Monday, June 28, 2010

This Shakespeare Guy--and YA Lit

I bought the book The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt more than a year ago, after it showed up on my list of recommendations I accumulated during the NCTE conference. If I remember correctly, I heard about the book from another teacher I met early one morning in the hotel lobby. Both of us has been unable to sleep late and had slipped downstairs to read until our roommates woke up and the conference opened. She was almost at the end of a book and crying. so I had to know--when it was appropriate to break in and ask--about the book's title.

I jotted down her name and email, and we talked about books we had recently encountered. All I had in my notes besides the title The Wednesday Wars were the words "Vietnam" and "Shakespeare." Incongruous? Maybe. Maybe not. The book had since been sitting on my shelf waiting its turn when I discovered the audiobook at the local library when I went looking for my next read for the road.

I will confess than I am a great fan of the best of young adult literature, perhaps because I am a fan of young adult readers. I may not be a seventh grade boy, but I can remember being that age. Holling Hoodhood, the narrator, was convincing and complex. His English teacher, who appeared at first to be the antagonist (Mrs. Baker hates my guts, Holling complained routinely in the beginning) turned out to be a great mentor and catalyst for her student's growth.

When he, the lone Presbyterian in his seventh grade class, is left alone in her class room when the other students are either in synagogue school or catechism class on Wednesday afternoons, she tries first to send him back to remediate sixth grade math, and when that fails, she takes it upon herself to have him clear every chalk eraser in the junior high. Eventually, though, she settles on a better plan and begins assigning him readings of Shakespearean plays, beginning with The Tempest. What he believes is a plan to torture him fails because he discovers the plays aren't so bad.

The story is set in 1968, when his high school sister's desire to be a flower child and oppose the war flies in the face of the principles of his father, an ambition architect and the town's 1967 Man of the Year. When Mrs. Baker's husband (Tybalt) is reported missing in action in Vietnam, the war becomes all the more real to Holling and his friends.

The supporting cast of characters--the friends, the teachers, coaches and adminstrators, the intimidating eight graders, and their families--is strong and appealing. As Schmidt leads Holling and Mrs. Baker through the other plays--Macbeth, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, he weaves in Hollings' emerging awareness of the universal truths, the lessons of Shakespeare Mrs. Baker intends.

As if Shakespeare and Vietnam were not enough, Schmidt manages to infuse the book with New York Yankees baseball as well. I kept thinking as I read that this would be a perfect companion to another favorite YA book, Ron Koertge's novel-in-verse Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, the story of a high school baseball player stuck at home with his writer father as he recovers from mononucleosis and the recent death of his mother.

A firm believer myself that the bard writes for everybody and all times, I am glad to have worked my way through a few more of my favorites with Gary Schmidt, Holling Hoodhood, and Mrs. Baker.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

It Can't All Be Serious.

Today on the Today Show, authors of different literary genres--chick lit, mystery, detective novels--were sharing their summer reading suggestions, and I'll be honest, I didn't find many to add to my list. I'm a reading snob, but only in the most inconsistent way. I loved Harry Potter, but I just can't get into the Twilight series beyond book one (probably because the two are in no way literarily comparable.) There are some authors I ignore on general principle, although I try to be tactful when others gush about their books.

But I love Celia Rivenbark. Her books could be shelved under humor or under Southern--and honestly, doesn't Southern humor merit its own section in the bookstore? I had read Bless Your Heart, Tramp and We're Just Like You, Only Prettier before she appeared at Hickory's library for a "girls' night out" reading. She was equally entertaining in person. I love to have the real voice for my own internal soundtrack, especially when the author's writing has strong literary voice.

Since then, I buy her new books while they're still in hardback. (Then I give them as gifts to just the right people when they come out in paperback.) I mean no disrespect to Ms. Rivenbark when I say that her books provide the perfect bathroom reading. They sit right there on the back of the tank with the Reader's Digest. I just finished her latest, You Can't Drink All Day If You Don't Start in the Morning," the title coming, if I recall correctly, from a cousin's tee shirt. Since some of my friends are about to start out on their second annual RV trip back and forth across America. (Last year's was called "The Big Heads and More" as they headed toward Mt. Rushmore. This year's goal is the Big Ditch--the Grand Canyon.) Rivenbark's observations on camping should make for perfect road reading.

In a week or two, I am attending an engagement party for the daughter of a friend, and the fiance's parents will be in town from Scotland. I don't know what I'll get the happy couple, but I think his mother is going to need a couple of books like these to help her understand the Southern future in-laws and wedding protocol.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Real People, True Stories

The next in my inadvertent detour through nonfiction this summer is William Kamkwamba's memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. This is the simply-told story of a boy from Malawi, the son of a maize farmer whose ambitions for attending secondary school were dashed when drought and famine first nearly destroyed the area, with many literally starving to death, then devastated the family's financial situation. Forced to drop out of school when his family couldn't come up with the requisite fees, William's curiosity led him to the small community library, where he read voraciously, occasionally asking the teacher who worked there for definitions of words he didn't know. He was particularly interested in science and began, with the help of his two best friends Gilbert and Geoffrey, to build a windmill from materials he found at the local garbage dump or scavenged.

The project first provided light to his own home, changing the family's life in much the way Edison's light bulb must have changed those in his world--extending reasonable waking hours past sunset. He learned too that he could charge cell phones for neighbors, and eventually set his eyes on powering a well that would allow his family to grow a second crop each year.

Although the project was first observed warily by his neighbors--some fearing he might be invoking witchcraft--it finally gained him international attention and an opportunity to travel and eventually to get what he had wanted most all along--an excellent education.

Someone who heard Kamkwamba speak after his book's success said the young man had one poignant question: Where was this Google when I was building my windmill?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nonfiction for a Change

I'm usually engrossed in a novel or two a week during the summer, since fiction is my favorite, but this summer I've veered toward some other options. I had downloaded a copy of Francine Prose's book Anne Frank back in November after attending the NCTE convention in Philly, but I just got around to reading it on my flight home from Turkey when I just couldn't hang in there with Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I had read one of Prose's books on writing, lent to me by a student in my creative writing class a few years ago. This book takes a fresh look at Anne Frank's famous diary from a literary perspective.

In this book, Prose first disabuses readers of the idea of this book as a one-draft stroke of young prodigy. Evidence of revision, among other things, proves that Anne had intended her writing to have a broader audience that "Dear Kitty." The resulting book by Prose offers something for a wide audience as well. She looks at the book, the play, and the movie that resulted, as well as much of the controversy involved in each. For writers, the book reemphasizes the value of revision and of a sense of one's readers. The last part of the book deals with ways for teachers to use the book--at all education levels. This was for me one of the most valuable sections of Prose's work, but I needed to read the preceding chapters to make this last most useful.

I was reminded of a work of fiction I had encountered a few years ago, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, a work of fiction based on the flawed assumption that Peter might have survived and come to American, choosing to pass as a Gentile--even to his own wife--until the diary's publication strikes him mute. I had also read a most clever essay by David Sedaris first in the New Yorker then in one of his books in which he describes the dilemma of looking for a new apartment and deciding that Anne Frank's house was the perfect place for him to live. He manages to balance his pointed humor with very poignant response to the truth of her story.

The Diary of a Young Girl (which, by the way, was not her chosen title) is one of those classic works that not only stands up to rereading after one's school years, but absolutely demands it. (I put The Good Earth, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Once and Future King in that same category.) The book doesn't change over time, but as a reader matures and experiences life, the book takes on a richer, fuller meaning. Prose has certainly enriched that experience for her readers.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Book Report:

I spent more time at the airport than I really intended on my way to Istanbul this month. Missing about five connecting flights, including three different international flights, I had lots of time for reading. I had intended to report on my reading during my travels, but our hotel (the Lady Diana in Sultanahmet) had three computers, all of which were different and I had the most challenging time finding my punctuation marks. I eventually found most. In fact, my closing my eyes and using my tenth grade touch typing skills (Thank you, Mrs. Aldridge!) I found the comma and period right where they belonged, hidden under symbols I didn't normally use. I eventually had to use cut and paste for the @ symbol--just to check my email--and I never found the apostrophe. I actually considered typing without it and using a little note in the header, but my English teacher in me just couldn't do it. I have a hard enough time typing titles on Facebook without italics. Now without further ado (oh, maybe just a little), here is the first installation in my travel reading report.

On the way to the airport, I finished listening to my current audio book (due back at the library before I return), Anita Shreve's new novel A Change in Altitude. I had read a couple of her novels before and found that what keeps me reading is not her characters but the research. I had read her book A Wedding in December, her attempt at a Big Chill experience, set not at a funeral but at a wedding, and I kept reading for the back story, a historical account of a ship explosion in Halifax, that had me googling for more details. This book had whiny, inconsistent main characters centered around two attempts to climb Mt. Kenya.

On the flight I began reading Anna Quindlen's latest novel, Every Last One, my current book club choice. I have always enjoyed Quindlen's writing, both fiction and nonfiction. I was immediately drawn to the protagonist, a mother just a little younger than me, with children almost ready to leave the nest. The first half was a gentle, engaging story line, but without giving a spoiler, I will say that midway through the book, Quindlen threw a major curve and I couldn't stop reading. Now I am so eager for our book club meeting because I have a genuine need to talk about this book.

My next book on the trip was Joanne Proulx's Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, a book with an "I couldn't put it down recommendation from one of the younger members of my book club. As the novel opens, the protagonist is in the basement of his best friend's house with several of his stoner buddies when--out of the blue--he predicts, quite accurately, the accidental death the next day of one of the boys in the room. While it might be more natural for me to identify with Quindlen's middle-aged wife and mother, this kid had me. As he deals with his bizarre unwanted gift, he also must wrestle with feelings for his dead friend's charming girlfriend. This is an eerier, less humorous I Love You, Beth Cooper novel. The same actor could play either leading part--an awkward, out-of-the-mainstream teenage boy. Sara was right: I couldn't put it down.

I'll pick up next with more of my wide variety of reading experiences on the road and in the air. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lacuna The Carolina Connection

It's happened again--I'm reading along, traveling vicariously to another part of the world, then zing! I'm back home faster than Dorothy clicking her slippered heels. It happened a few years ago when I read Steve Berry's The Romanov Prophecy (beware of spoiler!) when the title character moved from the former Soviet Union to San Francisco then Richmond then Boone, NC.

Now I've just finished Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel Lacuna, and after spending half the book in Mexico City with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky, the protagonist Harrison Shepherd ends up, of all places, in Asheville, NC, living on Montford Ave. I forget who said it--I think Richard Peck, the YA novelist, that we all read fiction for a sense of recogniton. I know I do.

Lacuna was a bit of a slow start for me. Anyone who reads Kingsolver's novels--and I've read them all--knows she gives lots of detail--places, colors, plants, food. It all fits in the end, but you have to read through it. This book is told through journals, letters, clippings from the newspaper, and it is, in the end, a satisfying tale.

The protagonist is a young man, a writer, who keeps himself out of the spotlight in his own stories. As a result, I found his secretary Violet Brown the most engaging character of the novel. She is a no-nonsense woman, widowed young, empathetic and wise. She's the one I missed most at the end. I will try to catch a glimpse of her or the home she inherited from Shepherd the next time I visit Asheville.