Creative Writing is Scary

Today we wrote about phobias in creative writing. I had a big list of phobias (did you know that porphyrophobia is the fear of purple?) and I put them each on a slip of paper in a big (scary) ziplock. Each student drew out a phobia and had to write a short piece. The requirements were that the name of the phobia be the piece’s title, that it play a central role in the story, but that they can’t directly mention the phobia (at least not its name) in the story. I encouraged them to try to make it scary without saying it was scary – show, not tell.

Ipulled out a phobia, too – and wouldn’t you know it? I pulled out bibliophobia, the fear of books. And if you follow that link, you can read what I came up with. (Feel free to leave comments but keep in mind that the story is posted on my teaching blog and will be seen by my students.)

Missed my cue for a “hot water” reference

In conclusion to a conversation about the chewable Dramamine Ryan took:

"It tastes like ass."

"Maybe you should have just swallowed it."

"It’s like you’re on Chopped, and you open the basket, and they’re all, ‘Your ingredients are ass and orange zest.’ I know! I’ll make Dramamine!"

[Laughter]

"You know, this is really more of an amuse-bouche than an appetizer."

"We only had twenty minutes to cook, and it takes 19 minutes to properly prepare ass, so I sliced it really thin."

"Well, even under the best of circumstances, you want to avoid having your ass roasted."

"Or grilled."

"Ideally, just throw it in a skillet on high heat, spank it on each side, and call it good."

"Shishkabobs, maybe?"

Guess I Ought to Post Something

I’m glad it’s a three-day weekend. This time of year is tough – maybe for everybody, probably for all teachers, but definitely for me. Apparently for my blog, too – two posts in 17 days? Pretty sad. But I’ve had other things on my mind.

My empathy circuits are overloading with pain for my “wolf sister” Jessica, who comments here pretty frequently. Her mom passed away early this morning after a two-year battle with breast cancer. It’s been a really tough couple of months for her, and while I’m sure numbness carries the day today, it’s going to be a rough road for months to come. I just wish that the sorrow I feel could in some way ease the pain she feels, but it doesn’t work like that. Grief is like love; it doesn’t diminish if you spread it around. Unfortunately.

Mostly I just can’t imagine losing my mom.

I don’t know why, but I’ve become undemonstrative in my so-called adultness. I don’t hug or say “I love you” when I feel it. Where did this reserved-ness come from, and what purpose does it serve except to run up a debt of regret that I’ll eventually have to pay?

I can’t find the book I want to read next. It’s lost somewhere. I want to post more book reviews. Maybe I’ll go back and do a few later today. I probably ought to eat some lunch, though. Stomach’s burning.

Speaking of books… I’ve started the “2011 Books” page and moved all of the 2010 books to the “What I’ve Been Reading” mega-list. I’ve added a “Notable Books” page with my top picks of each year and, like I said earlier, plan to add some more to the “Book Reviews” listing. This blog is, after all, the mutated remains of a book blog; as long as I’m reading a lot, I might as well go back to DYHJ’s blogging roots.

Review: True Grit

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d been hearing a lot about True Grit – not the book, but (obviously, I’m sure) the movie. Before I could get around to seeing the remake, I watched the original John Wayne film for the first time. My parents, who had seen the new movie already, attested that the original movie paled a bit in comparison. They also said that the endings didn’t match up.

A few days later, I was looking at my classroom library and saw a slim volume on the shelves: True Grit itself. I’d really had no idea that it was a book! Curious, I pulled it down and began reading.

The book, written a year before the original movie came into being, was a quick read and had apparently been a staple of the middle school classroom curriculum “back in the day.” I was astonished to see how closely the actress who played Mattie in the original captured Portis’s voice, and/or how well he captured the voice of his stubborn, proper, 14-year-old female narrator.

As I read, I was also mildly astonished at how closely the screenplay followed its source material… up to a point. I won’t go into details, lest I reveal spoilers, but the book and the new film adaptation are much more related than the book and the original film. In fact, from what I gather (I still haven’t seen the original – more about that in a moment) the new film is exceptionally true to the book.

The only thing I’d say against this book, given current circumstances, is that you might as well hold off reading it if you’ve seen the movie recently. It’s so true to the book that you’ll feel like you’re just reading the script – down to the words, down to the descriptions, down to the tone of voice. You’ll be bored silly. But if you haven’t yet seen the film, or if it’s been a while, you’ll likely enjoy this story about a kid – not John Wayne OR Jeff Bridges! – who has “true grit.”

View all my reviews

What I’ve Been Reading: 2010

What; you didn’t know I was an enormous nerd?

Anyway, just so you know, there’s going to be a bunch of numbers and graphs here for a while. And then, at the end, I’ll name my favorite books of the year. So if you’re only interested in recommendations, scroll on down.

In 2010, I read 76 books and started 5 others. (Of those five, one is currently in progress and will likely be completed sometime this weekend, becoming the first book of 2011.) That’s a grand total of 25,946 pages, counting only those books that I actually completed. Three (The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ender’s Game) were re-reads to refresh my memory as I taught the books. Six were audio-books read while commuting (five to work, one to the Fiesta Bowl in January).

I tagged each book into between 1-3 categories in an attempt to track the genres that held my reading attention this year. This summer, I took a YA literature class and was not only required to read books for that audience, but fell in love with them. As a result, this has clearly been the Year of YA, with 22 out of 76 books (or 29%) bearing that label. This does not include classic literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

The next biggest category is one that I’ve loosely named "mystery/action" but which might more accurately include "thriller/crime/puzzle fiction" in its title. Twenty books – 26% – fall into that category. Much of this has to do with the fact that this was also a big year for paranormal romance (16%) and urban fantasy (21%) for me, and books in those subgenres usually include a strong mystery or thriller element.

I also read a fair amount of nonfiction (22%), 7% of which dealt with teaching/professional development, 7% with history, 3% with LGBTQ topics, 1% with religion/spirituality, 1% with psychology, and 4% of which was memoir or memoir-like nonfiction portraits of people.

Here’s the complete breakdown, if you’re interested:

categories

I was moderately surprised at how voracious my January reading was, compared to my summer reading, which was obviously very high. I knew that I read a great deal over last winter break, but the part of winter break that extends into January is relatively small! Ultimately, I read 18% of my 2010 books in January, and another 32% in the summer months.

Monthly Book Count 

In terms of actual pages (again, minus books I set aside unfinished) January accounts for 19% of my reading, while summer break accounts for only 27%.

Monthly Page Count

I’m definitely one of those who finds something she likes and rides it out (until it’s all gone, or until I get bored). My January was heavily dominated by urban fantasy and paranormal romance as I gobbled up much of the Dresden Files series, caught up on the Southern Vampire series, and supplemented with doses of Carrie Vaughn, Katie MacAlister, and (guiltily) Sherrilyn Kenyon. The summer was dominated by books related to my studies, specifically YA books with strong LGBTQ characters and themes. I had a surge of dystopic/post-apocalyptic reading – it’s probably my new favorite subgenre – and am finishing out the year on a Orson Scott Card science fiction binge.

How does my 2010 reading stack up to previous years? Pretty good. I wish I had numbers from before my student teaching days so that I could see how far I fell from my average!

four year reading

In 2007 I was finishing up my graduate coursework for my teaching certification, and then starting my student teaching. In 2008 I finished my student teaching, taught summer school, applied for jobs, and started my first year as a real teacher – not exactly conducive to pleasure reading! 2009 was a better reading year, not only because I got into the swing of things at Lowell Scott, but because I got some road-reading done that summer. The number would have been higher had I not moved schools and started over at the high school level, but I went on a reading bender over Christmas break that shot up my numbers. And this past year has been a good reading year because I’ve had the chance to get comfortable at Columbia, and because of the “summer of YA literature.”

All right – time for the good stuff!

My Notable Books of 2010

image

The Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher

This is totally cheating, because it’s a series and I didn’t read the entire thing in 2010. But the DF books I read this year were among my very favorite. Characters are very important to me as a reader, and Harry Dresden wins my ultimate mark of approval: I feel like he’s not only a real person, but a friend of mine. Each time I finish one of these books I feel bereft as if a good friend had left town. That’s my excuse for not being caught up on the series; I’m stalling the inevitable day when I run out of books and Butcher stops writing them.

What are they about? Well, imagine that Harry Potter (only a tall, tough, bitter, single but extremely chivalrous version) has grown up, fully entered the Muggle world (as a quasi-fugitive, no less), and moved to Chicago. And that he’s put an ad in the yellow pages for wizarding services. And then write an episodic series where your wizard-for-hire squares off against demons from his past, perils from the magical world, and mundane crime-fighting politics, all in an effort to keep his city and the women in his life safe. Add humor, a terrific supporting cast, and a dilapidated blue VW bug, and you’ve got my notable series of 2010. It’s even PG/PG-13, which is an appreciable trait for someone like me who looks for good books to recommend to fantasy-loving high school boys.

 

image The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This YA book has swept the country like a mildly counterculture Twilight, and with good reason. It’s really good.

Collins creates a post-apocalyptic dystopia where children are chosen by lottery to enter the Hunger Games, a survival ordeal in which the last child alive wins honor – and more importantly, food – for her district. The protagonist’s quest to survive would have been notable in itself, but this book skillfully weaves the adventure story together with politics, social commentary, and questions of love – both romantic and filial.

Not many books make me cry; this one managed it within the first twenty pages. It will sweep you away and have you reading it so enthusiastically that the sheer momentum will likely carry you right through the rest of the trilogy without noticing that they pale in comparison (and yet are the totally necessary completion of the story).

I can absolutely imagine this book being added to a reading curriculum, maybe as part of a differentiated unit where readers of varying abilities read City of Ember, The Hunger Games, and Bachman/King’s The Running Man… how much fun that would be!

 

image Columbine by Dave Cullen

I grew up in Colorado Springs and was a senior in an Idaho high school when the Columbine shootings occurred. That day’s events had a significant and long-lasting effect on my life, first as a student and later as a teacher. But even over a decade later, all I really knew about it was what I’d heard in those initial days after the tragedy.

Cullen takes us back to Columbine High School and untangles the truth and the lies and the mysteries, painting the actual events in heartbreaking clarity and identifying the causes and errors that contributed. I’ve already said this book was heartbreaking; it was also terrifying, chilling, and at times heartwarming. It was very hard to read as an educator, and I can only imagine how hard it would be to read as a parent. But it is so well done, and I think it’s absolutely crucial that people understand the truth about that day, its perpetrators, and the failings of the system to prevent or minimize it.

 

image Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

The first thing I saw when I found this book was Neil Gaiman’s recommendation plastered across the top. Second, I realized who the author of the book was – and I knew I had to read it. What good luck! Little Brother – another YA dystopia, which is an excellent emerging subgenre – is definitely one of my best books of 2010.

Here again we have a book that could be paired up with another – 1984 is the obvious pick – for a differentiated reading unit; it could also substitute for the classic entirely in a tech magnet environment. In this story, our protagonist and his friends are extremely tech-savvy teenagers living in San Francisco, enjoying the freedom that comes with being smarter than most adults, when a post-911 terrorist attack strikes their city. In the ensuing confusion, they’re picked up as suspects. Doctorow takes the basic ideas of 1984 – totalitarian government, loss of privacy, groupthink, loss of rights and individualism, etc. – and throws in an adolescent hero who isn’t going to just sit there and take it. So much fun, and really well done.

 

eric marcus

Is It A Choice? and/or What If Someone I Know is Gay? by Eric Marcus

These are such outstanding books that I wish they were required reading for every person in the nation – and definitely for every educator. They’re basically the same book; the latter is revised for YA audiences but has almost all of the same information.

Marcus takes all of the questions that people are reluctant to ask – from the obvious to the obscure – and answers them in an understandable, non-condescending, demystifying way that painlessly wears away the reader’s confusion, misconceptions, and prejudice. He uses both scientific fact and anecdotal evidence to support his answers, lending the authority both of technical experts and real experts – those whose real lives have been affected – to his work.

 

imageThe Wild Trees by Richard Preston

I purchased this book on a whim from a park ranger station just outside Redwood National Forest and wolfed it down within two days. It almost needs to be classified as memoir – the memoir of monster trees and the near-crazy people who study, love, climb, and obsess over them. The people were fascinating, the trees were fascinating, and even the science was pretty darn good. My favorite part was learning about the techniques for climbing up, around, and in these giants, and finding out what exists up there above our heads when we walk amongst them. It was strange to become aware of an entire ecosystem in the tree canopies as we hiked, picnicked, and slept at the tree roots. A must-read for anyone who has ever been fascinated by the redwoods, or who wants to learn about the relatively-unexplored regions of our planet, or who enjoys reading about people who live on the edge and who aren’t afraid to fall.

 

And the prize for worst book of 2010 goes to Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter. The only reason I got through this whole sentimental mess was that it was the only audiobook I had with me and I was really not in the mood for music on my commute for several days there. I love the idea; I want a library cat. But this book was a groan-out-louder.

 

For my complete list of 2010 books, check here for the next few days (I’ll probably leave it up until mid-January) and then here afterward (or if you’d like to see what I’ve read in past years).