Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Read Nonfiction?


I'll admit that I generally prefer fiction to nonfiction. This hasn't always been the case, as I recall. In elementary school, I spent long periods of time at the biography and autobiography shelves, reading all the nurse books (Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell) and the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor (who, I learned, has Asheville, NC, connections). I moved on to Lincoln and to George Washington Carver (who, if he lived now, would be searching for something productive out of tobacco and kudzu). I also went against gender expectations and explored the "We Were There" series, most memorably We Were There at the Battle of Bataan.

Fiction, however, always had my heart. If I listed my top one hundred favorite books, I'm sure more than ninety percent would be works of fiction. At the recent conference, I was gratified to hear several speakers discussing concepts I've believed for years: First, that fiction contains much truth, and second, fact does not always equal truth.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended, in fact, discussed the blurring of lines. One can read historical fiction and learn so much, and one can read memoir and recognize or suspect a certain tampering with exact details. Then there's James Frey's Million Little Pieces.

At my favorite session, Readers Ourselves, I was intrigued to note how many nonfiction titles were mentioned this year. This year, though, one reason I was excited to be going to NCTE in San Antonio was the chance to hear Greg Mortenson, whose book Three Cups of Tea has been quite a publishing sensation. Mortenson is the man whose failure to reach the summit of K2 led to a night in a village in Afghanistan. There he learned that the children had no school and promised to return and build one. He did something extraordinary: he followed through on that promise and has spent his life in Afghanistan and Pakistan building schools.

Before he spoke, Mortenson endured what must be torture for some authors (and the reason others write): posing for pictures with fans. When he spoke, he wasn't the polished orator showing off his wordcraft. He was a passionate advocate for education as a tool for peace. He moved back and forth, pacing as he spoke with genuine conviction.

His message: the real enemy is ignorance. His strongest message is the need to educate girls, quoting an African proverb: If you eduate a boy, you educate an individual; If you educate a girl, yo ueducate a community. He said that a girl who learns to read and write goes home, and her mother asks her to write a letter to her family. This empowers the family. They take the newspaper wrapped around the vegetables and says, "Read to me." He says that the Koran requires that before taking part in a jihad, one must get permission and blessing from his mother. In fact, he has a former Taliban member working as a teacher. He got out because his mother told him he was doing wrong.

The Taliban and other jihadist groups recognize this power, building over 480 schools--educating mostly girls--since 2007. Their greatest fear is not the bullet but the pen. Mortenson pointed out that we don't hear much about the good or bad in education in these areas. Education is, to some extent, invisible. He gave an example, though, of the first girl in the first village to complete her education, devoting two years to the study of maternal health care--at a cost of only eight hundred dollars for the two years' study. If I got the number right, before she began her work, between five and twenty women in her village died each year in childbirth. Since 2000, that number is zero.

This part of the story brought to mind a book I mentioned earlier on the blog, Monique and the Mango Rains, the story of a Peace Corps worker who spent two years in Mali working with Monique, a local woman trained in midwifery. Both of these books, though not great literature by academic standards, are true stories told simply and passionately. As a result, many readers, particularly students, have been moved to do something. The Pennies for Peace program started by school children has raised a great deal of money for Mortenson's project. A young adult version of Three Cups of Tea has been published, as well as a children's version Listen to the Wind. Similarly, many readers have begun to help raise money for training and clinics in Mali and surrounding areas, to help decrease maternal death and infant mortality.

Fiction can half a similar impact on one's beliefs and sensibilities, but nonfiction offers something tangible: a name, a point of contact for anyone who wants to help bring about positive change in the world.
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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

For Your Reading Pleasure

As promised, I'm listing a few of the titles I heard discussed over the last several days at the NCTE conference in San Antonio. Some of these were mentioned by speakers, some were shared during interactive sessions, and some titles came up during conversations.

One morning, I had an early breakfast and came downstairs at the hotel a little early to choose sessions for the day. The other woman down there at the time looked up from her reading to ask if I was there for the convention too. She was reading This Full House, the third in a trilogy of YA novels by Virginia Euwer Wolff, and she had tears in here eyes. We launched into one of those heart-to-heart sharing sessions that happen so easily between teachers of English. We both taught Holocaust classes. She is a middle school teachers but, like me, she also teaches some classes at the local community college. In addition to the Wolff books (beginning with Make Lemonade), she insisted I should read Sherman Alexie's Flight, a book of redemption, she says. She also mentioned Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars, which is set in Vietnam and "totally Shakespeare." We both taught Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and used " At the Un-national Monument Along the Canadian Border" by William Stafford.

At the "Readers Ourselves Session," I came away with several pages of notes on books that interested me. Keep in mind that for this particular session, an annual favorite at the conference for the last fifteen years at least, participants are encouraged to talk about what we are reading for pleasure, not what we are teaching.

Among the many, many titles, I noticed that several books mentioned were described as "thin" books, perfect for book clubs. One I am especially interested in reading is Bennett's "Uncommon Reader," a fictional work in which the Queen of England happens into a bookmobile and falls in love with reading, eventually trying to bring together her favorite writers in one place--a fiasco.

Lots of the books mentioned this year were non-fiction, such as Little Heathens, a memoir set "on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression" by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. Someone mentioned a book called Canon by a science writer who asked many people in different fields of science, "What is the key idea in your discipline?"

Lots of people are reading graphic novels, a genre that I haven't entirely embraced, beyond Maus. Someone mentioned a graphic novel by a 9/11 widow, a "tough, powerful read." Another recommended Embroideries, a graphic novel of female relatives talking about sex.

Several people mentioned books I have but haven't read yet: Loving Frank, a novel about the woman who had a love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Nicole Krauss' History of Love was strongly recommended as a story of "unrequited love." I had recently been encouraged by my friend Sandra to read this one as well, and she's generally right on target with her book suggestions.

That's all I'm going to mention for now. If you have a long ride coming up over the holidays, that should give you a few ideas if you're going by the bookstore. As for me, I made it home from the exhibit hall with Little Heathens and Billy Collins' new book of poetry Ballistics. That ought to hold me until my UPS box of books makes it home.
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Coming Soon: Book List

What could be nicer than a trip to San Antonio in November? While North Carolina's been entertaining unseasonably cold weather and earlier snow flurries than usual, I am in balmy Texas, enjoying the Riverwalk--at least on my way to the National Council of Teachers of English Convention. Anybody who knows me at all knows that I enjoy conferences more than most. I go to as many sessions as possible and feel sad about the ones I have to miss. Every 75-minute session has offered around 50-60 choices, so I feel like a food addict at the all-you-can-eat bar with only one plate.

The one session I make a point never to miss is called "Readers Ourselves." For the last fifteen years at least, this has been a guilty pleasure. Instead of practical matters for the classroom, this session is an opportunity for teachers to talk about what we are reading for pleasure. The plan is simple: You jot down your name, email address, and the name of any book you mention during the discussion, along with the author's name if you know it. The facilitators collect the list, spell check, and send everyone the compiled list. Of course, even know the list is "in the mail," we are all writing furiously.

Tonight, I am heading back out to the Riverwalk--to plan for our session we're presenting tomorrow. When I get back or tomorrow, I'll list the ones that caught my eye. In fact, through this whole conference, I've been listing books for my "I want" list. Check back. I'm ready to share!
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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Flying Without a Good Book


I relish air travel more than most because of the possibility of extended time during which the most productive thing I can do is to read. The pilot up at the front has the plane under control--at least as far as I know. The lone airline host (Isn't that the PC name for male stewardesses?) is attentive but busy. My luggage is checked. I've done all I can for the session I'm helping to present when I arrive at my destination, and the crossword and the Sudoku in the airline magazine are already completed--or partly so, but who wants to finish someone else's puzzle? I'd just as soon try to help someone bowl a spare.

I'll admit that I packed hurriedly and under time pressure. On the hour-long drive to the airport from school, where I dropped of last-minute lesson plans, I began to fret because even though I printed off the airline information yesterday, I didn't look at it and I couldn't remember where I put it. I knew my approximate departure time, but I didn't know my flight number or even which airline I was flying, so I started scrambling at traffic lights. I dug though my bags within reach, to no avail. I called to see if I could catch my son John at home to have him look in possible locations there, and finally I called school until I found someone who could access my email to find my flight confirmation. (Thank you, Nancy R.)

In the airport daily parking deck, I was still shuffling, trying to arrange my bags so that I could check one but carry the others with me. I distinctly remember picking up March by Geraldine Brooks off the seat of the car and poking it somewhere.

I had a heavy but manageable duffel bag, which I stowed in the plane's overheard compartment--within reach, I thought--until the little guy asked if I minded moving "to adjust the weight." (Huh?!)

I finally sat down, settled in, buckled up, and started looking through my "personal bag" for reading material. March was not there. I turned on my little Sony eBook and for the dreaded exclamation point in the triangle: low battery. No bars. Just to be sure, I looked in my laptop bag for the charger cord. No, I had my camera cord by mistake.

The book that made its way into my bag was a lightweight paperback, not quite "chick lit" because the "chicks" in this book are in their late 50s and facing retirement. ( I must admit, too, that despite the truism, I didn't want anybody to judge me by the cover.) Try as
I might, I could not get engaged with the book. I tried my iPod--a little Abbey Road--but just about the time the Beatles were singing "The End," the iPod battery took the cue and went dead--and, you guessed it, the charger cord is at home.

Meanwhile my seatmate has his headphones, which may be used for listening but I suspect they were meant to discourage me from talking to him. I recognize it as a technique I would use. Then he opened his Kindle and started reading away.

I had a Mandolin for Beginners book I had picked up yesterday becauseit seemed to give me a clear overview of music theory. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to read a mandolin book without a mandolin in your hands? Yes, my mandolin is back home--with the cords to my eBook and iPod.

Finally I did what I would imagine doing were I stranded on a desert island: I pulled out my paper and pen and started to write.
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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Every Teacher Has One


In Winston-Salem last month, late at night when some of us were trying to get last- minute details finished for the English conference, someone mentioned that every teacher has that one book that is not negotiable: It must be taught. Deanie said for her it was Fiddler on the Roof, someone else mentioned Elie Wiesel's Night .

Awhile back a friend was mentoring a young teacher who had his own ideas about what was and wasn't important literature. He took issue with her firm conviction that everyone should read A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines simply to be a human being. I feel the same way about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now that I'm teaching in the community college, I often poll classes to see what they've read as they've gone through school. I'm often sad when I find out what they haven't read. For a long time, I was surprised how many had never read Gone with the Wind. Now I'm surprised how many haven't seen the movie. When they confess they haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird, I tell them, "Go home now and read it. You need to read it to be a complete person, to be a good citizen." I've never had anyone who has read the book to disagree.

My love for the book has been fed by so many personal experiences. I read the book myself in high school, then I taught it to tenth graders in Alabama for my first five years of teaching. When our local community theater in Florence, Alabama, produced the play, I learned that Harper Lee's college roommate lived in town. Rumors have it that she actually did some of her writing there. I also made contact with Sarah Dyess, a middle school teacher in Monroeville, Alabama, the model for Maycomb. She had been mentioned in Teaching Tolerance magazine for a project she had conducted with her students and another class "up North."

As we corresponded, she actually shared a copy of a video her students had made to talk about life in Alabama, as well as a copy made from an old reel-to-reel made by a man who moved to Monroeville from New Jersey. He had filmed the Hog Festival, with scenes shot around downtown Monroeville. I fully expected to see Scout in her ham costume.

This week as we discussed the "one book theory" in the teacher's lounge, my friend Glenda Foster name Mockingbird before I mentioned. She said it was the one book that changed her life. She went on to say that the film ranks at the top of her list too. "Think about it," she said. "How many remakes have there been? Zero." I can't imagine a world without Atticus, Scout and Jem, without Boo Radley or Dill.

I'd like to imagine a world where Tom Robinson might have had his real day in court. One of the first times I taught the novel, we came to the scene in which Atticus was summing up his arguments for the jury. He talked about mob mentality and how men will do things in a mob they would never do individually. We came to that particular chapter the day after the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict. Atticus would not have been surprised. Sad, maybe, but not surprised.
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Monday, November 10, 2008

To the Folger--Finally

When I travel, I tend to focus on what I wanted to do or see and missed instead of what I did and saw and enjoyed. For the record, after four trips to England, I still haven't seen Stonehenge--and I'm not happy about that.

Today though, on my last day in the city before we head back home, I finally got to mark one off my list. Of all the places I'd been, I have always wanted to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library here in Washington. I've attended sessions they've presented at conferences, I've used their online lesson plans, and I even prefer their paperback editions over any of the others, especially for students. As time was winding down on the trip, I realized that I was probably the only person who had any desire to make that stop. I would have to go on my own.

This morning, we met early and visited the Capitol. Les Simmons, our sociology teacher on the trip, had made arrangements through N.C. Representative Virginia Foxx's office for a tour of the building. Next, I went with Holly, another of my colleagues on the trip, to see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. We stopped on the way to see the WWII Memorial, which was also new since my last visit. We had been warned that the FDR Memorial was a long walk, but it was just a nice walk with a great view (fall colors and a blue heron) along the water's edge.

The memorial itself was fascinating, focusing on everything--war, unemployment, polio. I can't wait to read up on the choices made for the memorial itself, particularly one very tactile section and a section with what looked like broken pieces of the wall with his "I hate war" quote in a pile.

On the trek back, we stopped in quickly at the Freer Gallery and saw some Whistler art and design. We ran through the lower level of the Air and Space Museum, looking for the temporary exhibits from the American History Museum, which is currently closed for remodeling. Then we grabbed lunch in the National Gallery, where I was able to visit some of my favorite artists--Mary Cassatt,Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, and such. They also had three Vermeers (or two sure things and a maybe). I've loved his works since reading The Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Girl with the Pearl Earring. He does something with light that boggles my unartistic mind. (No, Thomas Kinkeade, the so-called "Painter of Light" doesn't quite do it.)

Finally I found directions and struck out on foot for the Folger. I was fortunate to arrive in time, I was told, for a tour. It so happened that the other three members of my tour lasted mere minutes; then I had the charming docent to myself. She had the perfect British accent for the job, but she was anything but the well-rehearsed parrot, telling me just what she'd memorized. Instead, she invited me to come back into the family's study for a comfy seat and a chat. She regaled me with delightful stories about the Folgers and how they came to build the place, and she gave me a hint of the scope of the collection. I bought the book in order to get my facts correct before I repeat them, but I couldn't believe how many more copies of the First Folio they have there. In all of Great Britain, there are only five.

You may want to check back for pictures and further details. I'll even tell you a good story or two I heard from a very reliable docent.
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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Can't Help Myself

While I'm in Washington,D.C., with our Holocaust class group, I've also been able to do some sightseeing here in the Capital. I've been to the city a couple of times before, but there' no way to do it justice in a few days. Today, I went to the Eastern Market, an area that reminded me of the Portobello Market in London. We had a wonderful breakfast at a little restaurant called Bread and Chocolate, two of us opting to split two different choices, both with German names. We learned as the waitress brought our check that this is the last day the restaurant will be operating, since they lost their lease. What a shame!

The food market was picturesque--breads, pastries, fruits, cheeses, and fresh meats and seafood of all kinds. There was a little old man wearing a tee shirt which read (on the back) something like "Meat is Murder! Ban Hunting." I tried to snap a picture with the shirt caption as he shopped for--you guessed it--meat!

The little shops of the vendors were a draw, especially with Christmas near. I was particularly interested in the photographers. I picked up several cards because I knew I couldn't fit much else in my luggage for the return trip. Of course, I found myself at a book stall. I was pointing out to Holly, who was with me, all the ones I had read, recommending the ones I thought she should buy. They had Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, one of my favorite novels, and I said so.

"She's from Nashville," the man selling the books said.

"Oh yes, I know," I replied, not missing a chance to weigh in.

I learned that he knew a guy who was a musician and a friend of Ann who invited him to dinner with the two of them. He had found her charming and quite self-assured.
Before the little stop was finished, I had talked Holly into buying three books (Bel Canto, The Things They Carried, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim--quite a variety) and I'd let the guy convince me to buy Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. I did not need a new book, but I'm a pushover for someone who seems to love books as much as I do.
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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Guest Review

My daughter Laura has started a new blog, The Service Project, in which she reviews the service at all kinds of restaurants. I decided to contribute to the cause while I'm out of town on a school trip:

After an all-day trip aboard Amtrak bound for Washington, D.C., from the quaint old station in Salisbury, NC, we arrived hungry in the Capitol. I decided to give the train food a pass, opting instead for an apple from Les Simmons, one of my teaching colleagues. Once we settled into our hotel room, we were ready for food. At that point, our group split. Some decided to grab a fast bite at Union Station (with all the ambience and options of a mall or an airport—Sbarro, McDonalds, you know the list).

I had talked to my sister Amy, who goes to D.C. almost every year with Jeff for an insurance convention, I think. She had mentioned some restaurants, so I wanted specifics. We opted for Old Ebbitt Grill, on 15th between F and G streets. It was an easy walk from Hotel Harrington the “group friendly” accommodations we found after the App House closed. When we arrived, the place was busy—a good sign in a city with plenty of dining choices. It’s billed as the oldest bar in Washington, D.C., and the d├ęcor has the character to back up the claim. (The chandeliers had real candles!) We were told we’d have an hour wait and could come back in 30-40 minutes for a beeper.) Our crew found some stools in the window at the edge of the bar, a perfect place to wait and observe. We were seated within the time frame.

Our first impression of the menu was positive—a great range of choices at what we considered very reasonable prices (Lobster was under twenty dollars, for example.) The waitress who took care of us had three special recommendations, including oysters, their specialty. When I expressed an interest, she brought an oyster menu. We all ended up ordering some of her suggestions. I had steamed oysters with an apple, walnut, goat cheese arugula salad. Others had the lump crab cake (mostly crab meat, not breading) and their special trout with Hollandaise. The vegetables were especially good.

Our food was delivered by a different waiter, so when he placed all our plates at the right spot, my dining partners were surprised. (“How did he know? He’s not even our waiter.”) Eventually we had three people waiting on us, although our waitress was most attentive. They were near when we needed them but never intrusive. We didn’t have to crane our necks once for anything. She or her associates just appeared.

Since we were there on my recommendation, fully depending on Amy’s word, I was happy when the three of them said, “Nancy, you set us up! That was awesome.”
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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

You Can't Teach What You Don't Do

After hearing Post Secrets mentioned on NPR, I bought a copy a couple of years ago. The book resulted from a project in which the author asked people to share their untold secrets anonymously, sending them in, artistically represented, on postcards. The results range from hilarious to heartbreaking--a teenager confesses to trashing his house while his parents are away, so they'll think he has friends, a woman confesses that despite her abhorrence of his actions, she finds Hitler sexy. My favorite--or at least the one I find particularly painful--was sent in, written over an IRS form. It said something like this: Money earned teaching creative writing: $41,232.08. Money earned doing creative writing: $0.

This past month at the state English conference, I took part in a session we called "Teachers as Writers." We talked about what keeps up from writing, and then we discussed outlets for teachers who had a desire to write and something to say. This was the third time in about eight years I've presented some version of this session with my friend Jane Shlensky. I want to report that I have done my best not to be a hypocrite. I have worked to increase my writing output, quantity and quality.

To that end, I accepted the National Novel Writing Month challenge and have begun my quest to write 50,000 words in November. Yesterday, I received an email from the NaNoWriMo.org site, asking for over 50-ers to volunteer to be interviewed. Why not, I thought. I shot a quick email and heard back before my school day was up. Now I have between now and Wednesday, November 5, to figure out how to listen to a podcast. One of the main reasons I signed up for the project and went out of the limb for the mini-interview was to commit myself publicly to the endeavor.

I remember how, when Bill Bryson decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, a venture that resulted in his delightful book A Walk in the Woods, he informed all his Christmas card recipients of his plan. No backing out without shame or a very good excuse.

In November, I can probably come up with a few excuses. I leave Friday for Washington, DC, with my Holocaust class group. Debating whether or not to carry my laptop along, I emailed our hotel and found that they provide free wireless internet--and a business center with computers.
(They also have hairdryers available at the desk, also important in lower the weight of my luggage.)

Two weeks later, I'll be flying to San Antonio for the NCTE conference. I'll be dangerously close to the deadline, but I know I'll have internet there. I'll just have to be sure to make time to write.

Now that I have found a way to schedule my writing, I just have to decide one more thing: Do I need to take my mandolin along on both trips?
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