11.26.2010

Another Newbery Medal Winner

I promised a commentary on Emma Donoghue's Room, but it is upstairs in the bedroom where my son is asleep, and I don't want to risk disturbing him to fetch it.  Also, I finished The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg this evening, so I will provide a brief word on it instead and continue teasing about Room until another day.

Most who know me will recall that I have an unusual affinity for Newbery Award winners.  I own many and have read more than I own.  The complete list can be found through the ALA (American Library Association) website, and a quick look through them will undoubtedly bring to mind some of the favorite books of your youth.  Konigsburg's 1968 winner From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was a great love of mine (although I want to reread it because I can't remember much about it at all), but I had never read her The View From Saturday.  I saw it during our regular Monday visit to the library and decided to pick it up for our trip.  With the t.v. invariably on and many competing conversations, I am rarely ever to sustain the proper attention needed for a "serious" book during these visits, so I thought a YA book would be just the thing.  Turns out, I was mostly right and almost wrong.

The View From Saturday introduces you (in fits and starts) to Noah Gershom, Nadia Diamonstein, Ethan Potter, and Julian Singh, New York sixth graders who unexpectedly find success in their state's academic bowl competition.  Also a major contributor to the plot is the kids' teacher: Mrs. Olinski, who is a paraplegic returning to the classroom for the first time in the 10 years since the accident that paralyzed her.  Konigsburg uses a familiar although always interesting technique of developing the story through the individual voices and stories of her main characters.  The stories overlap in unexpected ways, and there are definite undertones of magical realism to be heard.  This book was a quick and entertaining piece that kept me curious about how all the pieces would fall together in the end, so in that way, I was right.

How was I wrong then?  Well, I finished the book a few minutes ago, and though it is an accessible book for middle grades students, I still feel like I should reread to better understand what Konigsburg is doing.  Those pieces that kept me puzzling throughout didn't fall as tidily as I might have expected, so I feel like I missed something.  Perhaps I did need to be able to pay better attention?  Konigsburg has allowed enough chinks to remain in this story to lead the reader to interpretation, and I think she has done so intentionally.  The plot is satisfactorily resolved, but some of the philosophical, ethical, or mystical elements are left to the reader to tease out.  I would need more time and effort (and less Transformers movie in the background) to tease them out at this point.

The quiet triumph of these oddballs is likely a welcome voice of encouragement for many potential outcasts in the terrifying world that is Middle School.  And though I admired no small portion of Konigsburg's writing and imaginative storyline, there were definite things to take issue with.  First is the annoying absence of contractions.  It's not a strict rule as some "it's" and "you're" usages slip in.  But the lack of "don't" or "won't" leaves the reader with the oddly unsettling voice of a sixth-grader saying
Tell her.  I do not care.  She knows every other thing about me.  Tell her.  And do not count on me for breakfast. I do not want any. (50)
A single quote can't quite convey how odd this sounds coming from a teenager.  The repetition of it, though, makes you wonder if it was an intentional technique to further distance these kids from normal or if Konigsburg merely operates under the outdated opinion that contractions should be avoided most of the time.  I could see a kid reader being merely annoyed by it.  I also had difficulty believing these kids would so easily fall together over a simple afternoon tea.  That's where you have to begin accepting the magical elements, but if you stumble there, you will have a terribly hard time getting anywhere else in the book.  Let me be clear though: I liked this book.  Perhaps not as much as some other books for young people that have knocked my socks off, but enough to keep my admiration for all things Newbery intact.

And speaking of books for young people that have knocked my socks off: I finally got to see the latest installment in the Harry Potter films last night, and I was well-pleased.  A few inconsistencies and only one that I thought was a poor directorial choice.  Strangest thing about it?  I spent the first thirty minutes or so feeling I was going to cry at any moment, even though it wasn't particularly sad.  Feeling emotional over the end of an era?  So not like me.  Hmmm. . . . .

11.23.2010

Babylon in a Jar and TPR Challenge Next Steps

I finished Andrew Hudgins' Babylon in a Jar this morning.  It has always interested me that I love to read poetry, and I write poetry almost exclusively, but I do not read it nearly as fervently or frequently as I do fiction.  It is odd to realize that I would credit no poet as being my favorite writer but poet is the only writing title that applies to me at present.  Anyhow, my insertion of poetry into most of my days has been much like the practice of a daily devotion for the Christian: it has made me think about poetry, poetics, and my own poems more each day just as daily reading the Bible draws the believer's ears and eyes to Christ in a more intentional manner.

This collection is divided into two sections, and I must admit that I preferred the first to the second.  The poems had greater presence for me in the first half, a contrast especially noted in the (I presume) intentional mirroring of the two "Ashes" poems.  The first is the 4th poem in section 1, and I loved it.  It has a narrative, conversational flow, an intriguing page presence, and an ending that leads to significant rumination.  Its counterpart in the second section (also the 4th poem in this set) feels too conventional.  It is a story I've heard before, an unpleasant scattering of ashes, and I didn't feel it offered a new angle on the bigger issue.  It stayed too self-absorbed, too interested in the actual events of wind and ash and cough to stand aside itself and cast a thoughtful gaze. 

The second section did offer me two great animal poems, a tremendous feat when you realize how difficult it is to render a domestic pet poetically without descending into schmaltzy sentimentalism.  Hudgins does it well in "Ball," where he captures the pure animal spirit of a retriever simply retrieving.  And in "Hammer and Scourge," he uses a Beowulf-like epic tone to allow us into the mind of a cat.  It is fine indeed.  Others in the section were too reliant on ancient history or imagery that did not speak to me, mostly due to my own ignorance.  Despite a somewhat lackluster conclusion, I must acknowledge that Hudgins' skill as a craftperson, an artisan are considerable, and I'm glad to have encountered this collection at this time in my reading life and my writing career.

In other corners of my reading universe, I have been reading Room by Emma Donoghue, which has intrigued me since its release.  I am loving it.  Love. Ing. It.  Whereas the Grossman had all sorts of GREAT EXPECTATIONS to live up to and then was only sort of painstakingly enjoyable, this one is a screaming success.  I have torn through it, partially because of the easy pace and interesting plot and partially because it was too emotionally difficult to linger over the first section.  I will look forward to posting a full report soon.

I've been thinking lately about where to go next with the TPR Challenge.  Salman Rushdie just released his Luka and the Fire of Life, and though I am anxious to read it, I'm not really interested in buying a new book right now.  I think I will ask Elizabeth Bishop to be my next poetry companion, and I already have Toni Morrison's A Mercy.  I also can get my hands on a library copy of Paul Auster's Sunset Park.  I will undoubtedly scatter in a few non-TPRs as well, so I think I will consider this my year-end plan.  The Bishop will get started when I return to campus and be ongoing for awhile.  I've just placed a hold on the Auster, which is still "in process" at our library, so as soon as that comes available, I'll get started.  Then, I'll finish the year with the Morrison.  Then, in January, I'll make a more detailed list of what is to come.  What do you think?

11.22.2010

Friday Frivolity (on Monday!!!)

In honor of the shortened work week (and my too-busyness on Friday), I hereby offer you Friday Frivolity on Monday.  When we consider what we are thankful for, let us not forget the humorous bits that get us through the day.

Letters to the Editor often make me laugh.  The letters usually come in the form of "Oh my gosh, what in the #*$% was this person thinking?"  Sometimes in the form of teaching tools for my writing classes, often of the "don't ever do this" variety.  Yesterday's paper offered a priceless two-for-one.  I include the full text here.  I dare you to make sense of it.
Here's a new way to hold elections:
Have all registered votes register their e-mail.
Then all candidates can send the voters an e-mail with what they plan to do when elected.
The voters then Google them when they get the e-mail, to check them out.
If they see anything they like, they can then save them in "my documents."
Just before election day they can review all the saves and decide on the one best qualified.
Then click on that one, open it and install it.
If, after a fair trial, they are not happy with how they perform, they just click on it and then click on undo and delete it.
Then check out the saves again and try another one until they get one they like.
It's all free and saves everyone a lot of time.
I'll be danged if anything like this option ever saves anyone anything.  But I'll be equally danged if it hasn't offered me many, MANY laughs.  Unfortunately, they have all come at someone else's expense.  I tried to explain this letter as someone's failed attempt at humor or satire or something.  Instead, I'm left feeling like some elderly gentleman has recently learned how to use a computer, thinks it is magic, and wants to share his discovery with the world.


Though there have been many more giggles from my direction lately, I'm going to let this one have all the glory today.  Enjoy!

11.18.2010

Accelerated Reader

Okay, reader friends.  I know you are readers.  Some of you are teachers.  Some of you may even be reading teachers.  So, please let me know what you think of the Accelerated Reader program.  I am preparing some thoughts for a meeting tomorrow and wonder what serious readers think of this widely-used software and tracking program.  Please comment below (or email me) with any thoughts on the subject and, of course, be honest.

11.17.2010

TPR Challenge #9 - David Grossman

Truly, I didn't expect this TPR Challenge thing to bear so much fruit.  When I undertook to read the 64 interviews with some notable companion piece by the interviewee, I expected to have some disappointments.  They may still come, but so far, the whole experience has been more about surprising discoveries, new perspectives, and a greater sense of engagement with the work and the writer. 

My acute awareness of all things David Grossman sprang up only after seeing him in this collection; this post chronicles my transformation from ingenue to stalker and shows how long ago I began to think about To the End of the Land.  I read that New Yorker piece on him, and I think I fell a little bit in love with him before even reading the book.  And though my reading of it lingered and languished for over a month, I have really enjoyed walking this path with Ora and Avram, even as I was confounded and confused by them. 

In the book, Ora decides to walk the Israel Trail while her son Ofer is serving in the IDF.  His mandatory service was complete, and he was supposed to accompany Ora on this walk as a celebration of his release.  Instead, he chooses to reenlist, and she undertakes this walk in an effort to will his continued safety.  Her thinking is if I am not at home to receive the news of his death, he simply cannot die.  She takes with her Avram, a former lover and her husband Ilan's dearest friend, and as they journey together, we learn about Ora's family and Avram's relationship with it, about motherhood and brotherhood, and about the impossibilities of war.  Like Ora, Grossman was exercising his own brand of paternal protection during the writing of this book.  He wrote the bulk of it while his middle son Uri was completing his mandatory tour of duty in the IDF, and he felt that his act of writing could save his son from harm.  It did not work for Grossman; Uri was killed in battle before the book was completed.  Grossman explains in the New Yorker article that his son's death shattered them and made him fear the book could not be saved.  But Grossman's friend writer Amos Oz responded, "The book will save you."  Though it was unable to protect Uri, perhaps the book was able to protect Grossman from further damage.  Perhaps it allowed him to heal and hurt all at the same time.

As this was a library book, I didn't underline or annotate, but I actually didn't feel the urge to do so too often.  When I did, I recorded some favorite passages in a reading journal, and with a writer like Grossman, you soon appreciate the ability to just bracket out a long passage.  Because they are all long passages.  The first I wrote down is one gorgeous sentence that meanders but makes a fantastic point.  In it, Ora is discussing her Arab "friend" and driver, Sami:
Yet still, when Sami used his Arabesque Hebrew to undermine the long-winded, indignant, greedy pretenses of both Jews and Arabs, when he skewered the leaders of both peoples on a sharp Arab saying that often aroused from the depths of her memory the equivalent idiom in her father's Yiddish, she sometimes experienced a subtle latency, as if in the course of talking with him she suddenly discovered that the end, the end of the whole big story, must be good, and good it would be, if only because the clumsy, round-faced man sitting beside her was able to preserve within his fleshly thickness a flame of delicate irony, and mainly because he still managed to be himself within all this. (55)
Sami is a fascinating character, and I missed him once Ora began her walk.  In fact, one of the few critiques I can muster about this book is how the ending is so completely unresolved.  It's not that I expected a tidy homecoming; I know with certainty there could be none.  However, I hoped we would be able to see something of her return to her former life.  I wanted to know if Sami had managed to remain himself, but though she thinks of him briefly at a few moments during the walk, he is abandoned in the end with no further consideration.  I think the ending had to be so unresolved because Grossman himself was still so swathed in grief that he couldn't or wouldn't imagine for Ora a way out of that place of fear and anger and uncertainty.  He couldn't make her pain as tangible as his.

I was pleased to find two convincing birth stories here.  Ora recounts the birth of both her sons during the hike, and the details, though interesting, are of mostly externalized elements.
I yelled for Ilan, and he came in and just picked me up the way I was, and put me down on a bed in the corridor, and shouted for a nurse.  Together they pushed me, running, to the large delivery room, which by the way was where I had Adam (in the same room!), and three more pushes, he was out! (242)
Besides Ora's yell, all the action is either Ilan's, the nurse's, or passive (three more pushes).  Ora is not an active participant in this birth.  She describes it as though she were observing from a distance, as though Ofer birthed himself.  This tone is consistent with her role in much of the rest of the novel.  She is a mouthpiece, a teller of other peoples' stories, and even when she is involved in the action of the story, her part is muted, partitioned, and circumvented by the voices of the men in her life.  In the moments just before she went into labor, Ilan had been telling her a difficult story and almost raping her at the same time.  We hear Ilan's story as Ora tells it to Avram, but we read it from the omniscient narrator's point of view.  Ora is an actor in the story she is telling.  As Ilan finishes his story, we get the following narration:
His muscles relaxed.  His head plunged onto her neck, heavy as a rock.  His fingers slowly disengaged from her body and lay open in front of her face.  She did not move.  He slid out of her.  A moment went by, and then another.  He breathed heavily.  His face was up against her and he lay in an utterly helpless huddle.  A spasm when through her body. (513)
Ora is telling the story, but this is not Ora's voice.  In fact, for her supposedly incessant chatter at Avram, we rarely hear her speak.  Instead, we get the omniscient narrator's version of events, which means we can trust the facts but won't really know Ora as intimately as we perhaps should.

In the TPR interview, Grossman comments on his Be My Knife, which is apparently an epistolary novel that was originally comprised of letters between a man and a woman.  He recounts how he one day decided to remove all the woman's letters, to allow only the man's words to be read:
It was complicated because she was the engine behind the whole plot.  She creates him in a way, so it deeply upset me to take her out. (416)
Though he acknowledges her centrality to the story, he still chooses to take her out.  With Ora, she is the most present of physical beings, but her thoughts and opinions are often drowned out by all the men around her.

As usual, the interview provides a few thoughtful morsels of writing advice or truths to guide a would-be writer.  I especially liked his anecdote about tucking his son in on the solstice and explaining it would be the longest night of the year.  In the morning, his son ran in bursting with relief that the night had at last ended.
Can you imagine what landscapes he had wandered through all night?  Because he did not take it for granted that the sun would ever rise again.  When I write, I try to bring myself to this point.  I want to be betrayed, to be taken to a dangerous place that jars the basic presumptions I have about myself, my family, my country. (430)
I like his bravery here, his willingness to allow the story to take him somewhere unexpected.  I appreciate this kind of journey as a reader as well.  And though I'm not sure his To the End of the World took me to that point of betrayal, of change-making, I'm equally not sure if I will ever stop asking questions of it and probing my memory of it for answers.

11.08.2010

Monday Miscellany

This morning's poem, "Night Class" by Andrew Hudgins, took my breath a bit.  This whole collection, in fact, has been impressing me and inspiring me at varying turns.  It is Babylon in a Jar, and I love it.  Andrew Hudgins is a regular attendee at the Conference on Southern Literature, so I have a lively surface familiarity with him that does not in the slightest touch his poetry.  I am so glad I have now begun to touch these words.  Now, in April, if he returns to town for the conference, I can behave as a real drooling fan should.

Good news!  "Night Class" was first published in Slate and still is available on Slate.com, so I can share it with you through this link.  Go there.  Read it.  Be admiring.

And perhaps you won't be moved by it as I was.  Perhaps you haven't taught or attended night classes.  Perhaps your version of "college" is something more like Dead Poets Society.  Perhaps you don't appreciate silence in the way Hudgins describes.  Perhaps you don't often consider the weight of a student's burdens and look for tiny opportunities to relieve that weight.  But I do.  And Hudgins has written words for me here that I hope I won't forget.

Also, today, I dove in to my first issue of The Sun.  It arrived some days ago, but I hadn't allowed myself the time to explore it until today.  I have subscribed to various journals, magazines, and news weeklies over the years, but there are few I have felt cause to renew after that first year.  Even the big literary journals (currently, I take The Sewanee Review) leave me a little disappointed.  I don't like it when they choose a theme, and I can't take them in quickly enough to feel like I've really gotten the full experience.  So, I end up trying new things fairly often and was recently invited to try The Sun.  So far, I'm terrifically glad I did.  First, it is sort of a mash up between a political/current affairs magazine and literary journal, so I'm guaranteed to find something to relate to.  Second, it is a traditional magazine format (with beautiful, provocative photos), and at 48 pages, I can reasonably tackle the content in the month before the next one arrives.  Finally, this month's issue features a personal essay by Lee Strickland called "Girl, Ruined."  You can read the first chunk of it here.  I am excited to find it because it tells a birth story, and I am constantly on the lookout for those (especially in fiction - if you've read any lately, please comment below). 

Finally, as it is Monday, I spent the afternoon with my kids at the library.  This time, I perused the audiobooks section thinking I might find something I can put on the ipod and listen to on the bus or between classes.  I picked up Elizabeth Berg's The Art of Mending.  Though I was previously unfamiliar, the blurb sounded good.  We'll see if I can manage to add another layer to my reading life.

11.05.2010

Friday Frivolity

I hardly ever cry.  In fact, my family says I'm dead inside.  But I argue that I can't be dead inside because I laugh easily and readily and joyously at all appropriate (and many inappropriate) occasions.  So, in honor of Friday, the end of the work week (for some), a general feeling of peace in my soul, and various other good reasons, I hereby institute Friday Frivolity.  These posts will involve news items, internet gems, and other Things That Make Me Laugh.  Some will be bookish things, but I can't promise they all will be.

1.  Rebecca of Rebecca Reads posted a few days ago about the CYBILS, a site I hadn't previously been aware of.  (CYBILS is Childrens' and Young Adult Blogger's Literary Awards; I don't know where the I comes in.)  The first entry on the Picture Book list is Lemony Snicket's 13 Words.  I haven't read this book yet, so I went to Amazon to see what it was about.  Embedded there is a companion video.  Hilarious.  It's interesting to note that some of the amazon reviewers commented on how dark and depressing this book is.  It is also interesting that Maira Kalman is the author of And the Pursuit of Happiness, a book that has been discussed in the blogosphere of late.

2.  The Rejectionist makes me laugh pretty much every time she posts.  Her tone marries just the right levels of irreverence and intelligence.  I particularly liked her Halloween humility.

3.  The day after Election Day was not a particularly laugh-a-minute kind of day, but the paper that morning did offer me the following chuckle from nearby Dade County, GA:
Should county commissioners be elected by districts or by the entire county?
Yes.................2389                      No..................1065

I just hope to high heaven that is an error in the newspaper only and not a reproduction of the ballot's wording.  Either way, though, it makes me giggle.  Even 3 days later.

4.  Like The Rejectionist above, Hyperbole and a Half is a no-brainer.  It will be funny.  In fact, it might actually make me cry from laughing so hard.  I was first introduced to the hyperbolic hilarity through this grammar-related post.  It makes me laugh alot.

That's all for now.  Happy Frivolous Friday to you all!

11.01.2010

In the Meantime

I am still cheerfully plugging away at David Grossman's To the End of the Land, but I finished today a collection of poems I've been reading on the bus for a few weeks now.  My bus rides are fairly short, rarely allowing time for more than two short poems, so I can't commit to a novel or anything resembling class prep.  But to read two short poems in the morning is not a bad way to start the workday, even if those poems aren't the very best you've ever read.  The collection is Charlotte Hilary Matthews' Green Stars, and though they weren't all the best I've ever read (how could they be?), it is a fine collection that gave me regular cause to stop, look out the window, and ponder the weight of the words I'd just read.  I bought this book at the Conference on Southern Literature, which is coming around again this April.  I believe she was awarded a prize some years ago from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, so I may have actually heard her read from her work at that time though I don't remember it now.

I especially loved the poems where she reflected upon some particular memory of her mother.  My favorite is probably "December 7, 1941" where she recounts the story she must have heard told where her mother names her puppet Pearl after listening to the war coverage on the radio.  She says her mother
heard the single words like trinkets/to collect, buttons portioned in flowered boxes,/and loved some, their feel on her tongue (3-5).
Then, the poem concludes with
Whatever it was, she held to the word/proudly naming her puppet Pearl./Her father, hearing this, slapped her hard (14-16).
It comes as such a surprising moment, fitting as the original act most certainly must also have been, and I like the contrast it creates.  I didn't love any of the poems; however, the experience was a good one. I suppose I should read Andrew Hudgins' Babylon in a Jar next.  It was another Conference on Southern Literature buy, and it will most certainly fit nicely in my purse.

By the way, have you seen the t-shirts at Out of Print Clothing?  You know you want one.  The question is: which one?