Monday, November 23, 2009

Where I've Been: The Land of Book Lovers

When I began teaching, I had the good fortune of attending the national conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. With a colleague or two or three, I was able to visit Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and more. Even though I haven't attended every year, I make an effort to go wherever the convention is held for the kind of boost I need at this point as fall turns to winter and the new has worn off in the classroom.

I don't know about other disciplines' meetings, but to me, the English conference is akin to a religious revival. I am immersed in words and books, and talk among people who value what I do: the language and our students. I have friends I see only once a year from all over the country, and I've learned from experience how to find the most valuable sessions and the abundance of resources available from publishers and other vendors.

One of my favorite perks is coming home with a great list of books I want to read next (as if I needed a longer list.) The one session I do not miss each year is called "Readers Among Us." Participants are encouraged to discuss books we are reading for pleasure, not for the classroom (although they do often cross over). The session facilitators collect the titles mentioned, along with emails of attendees, and mail out the annotated book list with in a week or two of the session.

Of course, we all jot notes anyway, even though we know the list will arrive. (Michael Moore has never failed us. In fact, when I haven't been able to attend, I've emailed and he's sent me the list anyway.) However, since we have a huge exhibit hall full of publishers and vendors, we can often find the titles mentioned before we leave the convention hall--often at a discount.

What follows is a rather disjointed discussion of books I heard mentioned that I had not read yet. Warning: These are presented solely from my notes, with no apparent organizational structure. When I get the email will the full annotated list, I'll be sure to share.

This year, some of the books that caught my interest included Alan Bennet's play The History Boys; The Secret Scripture and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Irish writer Sebastian Barry. In a quest for a good book about music, several titles were mentioned that didn't quite measure up to what this particular reader wanted (He mentioned Girls Like Us and Hound Dog). Someone mentioned Arthur Phillips' novel The Song Is You, about a man who directs commercials but hears a girl singing in a bar and leaves notes with suggestions for her on a napkin, which she later incorporates into her act.

Prolific reader Carol Jago, the new NCTE president, recommended a couple of classics, along with her usual list of suggestions. After reading Gaimann's Newbery winner The Graveyard Book, she learned the author was influenced by Kipling's Jungle Book (not the Disney version). She found it delightful. She also recommended James Agee's Death in the Family for its beautiful prose. She also found Dickens' Bleak House to have a surprisingly timely theme: nothing good can come of battles in court.

Several readers mentioned graphic novels, some having come to them quite reluctantly: Stitches and Fun House had a number of fans in the room. One young reader who had loved Zadie Smith's On Beauty learned that it was a retelling of E. M. Forster's Howard's End, which she was surprised to find she loved even more than Smith's work. The Domesday Book is an intriguing time traveling tale.

Jago says she will be giving copies of Kate diMillo's The Magician's Elephant as Christmas gifts this year, a gook she loved for its rich language.

Other recommended titles:
Peter Hobbs, A Short Day Dying
Laurie Halse Anderson, Winter Girl (Anderson wrote the moving YA novel Speak.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind ( about a poor uneducated boy who figures out how to build a windmill by reading books, changing his family's circumstances drastically.)
The Lost Garden (
A three-generational saga with ties to The Secret Garden.)
City of Thieves by David Benioff is a story set in Leningrad during WWII about prisoners forced to steel enough eggs to bake a wedding cake for their captor's daughter.
China Mieville's The City and The City had a curious plot--one city in which two completely different populations reside as if they are two separate cities, not even acknowledging the other's existence.
J.M. Coetzee's novels (including Disgrace and Barbarians at the Gates) were strongly recommended.
World War Z is marketed in some places as a YA novel, but one must know world history to appreciate it fully.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrania was also highly recommended.

Wells Towers' short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was recommended by a reader who claims usually not to like short stories. I had heard Towers read at the NC Literary Festival and was interested in the book already.

Leroy Quintana's La Primesa is a coming of age novel with mention of Vietnam, reminiscent of Tim O'Brien, but with a Latino perspective.

While this is certainly not a complete list--even from the session--It should give a beginning point for exploring. As for me, I am awaiting a big box of books I had shipped to myself from the conference. I'm not ever sure what all they are. I do know I have Francine Prose's The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, about Anne Franks' Diary of a Young Girl. I can't wait to see what else.



Amy said...

What a great idea for a conference session! Sounds like you came away with some excellent picks. I just finished Prose's book on Anne Frank and really loved it!

Marie Cloutier said...

Sounds like a wonderful conference. I go to the American Library Association's annual conference whenever I can, and it's just so energizing and refreshing to be among like-minded librarians and book lovers. I always come back with more ideas than I know what to do with. I'm so glad you get such a great charge out of yours too! Great blog, BTW- I'm gonna follow!