Reading with Ms. Holmes: Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

At various points throughout the last couple of weeks, Ms. Holmes said things like:

Nothing happens in this book. 

The segregationists do mean and nasty things to prevent Melba from going to school and then she does go to school and they do slightly different mean and nasty things to her.

“Melba goes to school and gets beat up” is what happens in practically every single chapter.

She goes to school, goes to a news conference, and then does the whole thing over and over and over again.

It’s like she took her diary entries and put every single thing that happened in them into the memoir.

Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals has so much potential. A memoir? Meet those Common Core Non-fiction requirements! A female author? Excellent. Writing about her year as a member of the Little Rock Nine integrating Central High School? Relevant, difficult, important content about history and identity and difference! An eighth-grade accessible reading level? Amazing. Even the first two chapters, which describe her life pre-integration, making particularly clear the way segregation affected her adults’ opportunities and self-worth, suggest that this is going to be a tour de force aimed at the middle school crowd. Furthermore, Beals handles early instances of violence in the memoir with pitch perfect tone: she conveys that the danger is very very real, without exaggeration or melodramatics. Continue reading

Guns and Dope (and Elegy) in the Desert: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Reviews on this blog are relatively spoiler-free because I believe that part of the joy of reading comes from experiencing a book’s twists and turns first hand. However, a review of No Country for Old Men without addressing the novel’s final fifty pages would be like reviewing just the first half of a March Madness basketball game in which the underdog, down by 15 at the half, makes a come-from-behind win in the second. It would be like reviewing a completely different book. You have been warned.

Cormac McCarthy favors a particular form – sparing punctuation, third person limited narration, and rapid-fire dialogue unencumbered by “he said” “she said” – for telling stories about human life – and death – in the wasteland. His Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road is set in a lonely, post-apocalyptic world; No Country for Old Men in the small towns and deserts of the west Texas-Mexico border. Continue reading

Add It to the Curriculum: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Two generations. Four families. Eight women. China. America. These are the ingredients of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, a novel about mothers and daughters and immigrant identities.

The Joy Luck Club is not a book that carries you away on an adventure. It’s not a book that challenges the conventions of language or form. It’s not a book that makes the heart sing with joy or ache with sorrow. It’s pedestrian, normal and that’s what makes it beautiful.

There are two kinds of high school English books: the famous ones you read because they’re famous and the not-famous ones you read because they’re worth talking about. The Joy Luck Club is in the latter category. In many schools, it’s already a standard part of the curriculum (hooray!) and this is why: Continue reading

The Good Ole American Family Drama (or perhaps not?): Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Much of Williams’ work is set in the South, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (as opposed to its slightly more famous sibling, A Streetcar Named Desire) is really about being Southern. The family depicted is the largest landowners in the Mississippi Delta and, though Big Daddy earned control and ownership of the estate through diligence and hard work, his sons are looking to inherit. It’s The American Family in Conflict over the American Dream Drama writ Southern White Society.

Williams’ plays, though, are never that simple. I’ve, in fact, always struggled with Streetcar because I find Blanche and Stanley really difficult to lift from the page and depict in my mind as I read. Maggie, Brick, and Big Daddy in this play are equally elusive to me. They don’t jump off the page because they’re more than archetypes and because Williams, like Chekhov before him, is a master of saying just enough and letting subtext speak louder than words. Continue reading

Love Lost: Carl Sandburg: selected poems

I used to love Carl Sandburg. After reading Carl Sandburg: selected poems (edited by Paul Berman)? Ummm.

Certainly, there is no other poet like Carl Sandburg. Sandburg, like Upton Sinclair, turns industrial horrors and realities into art. Where The Jungle depicts a reality and argues for a specific solution in plain terms, Sandburg’s poetry ranges from glorification of industry and its effects to condemnation of it. He is early 20th century Chicago. Continue reading

Reading with Ms. Holmes: Miracle Worker by William Gibson

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 students (and keeping up with the homework too!) in addition to my own thoughts on the book itself.

Miracle Worker is a play about Helen Keller – which, admittedly, doesn’t sound like a promising start for an excellent middle school English text. Helen Keller has largely become a figurine, a means for adults to expound on certain virtues to children. “Perseverance is key to success,” many an elementary school teacher proclaims. “Look at how much Helen Keller was able to accomplish and she was blind and deaf! Look how many challenges she overcame!”

But how did she overcome? On this, they are silent. Enter William Gibson’s Miracle Worker, a play which shows the story of how Helen learned to sign, thanks to the persistence of her tutor, Annie Sullivan. As a result, the play presents a challenge to middle schoolers in both style and content, but that challenge is achievable (the best kind) and Ms. Holmes’ students were making sophisticated comments about characters and their development by the end of their unit. Continue reading

My Favorite Color: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dear Alice Walker,

How did they ever turn your beautiful book into a musical? Musicals aren’t known for their complex characters or understatement and The Color Purple has both.

Celie is one of literature’s most compelling protagonists. Her letters to God and her long-lost sister assess her situation and relationships with such aching candor. She is victim and survivor and hero. She is scared and confused and certain and right and wrong. She wants to love and be loved. Others might consider her life inconsequential, but you, Alice, portray her as so abundantly real and human. Continue reading

Story Time for Grown-ups: The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde

The term “fairy tale” likely conjures images of willowy animated heroines singing sweetly of their prince’s love to the collected fauna, the sort of mass market, saccharine tales in which the Good get their happy ending and the Wicked get soundly punished for their evil deeds.

Oscar Wilde wrote fairy tales, but think of Grimm, not Disney. Indeed, Wilde’s tales, with their sophisticated language and moral ambiguity, are hardly suited for elementary readers. Continue reading

Master of Mystery and the Writing Process: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is the master and And Then There Were None is the perfect murder mystery novel.

Ten people from all walks of life are invited to an island mansion by a mysterious figure, a Mr. U. N. Owen. One of them dies. Then another. They realize there’s a murderer in their midst and any of them could be next. It’s a locked room murder, executed on the grandest scale. Continue reading

Powerful Truth: Night by Elie Wiesel

If you’ve read one Holocaust narrative, have you read them all? Certainly, there are elements which all accounts of the Holocaust have in common: transport in cattle cars, families separated, minimal rations and grueling work, prisoners responsible for other prisoners, smoke curling from chimneys and the stench of bodies being gassed and burned. Night by Elie Wiesel is no exception.

But Night is also riveting and persuasive, a swift and impactful 100 pages. Wiesel’s narrative voice is direct and honest. In moments of retrospective self-assessment, Wiesel has a knack for the single, cutting sentence that at once reveals the ironies or tragedies or inevitabilities of the situation. And, in these moments, Wiesel asks and answers the big questions of existence. When everything in your world is intended to tell you that you are worthless, can you still feel or be human? Can you be religious? Can you be a son? Continue reading