Reading with Ms. Holmes: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Ms. Holmes is my dear friend and currently an 8th grade English teacher at a public school in New Jersey. Reading with Ms. Holmes is an occasional series in which I write about my experience reading along with her actual students (and keeping up with the homework too!) in addition to my own thoughts on the book itself.

Have you seen those lists of the most common books read in American high schools? Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby were likely at the top of the list. I’m not here to suggest these aren’t worthy, but rather add a book to the list: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, which should be on middle school curricula everywhere.

Ponyboy is a greaser. He’s not part of a gang, precisely, but a group of young men from the “bad” part of town who look out for each other. The greasers have an ongoing spat with the Socs, the rich boys from the other side of town, who pick on them. When Ponyboy and Johnny get into trouble with the Socs – big trouble – their situation reveals friendships and loyalties, the heart of the novel. Continue reading

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3 Cards, 2 Hands, 1 Great Play: Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Park is mesmerizing because it is at once so simple and so complex. The play has only two characters, brothers, both black, one named Lincoln and the other named Booth. At ground level, the play is about two brothers, sharing an apartment and a bottle of whiskey, trying to figure out who they are and what matters in the world. And that, of course, is where things get complicated.

Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth. Our Lincoln works as a Lincoln impersonator, sitting in an arcade and getting “shot” at for amusement. Booth too has a gun, a real one. He’s also good at shoplifting and never had a “real” job. The Lincoln/Booth symbolism isn’t subtle but it works, magnifying the stakes and the consequences beyond the everyday realism of the play. The ending is so obvious as to be practically pre-ordained, but I honestly didn’t realize where the action was going until it happened. Parks’ writing is masterful: subtle and big and loud and ambitious all at once. Continue reading

Making Art as a White Guy: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke has two main ideas: that you must be compelled to be an artist and that to do so you must dive deep into yourself by keeping the world at arm’s length. In isolation, Rilke says, is where truthful, real art is produced.

I like art; I appreciate it. I don’t feel that my existence is not complete without creating art. I am not an “artist” to Rilke and that’s just fine with both of us. Continue reading

Not-So-Dark: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Forget what you think you know about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Yes, it’s set in Africa. Yes, it’s an adventure story. Yes, it’s anti-colonialist. But really Heart of Darkness is the story of one outsider white guy obsessed with another outsider white guy. As a result, I found it underwhelming.

Marlow tells the story of his journey into the African interior to a group of fellow seamen as they sit at the mouth of the Thames waiting for the tide to turn. This is not a conceit or frame but the essential mechanic of Conrad’s novel. Marlow appears at several interruptions in his narrative not to care whether his fellows are listening or not. It is a story told because it needs to told, not because the audience needs to hear it.  Continue reading