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.