Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More on Summer Reading

As I've talked to students this week about my plans for the summer (basically trips to Nashville to visit Avery and Stuart and a big stack of books), some have asked me for suggestions. Ariel said she wanted a book to read on the beach but that she didn't really like to read. I am always torn when asked for this kind of advice.

For example, I know how much hundreds of girls--and grown women--devour the Nicholas Sparks books. We've had a raging controversy for years in the North Carolina English Teachers Association. Some members of the board would like to bring in Sparks (a Tarheel) to speak at our conference, while others turn up their noses. He is, after all, a confessed author of formula books. He studies what makes women read (or cry) and he writes just that.

Am I doing a disservice to the cause of great literature when I recommend James Patterson or John Grisham, authors who write engaging page turners, but who will probably never win the Pulitzer Prize? I am a confessed book snob, so I am always on a quest for the next great American (or international) novel, but does an appreciation for fine cuisine keep me out of the Whoppers and French fries? (Well, actually yes.)

I can share some books I found impossible to put down: Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, Yann Marterl's Life of Pi, Markos Zusak's The Book Thief. I haven't read anything yet by Jodi Piccoult, but she comes highly recommended. Do I pass along an untested tip?

For those who haven't read them, I suggest the books that every human being should read:

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird heads my lists for students who somehow made it through middle and high school without reading that wonderful, timeless classic. I haven't read Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca in many years, but I loved it so much that I read everything else on that shelf in the library growing up. I kept going back to see if perhaps she had written something new. I mentioned Richard Adams' Watership Down in an earlier post. I stand by that recommendatin. One book I could read over and over is T. H. White's Once and Future King. I love the Arthurian legend, but this is absolutely the most moving, the most readable. He has little sections I go back and read again and again (the sons of Margawse killing the unicorn, hoping to gain their mother's approval--or at least attention). I love Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine as a summer read. (I suggest a recent discovery, his From the Dust Returned, for Halloween season.)

I'll post some reading lists--mine and those of others as well--before summer officially arrives. I am always eager for others' suggestions as well.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Summer Reading

It's funny what different connotations those words "Summer Reading" have to different people. At this point in my semester (10 school days, counting exams), I am so covered up in student essays that any pleasure reading feels like cheating. I live for the day I can get up, start my coffee, water the plants and grab the newspaper, then curl up with a book for as long as I choose

I never understood parents who objected to summer reading requirements for their children. I fought that fight for years at South Caldwell, and they have finally incorporated a "Big Read" book about a pig. I don't think it's Tolstoy--or even E.B. White--but at least some reading will happen. I doubt there's even a Sparknotes on Good, Good Pig.

My first experience with summer reading occurred the summer I learned I had been hired for my first full-time teaching job in the fall. Because the school was small, I would be teaching grades ten, eleven, and twelve. The school's summer reading program gave students a list from which to choose at each grade level--six or seven books--and the students were required to read two by the beginning of the school year.

I had always been a reader, but the list included several I had not read--at least not recently--so I undertook a crash course in classic (or potentially classic) literature in a relatively short time. I loved it. I finally read Watership Down, still one of my all-time favorite books. My friend Rita had been encouraging me to read it for years. I had even gone with my husband Dick to the movie (I think I told him it was a war movie to get him to go. I didn't mention the rabbits.) What has always struck me about the book is the characterization. Adams developed each rabbit so individually that they became more real to me than the human characters in many novels. To this day, I can see a rabbit on someone's lawn and tell if it's Fiver or Hazel or Blueberry.

I also read Night (again) and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Since reading those two, I often use them as contrasts. When I discuss universal attitudes reflected in books' themes, I point to these books as examples of surviving by keeping one's head down and avoiding attention, making the most of every opportunity. In contrast, I point to some of Leon Uris' novels, particularly Trinity, in which the characters are fighting against what they consider a wrong, knowing they most likely will not survive to see success or completion but that if they don't take action, the world will never improve for those who come after.

Other summer reading that year included The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Profiles in Courage, My Antonia, The Good Earth (a book every adult should re-read. It's not the same book you read in high school. Actually, you are not the same reader you were in high school. If I thought a little longer, I am sure I could remember more of the books I read. What I do remember is how rich the experience felt. I took some of the books on vacation with me that year. I would become so engrossed with a story, I'd have to get up in the middle of the night and read in the bathroom, so the light wouldn't disturb my family.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Poem in Your Pocket Day

I knew I loved spring for a number of reasons. Today across the nation in general and at Caldwell Community College in particular, it was Poem in Your Pocket Day. The school was already scheduled for Spring Fling when Nancy Risch and members of the department realized the two days aligned. We got together and kicked it up a notch. Since the Spring Fling had a beach theme, all the members of the department carried sand buckets filled with candy to reward anyone flashing a poem. (Is that a poem in your pocket or. . . ?)

We went further and ordered poetry t-shirts, the most popular reading 'Does anything really depend upon a red wheelbarrow?" Laura Bokus headed up an original poetry contest with monetary prizes, and we announced a poetry slam scheduled for the back patio at two. Dustin Greene and I served as slam master and slam mistress, with Matt Williams serving as sacrificial poet. His takeoff on "Howl" was howlingly funny. We roped in non-English teachers to serve as judges; they were sworn in appropriately on a copy of Shakespeare for Dummies.

For a first attempt, the slam was a great success, and we hope not to wait another year before we give it another shot. Now the buckets are nearly empty (or the remaining chocolate is melted.) I don't know if I ended up with any copies of the poems that started out in my pocket, but I loved the variety that surfaced today. I think I'll keep a poem or two in my pocket from now on.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Happy Birthday to the Bard

Quite a few years ago, when I was studying for my comps at the end of grad school, the broad range of possibilities was daunting. I asked Dr. Bill Foster, the head of the English department at the Unversity of North Alabama, "How do I study for comps? How do I prepare for a test over Shakespeare?" His answer: "You re-read everything he wrote, and then you read everything written about him." He paused then said, "You don't. You know it or you don't."

I must have been at least adequately prepared; I passed. Since then, however, I have taken every opportunity to read--and quite often, re-read--the Bard's plays and poetry. What I want to share, though, are some companion reads:

Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World.

Bill Bryson. Shakespeare: The World as a Stage.

in a category of its own--

Bob Smith. Hamlet's Dresser: A Memoir. I can't say enough about this true story of a young man growing up shouldering a huge responsibility for a handicapped sister, who finds a life and an escape in the local Shakespeare theatre. As an adult, he leads reader's theater for the elderly. This is one of those survivor stories that ranks up there with Angela's Ashes or The Glass Castle. For lovers of the stage, I can't recommend it enough.

Harry Turtledove, Ruled Britannia. In another of his alternate histories, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the English fleet had been defeated by the Spanish Armada. Queen Elizabeth is in the tower; William Shakespeare, already well-known as a playwright, is commissioned by Spain to write a play honoring the king, expected to die soon. At the same time, an underground movement commissions him to write a play that will galvanize the British people to overthrow the Spaniards.

Robert Nye, Mrs. Shakespeare. This is a slim, titillating novel, the imagined journal of Anne Hathaway. The sonnet that begins "Shall I compare thee to a summer day..." will take on new meaning.

Paul Rudnick. I Hate Hamlet. The protagonist is an actor who leaves daytime dramas and moves to New York to try his hand at serious acting, reluctantly landing a role as Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Park and finding himself living in an old apartment haunted by its former tenant, Barrymore, who helps him prepare for the role he has taken reluctantly.

The Reduced Shakespare Company. The Compleat Wks of Shkspr, Abridged. If you've seen the performance (a three man show with an audience member starring in a cameo role as Ophelia), you know how hysterical it is. The footnotes in the script made me cackle.

I'm sure I'll think of more--and I'll add them later. What have I forgotten?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

So you don't think you like to read poems?

I have found that even people who love to read often exhibit a discomfort with or disinterest in poetry. Those same individuals react differently, however, when presented with a poem that seems especially apropos. Among my family and friends, I have a reputation for aggressively sharing poetry. My father, a minister, once described from the pulpit the difference between my four sisters and me. "Nancy is the daughter," he said, "who calls long distance to read a poem to me." All right, I confess. I'm the one.

I have another close friend who is an avowed reader of nonfiction, deeming fiction less signficant. Poetry? It doesn't even cross his radar screen. This week, though, we had a visit, and he said, "Hey bud, you haven't sent me a poem lately." Aha!

For those already lovers of poetry, I see no need in sharing reading lists. You can just go look on your shelf. For you reluctant souls, however, here is a list of some poets and books of poems I recommend:

Billy Collins, a former poet laureate, won my heart quickly. His site Poetry 180 is a great source not only for high school students and teachers but anyone wanting to dip into a variety of poetry--no lectures or quizzes in voled. Among his collections on my shelve are The Trouble with Poetry, Nine Horses, and Sailing Alone Around the Room. I use his poem "Introduction to Poetry" in almost every class I teach. If I taught PE, I'd probably work it in there too. Other personal favorites are "Marginalia" and "The Lanyard." When Collins appeared in Hickory a few years ago, he read the latter. It was delightful to see the audience anticipating his next line and whispering aloud "a lanyard" at just the right point.

Another poet I discovered and love is Ron Koertge (pronounced curt'-gee). I love his books Geography of the Forehead and Making Love to Roget's Wife. He also has some young adult novels in verse. I especially recommend Shakespeare Bats Cleanup and The Brimstone Journals.

Ted Kooser, another recent poet laureate of the U.S. is such a charming gentleman whose poems touch on such ordinary things in an extraordinary way. Two I spot on my shelf are Delights and Shadows and Flying at Night. Kooser won many hearts through his mailing list of women to whom he sends a postcard with a Valentine poem each year. Two of my colleagues are beneficiaries of this gesture.

North Carolina has produced a bumper crop of poets (and writers in general). A few names you might consider include our state poet laureate Kay Stripling Byer. Among her books of poetry are The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest and Coming to Rest. Michael McFee from UNC-CH caught my attention as a Writers Almanac selection the week before I encountered him at a poetry workshop. Check out his collection Shinemaster. He also edited a collection of North Carolina poetry, The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat.

Look for James Applewhite's Lessons in Soaring, Jaki Shelton-Green's Breath of the Song or Mark Smith-Soto's Our Lives Are Rivers. I haven't even mentioned Fred Chappell, but not list of North Carolina poets (or writers) is complete without him. Likewise, Sally Buckner continues to produce fine poetry, including her most recent collection with a decidedly anti-war stance.

Need more? Just ask!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Book Juggling

I know I'm not the only one, the unfaithful sort who juggles more than one book at a time. I've tried to be true, staying between the covers of one book at a time. I have to remind myself that multi-tasking is not one of the virtues; at best, it's a flaw.

I am thankful that I have cultivated a mind that can shift from one text to another and back again; otherwise, my career would be a reader's nightmare. After all, I spent far too much time reading prose I assigned, assigning a grade. So many other teachers I know don't seem to be able to read for pleasure during the school year. Then they pick summer reads that are more like guilty pleasure than literature. I read all year long, every chance I get. I keep a book by the bedside, sometimes one on the back of the commode (who wants to be caught unprepared?), one in the car (often an audiobook).

Right now I just finished listening to Sophie Kinsella's Remember Me, a lightweight book on CD I picked up for my ride home from Nashville. When driving alone, after all, I find people frown upon my reading behind the wheel. The novel's premise was clever (a young woman wakes in the hospital to find she's lost about three years of memory during which time she's transformed to a working class girl nicknamed Snagglepuss to a wealthy, tanned, toned executive married to a millionaire she doesn't even recognize.) Dont' wait for the Spark Notes. It's not up for the Pulitzer. It was just fun.

On my nightstand is an uncorrected advanced reader's proof of Jimmy Carter's memoir of his mother Lillian. I'm working on a review for the Charlotte Observer to run on Mother's Day. Whenever I read anyone's memoirs, I'm reminded how much more we are alike than different. I never ran for president of the United States, but his family stories evoke memories of my own.

On my Sony eBook, I'm reading Ken Follett's World Without End, the long-awaited sequel to Pillars of the Earth. I love reading about the English Middle Ages, but I believe Follett's characters are engaging no matter when they are set. This book, like its predecessor, follows activity in the same cathedral town. The class system, the church, medicine, trade, and especially building are also essential elements of this novel.

Next on my book club slot is Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff. It was my most recent selection from the Lemuria Bookstore's First Editions Book Club. (If you don't know about that, you should. Ask me.) I'll report more when I've read it. I am also ready to dip into Sara Davidson's Leap, a book exploring the phenomenon she calls "the Narrows," the point where we aging Baby Boomers realize, "Hey, I am old But I may live thirty or forty more year. What am I going to do with the rest of my life?"

I plan post for Shakespeare's birthday next week. Keep a look out. Stay in touch.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ron Rash Reads

Getting a crowd out on a rainy Saturday night to hear a poetry reading in Hickory, North Carolina, may sound a bit like an exercise in futilty. Then factor in the semifinal game of the NCAA Final Four to be held at 8:46, featuring a team that claimed to be the UNC Tarheels (though bearing no resemblance to the men I've watched on the court all season.) While the crowd at the CVCC Library was thin, the ones who did show up found it worth the effort.

Poet, short story writer, and novelist Ron Rash appeared as part of Hickory's Big Read. The central book is The Bridge by the late Doug Marlette, the story of a mill strike and the violence that ensued around Hillsborough, North Carolina. Rash's own parents worked in the mills before furthering their education in their thirties. The poems he read from Eureka Mill reflected his parents' and grandparents' experiences and the stories he heard from them about their lives, their work, and the cultural clashes central to mill town life.

Rash is a soft-spoken Southern man whose his work, a pleasure on the page, came alive through his reading. He writes poems that are primarily narrative, but he exercises a gift for just the right word, the surprising image. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of rhythm and meter in the poem. He leans toward iambic meter, echoing the everpresent cadence of the mill. However, in one of his selections, "Boundaries," he pointed out his use of Anglo-Saxon rhythms, appropriate for a poem steeped in mythic, almost tribal traditions.

He also read a couple of pages from his novel Serena, due out in early October of this year. He said that the female protagonist has become one of the most intriguing characters he has created. This narrative is set in the timber industry in the 1930s. He has published three other novels, all set in the Carolinas: One Foot in Eden (which won the Novello Prize in Charlotte), Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight.

Rash will be honored at the October conference of the North Carolina English Teachers Association, where he will be given the Ragan-Rubin award.