My Top 10 Books of 2012

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2012, but they were all a part of my 2012 experience.

gone-girl-book-cover-med1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Each of my  top 5 could easily have been #1.  In the end, I put Gone Girl in the top spot because on almost every page I muttered to myself, “How is she DOING this?”

I want to be a mystery novel lover, because the genre is so huge and so there are so many pleasures to be had, but I often get halfway through a mystery and admit to myself that I simply don’t care who did it or why  (P. D. James is someone who often disappoints me this way).  Other times I don’t even get that far, because I am so distracted by the poor writing.  There are a few writers who never let me down. Kate Atkinson is one; Tana French (see below) is another; and now, I have Gillian Flynn, and I am so, so grateful.

personbe2. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and I read it in less than 24 hours.  Heti reminds me of Lydia Davis, but without Davis’s chilly control.  Don’t get me wrong – chilly control is what I’m all about – but How Should a Person Be is exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring.  Imagine if Lena Dunham made a film that was only interior monologue – it would be a bit like this novel.  Self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.  Full of laugh-out-loud gorgeous turns of phrase.  I’ve known of Heti for a while but have never felt inclined toward her work – I’ll go back and investigate her earlier books now.

BROKEN HARBOUR_UK3. Broken Harbour by Tana French

See comments on Gone Girl, above.  Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of those rare finds: murder mysteries that are re-readable.  Not only did I list her novel The Likeness as one of my Top 10 Books of 2010, but it may be one of my favourite books of all time.  Broken Harbour may be just as good.  The intersection of intricate plotting with beautiful writing is almost unparallelled.  Also: set in Ireland, which can’t hurt.

areyoumymother4. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

This book should probably be #1, but my top picks are all so good that ranking them is stymieing me.  I love graphic novels.  Bechdel’s Fun Home, in which she grapples with the legacy of her complicated father, is also one of my favourite books of all time.  In this sequel of sorts, she turns her analytical eye on her equally difficult relationship with her mother.  One difference: her mother is still alive, and an active participant in the writing and narration of the story.  Fascinating, unrelenting, and funny, and Bechdel’s artwork never fails to slay me.

book-children-succeed5. How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I have written several posts on Tough’s work, including a review of this book and a meditation on an excerpt that was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  He is a deep thinker on educational issues, yet he writes fluidly and accessibly and has a warm and gentle sense of humour.  This is not just a work of social science; it’s an entertaining and enlightening read.

marbles6. Marbles by Ellen Forney

Another graphic novel.  Forney’s chronicle of her battle with bipolar disorder is hilarious, touching, instructive and hopeful.  Her honest recounting of her own experience is interwoven with historical and medical info.  The central question – “Do I have to be crazy to be a great artist?” – is not answered, but the exploration is illuminating.

Phantomtollbooth7. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

One of my projects this year was to prepare a list of 42 children’s books for reading in my Child Studies course.  When I asked for recommendations, The Phantom Tollbooth came up over and over.  I’d never read it. Now I have.  It is great, and the final line is now one of my all-time favourite quotations.

basilef8. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Compiling the above-mentioned children’s book list has involved re-reading lots of old childhood favourites.  I’d forgotten how fantastic this novel is.  I must have read it 10 or 12 times as a child, and reading it again now was perhaps my most delightful reading experience of the year, not just for the book itself but for the immediacy with which it transported me back to being a child reader, the wonder of which is difficult to retrieve in adulthood.

(Note: the finished list of books for the Child Studies course can be found here, if you’re interested.)

filmclub9. The Film Club by David Gilmour

This was also a re-read; it was one of the memoirs I taught in my Personal Narrative course this fall.  I thought my students might like it – a story about a father who lets his teenage son drop out of school if he agrees that they watch and discuss three films a week, chosen by the father – but I was surprised by how much they enjoyed it, and how much I enjoyed it the second time around.

quiet10. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Is this a cheat?  I didn’t actually read this book – I listened to it as an audiobook, and then bought the book so that I could read it, and haven’t gotten around to it yet.  People keep telling me that listening to a book counts, and I loved this book, so it makes the list.  If you often wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you don’t love going to parties, you’d rather write an email than talk on the phone, and you feel anxious if you don’t get some alone time every day, then this book is for you.  It helped me embrace my introverted weirdness and recognize its strengths.

Please tell me your favourite book(s) of the year!  And happy reading in 2013.

In Which Siobhan Does Not Lose Her Temper Over Important Literary and Pedagogical Matters

Is non-fiction less “literary” than fiction?  Someone has suggested to me that it is, and I’m so mad about it I could spit.

Last week, I attended a meeting with English teachers from several colleges.  We were there to give feedback to the creators of some online essay-writing activities.  We looked at some sample exercises, in which students were asked to read a short essay and identify a main idea from the essay.  After some discussion, one of the other teachers – let’s call her Teacher A – spoke up.  “I just want to give the point of view of my department,” she said, “and we would never use an activity like this.  I don’t teach essays in my courses, and I don’t know anyone who does.  I teach poetry, fiction and drama.  I would have no use for activities where students learn to analyze essays, and I’ve never really understood why the provincial Exit Exam requires them to do so.”

“I teach essays,” I assured the creators, “both personal narrative essays and argumentative essays.  I teach a whole course on each.  It would make sense to have separate activities, though, for argumentative essays and, say, narrative prose, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.”

A third teacher – let’s call her Teacher B – sucked her teeth and shook her head.  “Oh no,” she said, “you mustn’t teach students to analyze fiction and non-fiction in the same way.”  She pointed to a list of literary elements – imagery, characterization, setting etc. – that made up part of one of the exercises.  “You couldn’t discuss these techniques in an analysis of a non-fiction work.”

“Well, certainly you could,” I said, “if you were analyzing a personal narrative.  A personal narrative uses characterization the same way a short story does.”

“But no – in non-fiction, you can’t credit the author with inventing the character,” Teacher B replied.

It stared at her for a moment, flummoxed.  “But the author is communicating the character to the reader through the selective use of detail,” I said, “in the same way that the writer of fiction does.”

“Then call it description,” Teacher B retorted.  “It is not characterization.  I know that markers of the Exit Exams are very hard on students who treat non-fiction as though it were fiction.  I have one colleague who tries to insist that we fail students who do that.”

Now, I marked Exit Exams for many years and no such ideology ever revealed itself.  If it had, I would have (after a stunned silence) fought it with all claws out.  I did not yield to my impulse to say, “Such a person should not be grading Exit Exams, or teaching literature at all.  Such a person has no understanding of the act of literary creation or the act of reading.”  I did not use such terminology as “backward” and “pedagogically indefensible.”  I sat back and held my tongue, even as several more comments were made about “literature” as distinct from “non-fiction.”  I did not launch into a rant.  If I had, it would have sounded like this:

“The idea that there is a clear line to be drawn between non-fiction and fiction is itself fictional.  The techniques of narrative are the same whether the narrative is based on something ‘true’ or not.  For example: a character in a memoir is no more a ‘person’ than a fictional character is.  It is no more a ‘person’ than a portrait hanging on the wall is a person.  A portrait is an artifact created by the artist out of paint.  A character is an artifact created by the writer out of words.  When analyzing literary technique, we are analyzing the artifact, not the author’s intentions or the ‘truth’ or ‘fiction’ of the story.”

Why am I so mad about this?  Well, it’s partly because I am a writer of both fiction and non-fiction narratives, and the suggestion that they are technically different is, in my personal experience, balderdash.  It’s partly because I feel that fossilized attitudes toward what constitutes “literature” are alienating students from their literature classes and from reading.

Mostly, though, it’s because I teach a course in personal narrative in which I teach students to analyze memoir in exactly the way they analyze fiction.  I explicitly tell them that in memoirs they encounter characters, not people, and that authors very carefully craft those characters, as well as plots and settings, in the same way that fiction writers craft stories from their imaginations, and that even the distinction between “fact” and “imagination” is an area for much discussion.  The idea that my students might then be penalized if they discuss a personal essayist’s use of “characterization” makes me want to picket the Ministry of Education and set up dogmatic training camps for literature teachers across the country.

However, the flip side is this: maybe I’m angry because I’m wrong.  Here is my favourite principle of learning psychology: learning is often upsetting, because it challenges our preconceived notions of the world, and this is disorienting and scary.  Maybe I’m angry because I just learned something.  Maybe I need to scrap my whole Personal Narrative course because I’m teaching my students an approach that is invalid.  Maybe my students need to clearly distinguish between fictional and non-fictional stories and use different terminology when analyzing them, and I have been messing them up.

And maybe you have some ideas about this.  What is the difference between a personal essay and a short story, or a memoir and a novel, in terms of literary technique?  If a student is analyzing non-fiction, is he or she required to approach the analysis differently than when analyzing fiction?  Where does “creative non-fiction” fall?  Am I crazy?

Image by Kriss Szkurlatowski

Top 10 Posts of 2010

For  your reading and catch-up pleasure, I have once again compiled a “year’s top posts” list.  These posts are “top” in that they got the most hits; in some cases this may have been because of timing, a well-chosen keyword, or fluke, but in some cases I think it’s because they truly were the best posts I wrote this year.  If you missed out on these, check them out – they all said something to someone!

1. Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

I was glad this post got so much traffic, because I really like it.  I return to it from time to time when I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life.  In it, I ask myself once again why reading matters, and come to the conclusion – with the help of some of my students – that “literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.”

2. What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The text of this post – purported to be an 8th-grade final exam from 1895 – has been making the rounds of the internet for a couple of years now, and, as I note in the update to the post, it’s been more or less determined that it is an authentic test, but not for 8th-graders.  The most interesting part of the post may be the comments section, in which readers once again wax in all different directions about what “education” really means.

3. Why Study Literature?

The central question of this post is an extension of that of #1 above.  Reading books is all very well, but why should the study and analysis of literature be core curriculum in college?  (Spoiler for those who want to read my further posts on this subject: I’m not certain it should.)

4. What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith + David Foster Wallace = post that gets tons of hits.  Guaranteed formula.  The post itself is really just a DFW quote, but it’s a good one.

5. I Am Disappointment With You’re English Teaching

The story of Khawar, a difficult student who was probably suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, got a lot of response.  Another post about him also ended up high in the rankings.  (Khawar ended up passing my course, which once again had me asking myself what I’m doing wrong in my grading schemes.)

6. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

Another way to get lots of hits: put the words “Harry Potter” in your title.  Nevertheless, the “Ten Wonderful Things” posts in general pulled in a few new readers, and it felt good to write them.  If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s cool to put a children’s bestseller on a college course, this post will give you an emphatic “yes.”

7. It’s Funny Because It’s True

It doesn’t hurt to include a funny animated video in your post, especially if your audience is mostly teachers and the video is an enactment of everything you ever wanted to say to the boneheaded student spouting excuses across your desk.  Throw in a real-life story of infuriating misspelled emails and it’ll be a winner.

8. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

I’m not sure why this post got so much attention, but one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about books usually gives the stat meter a little bump.  I’m glad this post got read, because it’s a concept that means a lot to me – one of the joys of teaching literature, I need to keep reminding myself, is getting to read my favourite books over and over.

9. Why Children Shouldn’t Read

No doubt the provocative title is what gave this post its currency.  Like #4 above, the post is composed mostly of one long quote, this one from Susan Juby’s memoir of teenage alcoholism, Nice Recovery.  The quote is great, and even those of us who didn’t start binge drinking at thirteen can probably relate to its description of what too much reading can do to one’s perception of oneself and the world.

10.  A World Without People

This was my favourite post of the year, so if it hadn’t made it into the top 10, I probably would have found a way to squeeze it in here somewhere.  In this story, I have a very, very bad day that ends up being one of the best days ever, and, along the way, I stop hating everyone.

There you have it, folks.  If you need to catch up on your Siobhan Curious reading, start here.  And have a super happy new year full of stories, questions, and challenges bravely met!

My Top 10 Books of 2010

I encourage you all to make your own lists, either in the comments below or on your own blog (please post the link in the comments) because of course I don’t already have enough unread books in my house.

Note: These books were not necessarily published in 2010, but they were part of my 2010 experience.

1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I really don’t care about the ins and outs of the music industry, but this novel made me care.  It also made me believe that a PowerPoint presentation can be as poignant and funny as a short story.  Without question, the best book I read all year.  Down side: I’m not sure there’s any point in my writing fiction ever again.

2. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

A bunch of people working at, or linked to, an English-language newspaper in Rome.  Similar in structure to Jennifer Egan’s book in that it seems at first to be a series of disconnected stories, but it’s not.  Even the characters who seem the least lovable are completely absorbing.  Also: funny.

3. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

I cried at the end of this one.  Works best if you have recently read or watched Sense and Sensibility, but I expect it would be a joy ride regardless.  Sent me running for Schine’s earlier works, none of which really did it for me, but I’m waiting on tenterhooks for her next one.

4. The Likeness by Tana French

I am not usually a mystery reader.  Exceptions include P. D. James and Kate Atkinson.  I am totally chuffed about finding Tana French.  I finished The Likeness just last night and, although it was well past my bedtime, I reread the last page four times because I didn’t want it to end.  In short: detective is called to the scene of a murder.  The victim looks exactly, but exactly, like her.  Beautiful, heart-gripping chaos ensues.  French has a new book out this year and it’s garnered her a lot of new attention – I wish I were one of the cool people who had discovered her earlier.

5. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Enough has been said about this book.  My two cents: believe the hype.  It’s that good.

6. One Day by David Nicholls

Follows a “couple” – they sleep together in college and remain friends – by dropping in on them on the same day every year.  Very funny, often painful, at times a bit lumpy but worth it.

7. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is a bit of a cheat – I listened to this on audiobook last year, but read it for the first time this summer so I could teach it.  One of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve ever read – easy, funny, moving, perfect for the classroom.  Walls renders her horrifying childhood and her impossibly selfish parents without a drop of pathos or self-pity.  Hard to believe such terrible memories could have produced such a wonderful and touching romp.

8. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Linked short-stories about a middle-school teacher.  I don’t know if I loved it because I’m a teacher, but it seems I’m not the only one – Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham both give it raving blurbs.  I don’t read a lot of short-story collections these days, but this one feels almost like a novel, like a string of perfectly irregular jewels.

9. Y: The Last Man: Book 4 by Brian K. Vaughan et al.

I am a graphic novel lover.  I’m not so much into the post-apocalyptic sci-fi vein, but the Y: The Last Man series is my favorite graphic novel series ever.  A young man named Yorick, and his male monkey Ampersand, are the only male animals left on earth after a mysterious plague.  They set off to find Yorick’s girlfriend.  Problems: they don’t know where she is, and being a man in this manless world is … complicated.  Stephen King calls it “the best graphic novel I’ve ever read,” if that matters.

10. The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow

This beautiful little book, styled like a note/sketchbook, is aimed at tween girls, and I wish I’d read it when I was one, but it just came out this year.  Lydia and Julie are not popular, but they have a plan to become popular, and this book is an illustrated log of their progress.  As you can imagine, their plan takes unexpected turns and even puts their friendship in jeopardy.  The two girls are enchanting, the pictures are delicious, and reading it made for an afternoon that I would have very much appreciated when I was twelve years old and unhappy with who I was.  Give it to a girl you know; it might change her forever, but at the very least, she’ll have a good time.

Why Children Shouldn’t Read

I love this excerpt, published in today’s Globe and Mail, from children’s author Susan Juby’s new memoir, Nice Recovery.  This book has gone straight to my list of “what to read next,” and it may be a contender for the reading list for next fall’s personal narrative course.  In it, Juby discusses her struggle, beginning at the age of 13, with alcoholism.  These paragraphs summarize her  experience with being a child reader, and resonate uncannily with my own.

…it may have been a mistake to use books as a guide to life.  This is because books misled me about a few things.  Thanks to warm-hearted stories like Anne of Green Gables, I expected to encounter kindred spirits on every corner, as well as gruff but caring old people…  Books hoodwinked me into believing a set of lies about what was and was not important in life.  In books…having a good vocabulary was crucially important.  When I went to school it turned out to be a serious liability.  In books a lack of concern about clothes and personal appearance showed solid character.  In school such unconcern spelled social disaster.  In books knowing a lot about a lot of things…was admirable and likely to be rewarded.  At school it pretty much guaranteed that everyone would think you were a show-off and a bore and would shun you.  In books people were mostly nice, and the ones who weren’t nice were easy to spot.  In school villains were everywhere and they were well disguised.

In all this talk about why it is important for young people to read literature, this aspect – a very real one – is often overlooked, and I’ve been struggling to put words to it in order to introduce it into the conversation.  When you are young, being a reader can really mess up your relationship with the world around you.  Is it any wonder, then, that it’s difficult to convince people in their late teens that reading is a good way to spend their time?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,831 other followers