If you know me, you know I love making lists such as the compilation of my own year-end list of the books, albums or films that meant something to me over the course of that year. However, unlike entertainment media, which seems to be inundated with end-of-the-year lists in December and January, I compile my list in June, probably because a natural cycle seems to be concluding for me at that time, due to being a teacher.
Anyway, I’ll start with my list of novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction books I’ve read over the course of this last year, from July ’09 to July ‘10 (a music list will follow). Since I’m a teacher, almost all of this reading material is connected to education in some way- either I’m re-reading something I’ve read before along with a class, reading something new to determine whether I might incorporate it into a class or it’s something one of my students talked me into reading or perhaps even bought me for this purpose. The list won’t include anything I simply skipped around in or began but didn’t complete (like the Bible for the former, where I read the gospel of Mark recently but that was all and Robert Bly’s “Iron John” for the latter; I gave it as much a chance as I could- I made it over halfway through but it really just wasn’t clicking with me).
Siddhartha- Herman Hesse
Notes From Underground- FyodorDostoevsky
The Bell Jar- Sylvia Plath: Back in 1999, I worked as an assistant manager at a record store in Portsmouth, NH. One of my co-workers was a teenage girl named Angelique who, due to having cystic fibrosis, had to enter the hospital for a two-week period for her yearly lung-clearing procedure. Before doing so, she asked friends and co-workers for materials to read, CDs to borrow, etc. Now, at that time, fifteen-year old Angelique was dipping her toe into the darker side of the popular culture of the day. For example, she adored Nine Inch Nails, dressed in a nearly all-black wardrobe, and had recently become enamored of the “Girl, Interrupted” film. I always considered that Kaysen book on which the film was based to be a kind of heir to Plath’s “Bell Jar” and so purchased a copy for Angelique to read during her hospital stay. Anyway, my wife and I soon moved away from Portsmouth and so I never got a chance to see Angelique again after her hospital stay and find out what Angie might’ve thought of the novel. Recently, I assigned the book to two students of mine, one named Karli, the other Carly, both of whom I thought would enjoy it and my estimation was dead-on. Karli was so smitten with it that she would sneak her copy under her desk and read it in other classes whenever she got the chance. Hearing this, I was reminded of Angelique, who I hadn’t seen or talked to since 1999. Now, for those that don’t know, cystic fibrosis affects the lungs in such a way that those who suffer from it live shortened life spans, most perishing around age 30, almost all dying before the age of 40. So, eleven years later, I decided to look Angelique up online to see whether she might still be around but cautiously preparing myself for a sad reality. Well, according to her facebook page, I learned that Angelique still is well enough to walk on her own in the yearly charity event she takes part in to raise funds for a cure for CF, has a serious boyfriend (in her profile pic, the two of them are just beaming and looking at each other rather than at the camera) and she maintains a website selling her own hand-crafted jewelry. The thing that struck me, however, was on the part of the facebook page where individuals list their favorite movies, bands, books, etc., Angie cites The Bell Jar as her number one fave. I guess I was destined to be a high school teacher- I just didn’t know it yet back in 1999. Anyway, after my brief bit of lurking, Angie and I reconnected properly through facebook and caught up and yes, she still likes Nine Inch Nails too (but don’t blame me for that one!)
Lolita- Vladimir Nabokov (re-read)
1984- George Orwell (r-r)
Confederacy of Dunces- John Kennedy Toole (r-r)
Slaughterhouse Five- Kurt Vonnegut (r-r)
Fun Home- Alison Bechdel (r-r)
The Diving Bell & The Butterfly- Jean-Dominique Bauby
Ethan Frome- Edith Wharton: I read this over the April vacation break and loved, loved, loved it. All of the elements that make great literature are here- great characters, a compelling plot, plus Wharton uses language beautifully. It presents its historical time and place perfectly, its themes are timeless, and although I didn’t incorporate it into any classes, I probably will at some point; I imagine that at least a portion of the kids will like it. Anyone who has lived through a brutally chilly New England winter and/or has been consumed with a passionate ache for someone they fell in love with can relate to this story at least enough to appreciate it.
The Bungalow Mystery- Carolyn Keene: This is a Nancy Drew novel that I read over the course of a few weeks with my daughter at bed-times. You gotta like how clever and courageous Nancy is but the plot and mystery itself wasn’t much to get excited about. I know- it’s for kids, but still, I think I’m just spoiled by all the Agatha Christie I’ve read in my time.
The Breadwinner- Deborah Ellis
Parvana’s Journey- Deborah Ellis
The Piano Lesson- August Wilson: My wife had this on her shelf and I just casually picked it up when considering plays to work with in my Reading Modern Drama class. I’d heard good things about Wilson but had no idea how awesome this play would be. The characters are fantastic, the dialogue sucks you in, the family conflict at the heart of the drama is compelling and it’s almost impossible to take sides. Throw in the humor, the supernatural elements that are deftly woven in without losing the realism and you’ve got a case for Wilson as a genius playwright. All that said, most of the kids in class didn’t get all that into it. For one thing, the heavy ebonics in the dialogue threw them and the several levels of meaning were hard for them to pick up on, more so than with Tennessee Williams’ stuff. Either way, I gotta check out more of Wilson’s work…
Fences: August Wilson: So I did, plowing through this one in about a day while at my mother-in-law’s house. This is one of Wilson’s more famous pieces and it’s also pretty damn good but probably even less accessible to adolescents. Nonetheless, just as “Piano” is a must for music fans, this one is a must for baseball fans.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof- Tennessee Williams
Suddenly Last Summer- Tennessee Williams: Just read it after the school year concluded. I saw the film version many years ago and remembered nothing about it. Doesn’t matter. I seriously doubt the Hollywood version comes anywhere near the actual ending of this play. You think gangsta rap is shocking? T.W. came up with some f-ed up s-t in his day. How was he so popular in the mainstream, exactly? Either way, I’ve never been disappointed with any of Williams’ plays. I’m honored to share initials with him.
Waiting For Godot- Samuel Beckett: I’d always heard good things about this one and I wasn’t disappointed. When we got to it in class, many of the kids were like “What the f is this craziness?” But the handful of students who are more inclined to dig literature immediately fell in love with it, as did I. Really fun to act out in class, especially Lucky’s 3 page-long sentence of gibberish. Also, I had the students collaborate with a classmate on writing then reading aloud their own short plays using “Godot” as an influence. One couple produced a brilliant piece called “Waiting for Cell Reception” where Tom (played by Tim) and Katrina (played by Kathryn) converge on the one spot on the campus of our school where cell reception is most likely (remember, we’re out in the sticks in Hardwick) and it just happens to be by a flagpole, which serves as an homage to Godot’s lone tree. The two students wait and wait and wait, bickering endlessly with each other such as when at one point, they decide to pray to God to try to obtain cell reception but can’t come to an agreement on how to pray since Tom/Tim is Christian and Katrina/Kathryn is Jewish. Awesome stuff! Interesting note: our school’s music teacher once performed the small “boy” role in a traveling troupe doing performances of “Godot” all over the U.S. in the late 1950s when he was about 11 years old. I forget which actor played which part but the two main roles were performed by none other than Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman well before they hit the big time with “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Graduate,” respectively. Nym said the two guys were a blast to travel with, very fun and congenial and supportive of him but at the same time big-time carousers drinking everything in sight and in possession of extremely filthy mouths.
Fat Pig- Neil Labute
The Shape of Things- Neil Labute
Foreplay, or the Art of the Fugue- David Ives
A Doll’s House- Henrik Ibsen (rr)
No Exit- Jean-Paul Sartre (rr)
The Glass Menagerie- Tennessee Williams (rr)
A Streetcar Named Desire- Tennessee Williams (rr)
A Raisin in the Sun- Lorraine Hansberry (rr): Easily one of my favorite pieces to do with classes. The four main characters are all wonderful, same with the expertly drawn minor characters; the conflict at the center of the piece drives the drama so that it’s utterly compelling. I also love how Hansberry ratchets up the drama until it’s unbearable at the end of each scene and then lets the tension loose like a rubber band so that the beginning of the following scene lets us take a deep breath. It’s usually then that she incorporates something funny, introduces a new character and then sets the whole thing to a slow boil again. I know this is a classic but I wonder why it’s not more famous. Like, I think it should be up there with those deathless high school things like Gatsby and Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye et al. It really is that good, I think, and my students all seem to inevitably get into it.
Death of a Salesman- Arthur Miller (rr)
Non-Fiction & Other:
Born on a Blue Day-Daniel Tammett
Learning Outside the Lines- Jonathan Mooney & David Cole
ADHD & Me (Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table)- Blake E.S. Taylor
Why Students Don’t Like School- Daniel Willingham
Growing Up Digital- Donald Tapscott
"Pretty Mouth Green My Eyes"- J.D. Salinger
"Hapworth 16, 1924" J.D. Salinger
"De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period" J.D. Salinger
"Madame Zilensky & the King of Finland" Carson McCullers
"The Jockey" Carson McCullers
"Propeller" Ari Vais: Propeller? I hardly know her and you want me to propeller? Sorry, A.V. Lame joke aside, there were aspects of this that made me smile, from the relatively insignificant (the use of the word “pate” which somehow finds its way into every story Ari writes) to the more satisfying- the entire scene of the couple sneaking into the employees’ lounge in particular, although I wanted to spend much more time with the trashed co-worker character.
"Summer of the Beautiful White Horse" William Saroyan
"The Yellow Wallpaper" Charlotte Perkins Gilman (rr): A difficult piece to use in classes due to its use of elevated vocabulary, its seeming lack of plot (but not really- it’s the chronicle of a mind slowly losing sanity) and then of course, there’s the fact that it’s a work of literature that does a lot of things on many different levels. On its surface, it’s a Southern Gothic horror story but I also want students to be able to recognize its brilliant symbolism, its cinema verite style, its flavor-enhancing allusions and of course, its commentary on the feminist movement during women’s suffrage.
"A Jury of Her Peers" Susan Glaspell (rr): This is also available as a play called “Trifles”- in either format, it’s a murder mystery but one with several ingenious points being made on gender roles; often, I use it in a unit with “Wallpaper.”
"A Christmas Memory" Truman Capote (rr)
"For Esme With Love & Squalor" J.D. Salinger (rr): The quintessential Salinger story and my favorite of his ever, I have come to love Esme and “Sergeant X” like other people love Rick and Ilse or Charlie Bucket and Grampa Joe. Every time I read it, three pages from the ending, I’m rotflmao-ing at Clay and his “combat style” jeep driving boast, two pages from the ending and I’m so mad at humanity, I want to commit suicide (or like Salinger, retreat from society as much as possible) and on the last page, I’m inevitably overcome by the profound beauty of life.
"Fetch!" Robb White (rr): Great for younger students; it’s brief and contains action and a twist ending but does not contain much in the way of difficult vocabulary. Additionally, in this story about a Great Dane and its owner, there are easy-to-understand examples of literary devices such as metaphor, personification, and denotation/connotation.