Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year in Review Part Two: paragraph style

If you know me, you know that I function better in Microsoft Word and paragraphs than Excel or even the most basic kind of list. So, here are a few paragraphs about story in my life this year.

There are three main ways that story impacted my life this year, for better or for worse.

1. Television.  Having no real responsibilities outside my job paired with my introverted need to recharge by myself and the fact that I avoid the outdoors at all costs in the winter means that I have a tendency to get wrapped up in a few shows. Besides the fact that I can thank television for starting many of my friendships, my argument for you TV haters out there is that story is story is story.  And some of these shows made me think more than a lot of the books I read. Television winners of 2009:  Friday Night Lights (thank you Mary Elaine and Carolyn), Mad Men, Damages, The Closer.

2. Young Adult Literature.  My job being what it is, I like to stay relatively up to date on what my students are reading. I have a love/hate relationship with YA Lit for many reasons. I love coming across literary heroes for my students and having answers when they ask me what I recommend.  I love it when books open windows for life experiences and make my students deeper, more well rounded people. But, sometimes my brain stops working when I'm reading a lot of Young Adult Lit, or it only stays in teacher mode.  I read so many young adult novels this fall/early winter (Impossible, Your Own Sylvia, The Secret Garden, The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Tenth Circle), that I'm ready for some seriously challenging and thought provoking adult fiction.

3. Book Clubs. This was by far the best part of my reading year.  A friend and I decided to start our own book club  and read: Lolita, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, Anne of Green Gables, The Savage Detectives, The House of the Spirits and The Age of Innocence. Our meetings are some of my favorite nights and reading books with someone makes me a better reader...I read more closely and carefully. If you're not in a book club, start one. We started by wanting to read more of the classics that we somehow were never assigned to read.

4. I am my mother's daughter and come from a long line of readers. When my brother and I were little, we were "required" to read for at least 30 minutes every night. I laugh now because my brother and I both have a ridiculous amount of books piled up on our nightstands. My mom and I both bought the same book for my brother for Christmas.  We are both in book clubs. I no longer bring books home because I know she'll have a few that I want to read since my last trip.  My cousins are my favorite book recommenders (and television commenters, for that matter) and the ones that keep my "to read" pile nice and high. I love it.

Books on Deck for 2010:

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
No Logo by Naomi Klein
(plus all the ones on my blog sidebar. I'd better get on that.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Year In Review Part One

My top ten reading experiences of 2009:

1. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.  Hands down the most thought provoking book (fiction or nonfiction) of the year.

2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The first of the Russians that my book club read. Love.

3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. There really aren't words for how much I loved this book. Favorite fiction read of the year.

4. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  One of the most beautiful, honest memoirs I've ever read.

5. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Children's Lit combined with gorgeous, gorgeous pencil drawing illustrations. So enjoyable.

6. Compassion by Henri Nouwen. Most influential book in my thought life. How I want to live.

7. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.  Bolano fascinates me (his Amulet made last year's list).

8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Long, but so worth it, especially when reading with a book club.

9. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.  Because rereading this book never gets old.

10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Not so much for its literary value, but for the perfect morning of escapism I had in Central Park this summer.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

More well rounded than Bella.

Work has overtaken my life in recent weeks...I find myself leaving school after it is already dark, frantically reading drafts to give feedback and arrange small group work and. Reading endless young adult literature. Apologies for those who look to me for adult recommendations. My winter break will be dedicated to reading books at my own level. But, young adult literature still captures what draws me to literature to begin with: story. Characters who change.  Moments frozen with meaning. Life.

(If you don't know what happens at the end of the Twilight series and want to be surprised, don't read on!)

That being said, I've spent my week so far with Impossible by Nancy Werlin; a story inspired by Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair.  What starts as realistic fiction takes on fantastical faerie tale elements: a seemingly normal teenage girl, Lucy, finds that her family line has been cursed...she will be pregnant at 18 and after giving birth go mad.  The majority of the story is Lucy attempting to break this curse and is of course sprinkled with romance.

For much of the novel, I could not help but think of Bella Swan of Twilight. I read the first novel for the same reason I read all young adult literature: to know what my students are reading. But I confess outright that I got pulled into the pop candy that it is.  But, as the series went on, I became increasingly frustrated with Bella as a character: her entire life revolved around Edward and she didn't seem to have any other interests.  She lost her voice.  When Lucy falls in love with the boy next door-Zach-, I began to wonder if she, too, would be another girl in literature to completely lose her voice and passion and Zach would be another "perfect" person for teenage girls to swoon over as he saves the day.

Interestingly enough, Zach's family calls him out on his hero-complex (Ryan Atwood, anyone?), which never happened in Twilight.  Lucy pushes back a bit, too...genuinely struggling with letting someone help her. She also maintains a solid relationship with her best friend, who is also a life line for her  in the closing scenes.  She keeps her family in the loop all the way through.

In short, this is young adult literature that I would recommend to my students. But now its time to read something on my reading level:)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

An artist.

Although I've read Sylvia Plath, I've never really studied her work in depth.  Although I vaguely knew her story of passion, poetry and suicide, I did not read The Bell Jar until I took a class about Literature and Cold War Culture.  It offered a completely different immersion into the era: though McCarthyism and the Rosenburgs linger at the edges of the text, it addresses themes of art, women's roles and depression.  In graduate school I had a four hour writing class once a week where we convinced our teacher that we should go see Sylvia and discuss it over drinks afterward instead of class.  She agreed so long as we studied and wrote about her poetry in preparation. Done. By the end of all this, I could hold a  decent conversation on her and haven't read much of her since.

A lot of my students in Brooklyn are much more intellectual than I ever was in middle school and I'm always trying to find books that will inspire them and sate their curiosity. I heard about Your Own, Sylvia last year at a conference and it has been sitting on my book shelf ever since. I've been trying to do research about young adult literature for girls and various genre writing for kids in general, so I finally picked it up. By the end, I was pretty floored. (See previous post for general overview and style notes.)  Though I am not the primary audience for the book, the research and footnotes were incredibly helpful and the poems the book was written in impressive. But this is not what I want to mainly discuss.

I had a few students in mind who I thought would really fall in love with Plath...they are girls who see through the sometimes shallow, always awkward, existence that is middle school.  They read with feminist lenses at the age of 12. As I was reading Your Own, Sylvia, I realized that though Plath is different from the average woman in the 1950's in so many ways, she was at core a struggler, just like the rest of us.  She was painfully meticulous, studious and ambitious while at the same time dating multiple people at once and when she married, seemed to fall just behind her husband.  But she wrestled and lived with her heart--and that may be what makes an artist: one who struggles rather than succumbs.

And so, I relearned what the world has been trying to make me see for the past seven years or so: that beauty comes from struggle and no one really has their act together. And perhaps that is what the adolescent girls who read this book need to hear most of all.

Inspired to Teach Research in Writing.

There has been a burst of popularity in books that are written in verse: Ellen Hopkins and Patricia McCormick are two of my students' favorite authors who use this technique.

Yesterday I read a completely different Young Adult book in verse called Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill. Though a work of fiction, Plath's life is highly researched and her poems studied in depth.  It is set up chronologically, structured by poems "written" by a cast of characters who knew Plath from her mother to ex-boy friends to psychiatrists to, of course, Ted Hughes.  Each of the poems written by a "character" include footnotes about Plath's relationship to and history with them and where she found the information. Hemphill also writes poems  for Sylvia herself, all of which are modeled on one of Plath's own poems, which she footnotes.

I've been thinking a lot about teaching creative writing lately.  My curriculum is filled with it (short story, memoir, poetry, journalism), I've incorporated "independent writing" into my time with my 7th graders (where kids have the freedom to write whatever they want to write and my teaching is about the process of combining passion with the management of a "publishing" deadline), I've applied to teach it at a summer program and I currently have some amazing students who meet for hot chocolate and writing in my after school program (see picture. they're great.).

Not only was this book a really creative introduction to the life and complexity of Sylvia Plath, but all I could think about while reading it was how this could be an amazing "mentor text" for my students as writers, or a text that serves as a model for a genre or craft.  In our independent writing publishes, many students have attempted the "journal style" of writing and creating poetry anthologies, but I haven't seen a book attempted in verse...or based on research.  The research part is exciting because the 7th grade team has incorporated it into our fiction unit and I think it will really raise the bar of story writing in our classes.  I can't wait to share the structure of this book with students and see how it inspires a handful of them to try something new.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

so it *was* 65 degrees this week.

as wintry mix

The Mysterious Benedict Society.

 I think I may have become that adult who, on sunny days, wants to sweep children out of doors, into their imaginations and away from their computers and game systems.  Or the adult who, on rainy days, encourages the devouring of books. And it might be true that I want to possess both of these characteristics myself. After spending the last week or so catching up on some Young Adult Literature, I remain convinced that adventure stories about smart, creative kids are my favorites under the YA umbrella.

 The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart opens with this advertisement: "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" The story that follows is one filled with 4 adventurous, bright children who embark on an undercover mission to figure out what and who is behind the "Emergency" that is plaguing the country.  Here's what I love: adult characters who take children seriously and children who seek out knowledge and adventure, rather than succumb to the boredom that often accompanies being one of the smarter kids in the room.

Besides encouraging adventure, these books invite a deeper kind of introduction to the symbolic and kind of a "sci-fi lite" experience: even though there aren't "Whisperer" machines that create a false sense of well being or "brainsweeping" that hides your memories from yourself in the real world...or wait. Are there? Books like The Mysterious Benedict Society invite kids into reading the world through a critical, literary lens. It is amazing to watch them make connections and begin to understand the art of reading.  A lot of parents want their children to jump right into classics in the 7th and 8th grade, but what they miss is that there are a lot of great stepping stone books that create engaged, thinking readers.

Anyway, my favorite days of walking around my neighborhood involve running into a handful of past students who have started a band, created amps out of olive oil containers, built their own ukuleles and set out to eat a chair in a year's time.  I guess I just want my students to have literary heroes who don't settle for laying around and then follow in their footsteps.  (Hilariously enough, I just watched the another episode of Mad Men where Betty tells her children when they are bored/scared/overwhelmed to go watch television.)