It Really Is a Question of How

How to distill two amazing months of reading into one brief post? How to express how full my life feels right now and how replete my reading world has been? How to convey the urgency with which you should (or perhaps should not) find your way to the nearest bookseller or library and begin to fill yourself in similar ways?

Here's the full list for May and June. Try not to be alarmed.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing FilmMichael Ondaatje
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich*Alexander Solzhenitzyn
Because of Mr. TeruptRob Buyea
Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary CorrespondenceNick Bantock
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold*Daniel James Brown
Paper Towns*John Green
Texts from Jane Eyre and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary CharactersMallory Ortberg
A Walk Across America*Peter Jenkins
Geronimo Stilton and Search for Sunken Treasure and Mummy with No Name (audio)G. Stilton
Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great (audio)Judy Blume
The Charlatan's Boy*Jonathan Rogers
The Tiny Book of Tiny StoriesHitRecord - JGL
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood*Marjane Satrapi
The Dangerous Duty of Delight*John Piper
Friend or Fiend with the Pain and the Great One (audio)Judy Blume
The Sign of the Carved CrossLisa Hendey
Burning Bright*Ron Rash
A Tangle of KnotsLisa Graff
A Slight Trick of the Mind*Mitch Cullin
Rhinoceros and Other PlaysEugene Ionesco
Same Kind of Different As Me*Ron Hall and Denver Moore
Peace Like a River*Leif Enger
Watchmen (skimmed after first half)Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons
The Importance of Being EarnestOscar Wilde

The titles marked with an asterisk are from our school's Summer Reading list. We use a book group model where teachers select a book and students sign up for the group of their choice and read that book over the summer. In the fall, we meet and discuss what we read. I'm making it my goal to read all the Summer Reading selections for our Upper School. Impossible, I know. But a fun challenge. I'll readily admit that some of the selections have been raging disappointments. Others have been merely fine. But a few have stood up and demanded my attention in ways that are not entirely unlike falling in love or having an intense crush. And that's really what life is, right? A series of days and hours that can't not disappoint, but when it surprises us with joy and insight and - yes - love, we feel our breath in every muscle and fiber and know what it is to be alive. So, let's talk about what has recently made my reading heart beat faster.

Like your annoying friend talking incessantly about some guy she just met, I wanted to write and talk and tweet so much about The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film as I was reading it. I couldn't stop with the silly grin as I encountered overlap after overlap between what Murch was saying about film editing (a subject I normally don't think anything at all about) and writing or the creative life in general. Now, too much time has passed, and I can't write intelligently about the book, and it's making me question this whole plan to write once a month. But I can't doubt the resonance of that book in my life at the time, and therefore, I will continue to trust in all things Nick Hornby. For now.

Of the Summer Reading titles, three have stood out so far as remarkable, each in their own way. First, is John Green's Paper Towns. I've been a John Green fan for years, but lately, he's fallen out of my favor, mostly because of things-he-probably-can't-help-related-to-movies. I still haven't seen A Fault in our Stars, and though I loved, loved, loved the book when I read it, I now have that sour taste in my mouth about it. But Paper Towns obliterated that flavor and replaced it with a new one. In fact, I think I would go so far as to say Paper Towns is the best John Green book I've read. I read it in a day, but even with that rush of energy, I paused long enough to mark passages that resonated with me. Like this one:
You can't divorce Margo the person from Margo the body. You can't see one without seeing the other. You looked at Margo's eyes and you saw both their blueness and their Margo-ness. In the end, you could not say that Margo Roth Spiegelman was fat, or that she was skinny, any more than you can say that the Eiffel Tower is or is not lonely. (50)
Once I started flipping through to find quotes, it made me want to read it again all over, and I can't resist sharing one more passage with you:
That was perfect, I thought: you listen to people so that you can imagine them, and you hear all the terrible and wonderful things people do to themselves and to one another, but in the end the listening exposes you even more than it exposes the people you're trying to listen to. (216) 
I will admit to suffering from a bit of an identity crisis of late, so perhaps that's all it is, but the story of Margo Roth Spiegelman's one great night of revenge and her subsequent disappearance lit me up inside. It - along with so many other things these days - has me wanting to access again a part of myself that I fear had nearly been smothered by the reality of growing up, a thing I thought I'd never do. And I loved the character of Q, his earnest desire to get things right, his willingness to go, but only so far. He seems true and real and right to me.

One last thing: I don't care what the haters might say - Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" is perfect, even in all its immutable imperfection. 

The next great title from that list is A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. As a devoted fan of the BBC series Sherlock, when I read the blurb on this one, I knew it would be a favorite. And it was. It tells the story of Holmes as an elderly man, aging with considerable interest in the decline of his own greatest asset - his mind. It's a quiet novel, not at all like Paper Towns, but it too had something to say to me about self and becoming and growing into the parts of our life that surprise and somehow don't surprise at all.

Finally, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. This one was the sleeper hit of the summer so far. I did not expect to appreciate this book as much as I did. And when I tell you it is the story of a boy and his family, with particular focus on his father who - yes, I'm really going to say this - can perform miracles, you will want to disregard everything that follows. That would be a mistake. This book is beautifully written. Not pretentious, but still demonstrating great care with language. It works on so many levels, and I promise, the part of the book that makes you want to dismiss it (the father's direct line to God), is its greatest strength. The way Enger writes the narrator's voice and the way the young man describes his father and the things he sees him do is so skillful, so without any need to convince you, that you are convinced in spite of yourself. It is not a religious text, not a book for Christian readers alone. It is a great novel, telling a great story. What more do we want from a book?

It occurs to me that fiction dwells most completely within impossible situations. All of these books deal with making the impossible possible, and perhaps that is the simultaneous comfort and challenge of the reading life. Perhaps it is the one great fantasy I can't quite let go of, even as I keep being reminded of this soul-crushing fact: in life, that life that dulls our senses and so often disappoints, impossible situations usually stay that way.

This post has already gotten beyond any concept of brief; however, I would be remiss if I didn't point out one more title on that stupidly long list above: Texts from Jane Eyre and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg. I don't know how much I've shared here about the importance of making me laugh, but suffice it to say it is everything, and Mallory Ortberg gets the everything prize this month. I remember laughing - a lot - at Rachel's post on this book, and that was forevah ago, and somehow I had kind of forgotten it existed because when I found it in the bookstore and begin dying right there on the floor of the store, I wondered how this book had not come into my life before now. Just go look at this right now, and you'll see what I mean.


An Open Letter to the Authors of Teen Fiction by Henri Lowe

The letter below was crafted by an amazing student. Her name is Henri Lowe, and I suspect you will hear big things from her in the future. And by future, I mean the immediate future because this letter is about to blow your mind.

To the Authors of Teen Fiction,

I am sixteen years old: a teenager by all accounts. Yet I cannot walk into the Young Adult aisle in a bookstore, full of your latest books, without sighing and walking out again in favor of the middle school fiction section. I am not opposed to all teen fiction, not in the slightest. I have been exposed to much of it. I have read the most popular books of your genre: Divergent, The Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars are all on my bookshelf.

Yet I still have issues with the genre of teenage fiction. Why must you assume that my tastes change so dramatically upon becoming a “young adult”? I have matured quite a bit since my elementary and middle school years, but I still appreciate a well-written book. The books that you put on the shelves vary, but many of them are not worth any reader’s time. The change in my age means that I have entered a section of the bookstore where unoriginality reigns: all of the latest books are modeled after the last teen bestsellers. There are worlds upon worlds of vampires and werewolves, thanks to Twilight; dystopian futures after The Hunger Games, and, later, Divergent; teenage lovers battling disease and heartbreak, in the style of John Green. I don’t argue that these are all pointless and poorly written, but how I wish there was more creativity. The typical models are growing bland. Young adult books belong to a rotating wheel of ideas, which spawn hundreds of imitations, often worse than the first.

Perhaps you do write a decent book, or at least an original, thoughtful one. Chances are, the main elements will include those which you think are the prominent issues in my life: romance, death, uncertainty, betrayal, passion. The elements of the book will almost certainly include sex, likely include cursing, potentially include drugs, and possibly include current issues such as homosexuality. Do I exaggerate when I say “almost certainly”? No, I do not, because that is the current model. You assume that because I am a teenager living in a world of tumultuous emotions, I feel acutely these things of which you write, and act in the way that you assume teenagers act.

But I do not. You see, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you write about these issues. I am aware that some teenagers do face these circumstances--but perhaps not as many as you think. You write of things that are culturally accepted, and socially accepted, or things that you assume to be so, but are actually not necessarily accepted among teenagers. The angst that you suppose among teenagers, with our cursing and relationships, is not quite as realistic as you assume. I become uncomfortable when every highschool relationship becomes overly graphic or physical, and saddened because that is not always true--but you make it seem as if it is. You often push your own agendas into books, in a way which diminishes or even eliminates your artistic integrity. Even if I find your plotlines monotonous, even if I don’t fancy your choices regarding characters and their actions, I will accept your decisions if they are necessary to the plot, or if they are true to the character. But too often I find these elements in your books unnecessary, simply thrown in to fit the model of the standard young adult book. You seem to jump on the bandwagon to sell copies—or you truly mistake the world of the teenager.

When I am in the Young Adult books section, I miss the inventive and well-written Harry Potter; the brilliant Artemis Fowl; the action-packed original Percy Jackson series; the witty djinn Bartimaeus; the intelligent young children who composed The Mysterious Benedict Society; the hilarious skeleton detective Skulduggery Pleasant. I find myself pushed more and more into the classics, or back into the middle school section. I find little for teenagers that interests me: the same poorly-written stories, over and over again, with melodramatic one-word titles and covers depicting passionate teenage lovers, or edgy girls thwarting a cruel fate. I want something clever, with good characters and an inventive plotline. Yes, you can add elements of a harder, more confusing teenage world, a transitioning to adulthood. You can even add elements of romance, or death, or sex, or cursing. But please make it relevant to the plotline. Make it relevant to teenagers’ lives as they are, not as you presume them to be—or simply write a book of fantastical fantasy, of magic and ideas and worlds. But whatever you write, please make it creative. Please make it thoughtful.

Please write me a good book.

Your Teenage Reader


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.