Say What You Want About April...

Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and LivingCornelius Plantinga Jr.
In the Cold LightRichard Sonnenmoser
Great HouseNicole Krauss
The CrossoverKwame Alexander
ChaserJohn Collier
The Girl Who Fell From the SkyHeidi Durrow

Showers and flowers and the cruellest month and come she will and clocks striking thirteen. . . .What is it about April that makes us want to write about it? Is any other month name-dropped as often? 

This practice of writing only once a month has shifted my thinking about what I read and how it falls into these chunks of time. I've been keeping this reading log all year where I'm trying to capture my reading experience more fully, so the list can include single short stories or articles as well as the longer complete works I finish. Because I'm also recording the author's country of origin and ethnicity, I am more aware when my writing starts to trend western white male, and I can make adjustments. Seeing the list broken down by month makes some of those shifts more evident. In April, you can see me adjusting course after several titles in a row from WASPy authors of US origin. Kwame Alexander, Heidi Durrow, and Nicole Krauss are all from the US, but they do bring some ethnic and gender and cultural diversity to my reading life. 

The first title I finished in April was for work: Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living was a professional development requirement, and though I wasn't rocked by it, there was some good material with solid points for discussion. I started teaching at a Christian high school last year, but I had never experienced Christian education up to that point. Public elementary, middle, and high schools served me very well, and though my college has church-based connections, it is not ostensibly about Christian education. So this book provides a bit of an overview of what it means to learn through and with and by the Christian worldview. It wouldn't have been my choice to read it, but as I tell my students all the time, sometimes we just have to do things we don't want to do. And sometimes those things turn out to be alright despite our reluctance.

I read the Sonnenmoser short story in an old Crab Orchard Review that I've been chipping away at lately. When I cleaned out my old office last summer, I found a stack of journals I had never read, and I brought them home and put them by the toilet. Please tell me other people do this. It's the perfect way to read a lit journal because only maniacs sit down and read those things cover to cover. But a short story or poem at a time is a lovely way to break them down and really appreciate the good stuff. Sonnenmoser's story was some of the good stuff as was a poem by Marty McConnell that I read again this morning. It's called "the fidelity of disagreement," and you can read it here. Something about the quiet counting she uses and the "bird behind each knee" and the unique way she builds the momentum, a circling of sorts, and those last two lines? It's so good to stumble upon something so good. 

The Collier story ("The Chaser") is one a colleague uses with our seniors, and I was talking through it with a student - neither of us thought it was very good. He called it pointless; I called it bad writing. But then I looked it up and found that Collier is a relatively well-known writer with many respectable opinions of his work, and it got me thinking about how we are influenced by what people tell us we're supposed to think about a thing. I still uphold it's not good writing, and if a student turned in a story with that same first sentence, I would tell him/her to start again and avoid the overwriting and unnecessary adjectives. But, someone somewhere decided this story did it for them, and it got made into an episode of The Twilight Zone, and people seem to really appreciate it. Because I didn't know I was supposed to like it, I was free to dismiss it or appreciate it without expectations or obligations. This experience confirms my preference to enter into a work with as little knowledge of it as possible. I want my opinions to be informed by the work more than by outside expectations.

Admittedly, that's not exactly what happened with Nicole Krauss' Great House. Because I so enjoyed her The History of Love (I didn't tell you about this one, but trust me when I say it is delicious), I did start Great House with a few Great Expectations, and Krauss did not disappoint. Great House tells - it seems - the story of a desk. A most remarkable desk that has been a part of so many lives and spaces, and as most of the owners of the desk are writers, this book might speak especially to those who deal in words. Often I resist books that pander to the reading audience overmuch, but this one does not pander. It is a natural telling of an almost supernatural object, and Krauss is able to use the multi-vocal technique so skillfully and intelligently that it almost feels like an intellectual exercise to read her work. It's not a mystery, and you're not really trying to put the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together, and there is no epiphany where you suddenly understand how it ALL. JUST. FITS. But it does all fit, and beautifully so. And that knife's edge of uncertainty (have I used this phrase before?) is what makes her work so compelling and so engrossing. 

Kwame Alexander's The Crossover won the Newbery Medal this year, and though I love the basketball and the novel in poem format - especially for branching out certain young readers - I am not convinced it would have been my choice for the top book of the year. Good, but maybe not great. Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky has been on my list and in my kindle for much too long, so I'm glad to have finally read it. I follow Durrow on twitter, and she is doing good work to increase the visibility and vocality of the mixed race experience. Her book does a great job of capturing that dual citizenship feeling, especially in the crucial identity formation stages of early adolescence. It is difficult, and it does not flinch at the difficulty, and I think it is a worthy read for anyone interested in thinking more about the racial divide in the United States and how common it is for some folks to find themselves straddling that line, one foot on either side.

I closed the month by starting Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, and if you follow me on twitter, you already know how amazing I found this book. It was the first of the Nick Hornby Told Me To Read It titles, and it set the bar pretty high. I'll tell you more about it (and my ill-advised decision to try to read all our school's summer reading titles) next month. 

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