Thursday, September 30, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #9 Stuart Little and an Ode to E.B. White's Craft

After rereading both Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little in recent months, my love for E.B. White has grown immensely.  I think that it is rare to find an adult writer who so richly describes the imaginary hopes of children: his details are so realistic that I come to believe that animals must indeed talk, that the Central Park boat pond is capable of squalls, that people can really befriend creatures.  While I was reading Stuart Little, I found that I couldn't find the same depth as in Charlotte's Web, but his literary attention to imaginary details made me really believe that this was a real story. Here are some favorites:

"...and the west wind (which had come halfway across America to get to Central Park) sang and whistled in the rigging and blew spray across the decks, stinging Stuart's cheeks with tiny fragments of flying peanut shell tossed up from the foamy deep."  I love how alive the wind seems--as though it were on an arduous journey to get to New York City at this exact moment. White goes on to create an entire ocean on the small pond and I can't help but get caught up in it.

I also love White's passion for the country, which can be heard in the sweet bird Margalo's voice (and reminds of The Cricket in Times Square, sigh): "I come from the fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle; I come from vales of meadowsweet, and I love to whistle."  White not only describes but creates an entire sense of place and person (well, bird). This kind of writing makes me want to write my own Ohio version of this sentence.

Stuart is incredibly endearing when he asks to the class he substitute teaches and E.B. White comes across as one of those adults who truly understands children and never lost his sense of wonder:
"How many of you know what's important? Henry Rackmeyer, you tell us what's important." 
"A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby's neck smells if it's mother keeps it tidy." 
"Correct. Those are important things. You forgot one thing, though. Mary Bendix, what did Henry Rackmeyer forget?" 
"He forgot ice cream with chocolate sauce on it." 

Stuart Little is the kind of book that did not exactly carry me away the way that Charlotte's Web did--the ending seems way to abrupt and we don't find Margolo.  I remain wondering what happened to sweet Margolo and whether she was just White's impetus to get Stuart out of the city and into a life of adventure, or whether the rumors I researched are true and he had a deadline he had to meet. Either way, I suppose I'm left thinking. But this was a story, for me, less of narrative perfection and more of an endearing escape and a reminder of sweet things that are far too often on the periphery of my mind.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #8 On Death and Love.

We started the Childhood Favorites Reread Unit and while I was running around my classroom talking with all the book clubs, I found myself saying that to the kids that it seemed like the author trusted his or her readers with some weighty material in many of the books.  I heard myself say this multiple times before I realized that 4 of the 8 books included death at the end: Charlotte's WebBridge to Terabithia, Freak the Mighty, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It could be argued and interpreted that the same happens in The Giver.  My next questions were why are young adult authors tackling such heavy topics and why are these the books that kids love, return to and claim as favorites later?

A part of me thinks that the reader becomes so attached to the well developed characters, that when we lose them it is a deep cut to the heart.  The pattern I notice is that the characters we lose (Charlotte, Leslie, and Kevin) teach the reader so much about how to live life well, that it seems impossible that those left could ever move on.  And yet, we see the ones who are left (Wilbur, Jesse, Max) deliberately choose to live life differently because they had experienced such incredible friendship.  It is not that these characters have great fortune in the end, but it is as though they have been trusted with a great, deep secret that people who haven't experienced loss often do not understand: there are things worth much more than any tangible object, amount of money could ever give us.  Love.

I think it is Edmund in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe who demonstrates this the most--or, perhaps it is Aslan as my ultimate literary hero.  Edmund is less rounded than the other characters I've mentioned and his flaws are not endearing.  Unlike my immediate love for Jesse Aarons, I basically can't stand the selfishness he displays for the majority of the story and have a hard time conjuring up any sympathy for his middle child antics. But. Aslan sees in Edmund what he can be (he later becomes, we find at the end of the story, Edmund the Just).  Aslan shows the ultimate form of love and sacrifices himself for Edmund--not something that I could ever do because Edmund seems so rotten.  But it is in that display of love that Edmund is rocked to the very core of his being, as I was as the reader.   (And, lucky for us, the deepest magic of Narnia brings Aslan back to life, more glorious than before. Thank goodness!)

All that to say, these authors trust my students--and me-- with real life and true life and good life.  They aren't afraid to put our hearts through the wringer a bit in the hopes that the story they have to tell will stay with for quite some time.  And they have.  All I can say to the book clubs happening over these stories in my classroom is that they hurt my heart in the best of ways.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Young Adult Female Protagonists: Nancy Drew

I am among the throngs who couldn't get enough of Nancy Drew mysteries when I was younger.  It fed into my obsession with Mary Higgins Clark in 7th grade and is probably the foundation of my love of too many mystery television shows.  I've been trying to read a lot of young adult books with female protagonists to get some insight into why we love certain ones, why we need certain ones (or why we should hate certain ones).  I found a copy of The Secret of the Old Clock for a dollar while shopping with my mom this summer and just re-read for the first time since...1988?

I couldn't get enough of her when I was younger.  In fact, I think I wanted to be her: driving around in a blue convertible, solving mysteries for all my neighbors, a blond beauty.  I'm pretty sure she was the impetus behind the "Mysterioso Club" I formed with my best friend, when we tried to find mysteries to solve in our midwestern neighborhood.  Maybe it was a combination of her cunning and her "smart" outfits that got me. (What are "smart" outfits, anyway?)

Generally, I am a fan of female protagonists who are imperfect--girls a reader could see herself in (the Judy Blume response is coming soon...).  Nancy Drew is so creepily perfect in behavior...and very stereotypical suburban, upper middle class and white that I doubt any of my students could see themselves in her. If I had read the book for literary and cultural study alone (without my nostalgic childhood dreams of fighting crime), this post would be very different.  But I find myself incapable of betraying Nancy like that.  And, it is interesting to me that such an independent, teenage girl character was published only ten years after women got the right to vote.

All that to say, that despite the unfortunate nature of its literary style and characterization, I am still a fan of Nancy's adventures--their vintage nature is perfectly delightful.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a dystopian, slightly science fiction novel that takes place in England in the late 1990s.  It is narrated in what feels very stream-of-conscious by a 31 year old woman named Kathy H., who is remembering her child and young adulthood at a boarding school called Hailsham.  She narrates the way that I often talk--she has an initial point, but the details of narrative are built into the back story she provides while getting to that point.  Her narration has a deep tone of nostalgia and it is clear from the beginning that she is trying to make sense of what her life has become and the fate she knows she cannot avoid.  It is this tension that drives the book: the hope that the truth somehow didn't apply to the characters.

What I have been considering since I finished the book is how do we, as people, handle the truths about life that we accumulate along the way, especially the ones we do not wish to believe, not matter how confident we are of their existence?

One of the most poignant moments of the book for me was when another character, Tommy, faces the reality of his situation.  He is in a car with Kathy, and asks her to pull over.  He walks into the woods at the side of the road and screams his lungs out.  The injustice of reality is too much for him to bear, and he can think of no other way to respond.

Later, it appears that Tommy and Kathy have succumbed to the "safety" of knowing what is inevitable.  Perhaps they feel foolish for ever wishing existence to be more.  Kathy repeatedly talks about their knowing when they were children at Hailsham, but they just went right on playing and pretending.

When does it become naive and adolescent to fight what is bound to happen?  Are there certain realities that can be fought?

Is it ok to accept what is?  What do we do with the angst that remains? Live a life with trips to an isolated wood so we can scream our lungs out about it?

(Don't continue reading if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie.  All conclusions drawn so far are thought provoking without the ending. But I had such a strong opinion of the ending that it is impossible for me not to write about it).  My biggest disappointment in the book is that the characters don't fight (very hard, anyway).  I wanted to see them rise and buck authority and defy the life that was set for them, but instead they got angry and then settled into sadness and nostalgia. The book is ironically called, then, Never Let Me Go...but they do. And I kind of hate that.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

"There is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic," (preface).

"I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality," (32).

I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion about a year and a half ago and ever since have wanted to read more of her work.  Didion is able to capture--I don't want to say the heart, because though the heart is filled with mystery, such an overused term does not quite feel nuanced enough for her--the essence of a person or a place or an event in her nonfiction writing.  Her nonfiction essays in Slouching Toward Bethlehem are not merely a chronicle of something or someone that happened, but they cause the reader to enter into the exact temperature of mood and are given thorough understanding and feel of the time and place.  These essays were published individually in the sixties, then pulled together for this collection in the early seventies.

Didion's writing style made me think about how a sense of place creates a sense of self...or, about how remembering the small details of a place that was once our own can remind us of who we were, and wonder if those tree rings of experience are still buried somewhere.

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not," (139).

My first studio apartment in New York City in an Upper West Side brownstone--the worn banister next to the slightly crooked steps leading up to the third floor, my ikea furniture and new towels that matched my shower curtain.  My ritual of walking to Riverside Park every night with a mug of tea, looking west, leaning on the black, pointy rail imagining Ohio beyond the horizon.  I knew in those homesick moments that I would look back on them and feel nostalgia for the very reason my heart was then breaking.  Those days when New York didn't feel like home and my naive sense of self seem so endearing in a "bless her heart" kind of way that I wonder if the hardness of the city has gotten to me, after all.

I can think that way about any place, really.  My high school's football stadium.  All the backyards of my old neighborhood that ran together.  My first year teaching when I didn't have my own room and knew those 8th graders were playing me.  While I was visiting my parents in Louisville this summer, I really wanted to make a trip to Ohio--to see people, too, of course--but to run the 3 mile loop through the woods that I ran almost every day of every high school summer.  I romanticize that if I could just run at Sugarcreek every day, then continue my life in Brooklyn, that I'd have such a better sense of self.  Time and logistics didn't allow me to get there, and I can't decide if that were a good or bad thing.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Overwhelmed by books.

September is my new years.  I've never left the school year calendar, so I am lucky enough to still relish in new pencils and notebooks and post-its each fall.  My summer days are pretty leisurely, but there is something in my persona that is absolutely ready to start using my tiny moleskin planner again.  I also leave behind my nice, neat world of summer reading and end up with massive stacks of books to read and the desire to read them all at once.  It is September where I usually start reading a few books at once, given that they are different genres.

These are my current genres and a few titles of what you might be seeing posted around here in the near future:

Young adult for school. I'm doing book clubs with my students all year, so I'll be in a young adult book at all times. We are starting with Sold by Patricia McCormick and in a month or two we are doing a "I read Harry Potter #7 way to fast" reread club!

Young adult for research. I've been trying to study books with female protagonists.  I'm going to revisit some favorites like Nancy Drew and Dicey's Song.

Fiction for book clubs and/or my sanity. Upcoming picks: March by Geraldine Brooks and A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert.

Nonfiction for research, to add to the female protagonist study: Shelf Discovery: Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading and Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume.

Nonfiction to learn. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. No Logo by Naomi Klein.

There is a good chance I'll be reading one of each at any given moment and I couldn't be more excited to get started.  There are just so many words to read! Cheers to the feeling of fall and the beginnings of great things (and the most glorious season of life)!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Summer Reading Conclusion.

Somehow September started and I barely noticed.  Then I found myself in my classroom at school trying to set up my library before the kiddos arrived and I realized summer was indeed over. Interestingly enough, last summer's reading conclusion was written on a 65 degree August day. Today, the high is 94 degrees and I've got a hurricane looming over my labor day weekend flight to the homeland. 

The biggest clue to summer ending for me is that I find myself needing/wanting to read 5 books at once.  It is a habit I typically grow out of during my season of freedom because I am able to spend so much time reading, that I finish books pretty quickly.  Here's how it went this year:

I read almost all of the books on my list! I think this is due in part to the fact that I was traveling, which forced me to plan. These included:

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirevsky
In the Woods by Tana French
The Girl Who Played With Fire by Steig Larrson
March by Geraldine Brooks
Stuart Little by E.B. White (children's)
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick (young adult)
The Giver by Lois Lowry (young adult)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (young adult)

I picked up a few along the way, borrowed from a friend and my mom (and two I broke down and bought):

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Alexie Sherman (young adult)

Final conclusions: Favorites: March and rereading The Summer Book. Also, despite (almost) always having a book on hand, I found myself missing my bookshelves and some randoms I wanted to reread on lazy days at home (Harry Potter, especially).  Also, my books weighed too much and took up too much space in my carry on.  It was the only time I have ever wanted an e-reader of some sort.  Scary. Anyway, cheers to the fall and the craziness that my reading life is sure to become (which is the subject of my next post!)