Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why I Love April: National Poetry Month

"April is the cruellest month . . ." wrote T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland. I'm sure he would defend his stance, were he around today, and with the income tax deadline smack dab in the middle, he may have an argument. Nevertheless, I think the month has plenty of strong points. I've always favored the milder transitional seasons, spring and fall, to winter's cold and summer's heat. I could go into a rapturous rant about the flowers and the pleasant temperature, but today I have other things on my mind: National Poetry Month.

Begun in 1996, the celebration of National Poetry Month has found its way into my classroom every year for as far back as I can remember. I've collected the posters each year, which I haul out and hang when April arrives. I have also participated in all kinds of related activities, especially those I could use with my students. We've created poems as messages in a bottle, and we've celebrated Poem in Your Pocket Day. Last year I began participating with Robert Lee Brewer's Poetic Asides "Poem a Day Challenge," an activity that has grown into a virtual community and continued through the year on a weekly basis.

This year I want to challenge everyone who rarely picks up a book of poetry to consider giving it a try. During April, I'll share some favorite titles old and new, along with some websites of interest.

First, check out the Academy of American Poets @ or at their National Poetry Month page, which is filled with links to poems and activities:

The following site will be posting an original poem a day from well-known children's poets:

One site that has been a favorite of mine for years is Billy Collins' Poetry 180, which presents a poem for each day of the academic school year and a no-pressure approach to enjoying the poems found there:

Until my favorite local public radio station changed their programming, I enjoyed Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac on my drive to work every day. Now I have to leave by 6:51 to have that pleasure, so I usually have to default to reading the site or listening to the podcast. I do admit that I particularly enjoy Keillor's reading voice:

If you need your magnetic poetry fix when away from your refrigerator, never fear. You can enjoy virtual magnetic poetry at this online site:

During his stint as national poet laureate, Ted Kooser began his regular column (available free to newspapers as well as online):

I plan to continue to inundate you with poetry throughout April, hoping that you too will fall under its spell and seek out some of today's poets.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading Reservations

One of the drawbacks of a quirky range of readings interests is a reluctance to recommend everything I read. Often I enjoy a book completely, yet I realize it's not for everyone. In fact, sometimes I feel almost hurt or offended when I do recommend a book only to find that it didn't evoke the same feelings in other readers.

I just encountered a book that is still rolling around in my head, but for the life of me, I'm not sure who else would enjoy it. I picked up the audiobook of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. At the beginning of the novel, I was baffled by the title, since Olive's husband Henry seemed to be the real protagonist and not only that, but Olive seemed cranky at best. Henry was a kind, gentle man, but Olive didn't seem to appreciate him. She didn't treat him the way I thought he should be treated.

The novel shifted though, often taking little disconnected turns into stories of others in the same town in Maine, perhaps only mentioning Olive in passing as that terrifying math teacher from the high school. Along the way, though, Olive grew on me, especially when the novel shifted to her point of view. She didn't get any sweeter; Strout just revealed how completely human she was.

I tend to cast the characters in the books I read, mixing people I know with actors or public figures, much the way in dreams, I'll be inside my grandmother's house and then walk into the yard and find myself somewhere in another town. For me, Olive because a former teaching colleague who before we worked together had been a terrifying presence at my own high school. When we taught together, I learned that underneath her tough exterior, this woman was tenderhearted and generous. She was also fiercely private, evidently having been hurt enough in the past that she had no intention of opening herself up unnecessarily.

In this novel, readers get to know Olive through her relationships with her husband, her son, and even a teenage girl with a severe eating disorder who crosses her path. She steps back into the life of a former student--actually climbs into his car--who has come back to town to commit suicide, and Olive ends up enlisting his help to save a girl from drowning. In these interwoven side stories, Strout allows the narrative trail to fade without resolution; this is, after all, really Olive's story.

One test of a novel for me is how clear the ending remains with me. Sometimes I am in such a rush to the finish a book that I almost forget it after having slept (like gulping down a brownie without savoring the taste.) This time, I found myself rewinding (more difficult with CD than tape or print text) to read the last few pages one more time. The ending satisfied.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Alternative to Bucket List

I just finished a charming little book, The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson. As the book opens, fifty-year-old Ambrose Zephyr has "failed his annual medical exam." Learning he has about a month to live, he leaves his home near Kensington Gardens with his wife Zappora "Zipper" Ashkenazi, planning to visit a different European city each day, working their way through the alphabet--Amsterdam, Berlin, and so on.

The story is neither maudlin or unbearably corny; it is a love story, pure and simple.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth

One of the greatest benefits of reading is the opportunity to travel vicariously to other times and places. Similarly, I find myself living inside the minds of people who, on the surface, are nothing like me. Over and over, I discover implicitly what many writers have pointed out explicitly: we are more alike than we are different.

My book club chose to read Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth, after having read her novel The Namesake several months ago. The book was first recommended to me by a friend who admitted that she didn't usually like to real whole collections of short stories but found this one different.

I personally love short stories, butI probably prefer the unity of a novel's narrative. Short stories serve well for short reads. They are perfect for a literature class in which having everyone arrive with a common reading experience is crucial. I especially love Kate Chopin's short stories, and most ninth grade literature anothologies hold some of the best: "The Most Dangerous Game," "And Sarah Laughed," "The First Seven Years," and more.

Unaccustomed Earth is the most unified collection of short stories I've read in awhile. Most if not all of the main characters are Indian-Americans, many first generation. As I read, I get a sense of the experience of being part of a small culture within our culture. I enjoy the tension between parents and children, especially as the children become adults themselves. While I have an urge as I am reading to find a restaurant nearby that serves authentic Indian cuisine, I am most struck by the universality of Lahiri's themes.

Each story pulled me forward, making me eager for the next. This momentum is rewarded in the end by a set of stories about the same two characters, bringing them from childhood to maturity. The final event--one I'll save for fear of spoiling the read--struck home, making me recall my own family's concern for an exchange student we knew only briefly before he returned to Thailand a few years ago.

I'm glad to recall that Lahiri has an earlier novel, Interpreter of Maladies, I have yet to read. I won't have to wait for her next to be published.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Joy of Re-Reading

Since Charlotte, NC, has chosen To Kill a Mockingbird as their " Big Read" this year, I have enjoyed following all the related articles in the newspaper. In the last week or so, I ran across an article by Reading Life Editor Pam Kelley entitled " Big Read: Second Time Can Still Surprise." She not only examined the experiences of teachers who read over and over the novels they teach in their classroom but also young children who keep requesting the same book every night for bedtime stories.

I will readily admit that I read Go Dog, Go and One Fish, Two Fish so many times at the request of my own children that those books mysteriously disappeared, only to be found much later under the coffee table.

As a teacher, I tried to change up my curriculum enough to keep myself from becoming stale, but some books appeared year after year simply because I loved them: To Kill a Mockingbird will never lose its charm for me. I personally love teaching Charles Frasier's Cold Mountain. I love A Separate Peace so much that I could teach it again and again (although a remake of the movie is long overdue.) The Great Gatsby is another favorite of mine, as is Beloved and The Joy Luck Club.

Outside of classroom assignments, though, I am often reluctant to re-read a book, even a favorite simply because I know I could use the same time to read something new. I have made exceptions. If I had to play the "stuck on a deserted island" game, I could compile a list of old favorites I would want to have along. (Who'd want to take a chance on carrying books that only merit one read at best? I've seen Castaway. I know how long those hypothetical dilemmas can last.

My list, then, would include T. H. White's The Once and Future King, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Richard Adams' Watership Down, The Brontes' Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Cervantes' Don Quixote, and Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca. Like all good book lists, though, I know that as soon as I click "Publish Post," I'll think of a dozen other titles I should not have forgotten. Fortunately, that's the fun of lists like these.

Given a little time to peruse my bookshelves and perhaps to look over a few good booklists, I'd probably add to the list. I would need something to make me laugh out loud, and some kind of island survival guide. Maybe if I'm lucky on my hypothetical island misadventure, I can share the time with someone with a different reading list altogether.