Why Do I Have To Learn This? Blogiversary Post #3

I asked my students to read the essay I discuss in this post, and to explain which of Menand’s three “theories” they subscribed to.  Their responses were mixed.  Then they asked me which theory I believed in, and I was unable to give them a definitive answer.  Almost three years later, I’m still not sure.  What about you?

This, my eighth-most-shared post of the last seven years, first appeared in 2011.

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Every so often, students ask me, “Why do we have to learn this?”

It’s no use telling them that learning is a good thing, period.  They’re taking seven or eight classes.  Some are doing “part-time” jobs that have them working thirty hours a week.  Making out with their boyfriends is a good thing.  Playing Mortal Kombat is a good thing.  Reading a book or understanding “setting” is … required for some reason.

In an essay called “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,”   Louis Menand reports that, soon after he started teaching at a public university, a student asked him, “Why did we have to read this book?” (a question Menand says he never got  at his former, Ivy League, teaching job.  This surprises me a little.)  According to Menand, your answer to this question will depend on your view of university education.

Those who hold one view will say,

You are reading these books because you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.

For such people, a university degree is a signal that one has learned certain things, a useful tag for indicating that you know things that other people don’t, that you’ve read books that non-university people have not.

Those holding another view will say,

You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.

This view holds that

 people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

That is to say: because you’re in college, you have a chance to do things that are valuable, but that won’t necessarily earn you a big salary or help you land a client.  So read this book that I say will improve you.

If you believe that college is a threshing machine, separating wheat from chaff (Theory 1), then grades, at least passing ones, are what matters, so that when you graduate, you will be seen as wheat, not chaff, in the larger world.  If you believe that college is a place to accumulate knowledge that will serve you in all aspects of your life and self, (Theory 2), then learning is what matters, regardless of the grades attached to it.

These theories are not compatible.  Learning requires risks, frustrations, even failures.  “Good grades,” more often than not, require a lot of memorization, or at least an understanding of what the teacher wants and a willingness to try to produce it.  A desire for good grades can be detrimental to actual learning.

As Menand points out, though, our colleges and universities (and, I would add, our schools, from first grade forward) seem to operate as though BOTH theories were true.  We tell our students that learning is what matters, that we are teaching them to think critically, that they will be better, fuller people because they went to college.  And then we teach them that a bad grade is, well, bad.  Sometimes we even get angry with them because they fail a test or misunderstand an assignment.

To complicate matters, Menand claims that these two theories really only address education of the liberal arts variety.  Most college students, on the other hand, are not majoring in humanities of any kind: the most popular major in the US is business, followed by education and the health professions.  For these students, Menand writes, university is about neither grades as a sorting tool nor learning for its own sake.

The theory that fits their situation—Theory 3—is that advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation…

Nevertheless, he points out, students in these programs are almost always required to take courses in English and other humanities.  This is where many – perhaps most – of the students in my English classes find themselves.  Everyone must take four English courses, regardless of their program.  There is no literature major at my college; the closest we have are programs in communications (subtitle: art, media, theatre) and in modern languages, along with a very small liberal arts cohort.  Most of my students are in science, social science, or professional programs.  Science students are usually strong students, and sometimes they care about learning things, but their bent is often toward getting into medical school or engineering programs in university (Theory 1).  Social science students, especially those without specialized majors, frequently have no idea what they want to do and had poor high school grades, making them ineligible for more rigorous programs (Theory? What theory?)  And students in industrial electronics or office systems technology or nursing are likely to tell me that they can see the point of learning grammar or maybe even how to structure an essay, but reading Death of a Salesman is of no use to them whatever (Theory 3).

And really, are they wrong?  The fact is, unless I or another English teacher sparks something in them that gives Death of a Salesman meaning, it might forever remain a dead pile of alphabet on the page for them (or maybe it will forever remain the image of John Malkovich, as Biff, dripping from all his facial orifices as he weeps, a scene students find both disgusting and hilarious.)

Our vision of “college” is hopelessly outdated.  Throughout his essay, Menand outlines the same historical trajectory that Alan Jacob does: the  broadening of the university student population since the days when a college education was reserved for the upper classes.  By the 1980s, universities were full of people of all different cultural, educational, gender and economic backgrounds, many of whom could never have gone to college in the pre-war era.

These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch. There was much more at stake for them …. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it—not only financially but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers.  This is why “Why did we have to buy this book?” [is] such a great question. The student who asked it was not complaining. He was trying to understand how the magic worked.

Menand is describing a Theory 1 response that he feels has all but disappeared: going to college makes me important and special.  I know that some of my students still feel this; they may have recently arrived in Canada from a place where a university education was impossible for them, or they may come from a family where they are the first to have graduated from high school.

Most, however are NOT trying to understand some magic external to themselves.  When my students ask, “Why do I have to learn this?”, they are trying to make sense of a system that seems arbitrary, full of hoops to jump through and dead-end labyrinths.  They truly do not understand why they have to do all these things we’re asking them to do.  What does this have to do with my career, or my life? they ask.

Maybe it’s never been explained to them, but more likely, it’s been explained to them over and over, and they just. Don’t. Buy it.  And why not?  Because it’s MY theory, MY reasoning, MY agenda, and I have not even taken a second to ask what their agendas are.

Is it possible for us to take the question “Why do I have to learn this?” seriously?  Because it is a serious question.  We often moan about how students no longer want to learn for the sake of learning, but we need to think about what we’re saying.  “Learning for its own sake” is an incredibly privileged activity, one that requires time, money, and the luxury of wandering along a wide, brachiated path into the future.  Most students do not have these privileges; they need to see their school and homework hours as useful.  If I can’t convince them that the definition of “useful” is bigger than the definition we’ve taught them until now, then a passing grade will be their only incentive.

“Why do I have to read/think about/know this?” is a place at which education can begin, if we answer the question authentically, or, even better, if we ask them to answer it for us.  If we show interest in their theories, they might become curious about ours, and together, we might be able to make some learning happen.

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Monday: how I saved my teaching career.

Image by Bjorn Snelders

10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment: Blogiversary Post #2

mflfn0II hesitate to put this post out there again!  Not only does it feel outdated (I haven’t asked for a paper copy of an at-home assignment in three years), but at the time it was published, it attracted some passionate critics (and defenders); if you go to the original and read the comments, you will see what I mean.  I came of age as a blogger when this post went moderately viral and I got my first taste of what it means to blog for the “public” and not just for a small and like-minded group of readers.

Nonetheless, it is the 9th-most-shared post I’ve ever written, and it still gets a fair number of views at the end of each semester/year when teachers everywhere are apoplectic and need someone to vent for them.  What’s more, it tickles me to look back at the quaint concerns we had in 2009, like printer ink and Hotmail.

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Ten Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment

10. You don’t double-space. You KNOW that I take formatting points off when you don’t double-space. Double-space does NOT mean space-and-a-half. We’ve discussed this.

9. Your printer ink is not black. You KNOW that I take formatting points off when you print in blue, purple or green. You also know that if your print is pale, smudgy grey, I will stomp on your paper in a rage. I told you this in class, twice. You need to change your printer cartridge if you want to get an A.

8. You send me your paper by email only. Let me explain this policy again. If you do not place your paper directly in my hands – if, for example, you slide it under my office door – you should email me a copy to confirm the time you submitted it. The email, however, does not replace your hard copy. I can’t print everyone’s paper – do you know what printer ink costs? Of course you don’t. You don’t print your assignments.

7. You don’t send me your paper by email. Ok, let’s review. If you did NOT email me your late paper in addition to submitting the hard copy, I don’t know when you submitted it. The term is over; I’m not sitting in my office waiting for your paper to shoot through the gap under the door.

6. You didn’t follow the structure guidelines. You wrote numbered paragraphs instead of an essay, or an essay instead of numbered paragraphs. You answered in point form instead of full sentences. You handed in a collection of random thoughts that you printed directly from your Hotmail inbox. Yes you did – the Hotmail logo is on the top of the page!

5. You haven’t answered the question. Let me be clear: this paper is great. It’s insightful and well-organized and even funny in parts. What’s more, you being who you are, I’m pretty sure you wrote it yourself. The problem is, you didn’t do the assignment. You wrote a very good paper about the texts we studied that has nothing to do with the question(s) you were asked to address. This paper is going to get a failing grade, and this is going to keep me up tonight.

4. You didn’t proofread after printing. You’ve repeated your introductory paragraph halfway into your essay for no discernible reason. There also seems to be a page missing.

3. You didn’t proofread at all, at any point. I’ve been reading your work all semester, so I know you’re capable of writing comprehensible English sentences, but in this paper you have frequently left out important nouns, switched from present to past tense and back again (ALWAYS WRITE ABOUT LITERATURE IN THE PRESENT TENSE. How many times do I have to say it?), misspelled “their” and “friend” (sometimes your spell check really does know the answer; all you have to do is look at the screen) and forgotten to capitalize. Were you high when you wrote this?

2. You copied parts of your paper from the Internet. I’m not even going to discuss this with you. Zero.

1. You didn’t write this paper. I don’t know who did. You didn’t copy it from SparksNotes or a classmate. You simply handed the guidelines over to someone – either your girlfriend or an essay mill or someone who owes you protection money – and he or she wrote it for you. Now I have to call you into my office and sit you down and either try to trick you into a confession or quiz you on the paper content or announce that, regardless of the fact that I have no concrete proof, I know you didn’t write this and you’re not getting credit for it. The depth and breadth of my rage about this is inexpressible. No matter what delightful experiences I’ve had with my classes this semester, this is what I’m going to remember. What’s more, I fully expect you to drag me through mediation and/or grades review, so this situation is going to escalate over the coming months. I’m tempted to pretend I don’t notice that you didn’t write this. But I’m not going to pretend I don’t notice, and I’m going to be sorry.

Image by Richard Dudley

Summer Book Club Final Week: The Middlesteins

This will be the final installment of this year’s Summer Book Club!  I’ve enjoyed this project a lot – both the incentive it gave me to read a lot of books, and the comments from all of you about what you’ve been reading. My intention is to hold a blog book club again next summer.  Thanks for your participation!

I hope you will continue to follow Classroom as Microcosm throughout the year.  Starting tomorrow, in celebration of the blog’s upcoming SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY (!!!), I will be re-publishing, with commentary, the blog’s top ten shared posts.  These are the posts that readers have liked (or, in some cases, hated) enough to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues.  Tomorrow, look for a reprise of a post that addresses a question on many teachers’ minds as summer vacation draws to a close: what if one of my classes is really, really bad?

Today, summer book club guidelines still apply: if you’ve read the books I’m reading, please tell us what you think, either here in the comments, or with a link to your own blog.  If not, please tell us what you’ve been reading this week.

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middlesteinsIn the opening chapter of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, we meet five-year-old Edie and her mother.  They are on the four flights of stairs leading to their apartment, and Edie doesn’t want to walk any more; she wants to be carried.  Her mother’s arms are full of big grocery bags, and Edie is not a small girl; a power struggle ensues.  Within a few pages, we learn a lot about Edie.

She just wanted to be carried.  She wanted to be carried and cuddled and fed salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread.  She wanted to read and talk and laugh and watch television and listen to the radio, and at the end of the day she wanted to be tucked into bed, and kissed good night by one or both of her parents, it did not matter which, for she loved them both equally.  She wanted to watch the world around her go by, and make up stories in her head about everything she saw, and sing all the little songs they taught her in Sunday school, and count as high as she could possibly count, which was currently over one thousand.

A few days ago, I read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker essay “The Scourge of ‘Relatability'”.  In it, Mead explains that our need for stories that are “relatable” is relatively recent, and that it is stunting us and degrading the experience of reading.  She draws a distinction between “identification” and “relatability” that I like very much.

The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.  But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

When we meet Edie many years later, in the second and third chapters, is she “relatable”? (Note: I hate the word “relatable,” and have told students that it is not a word, that it grammatically indefensible as a word, and that they are forbidden to use it.  The New Yorker has now explained its etymology and grudgingly accepted it, so I guess I must give up this fight.)  For me, Edie is not relatable according to Mead’s definition.  She is not a “flattering confirmation of [my] solipsism”: she weighs over 200 pounds, and will gain more than 100 more before the end of the novel; she is dying of complications from diabetes, and yet continues to ply herself with three-sandwich dinners at McDonald’s and enormous multi-course meals at her favourite Chinese restaurant, despite the gentle protestations of her family.  She is hard-edged and full of denial; she is also very smart, very sure of herself, and not prepared to take anyone else’s crap.  Everyone around her is out of their minds with worry about her, and she absolutely refuses to change.

It’s hard to relate to someone who is loved and cared for yet defiantly killing herself, but I identified with many things about Edie; anyone who has struggled with emotional eating, or any other bad but delicious habit, probably will too.  There is a beautiful exchange with her little son and daughter that shows us how our human minds can move from resentment to the grip of love to self-hatred to optimism in the space of seconds:

in theory, she should be happy to spend time with her children, but sometimes she found them a little dull.  Playing with them was boring, and it wasn’t even their fault.  It was just the notion of playing itself….[Benny] pulled from his pocket a string of orange and pink beads on a long, narrow rubber thread and held it up in the air.  “It’s for you.”  He smiled – oh, he beamed! The beam that could break your heart.

I’m a shit, thought Edie.

“It is the most beautiful necklace I have ever seen in my entire life,” she said.  She took it from his tiny hand and then tied it around her neck.

“You look pretty,” he said.

She did not look pretty, she thought.  She did not believe she had looked pretty in a long time.  Her business clothes no longer fit her right, not her jackets, not her shirts…but she could not bring herself to buy a new wardrobe.  Maybe if she gave Weight Watchers a shot this time.  There was always the vague promise of that lingering in her future.

That last paragraph is more or less the exact monologue that went through my mind about half an hour before I read it, as I was standing in my closet wondering if I’m going to have to buy myself more new pants than I can afford before school starts, or can tough it out in the stuff I bought myself last year at least until winter comes and I have to start packing long johns under things.  So yes, there’s a certain amount of “relatability” here, but it’s not the type that makes you feel good about yourself.  It’s the type that makes you feel real about yourself.  Uncomfortably, importantly real.

What’s more, there are plenty of other characters to identify with, whether we relate to them or not.  It may be difficult to forgive Richard, Edie’s husband, for abandoning her, but it isn’t difficult to identify with the suffering and helplessness he feels in the face of her abuse and her disorder.  Her daughter-in-law Rachelle may be an uptight little control freak, but she also really wants to do something for Edie, to fix this situation before Edie destroys herself.  The bratty granddaughter, the angry daughter, the son who’s too high to do anything but ask his wife to deal – we may not really “relate” to anyone, because their foibles are so prominently displayed that it’s hard not to judge them and get pissed off with them and wish we could smack them around the head a little until they wise up.

But I didn’t meet a single person in this novel – including the elderly Chinese restaurant owner who falls in love with Edie, and the gay dance teacher whose drawer full of bar mitzvah “save the date” gift magnets signals that everyone wants to be his friend but he has better things to do – that I couldn’t identify with in some way.  Every character is totally infuriating and totally sympathetic.

It’s quite a feat, and it’s a wonderful book.  I’d read it if I were you.

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Here are some books that I’m working on but won’t get a chance to write about, unless I love them enough to put them in my Top Ten Books list at the end of the year.  So far, they’re all really good!

  • Katrina Onstad: Everybody Has Everything. After a car crash, Ana and James find themselves guardians of a little boy, perhaps permanently.  They quickly learn a lot about themselves and their relationship.  I’m about halfway through this and loving it.
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Death in the Family (Book One of the My Struggle series).  Any serious reader living today has to at least attempt this six-volume autobiographical “novel” series.  So far, it’s slow and demands a lot of concentration, but is also stunning.  I’m only a few pages in; it’s my bedside book, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading before sleep.  I suspect it will be my subway reading once school starts.
  • Jeff Lemire: Essex County.  This collection of three graphic novels was, like Asterios Polyp, recommended by commenter Kathleen.  It is wonderful, but melancholy; I’m reading it in short instalments.
  • Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  I started this book while I was in the hospital, in the hours before surgery (afterwards, I was able to do nothing but fall asleep over and over while listening to podcasts.)  I have read about 100 pages.  It is an easy and biting little satire told from the point of view of an incorrigible ladies’ man.  I was enjoying it a lot, but, because I own it, I put it aside when I got home in order to tackle the books that will eventually have to go back to the library.
  • Tin House: The Writer’s Notebook I and II.  I would really like to look back, once the summer is over, and feel good about the amount of fiction writing I got done.  I am finding these two volumes of collected essays on writing craft to be extremely helpful.  If I’m feeling resistant in the morning, I choose an essay that seems to tackle a writing problem I’m having and I read it over my coffee.  If you are a writer who needs some guidance, I’d recommend these books; I ordered them as part of Tin House’s Writer’s Series.

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Have you read The Middlesteins, or any of the other books I’m working on?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Thanks again for reading, commenting and following along!  I look forward to dedicating next summer to reading more awesome books and hearing about what you’re reading, too.

 

Summer Book Club Week 10: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

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.

chastI am by nature a worrier, and one of the things I worry about is what will happen to me as I get old.  I have no children, and no intention of having any; I have a husband, but we’ll be getting old at more or less the same pace, if we’re lucky.  I have good friends, but no one I would expect could look after me if I got seriously ill or had my mobility permanently compromised.  I live in a part of the world where winters are so harsh that even for the able-bodied, getting up and down the street on foot is a major physical challenge for a couple of months of the year.  My financial affairs are only minimally in order; once it’s time for me to receive my small pension, I will not have a lot of stray cash lying around for luxuries like, say, a residence with in-house care.

I have worried a bit less about caring for my parents, as they are both still young and in good health and have partners considerably younger than them, but as the years pass and I see my friends’ parents become infirm, and as my parents themselves bring up things like funeral costs and end-of-life decisions, I find myself faced more and more with questions about how they will be cared for.  I hope they will live to be very old, but I never thought much about what that would mean until I read Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Chast’s parents have not just her but each other; however, they are in their nineties and are becoming less able to live without constant care.  They have never been easy or reasonable people, and as they age, and as she needs to be more responsible for them, she finds herself under almost unbearable strain.  On top of the medical emergencies and the deterioration of their mental capacities, the biggest burden is financial.  Her parents have considerable savings and she earns a comfortable living as a long-time New Yorker cartoonist, but she is still bowled over by the costs that fall on them: for example, a place in an assisted living facility starts at $7500 a month, and once they require more regular care, the price skyrockets.

Not only does she have to worry about these things, she has to wrestle with her own guilt over her inability to be an angel.  Chast sincerely wants to be the best daughter she can, but finds herself panic-stricken and resentful; time and again she steps up to the plate only to turn tail and flee back to the relative calm of her home and family, hoping that everything will be ok while she hides from the chaos. Part of this is the simple weight of the responsibilities, but part is also due to her parents themselves, especially her mother, with whom she has always had a troubled relationship.  And the major complication is that Chast has tried throughout her adult life to have conversations with her parents about death and money, and they have always brushed her off with the rejoinder of the title; now, when the decisions really do need to be made, they are not being any more cooperative.

While never undercutting the painful realities of this story, Chast makes them funny.  Difficult people make wonderful characters, and her parents are a handful.  To illustrate their preposterous frugality (for which she is now grateful), Chast relates an incident in a department store in which her mother creates elaborate plans to buy reduced-price pantyhose in bulk; none are her size, and the colours are ridiculous, but she could sew small ones together, or cut up big ones to make smaller pairs, and dye them.  Or she could make a vest for her husband out of them.  None of her daughter’s sane arguments will dissuade her.  The scene captures so much about their relationship and about her mother that it’s heartbreaking, but it is also fall-off-the-couch hilarious.  The book is like this from one end to the other: sobering, eviscerating, and hugely entertaining.

My strongest response at the end of this book was gratitude: I live in a country with universal paid health care, my parents are not insane, and if I’m lucky, the struggles Chast illustrates here are some years away.  The greatest gift this book gives, however, is a clear-eyed and searingly honest look at a trauma most of us will have to go through.  The fact that Chast’s humour extends not only to her parents and to the unimaginable situation they find themselves in, but also to herself, makes this one of the best graphic memoirs I’ve ever read.

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Also read this week: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff.  Ancient Chinese tradition dictates that when Deshi’s brother dies, he needs a corpse bride to accompany him into the afterlife.  Deshi is tasked with finding one.  Thus begins this beautifully illustrated and haunting graphic novel.  Deshi sets off across the countryside, but soon finds that his assignment is a difficult one, and it is made no easier by the appearance of Lily, who would be a perfect corpse-bride candidate if only she were dead.  The story is great; the visuals are stunning.

Abandoned this week:

  • Megan Abbott’s The Fever.  I was laid up for most of this past week recovering from a medical intervention on my uterus.  Despite this, I did not feel averse to reading a novel about a mysterious ailment targeting sexually blossoming young women.  I did, however, feel averse to reading a novel with no sense of humour.  Under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed this book.
  • Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. One complaint that workshoppers have often made about early drafts of my fiction is that these drafts contain long swaths of uninterrupted dialogue that seem mechanical in their desire to advance the plot and characters.  Joel Dicker also has this problem.  It does not seem that he had helpful workshopppers, or editors, to aid him in remedying it.  I was intrigued by the premise: a bestselling author crippled by writer’s block is called upon to investigate, and then write about, his mentor’s implication in the death of a teenage girl over thirty years ago.  I forgave the bald dialogue and ascetic but not very elegant prose for 99 pages, reminding myself all the while that this book is a translation from the French and therefore deserves my indulgence where the language is concerned.  In the end, the prospect of 539 more pages of the same defeated me.

Have you read Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, or any of the other books I attempted this week?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

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

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