Saturday, June 15, 2013

Summer Reading List & Notes

Each June I marvel at the fact that I have a job that affords me the opportunity to end a cycle, refresh my mind, and freshly begin again in September.  One of the ways that my mind refreshes itself the most is through getting lost in reading and being outside, so each June I revel in the creation of my summer reading list.  My last day of school is June 20th, as I'm taking a day off to travel for a wedding shower in the great state of Ohio, and I'm participating in 2 of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Projects summer institutes, which will end on July 5.  Technically my days of freedom start July 6th, but it does take over an hour to commute up to Teachers College, so I plan on getting lots of reading done that way, too.  After that, you'll find me in the park.  

Reading conclusions of summers past can be found here, if you're looking for books I've already written about.  Or, feel free to join me in reading some of the books below.  Outside of my book club, these are unintentionally overwhelmingly female and modern.  Also, as a note, I decided that for summer reading, I could take a break from my New Years Reading Resolution, and could purchase new books.  

Southwest Ohio Ex-pat Former English Majors Summer Book Club
Two of my great friends from home and I decided to read together this summer.  We each picked a different book for a different month of summer

June: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
July: Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
August: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

These come from the on-going list I keep on my phone from whenever I am wandering through a bookstore, a habit I highly recommend for those times when you have no idea what to read next or in an attempt to curb an out-of-control book buying habit :)

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (I've been on "Lost Generation" reading kick lately)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (from an imprint that brought me Elegance of a Hedgehog and A Novel Bookstore)

Mystery Books for my August Travels (& an e-book trial run): 
There is something wonderful about having a mystery read while stuck in airports or when flying across the Atlantic (!).  I am also trying something new with these titles and borrowing my fiancee's e-reader in my first-ever attempt to not add 15 pounds of books to my suitcase weight.  I will probably add my August book club choice on it as well.  It's best to travel prepared, you know? I'll write more about my e-book experience upon return, as it's bound to be a bit hard for this lover of turning paper pages.  I'm also trying to encourage public library e-book check out with my students in the fall, so I need to be able to speak knowledgeably by then!

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Stone Cutter by Camilla Lackburg

Though I'm generally heavy on the fiction, I like to mix it up and I'm pretty excited about all of these

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (Lately I can't get enough of history)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (the description of this book of essays sounds perfect)
The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (because I adore her)

Young Adult (this could be a bit ambitious, but that's a good way to plan for reading, right?)
I try to stay somewhat informed about what my students are reading, be full of recommendations, and be knowledgeable about the young adult literature world.  This summer's stack has the widest variety ever, from 50 Cent's novel to a transgender protagonist, to nonfiction picture books and collections about people who helped change and shape the world.  The only one missing is Wonder by R.J. Palacio, because I may have already pulled it from the stack and started it! 

Happy Summer Reading!!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Not just an escapist read: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

This book was exactly what I wanted it to be: an escapist story set in a small English village with protagonists who love to read.  There is something about such a premise that gets me every time.  And so, I read without taking notes and in long swathes on the couch and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson is about a retired Major from the British Army who is the epitome of upholding what most would see as old fashioned views of loyalty, trust, and honor.  His only brother dies unexpectedly on page 1 and throughout the story Major Pettigrew is thrown into a number of conflicts.

First,  his father left he and his brother a pair of shooting rifles that were meant to be rejoined and remain a pair when one of them passed away--yet his brother, though uninterested in guns, did not leave his to Major Pettigrew, who is an avid huntsman.  Through the story, he is forced to process through his devotion to this object--and the bitterness that it may have caused in his relationship with his brother.

He unexpectedly develops a kindred friendship with a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper in the village, who his neighbors sadly view as a foreigner rather than a neighbor.    The  Major must navigate his way through not only their prejudice and the deconstruction of the picture perfect world he thought he inhabited, but his own prejudice and the way he has existed and interacted with her for years before the moment that brings them together.

Even though this was an easy, escapist read, I thought it asked some important questions--mainly, about when is it time to reevaluate systems of living that always felt right? I've found that it is easy to maintain the same ideas about life if I never find myself in situations that require me to think outside of what I have always known--whether that is a belief of a region or a belief of a subculture.  But once someone meets and truly gets to know a person who is different from him or herself, it seems crazy to hold onto old views.  So, amidst the tea over Kipling and the countryside gardens, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand challenges readers to step out of their comfort zones relationally.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Story always seems to be the answer: the narrative structure and emotional health

I read mostly fiction.  I believe--and tell my students--that fiction can often be more true than fact in the ways that it can teach us about life.  What I've come to learn, though, is that it's not necessarily fiction per se, but narrative.  Story.  We are doing a coming-of-age literature unit and my biggest hope is that my students, just beginning some of the uphill climbs of growing up, can find hope in the ways that the protagonists they are reading get through their struggles.  I want them to see that in studying the classic story mountain structure, that there are hills and valleys that are sometimes hard to make sense of or see their way out of, but that resolution comes.  Often, it is not what was originally sought after, but there is a knowledge and a wisdom that appears after making it through.

Everything seems to be aligning, though, because recently I've come across two nonfiction resources that have discussed this same phenomena: that understanding narrative can help people emotionally process through life better.

The first came from the New York Times a few months ago in an article called The Family Stories that Bind Us by Bruce Feiler.  In summary, he discusses the idea that the best thing that a parent can do for a child is to develop a strong family narrative.  He says when child feels that he or she is a part of something greater, the child will be more resilient in challenges, feel safer, and even happier.  The most interesting part, though, was that when they studied children who knew their family narrative, there was a delineation among them that produced a stronger child, still.  The three major narratives were "We worked hard to get all that we have, and we made it" "we had it all and lost it, and we made it" and the third created the most emotionally healthy children: "we've had some ups and some downs, and we made it."

The second comes from Brene Brown, a writer and researcher whose work has been really influential for me since I first saw her Ted Talks in the fall and recently began reading The Gifts of Imperfection with a good friend of mine (one of my few non fiction books this year).  Obviously, she speaks about our state as imperfect humans, and the fact that despite we know that about ourselves, we often live in ways that demonstrate the opposite.  One of the core tenets of her research has been "when we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness--the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging." Own our story.  This is a life changing sentence, that brings me back to the idea that the greater understanding we have of the "mountain of action" structure of life--knowing their will be new starts, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution--the healthier we become.

On that note, I'm looking forward to making my summer reading list, which I'll be posting about soon.