the narrative frequently, but I assume that that is not read aloud in production). Death of a Salesman is beloved to me, and there are quite a few similarities between Willy Loman and John Proctor and I think one could make an argument about the flippancy and lack of empathy that Biff and Happy have and compare that with the flippancy and lack of respect for human life that the accusing girls have.

Background Anecdote #1: In middle school we had to do a creative presentation after researching something in American history. I made a HUGE diorama of a little jail in Salem. The footprint was probably 2'x2' and it included a tree with a noose, a styrofoam jail with pinecone-piece-roof, tiny jail cells with black toothpick bars, and little hand made dollies with little hand made Puritan outfits in various states of death (yes, I even had one that was being pressed with a board made from popsicle sticks and a real little rock pile). That summer my family went to Salem and we did the whole Salem thing, so it is fairly fresh in my head.
Background Anecdote #2: I was a victim of a crime and many people thought I was 'crazy' and falsely accusing the perp. This has given me an INSANE hatred of people who falsely accuse people of crimes, because that is the fuel that some people need to assume that real victims of real crimes COULD BE false accusers.

The whole time I read the play, my hatred for Abigail, Mary, Mercy, et al was so overpowering I could barely spare any pity for the victims and our protagonist, John Proctor. I am, however, very excited to teach it because it brings up so many interesting discussion points for my students to start to develop and articulate their personal philosophy on life, revenge, morality, the legal system, etc. I also think that, unfortunately, we live in a very appropriate time to make this text come to life. This HuffPo article demonstrates a very recent modern witch hunt against one of the totally innocent 'suspects' in the Boston bombings. I think it would be very interesting for students to research recent stories of mass hysteria induced demands for justice, mass hysteria induced accusations, and innocent people being exonerated after more evidence comes forth and discussing that.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fun Books for Littlies

Baby Lit has awesome cardboard books for the littlie in your life who is ready for an early introduction for Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, and Dracula. The books are number books, color books, weather books, etc, and are incredibly well done with a fantastic style of art. I gave a few as Christmas presents to my bestie and she now owns every one available; as soon as I can afford to, I will as well. She likes them because she's an English teacher, her kids (both below 4) like them because they are cardboard (good to chew on) and have fun pictures. I used the book as an inspiration to give my AP students the option to make an alphabet book of a novel they read over spring break and got a fantastic book on The Mysterious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide. I would highly recommend them as presents for any parents or teachers who are literary minded! Thanks to

Lucas Books with Chronicle Books and Jeffrey Brown has put out Vader's Little Princess. It's a picture book that is totally appropriate for the kids and will make the adults laugh as well. My rockclimbing partner's daughters (age 5 and 7) just finished the Star Wars movies and it is a present for them - I will update when I know how real life littlies react to it!

22: A Visit From the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan

"People will try to change you, Rhea, Lou goes. Don't let 'em. 
But I want to change.
No, he goes, serious. You're beautiful. Stay like this. 
But the freckles, I go, and my throat gets that ache.
The freckles are the best part, Lou says. Some guy is going to go apeshit for those freckles. He's going to kiss them one by one.
I start to cry, I don't even hide it.
Hey, Lou goes. he leans down so our faces are together, and stares straight into my eyes. He looks tired, like someone walked on his skin and left footprints. He goes, The world is full of shitheads, Rhea. Don't listen to them - listen to me.  
And I know that Lou is one of those shitheads. But I listen. 

This novel was recommended especially for me years ago, and I have been looking forward to having enough time to read it since then. For me, a recommendation from someone I trust is quite enough of a reason for me to read a book, and I have no need to investigate it further, so I opened this book with no idea what it was about. 

Pleasant Surprises:
1. It has interconnected narrators. If you find that gimmicky, this books is not for you! I love it, because we are all interconnected in real life and real life is no gimmick. Las Vegas is very curious because it is an overblown small town and anyone who has been here for a while is inevitably connected to everyone else who has been here for a while (oh, my college chum that I haven't heard from in 4+ years was best friends in middle school with a girl I met rockcliming after she found my OKCupid profile and approached me in a climbing gym because we like the same obscure band and we three are now at Pub Quiz together? Of course).

2. It jumps through time and space as it jumps through narrators. This means we get to see some characters from multiple perspectives and some events through multiple perspectives. It reminds me of George Plimpton's oral biography of Truman Capote as well as Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and it is a style that I love. Even in my recent read Letters From Yellowstone, I stopped while reading and told my friend that I was so excited to read about an event from two perspectives. Again, if you find this gimmicky, this book is not for you. 

3. It is multigenre. There are regular first-person narrative sections as well as newspaper articles and an entire chapter told in a 'slide journal' (power point made by a tween girl). Quite a few people find this gimmicky and use this as their reason for hating the novel. The newspaper article section utilizes footnotes and the internet is all OMG YOU ARE NOT DAVID FOSTER WALLACE JENNIFER EGAN - those people are wannabe-pretentious-judgey-pants-wearing-idiots because footnotes are not a part of JE's narrative story, they are used by the character who wrote the newspaper article and it was completely unsurprising that he did so because he is totally that type of writer. (Also: what are people SO upset by women writers who do anything 'quirky'? I feel like people love to hate on women for being 'too quirky' and I am not as aware of the same criticism on male authors using similar devices (like Junot Diaz for footnotes). 

4. As for the content and characters - it's depressing, and honest, and sometimes beautiful. I have no problem with it getting the Pulitzer as it is in many ways SO American and SO filled with contemporary problems and that is what makes it SO depressing and SO honest and SO sometimes beautiful, and the ending is Perfection.

Highly recommended, especially if you were ever into punk music or have any thoughts on modern consumer culture.

21: Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

How to Read Gone Girl:
1. Know nothing about the book. No really, you don't want to know anything. I knew this was THE book of last summer and knew nothing else at all. I had no idea character names, plot, summary, nothing. All I knew was that it had a TWIST (omgz!)
2. Get the audiobook. Get a friend (preferably a good looking criminal defense lawyer friend). Get a car. Get 20 hours of driving.
3. Listen to the book together. Pause frequently to discuss, analyze, speculate about the law, cops, crimes, relationships, marriages, parents, etc.
4. Finish the book with great anticipation before a long hike with excitement that it will fuel your hiking conversation as it has fueled so many conversations so far (fuel is necessary when you spend every waking minute for two weeks with the above mentioned good looking lawyer)
5. Have almost nothing to say afterwards.

I would definitely recommend this book to every person. I would say that you should read it sooner rather than later to avoid spoilers, because there are quite a few and THERE IS NO REASON TO READ THE BOOK if you already know the spoilers.

If you need to know more, I would tell you it begins with a wife missing from a home that shows an obvious struggle took place, and the novel's structure has the husband narrating from the day she goes missing interspersed with diary entries from the wife beginning with when they first met and catching up to the present.

I really would say you should read it WITH someone because the most fun thing about this book was the discussions that it started. If I had read it independently (probably in one sleepless-can't-put-it-down night) I would have felt the same deflation that it seems so many people felt after finishing it. 

20: Letters From Yellowstone - Diane Smith

"Dear Mother, 
Remember that Dr. Bartram I wrote to you about? Well he has arrived. Only he is a she, and now I am at a complete loss as to what I should do. I am so woefully short of staff, I would embrace the worst laggard or miscreant the scientific world has to offer, but, dear Mother, what am I to do with a woman? We already have a cook."

"I am not deserting my career; I am pursuing my life's work."

"The natural world is my religion. I worship the random and the wondrous beauty of it all."

Letters From Yellowstone is a Goodwill find that I picked up because I barely glanced at the back and thought it was a nonfiction book about a female scientist joining a field study in Yellowstone National Park in 1898. It is in fact a novel, although a particularly well researched one (the author studie nineteenth-century western and environmental history as a graduate student and references quite a few Yellowstone books that informed her writing), and was a fantastic read (particularly because I finished it while laid out on a sleeping pad on top of a picnic table in Yellowstone National Park).

It is an epistolary novel told in letters and telegrams from most of the main characters to their various friends, family, colleagues, and bosses. It begins with Miss Alex Bartram writing Professor Merriam asking to join his Yellowstone expedition and signing simply "A. E. Bartram" leaving to the kerfluffle of him assuming that this botanist is a man. (Even now many female scientists choose to submit using initials rather than names that give away their sex - tried to find a cite about an interesting study of how female submitters are accepted less often in scientific journals than males, but I don't have a subscription and the pop-press apparently didn't pick it up - will keep looking). The book is interesting for a few reasons. We encounter a variety of women interested in science in different ways (from our serious botanist to hardcore bird watchers to silly girls who just like to look at cool things in nature) and get to see the sexist ways men react to them (from simply being patronizing to completely ignoring them). We also encounter an American Indian family and see the different racist and progressive ways people react to them as people and as scientists with their traditional natural remedies to maladies. The characters are dynamic and believable, with their belief systems changing in a way that reflects their experiences. Most interesting to me was the way the author incorporates early Yellowstone history - how the army was commissioned to protect the park and the park lovers were terrified of how 'popular' and 'accessible' it was becoming because it would be destroyed (people used to put their clothing into the Old Faithful geyser as a quick way to give them a hot wash!) All of this heightened my entrance into the park through the majestic Roosevelt Arch which says "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" - I am so proud of our National Park system.

I would say this novel is a little more serious than a beach read, but is still quick and easy, and anyone with an interest in Yellowstone or botany would enjoy it.

19: Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Me: I haven't read the Scarlet Letter.
Me: Nope. I mean, I know all about it, I just never got around to reading it. 
Me: So you would recommend it? It's that good?

That conversation has happened every year, sometimes multiple times a year, for the last four years while I've been a teacher. My argument is always that I can't read every book in existence, and secretly I have felt like it is a good thing to let students one up me in this way. For better or worse, I am expected to teach all or part of this book next year in American Lit, so I finally gave in and read it. I have misplaced my actual book, so this review will be rather short, lacking quotations, and unorganized as I actually read this book over two weeks ago.

1. I am thinking of cutting The Custom House completely when I teach it, as it is boring, and puts one off the book. It took me forever to get through this section myself and I kept thinking "how will I get my kids through this?" Every time I picked it up, my eyes fluttered shut and I ended up taking a totally unnecessary nap.

2. Ignoring the first section, I mostly enjoyed the novel as a reader. Early into the novel I asked my fellow English teacher friend why this book is so reviled, and her explanation was apt: "You read it and you catch the symbolism and it's very subtle and interesting, and then you keep reading it and the symbolism is less subtle, and less subtle, until Hawthorne is hitting you over the head with it LOOK AT ME I AM THE FOREST THE FOREST IS A DARK PLACE THAT IS OUTSIDE OF CIVILIZATION WHICH CAN MEAN MANY MANY THINGS HERE LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THEM" By the end of the novel, I really agreed with her, and I can see why it works well with students who haven't quite grasped that multi-layered-reading-ability and how it falls totally flat with the students who feel like Hawthorne is treating them like they're idiots. I was pretty surprised with how liberal/progressive/proto-feminist a lot of the novel read, and I'm looking forward to reading some of the lit theory surrounding it to see if I'm pushing my own ideas onto the novel or if it's commonly thought to be quite feministy.

3. As a teacher, I'm really looking forward to teaching it. I think teenagers in the digital age have completely revitalized the topics of this novel. The completely hypocritical, stone throwing, judgmental nature of teenagers+sex+sexting totally reminded me of the town - at least the Puritans had a chance of NOT being hypocritical while they were putting on their judgey pants. I really want to teach this with some news articles about bullying, cyber bullying, and some of the recent teen suicides that came after extensive bullying about sexual activity and/or orientation. Unfortunately, I'll be teaching this book with my juniors and I feel like they are almost too old for my After School Message. I'm also curious to have my students research and examine crimes and punishments around the world and have them start to critically think about our own American judicial system.