Friday, December 16, 2011

Can't Help Loving the Canon

For all my posting, I realize that not only do I not write much about what I read to teach, but I don't usually even jot the titles down on my calendar where I list all my reading. Today, though, as we wrapped up a semester of British Literature I (Beowulf to Swift), I was struck by just how much I've enjoyed all the reading. As a pleasant surprise, a number of students stayed after to make similar comments about King Lear and Paradise Lost.

Certainly little of what I've assigned in the class all semester has been easy reading. The physicality of the textbook doesn't help much either. The book--paperback at that--is about the size of a large brick, almost cube-shaped, which doesn't lend itself to stacking atop a pile of books. The pages are as thin as a Bible's, and the print warrants reading glasses, even for the young. I've discovered that since the works are far beyond copyright limits, if they ever were covered, I can usually download them on my electronic reader for nothing. Now that I've mastered note making and bookmarking on the device, I've managed to make the most of the reading experience. Interestingly, I often find that when I go to transfer my notes to my instructor's copy before class, I've often made the same notes as before.

(Let me add this note: Even though I've read almost everything I teach before (often many, many times), I feel an odd moral obligation to read it again "in real time," not only so I'll be fresh for class, but so that I can realize the time constraints of my students' reading.)

When I teach these classic works of literature, I'm usually reminded of exactly why they've lasted--not simply because they are old, dusty, museum worthy artifacts, but because they really are timeless. Beowulf is exciting, Paradise Lost, grand; "A Modest Proposal" does what all good satire means to do: makes us laugh (or groan) then makes us think. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight merits reading aloud--with gusto.

What made me particularly happy today was seeing that after enduring a full semester under the reading load, quite a few still seemed to share my love of this required reading.

I think I'll come back next semester.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Other Scarlet

By coincidence, I've had two Scarlet-related posts within a month, totally unconnected. My most recent book I finished, this one a book club choice, was Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone. On the cover, the book is describe as a parody of Margaret Mitchell's iconic Gone with the Wind. I wonder, though, if that appeared before or after the court case in which Mitchell's estate accused Randall of plagiarism. (More research will follow. See you later, Google.)

While a charge of plagiarism is a bit over the top, the parody label misses the book's tone altogether. The story is told through the journals of a woman named Cynara, daughter of Scarlet O'Hara's Mammy (she of the swishing red petticoats), ***SPOILER ALERT***half sister to Scarlet (who is simply called Other throughout the book) and mistress to R---- (obviously Rhett Butler).

Rather than focusing on the pre-Civil War South or slavery in particular, this novel takes readers into the world of race and racism just at the end of the war. Amid all the changes the winds are blowing in, Randall has readers thinking more seriously about racial labels, particularly the "one-drop rule" and about ownership of oneself. She prompts readers to think the idea of responsbility to a person--even with good intentions--who pays for one's freedom.

I've long been fascinated with significance of names, of owning our names, of respecting or disrespecting others by knowing, acknowledging or remembering their names. The last sure sign that Cynara is her own woman comes through her ownership (and careful protection of) her real name.

I enjoyed her secondary characters--those borrowed and those she invented, "Miss Mealy Mouth, for instance, her thinly disguised Melanie Wilkes. Her glimpse of "Ashley Darling" also takes an interesting but not unexpected twist.

More than the authorized sequel Rhett's People by Donald McCaig, this novel made me want to revisit the original novel (not the much revisited movie) to recollect the whole story as I first knew it. How could the Mitchell estate object?


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wondering About Rereading

Flipping through the New York Times Sunday "Book Review" this afternoon--an exercise in procrastination, I'll admit--I came across a piece by David Bowman, "Read It Again, Sam." He is discussing the rereading habits, particularly of famous authors. Coincidentally, I'd had a conversation after class with a couple of students. One said she never reread a book because she knew that meant that she might be reading something new at the time; her friend admitted that she had some favorite to which she returned again and again.

I understand both camps. I fall into both from time to time. As an English teacher, of course I read some works again and again as I teach them. I've never felt I was fair to rely on my memory from a year or more ago when I asked my students to come to class fresh from reading a text. My own reading at their scheduled pace also helps me understand the reading load I've assigned. As a result, I've read Macbeth and many other Shakespearean plans more times than I can count. To that, add To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, The Once and Future King, Cold Mountain, and even Paradise Lost--well, you get the point.

This self-discipline also leads me to change up my syllabus regularly to keep from tiring of books, short stories, plays, and poetry I love.

Today, though, I'm thinking that I may have missed some wonderful books that others find such pleasure that they return again and again. So rather than giving my own rereading list, I want to solicit lists of YOUR favorites. Since books are my favorite gift to buy this time of year (easy to wrap, too), this might be a good time to shake up my own list. I'll follow up in a week or so.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Just in Time for Christmas Shopping: The Book List

I post all kinds of book lists here throughout the year, but almost every November I attend the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, where I not only come home with new ideas and resources for teaching, but I also accumulate a book list that would keep me busy reading all year long. Naturally, I want to share. On the list below, the first books are those shared at my favorite session "Readers Among Us," a regular offering at every conference in which participants share what we've been reading (for pleasure, not for teaching). We are asked to write down titles we mention and turn them in . In a week of so, the compilation arrives. I've included this list, along with other titles I heard from other conversations, formal and informal. In some cases, I've added a few notes as well.

Without further ado, here's the list:

Readers Among Us – Session K-11

Chicago 2011

The point of this session is to discuss we are reading as teachers who read. Many of us were drawn to our profession because we liked to read. At the conference we are so concerned with what everyone else is reading or with what we have to read that we neglect what drew us here in the first place. Here we have what our readers are reading. Feel free to distribute our list to everyone.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison – I keep going back to tis novel because it forces me to reconsider what happens when an individual, a family, a community internalizes pain and hatred from within and without

The Dune Series – Frank Herbert – I appreciate that this sci fi goes beyond science and provokes the reader to think about politics, economics, ecology, religion, and so much more

Little Bee – Chris Cleave

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver –

Circle Mirror Transformation – Annie Baker

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Out of Oz – Gregory McGuire – Last book in the Wicked Series

The Sword of Truth Series – Terry Goodkind

A Parchment of Leaves – Silas House

On Writing – Stephen King

War and Peace – The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation – Leo Tolstoy

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma – Jack Lynch

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (sequel yet?)

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky – Heidi Durrow

First They Killed My Father – Loung Ung

Lucky Child – Loung Ung

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead (last year’s Newbery; you’ll finish and

want to read it again immediately)

Russian Winter: A Novel (P.S.) – Daphne Kalotay (ballerina who donates

jewelry…surprise ending)

State of Wonder – Anne Patchett

Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann

Bossy Pants – Tina Fey (hilarious book; ugly cover)

Stiff – Mary Roach

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet – Jamie Ford

The Glass Palace – Amitov Ghosh

Loving Frank – Nancy Horan

The Lemon Tree – Sandy Tolan

The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates – Wes Moore

The State of Wonder – Ann Patchett – A researcher in Southe America does not respond to the drug company that is funding her research. Two doctors go in search. Great book club book.

The Eyre Affair – Jasper fforde

Readicide – Kelly Gallagher

That Used To Be Us – Thomas L. Friedman

The Little Prince – Saint Exupery

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee – Needs to be read regularly

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Given Day – Dennis Leary

Columbine – David Cullen

Mary Ann in Autumn – Armistead Maupin

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson

The Master – Colm Toibin

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein – Julie Salamon

Just Kids – Patti Smith

Must You Go – Antonia Fraser

Kosher Chinese – Michael Levy

The Sorcerer’s Apprenticeships: A Season in the Kitchen of El Bulli

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

We the Animals – Julie Otsuka

A Long Hard Look – Napolitano

Blood, Bones and Butter – Gabrielle Hamilton

The Women - T.C. Boyle

Slam – Nick Hornby

Juliet Naked – Nick Hornby

Great House – Nicole Krauss

Fall of Giants – Ken Follett

When She Woke – Hilary Jordan

Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

Dreams of Joy - Lisa See – Sequel to Shanghai Girls

The Invisible Bridge – Julie Orringer – WWII, Jews in Hungary – Family saga

Major Pettigrews Last Stand – Helen Simonsen – Comedy of manners-funny in a Jane Austin way-but set in modern England, with protagonists in their 60s

Three Men in a Boat – Jerome Jerome – Farcical travel/adventure – Oscar Wilde meets Monty Python – On the Thames – Written over 100 years ago and still funny and relevant

I Think I Love You – Allison Pearson – Woman revisits her teen obsession with David Cassidy

The Winter Sea – Susanna Kearsley – Scotland, The Old Pretender, present/past switching

Okay for Now – Gary Schmidt – Young boy 1967, tough family life, brother has retunred from Vietnam, kid is trying to draw Audobon plates (as a metaphor for his life)

The Return of Captain John Gonnett – Elizabeth Speller – WWI, British mystery, desertion, suicide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

States of Wonder – Ann Patchett – Perfect book club book (medical ethics-fertility drug) like Heart of Darkness with female main characters

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin – Erik Larson – Berlin-WWII, American Ambassador to Germany (like reading a newsreel)

Fall of Giants set in WWI, beginning in a Welsh mining town -
Girl Who Fell From the Sky – Durrow – Bi-racial child, remarkable story

* * * * * *

Other books from my notes that didn’t make it onto the cards, thereby missing the list:

Marcello and the Real World, Francisco Stark (best book on Asberger’s)

The Feed, M. T. Anderson (social networking—great on audio!)

The Sense of an Ending (Booker) reminiscent of Flaubert’s Parrot, tiny and


Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, Amitav Ghosh (two perspectives on the

opium trades wars; third book expected)

IQ84, Harukami Marakami—long book, love story

Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer—nonfiction, memory championship

From Carol Jago’s list (anticipated annually):

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (new translation by Lydia David, “the

original desperate housewife)

The Good Soldiers, David Finkel (nonfiction)

Lost and Found, Shaun Tan

The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Adam Sisman

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (was a Chicago Big Read)

Burger’s Daughter, Nadine Gordimer

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Game of Thrones (series), George R. R. Martin

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje

Other titles that were shared at a Roundtable:

The Grief of Others, Leah Hager Cohen

The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimble

Battle of Jericho, Sharon Draper (1st or 3 books re: bullying rituals)

Unbroken, Laura Hildebrand (author of Seabiscuit)

While I Was Gone, Sue Miller

Sorta Like a Rock Star, Matthew Quick
Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the

Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's Gulag, Karl Tobein

The Hangman’s Daughter, Oliver Potzsch and Lee Chadeayne

Living Dead Girl, Elizabeth Scott

There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz

Scratch Beginnings (Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, Adam


Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh

Berlin: City of Stones, Jason Lutes (Book one)