Sunday, January 31, 2010

"I was half in love with her by the time we sat down."

{image from Books Rule}

One of the books I most recommend to my male students is King Dork by Frank Portman.  The main character creates a new band weekly, less for the music, more for the opportunity to pick a new name and design new cover art.  He mockingly points out that his English teachers are all in love with The Catcher in the Rye, ironically calling out phonies just as Holden would.  It's been fun to see kids who have read Catcher go on to read King Dork catch those idiosyncracies and then to have King Dork readers realize they are missing out and walk over to the "classics" basket in my classroom library.

All that to say, here is a round up of some thoughts on Salinger.  I'm sure he would despise all that has been written up (hence, see the Onion link), but.  I'm not going to lie, it only took a second for me to be half in love with Salinger when my sophomore honors English teacher told us he was going to risk it and read a book with us that is banned in schools across the country.  If you know me, it's no surprise that I was not quite apt to subversion in high school, so this small act seemed pretty exciting to me.   Of course, when I reread Catcher a few years ago, reading the notes my sixteen year old self left was hilariously amazing. If you know me now, you're probably saying, "Kristen, of course your dangerous living would involve books." I know, I know.

Anyway, my recommendation (if you don't have 30 papers to grade...curses) is to read your freezing day away at The New Yorker, which has compiled a list of many of Salinger's stories from back issues. Or, check out some of these links, which were the most relevant/amusing/best to me (in that order).  And, you're welcome, here is a link list of my past thoughts on Salinger

Holden Caulfield and YA Literature

The Onion

Dave Eggers on Salinger

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mean Girls. And a bit more on how a tea kettle or coffee pot just might save the world.

Starting a few months ago, The Help by Kathryn Stockett seemed to be everywhere.  I saw it on book blogs, heard people casually mention it in passing and saw it reviewed in a few magazines.  My mom read it, so I planned on it being my Christmas break read: a hardcover that I wouldn't have to transport in my suitcase because I'd read the whole thing in Kentucky.  But somehow between the family watching season one of our favorite show, The Closer, and my mom and I basking in both of our weeks off from work by gallavanting around Louisville and the movie theater, I had to haul the book back to New York. Anyway.

The Help chronicles the story of the black housekeepers who worked for white families in Jackson, Mississippi during the most intense times of the Civil Rights movement.  Jackson seemed a world away from the activism that is occurring all over the country, tucked into its own social hierarchies.  One of the main characters nicknamed Skeeter comes from a white family.  Skeeter, now out of college with no husband, feels her singleness as she watches her friends from high school get married, purchase homes and have children.  She struggles as she wants to have these things, but at the same time has aspirations and ideas that surpass her friends' contentment with where they are in life and the pity they feel for her for not having attained those same things yet.  

Through a course of events, Skeeter attempts to put her dream of writing into reality by writing the stories of the black housekeepers in the towns.  Two of those women, Aibileen and Minny, make up the other two narrative voices.  Skeeter's eyes are opened to the reality and deep seated racism that exists in her hometown, in the homes of her friends, her boyfriend, her parents and herself.  Two big ideas were running through my mind as I read this book.

One, Skeeter's friends drove me crazy (as I think they were supposed to).  Adult women acting like catty teenagers rallying around the most popular girl is disgusting.  I will never fully understand the spell that happens to girls who desperately want approval from the girl who has proven herself to be the meanest, but also the most powerful.  Watching this in the lives of my students is heartbreaking.  Watching this in the lives of grown women is infuriating.  Skeeter's best friend from high school is painted as the archenemy, doing whatever it takes to maintain the lines of racism, privilege and power in Jackson.  To go against her is to throw oneself into social isolation.  It was interesting to see how Stockett crafted the development the these female characters. 

The part that I enjoyed the most in the story was watching the unlikely friendships form between Skeeter and the women she interviewed in order to write their stories.  Though at first uncomfortable and risky  for all parties involved, evening interviews at Aibileen's house over coffee and tea was when barriers began to break down.  These women were able to see each other as people with stories and struggle to the point where Skeeter felt more comfortable on "the other side of town" than she did on her own.  I was reading Three Cups of Tea at the same time as The Help and I did not expect them to overlap in this way, though it underlines the fact that taking the time to know people is the best way for healing and peace.  And true friendship. 

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Three Cups of Tea

A library copy of Three Cups of Tea, the story of Greg Mortenson and his building of schools in Pakistan, was deposited in my teacher mailbox at work, and as my school gets ready for its first "community read," I have now finished the book that has been on my list to read since it was published.  Though it wasn't the most well written book, it is impossible to not walk away from it thinking.

First, one of the parts that was most inspiring was Greg Mortenson's story itself: he was not someone with money to burn.  A mountain climber whose experiences descending K2 made him vow to come back and build a school, Greg was living in a car with a virtually nonexistent bank account.  It's clear that his passions took priority in his life: he would rather scrimp by in order to get to the next adventure, and after a Pakistani village took him in, building a school for them became the next reason to rally.  I know that it's not news to anyone that when choosing to live out your passion, sacrifice is involved.  It just never stops being poetic.

I wrestle all the time thinking about how meaningful change comes about in the world--or in an individual life. I know that it involves an intricate, complex web of various macrosystems, I still feel convinced that change happens--as Mortenson shares--one cup of tea at a time.  Mortenson did not walk into Pakistan thinking that as a citizen of a wealthy, powerful country he knew abest.  He took the time to know the people: to learn their languages, understand their customs and values and honor their faith and traditions. In response, people trusted him and his vision because they got to know him and his values.

And, obviously because I am a teacher, it was refreshing to read this story because it truly values education.  Though it is one of the slowest ways to see change--just like taking the time to talk over tea slows down the process of conducting business-- education is the key to a healthier world, and I honestly don't think such an idea is naive or overly idealistic.  Rather, it's a different kind of priority:  one that requires patience and dedication and constant reminding of a vision for true good.  

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A most exciting book.

I got this for Christmas and I'm hoping that it re-inspires my love for having dinner parties.  I *love* Mark Bittman and this book is explanatory and educational.  Best of all it's not written in strict recipes, which is how I generally roll while cooking.