Summer Book Club Week 8: The Saga Series, Vol. 1

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

sagaBrian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man is my favourite graphic novel series; in 2010, one of the installments made my list of top books of the year.  If you like graphic novels at all, even if you’re not a fan of the superhero/dystopia/apocalypse genres, you need to read Y; I’ll wait here while you go do that.

I’ve been meaning to read more of Vaughan’s work, but have feared disappointment.  Recently, some podcast or other mentioned the Saga series (by Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples), and this inspired me to order Volume One from the library.

I was not encouraged by the first panel, a close-up of a woman’s sweating face as she says, “Am I shitting?  It feels like I’m shitting!”  However, the next page shows that we are in media puerperio: our heroine, Hazel, is being born, and the face is that of her mother; Hazel’s father is the sole assistant to the delivery.

They aren’t alone for long.  Hazel’s parents are star-crossed in a more-literal-than-usual sense: they are from opposite sides of an intergalactic war, and they met when one was guarding the other in prison.  Their escape, and the discovery that they’ve borne a child, has sparked the outrage of everyone in charge, and soon battalions from their home planets, princes with TV monitors for heads, and the scariest bounty hunters you’ve ever seen (one complete with a sidekick  in the form of a giant cat who knows when you’re lying and says so) are involved.  Hazel’s parents are no longer their own first priority: their main concern now is keeping their baby alive, and fortunately, they seem have the physical, magical and tactical skills to do so, along with the requisite all-conquering love.

Like Y: TLM, Volume 1 of Saga is funny, smart, sexy and action-packed.  I don’t usually care for “comic book serial” style graphic novels (as opposed to “sensitive literary fiction/memoir” style graphic novels, which I love).  I’m not crazy about fantasy, science fiction, or action/adventure stories, no matter what the form.  Yet as soon as I finished Volume 1 of Saga, I went straight to my library’s website and ordered Volume 2.  This is good storytelling.  Even though Hazel’s just a few days old, I love her, and can’t wait to find out what happens to her, and to everyone else who loves her too.

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Also read this week:

  • Oishinbo A La Carte: Fish, Sushi and Sashimi by Tetsu Kariya (story) and Akira Hanasaki (art).  This was also a podcast recommendation, by one of my favourite podcasters: Glen Weldon of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.  The Oishinbo  series is a fictional tale about a journalist, Yamaoka Shiro, who has been tasked with developing the “Ultimate Menu” for his newspaper’s 100th anniversary.  This volume is a series of stories about his pan-Japanese search for the absolute best fish dishes.  He is accompanied by his assistant/love interest, and he frequently clashes with his main competitor in the world of food expertise, who also happens to be his father.  It’s a great premise, the individual stories that make up the volume are fun, and it made me both nostalgic for the years I spent living in Japan (and eating Japanese food) and intrigued by how little I still know about the country and its culture.  That said, the characters are, for lack of a better term, cartoonish: I haven’t done a lot of manga reading, but I recognized the types – sour but attractive anti-hero, demure yet steely lady-love, overbearing bullying father figure – a little too easily.  I closed the volume feeling no need to follow these characters further, so I won’t be ordering the rest of the series.
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling).  I resisted this book for the first 200 pages, but, despite my summer vow to drop anything that didn’t grip me after 50, I felt an obligation to go on, and was eventually glad I had.  (I had much the same experience with the Harry Potter series, so maybe it’s not surprising.)  I was then a bit disappointed by the ending, but despite all that, I plan to follow P. I. Cormoran Strike and his assistant and sidekick Robin (yes, really) through the rest of the series. Robert Galbraith/J. K. Rowling can be irritating, not least when she insists on unnecessary phonetic renderings of dialect, renderings that seem appropriate in a fantasy world full of multi-ethnic wizard children, but less so in today’s real London (transcriptions like “lotta”, “outta” and “forra” change nothing for the ear and serve only to suggest class and cultural background in ways that make me suspicious of whoever’s writing.)  Nevertheless, our hero is a human-sized Hagrid, his sidekick is a real-world Hermione, and I am therefore charmed.

Have you read the Saga series, the Oishinbo series, or The Cuckoo’s Calling?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club Week 7: Why Libraries Rule

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

starrI began and tossed aside a number of books this week.  The only one I read through was Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead.  I wrote about Shipstead’s Astonish Me two weeks ago, so I won’t elaborate on Seating Arrangements, except to tell you that one of the biggest problems in my life right now is that Shipstead has published only two novels.  I will also share two snippets with you.  Snippet One:

“I understand why hippopotamuses spend so much time in water.”

“Hippopotami,” corrected Livia.

“You can say hippopotamuses, can’t you?” said Daphne.

“You’re the bride,” Livia said. “You can say whatever you want.”

Daphne eased down into her chair.  “Dominique, don’t they have hippos in the Nile?”

“They do.  I believe the plural is ‘scary fuckers.’”

Snippet Two:

“It’s so cold in this restaurant.  I don’t know why you chose it.”

“I didn’t choose it,” Winn said.  “Dicky and Maude did.”

“They wouldn’t have.  They know I don’t care for the cold.”

“Maybe,” Winn offered, “you’re feeling the chill of approaching death.”

She gave him a long, gloomy squint.  “This family is falling into the middle class,” she said.

Dear Maggie Shipstead: please write another novel soon.

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Abandoned after considerable investment: The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb.  I know that the reader’s antipathy toward the narrator is part of the point.  I soldiered on for 100 pages, and then I was like, Sorry, man, I cannot spend one more minute in your self-righteous enraged company.  I’ve made a bunch of attempts at Wally Lamb’s novels on friends’ recommendations and it’s just never taken.  He’s a very good writer, but not for me.

Abandoned after minimal investment: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.  I’m sure this is a good book.  However, I started reading it with a sick cat sleeping on me, and a kitten dies in the first chapter, so that was that for that.

Abandoned before investment set in: a bunch of well-reputed murder mysteries.  Something in me really wants to love reading murder mysteries, and I almost never do.  I write a lot about my love of simple, invisible prose; this is usually a problem because I want to enjoy novels that critics/all my literary friends are raving about and then I find myself yelling “WILL YOU PLEASE STOP WAVING AROUND ALL THE WORK YOU DID ‘WRITING’ THIS AND JUST TELL THE DAMN STORY”.  However, I also have the opposite problem: I get a few lines into a book and start yelling “OH GOD THAT IS A TERRIBLE TURN OF PHRASE” and “YES I KNOW WE NEED TO KNOW THIS INFORMATION THAT YOUR CHARACTER IS SO BALDLY LAYING OUT IN UNNATURAL EXPOSITORY DIALOGUE BUT I JUST CAN’T.”  I know; my life is hard.  But summer is short, and I’m not going to waste it reading books that get on my nerves even for a second.

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Epiphany of the week: my longstanding habit of buying piles and piles of books is actually detrimental to my life as a reader.  It means I try to joylessly plow through books I don’t like because I’ve spent money on them, instead of saying Screw you, book I don’t like, and moving on to something I will love.  This summer, I’ve rediscovered one of my greatest childhood joys: the public library.  Free books!  And what’s more, it’s way better than my childhood public library because I live in Montreal now so I have a city-wide network of public libraries and they will send me any book they have.  The time I used to spend searching for books on Amazon (and then buying them, and then maybe not liking them) can now be spent searching the Montreal Public Library network for every book that’s ever been on my Amazon wishlist and reserving them all and then receiving awesome telephone calls telling me that my book is waiting for my just up the street.  GO TO THE LIBRARY, PEOPLE.  YOU WON’T BE SORRY.

Have you read Seating Arrangements, or any of the other books I attempted this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading?

Summer Book Club Week 3: The Signature of All Things

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

sigofallthingsSometimes I think I just don’t like reading any more.  Then I pick up a book like The Signature of All Things.

If Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love and other fine stories, hadn’t been the author, I wouldn’t have given this novel a chance.  There are several strikes against it.  First, it’s a big fat book (499 pages long). Given how short an interlude I have between the end of all my work responsibilities (I finished my last major tasks last Thursday) and their return (the middle of August), and the difficulty I have reading anything for pleasure during the school term, I’m rarely tempted by long books.  Second, the story begins with the birth of the protagonist, Alma Whittaker, in 1800.  I don’t usually care for historical fiction, so this was enough to put me off immediately.  Third, Alma is a botanist, and a lot of the story is about plants.  Now, I love to garden, and I love reading gardening how-to books, but “nature writing” has never been my bag.  (Don’t get me started on Annie Dillard.)

But you don’t have to care about plants, or the 19th century, to love this book.  You just need to care about being told a good story, no matter how long and rich and sprawling it is.

If Jane Austen were writing now, and writing historical rather than contemporary novels, she might write a book like The Signature of All Things. After Alma’s birth, we learn about the life of her father, a plant theif-cum-entrepreneur whose experiences help shape Alma into the scientist she becomes.  We learn about her loving but troubled relationships with her father, her mother, her sister, her mad best friend, and the various men who float in and out of her life.  At the centre of the story are a few  subjects that are both timely and timeless: the opportunities and limitations a woman faces when she is brilliant and homely; the complicated and unexpected forms that love can take; the precarious balance between one’s own happiness and that of others.

The force that drives the reader forward is Alma, who is wonderful: self-possessed and yet self-questioning, perceptive but occasionally shamed by her own blindness, determined to learn about both the natural world and the humans who live in it.  She is surrounded by other wonderful characters, like Hanneke the housekeeper, the only person Alma trusts with her deepest fears and griefs, because Alma knows that sobbing in Hanneke’s arms will bring about real consolation and not empty soothing:

“But I loved him,” Alma said.

Hanneke sighed. “Then you made an expensive error.  You loved a man who thought the world was made of butter.  You loved a man who wished to see stars by daylight.  He was nonsense.”

“He was not nonsense.”

“He was nonsense.

The prose is stunning: precise, transparent, fast-moving, meticulous, and often surprising.  Gilbert describes Alma in one of her writing frenzies as “like a besotted drunk – who can run without falling, but who cannot walk without falling” – this made me laugh out loud.  Portraying the cool childhood relationship between Alma and her recently adopted sister Prudence, Gilbert explains,

Unkind words were never once exchanged.  They respectfully shared an umbrella with each other, arm in arm, whenever they walked in the rain.  They stepped aside for each other at doorways, each willing to let the other pass first….Prudence made for Alma [at Christmas] an exquisite satin pincushion, rendered in Alma’s favorite color, aubergine….”Thank you for the pincushion,” Alma wrote to Prudence, in a short note of considered politeness. “I shall be certain to use it whenever I find myself in need of a pin.”

The novel is riddled with these exquisite moments of characterization, and for this reason, I couldn’t put it down.  Which just goes to show: when it comes to reading novels, it is essential that we put aside our prejudices for the first fifty pages or so, because we never know what we might find.  You might think you don’t like long novels, or historical novels, or novels about the history of science, but maybe that’s because you haven’t yet read The Signature of All Things.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?  What about Gilbert’s other work; if you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love or any of her other works, are you a fan?

If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club Week 1: Rutu Modan’s The Property

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

a50f6e32da351bI recently finished The Property, the latest book by Rutu Modan, the graphic novelist responsible for one of my other favourite books, Exit Wounds. I love graphic novels, but they are sometimes self-indulgent and demanding.  Modan’s books take difficult subject matter and make it often funny, sometimes oddly sweet, and always powerful.  Modan’s art is meticulous, delicate and bright; I tend to barrel through graphic novels because I’m visually lazy, but with Modan’s work I have to slow down and savour and smile.  This book feels like a dense, multi-coloured jewel.

Mica insists on accompanying her grandmother Regina to Warsaw, where a mysterious family property is located and maybe is waiting to be reclaimed.  It’s soon clear, though, that Mica doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into, and that her understanding of her trip, her family and her grandmother’s past is partial at best.  Regina is ornery and secretive, Mica is long-suffering and a bit stubborn herself, and along the way they meet a number of characters whose motives are suspect but who might be friends.  Romance, both past and present, is an important part of  both women’s stories, but their relationship with one another is what matters most: if Mica didn’t love her grandmother, her life would be a lot easier, but what are you going to do?

I devoured this book in an evening, and now have to go back and read Exit Wounds again.  Have you read either, or any of Modan’s other work?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club: What Are We Reading This Week?

1368361_28917487I love the idea of book clubs, but the last thing an English teacher needs is more assigned reading.  So I thought: what if we had a book club where we all just talk about whatever we’re reading right now?  That way, we can read whatever we want!  And talk about it!

Once a week, I’m going to post about a book I’m reading, or have just finished reading, or would really like to read next.  It would be great if you guys would chime in.  If you’ve read the book I’m posting on,  you could comment on that, and we’ll discuss.  But you could also comment on a book you’re reading right now, and we could discuss that.  Or you could write on your own blog about a book you’re reading, and link here. Maybe I’ll ask you some specific questions about books I’m reading and books you’re reading, and you could respond to them here or elsewhere.

If no one wants to chat about books, I’ll just post about the books I’m reading anyway.  This will be a way for me to keep in touch with you all, but maybe it’ll also mean I’ll spend more of my summer reading books, and less of it watching Project Runway on  YouTube and playing Fishdom.

In the next couple of days, I’ll post on the book I’m reading now, and thereon in, I’ll try to post on Wednesdays.  I hope you’ll tell me about your summer reading too!  Here’s to books we read just because we feel like reading them!

Image by pear83

Fudging the Numbers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the semester, a grading dilemma always rears its head.  Here’s one.  What do I do?

Anjali’s earliest work was dramatically incompetent, but as the semester has worn on, it has steadily improved.  That said, most of her “improved” work has been done at home, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility that someone else is “helping” her a little more than is strictly acceptable.  She’s also been chronically absent – for the last month of classes I saw her only once - and at the moment has a failing grade, due mostly to missing in-class work.

Last week, I held office hours to answer last-minute questions on their final assignments.  To my surprise, Anjali showed up.  She had a draft of her paper with her.  It wasn’t a terrible paper, but it had some serious issues: her absences meant that she hadn’t understood a number of the requirements for the assignment.  We went over some of the most important problems.  Then I leaned back in my chair.

“Anjali,” I said, “It’s good that you’re coming to see me, but it would have been much more useful if you’d come ten weeks ago.  You’ve been failing all semester, and there’s not a lot we can do about it now.  It’s highly unlikely you’re going to pass this course.”

“But miss,” she said, “I’m on probation.”

“I see,” I said.  “That’s another excellent reason that you should have started coming to see me ten weeks ago.  And an excellent reason to get lots of extra help, and attend all classes, and otherwise fulfill all your responsibilities.”

“But miss, I had a very good reason for missing so much class.  But I know I should have come to talk to you about that.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied.  “If you had a medical reason, you should go request a medical delete.  If it’s not a medical reason, then it isn’t really relevant: passing a course means you’ve learned the skills the course requires, and you haven’t been in class to learn any skills.”  I handed her back her draft.  “Do your best, and we’ll see what happens, but you need to be prepared for the possibility that you will fail.”

She got to her feet.  “Miss, do you give any kind of make-up work?  To improve my grade?”

I shook my head.  “Do your best on this last assignment, but I don’t think you’re going to make it.”

So today I corrected Anjali’s final paper.  It has many of the same problems that her draft had, and all the strengths.  If I grade it according to my rubric, it earns between 65 and a 70 percent, depending on how flexible I am about certain criteria.  This isn’t enough; she will fail the course by two or three points.

However, if I look at this paper more holistically – if I ask myself, “Is this an acceptably organized and expressed paper that shows a good understanding of the texts, a paper that might earn a good grade in another course where the assignment requirements are different?”, then the answer is “Yes.”  It’s not a bad paper at all.  It’s just that it has some major weaknesses, and those weaknesses lie in areas that were emphasized in the guidelines and that were dealt with at length in class, when Anjali wasn’t there.

If I fudge her assignment grade to a 75%, she’ll pass the course.  Now, let me be clear: given her lack of overall effort, I don’t think she’s earned a pass, and I’m never comfortable “fudging” anything.  But based on this paper alone – and assuming that it is indeed her own work, and I have no clear evidence that it’s not, especially seeing that she came to see me with it - she has the basic skills she needs to manage fine in her future courses.  I could probably examine my rubric again and make a few generous tweaks so that everything adds up to the grade she needs.  And when a student fails a course by two points, everyone involved is much more upset than if she failed by ten.

What’s a teacher to do?

Image by Miriam Wickett

Science, Art, and the Myth of the “Discipline”

oENpvxkI’m always delighted to read about college teachers who are are taking unusual approaches to pedagogy.   Jailson Farias de Lima is one such teacher.  In an article published on ProfWeb yesterday, he describes an innovative project he has designed for his chemistry students, challenging them to express their understanding of scientific concepts through art-making.  Science teachers may be particularly interested in this article, but I think anyone who is a little skeptical of the divisions between what we call “disciplines” will appreciate the efforts Lima is making to integrate skills and knowledge from various arenas.

What do you think?  Does Lima’s project appeal to you?  Do you make efforts to make links between your course content and other subjects, or do you have memories of teachers who did so?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?

Image by Dez Pain

Blog Hop!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently a “blog hop” is a thing.  I’ve been invited to participate in this one by my friend Anita Lahey, whose fascinating blog Henrietta & Me is all about the books she’s reading and the people in them.  Anita is a poet, essayist and journalist; her poetry collection Out to Dry in Cape Breton was an indelible reading experience for me (I will never look at a clothesline the same way again), and her latest book, The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, is on my to-read-as-soon-as-my-end-of-term-grading-is-done list.

I’ve chosen to answer these questions wearing my education-writer hat and not my fiction-writer hat, as education writing is what I do on this blog.

What am I working on?

My M.Ed. thesis: an investigation into tools teachers can use to encourage/nurture lifelong reading habits in college students.  As a first step, I’m working on a literature review addressing the question “Is reading for fun really all that important?” (The upshot so far: probably.) I hope to produce a thesis that is of interest to a general audience, or at least to teachers in general, and not just to post-secondary academics and researchers.

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

In this blog, I reflect on my own teaching practice.  I do this because I believe that almost any experience will be of interest to someone else if it is examined with attention and expressed carefully.  (I guess this is one of the basic principles that drives people to write things.)  The title Classroom as Microcosm is a good indication of what I want the blog to be about: I’m writing about school, but school is a great metaphor for a lot of other stuff.  I hope my attempt to link the little world of school, and in particular MY little college-teaching world, with the greater scheme of things makes this blog unique.

Why do I write what I do?

I started writing Classroom as Microcosm because I was ready to quit my job.  My resentment of my college students and their bad behaviours, my uncertainty in my role as an authority figure, and my disillusionment with the teaching profession and the education system as a whole were making me miserable.  I was also floundering as a fiction writer.  One summer day in 2007, as I poured these troubles out to a friend over coffee, she said, “I think you need to start keeping a blog.  It will be a place to write without the isolation.  Maybe you should start blogging about teaching.”  So I did, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this blog saved my career.

I’m a less productive blogger these days in part because I have come to a much more solid and self-confident place as a teacher.  That said, there are other things I want to explore here now, so this summer, I hope to start posting more about reading, literature and the place of books – especially narratives – in our textually fragmented world.

How does my writing process work?

In my most productive years, I posted twice a week during the school semester: a new post on Monday and a reprise of a popular past post on Thursday.  These days, I post only when I’m powerfully inspired, but I’d like to return to that more diligent schedule.  I try to view writing of any kind as a professional obligation: churn it out, edit it meticulously to make it as good as you can, and then just get it out there without thinking it to death.  Blog writing is an excellent platform for this approach.  I’ve been working on a novel manuscript for thirteen years because I have become mired in self-doubt; this blog is an excellent reminder that the real goal of writing is to communicate with people.  You have to let your writing travel out into the world.  If a particular piece doesn’t speak to anyone, write the next thing.

Next week on the blog hop:

My friend and colleague Stacey DeWolfe, who, in addition to being an inspiring teacher, blogs on teaching, food, music, books, dogs, and lots of other important things.

My high school and college crony Rebecca Coleman, who knows everything there is to know about social media, but also keeps a terrific blog on things she likes to cook.

 Image by Michal Zacharzewski

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