Reading Update #16

SGF Reading Easter

Happy Easter two days ago! How do you like my Sassy Bunny Friend?

Reading Update: As of today, I have read 38 books. Right now I am trying to read the Complete Jennifer A. Nielsen Catalogue (well, not her Infinity Ring novel, because I don’t have time to get up to speed on the rest of the series, which isn’t by her) because she is coming to visit our school in a couple of days. Since I last posted, I read the first book in her Underworld Chronicles series, Elliot and the Goblin War, and the second book in her Ascendance trilogy, The Runaway King.


I’m not going to go into too much detail on either book because I plan to do a full review later this week, but they’re good! I’m eager to pick up The Shadow Throne and am trying to decide whether to wait on Elliot and the Pixie Plot before reading the third book, because book 2 is currently checked out by a student.

Looking Ahead: Finish these trilogies, switch to some adult lit.


Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and DisappearedThe 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

My rating: 5 out of 5

Joseph Stalin. Mao Tse-Tung. Winston Churchill. Robert Oppenheimer. Sigvard Eklund. Charles de Gaulle. Presidents Truman, Johnson, and Nixon. Sonya the Elephant. Conceivably, if you lived a hundred years — the right hundred years — and were the right guy, and were in the right places at the right times, you might just interact with all of these people. In fact, if you were the right guy in the right places at the right times, you might conceivably have a pretty significant impact on some of these people and the big things they did with their lives.

Allan Karlsson, as it turns out, is the right guy. But when this quirky, amusing, intelligent novel begins, he is also a hundred years old, fed up with life in a nursing home, and anxious for a stiff drink. The novel opens with his undramatic escape from the Malmköping Old Folks’ Home and takes a sharp left turn into the twin stories of Allan Karlsson: his present-day adventures as he flees across Sweden, pursued not only by police who want to save him but crooks who want him dead, and his astonishing life story that shows the reader how Allan Karlsson became the man he is today.

The 100-Year-Old Man bills itself as a Forrest Gump story in the back cover copy, and that’s not a bad way to characterize it, at least on the surface. Like Gump, Karlsson has — largely through sheer dumb luck — found himself a player in a disproportionately large number of major historical events. Also like Gump, Karlsson has navigated these events devoid of political or economic motivation beyond simple survival and a “why not” attitude. Unlike Forrest Gump, Allan Karlsson is a brilliant explosives expert, and this expertise propels him beyond the sidelines straight into the action. Without intention or motivation, Karlsson drives and changes the course of history itself. Jonasson’s novel paints this now-unassuming centenarian as the pivotal figure in multiple international conflicts, assassination attempts, intrigues, and conspiracies. Yes, The 100-Year-Old Man is kindred to Forrest Gump, but it also shares genes with Catch Me If You Can and perhaps even Water for Elephants; heck, there might even be a wee dash of Douglas Adams in there.

The result is a novel that I was reluctant to put down, that I recommended multiple times to the people around me as I read, and that was chock-full of passages that I just couldn’t help but read aloud. For example:

If it is possible to become stone-cold sober instantly after having just downed a whole bottle of tequila, then that was what Vice President Harry S. Truman did. The news of Roosevelt’s sudden demise meant that the vice president had to conclude the pleasant dinner with Allan and fly immediately to Washington. Allan was left behind in the restaurant to argue with the headwaiter about the bill. In the end, the headwaiter accepted Allan’s argument that the future president of the United States was probably reasonably credit-worthy and that, in any case, the headwaiter now knew his address.

I greatly appreciated Jonasson’s dry humor, the somehow believable absurdity of both storylines, the fascinating gallivant through 20th century international history, and the unabashed way in which Jonasson drew present-day Karlsson as a vivacious and personable protagonist despite or even because of his advanced chronological age.

I love it when I stumble upon a book by accident — or perhaps its the book fairies, or fate, or angelus liborumi — and it turns out to be a real winner. This particular book was crammed into a shelf of used crafting and home decor books in a crowded corner of a thrift shop in a small Idaho town; I’d already gone through the entire book section but had returned while waiting for someone else in my party to finish shopping. The book’s bright orange cover caught my eye; the ridiculous title and its placement made me think it was going to be an interesting nonfiction, perhaps in the sociological vein, and then the first few pages convinced me to gamble a dollar on it.

In all honesty, I was initially skeptical of this book based on the highly scientific fact that it was written by a Swedish author (originally in Swedish, naturally). I had failed to make it through the first chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I had the erroneous idea that Jasper Fforde’s books — which I desperately want to like but cannot — were of Swedish descent as well. From these two disappointments I had drawn the conclusion that I Dislike All Swedish Literature, which is approximately as fair as stating that one dislikes all meatballs based on the frozen nuggets available at IKEA. I’m glad that, despite the word “Swedish” emblazoned several times across the cover, I gave this novel a chance. It’s one of my favorites of the academic year thus far, and definitely one I hope to share with others. Heck, this book would be equally appropriately recommended to my highly educated book club friends and with at least some of my 17-year-old students. I may have to track down a second copy for my classroom library!

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The-Guernsey-Literary-and-Potato-Peel-Pie-Society The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of my favorite things about a historical fiction or narrative nonfiction book is when it sheds a beam of light into a previously unknown corner of something that you thought you already knew all about.

For example, I thought I pretty much had World War II down. Between personal reading, film, and the fact that WWII was pretty much the only thing we seemed to learn about in history class, I thought I had a pretty good overview of the time period. And then along comes The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, telling a story that I’d never heard before: the story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, specifically Guernsey, and what it was like to try to survive under conditions that I’d never associated with that part of Europe.

The protagonist is Juliet, a British woman in her 30s whose life and writing career are at a turning point. WWII is recently over; she’s just become a bestselling author but is anxious to try a different style of writing; her apartment and all her possessions have been bombed; as a single woman in the 1940s, she’s beginning to wonder if she ought to consider finding herself a husband. Intelligent, sassy, warm, and independent, she is soon swept up in two different worlds: the dazzling cocktails-and-dancing world of a wealthy American suitor, and the quieter charms of an eclectic group of readers and survivors on the island of Guernsey.

Through correspondences between Juliet and members of the delightful supporting cast, the reader falls in love with Juliet’s London friends, the people of Guernsey and their resilience, and even the dashing but possibly dastardly American. Shockingly, a degree of affection for some of the German occupying forces begins to develop as the authors reveal their humanity, reminding the reader that many soldiers end up fighting wars in which they don’t believe. That’s something that I hadn’t really experienced in other WWII literature; the temptation to draw one’s enemy as a caricature is generally overwhelming. On the other hand, this book also exposed me to Nazi atrocities that I’d never heard of before, through the story of one of the founding members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Ultimately, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a book about people who love books, and about their power to bring people together and keep them going when the going seems not only tough but even impossible. It’s about the power of individual stories to illuminate the truth about communities. Sure, it’s also about WWII, and it’s also a romantic tale (Will Juliet give in to Mark’s protestations of love? Is Sidney truly not Mark’s romantic rival? Is there someone entirely different waiting for Juliet in the wings?) but at its heart, this book is about literature and how art can shape and save your life.

I’ll admit that it took me a little while to succumb to this book’s charms. The January pick for my book club, it had received rave reviews from a startling number of my bookish friends on Goodreads… and I just didn’t get it. At first. The biggest stumbling block for me — the fact that this is an epistolary novel (written in letter form) — was actually a selling point for many readers. Having to wait for character traits, relationships, and background information to unfurl through a series of notes, telegrams, and letters threw the brakes on for me, but once I had the major players fleshed out in my imagination, the novel really took off and I began to find the format more enchanting than distracting.

It’s a perfect choice for a book club, and a great recommendation for any aficionado of history or literature. I’ve already passed my copy to my mom, who loves great historical fiction, and would like to get it into the hands of my fellow English teachers. I’m hoping they might be as amused as I was by the multitudinous (but not annoyingly so) literary references, and by the names of the protagonist and her eventual love.

(Endnote: It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I took some time to research Guernsey. I’d been under the impression that it was a British island and that its citizens were British, but it’s actually a British Crown dependency — the responsiblity, in terms of defense, of the UK, but not actually a part of it. Geographically, Guernsey is much closer to France than it is to England, and both languages are common there as well as some small regional dialects. It consists of six islands with a total size of 24 square miles, and today about 63,000 people call Guernsey home.)

Teaching Cynicism

I went home from work the other day chewing on something that had been bothering me. When Ryan got home, I decided to run it past him.

I'm not cynical. I've just been taking notes.“When you were teaching senior government,” I asked, “were the kids really cynical about everything? When I overhear my kids talking about politics, it seems like they’ve all written off the entire system.”

Ryan said that he’d experienced something similar. “That’s one reason why I don’t like teaching the [required] media bias unit. We spend an entire unit teaching the kids not to trust anything that they hear or read, and they’re already being told by everyone around them that everything is corrupt and bad. They believe that the political system is rigged, that their vote doesn’t count, that the bipartisan system is evil. And then we wonder why young people don’t vote.”

I found myself looking into a dark mirror. As an English teacher, I pride myself on teaching critical thinking and diverse perspectives. I think that the key purpose behind what I do is to teach students to be able to communicate effectively with their worlds AND to understand what their worlds are communicating to them, and that involves being able to cut through the rhetoric and know what to trust. I’ve always approached this from the notion that teenagers are naive, vulnerable to manipulation — that they tend to blindly trust the media or their favorite celebrity or their families/friends, and that they need to have their eyes opened so that they can think and decide for themselves.

And so I — along with my colleagues — teach really great rhetoric units where we parse advertisements and articles, dragging pathos into harsh lights for interrogation, tracking how ethos and logos push our decision-making process in different ways. We have long, sometimes heated discussions about the way the world really works and how to “make it” in a system that often seems weighted against us. We teach research units where we drive home the point that you can’t trust everything you read online — that there are very legitimate-looking websites out there run by bigots, conspiracy theorists, and satirists — and most shockingly, that the “news” program playing every evening at home may not be unbiased news at all.

These, I think, are good things for young people to know. If I can convince even a handful of students that commentators like O’Reilly and Olbermann aren’t reliable arbiters of information, then that’s a job well done. If my kids leave my class and never fall victim to believing an Onion article is true, then that is a measure of success that I’ll happily accept.

Still… at what point do we show students the champions of honest journalism? At what point do we teach trust instead of skepticism?

I began thinking about the literature that we traditionally teach in our high schools. (I say “traditionally” because my school is piloting a new curriculum that shelves much of the traditional canon — but I thought of the texts that are read in our neighboring districts as well.) What are we reading, and what do those texts teach?

The Great Gatsby teaches us that people are shallow and awful, that love is a lie of convenience and false memory, that the American Dream is at best a flickering illusion and at worst a nightmare. The Scarlet Letter casts doubt on the trustworthiness of religion and society. Ender’s Game depicts a world where adults manipulate kids, where violence and shows of strength are the answer to many problems, where genocide is acceptable when committed against those who are very different than us. To Kill a Mockingbird shows that justice does not always prevail. Animal Farm teaches us that some animals are more equal than others; 1984 paints a picture of a deeply corrupt system to which students inevitably draw parallels to their own views of government. Lord of the Flies asserts that all of us are inherently evil under the surface. Hamlet teaches us to trust no one; Romeo and Juliet teaches that love and family can be destructive forces. Where is the redemption and hope in Of Mice and Men? Where is it in Frankenstein? Heck, even in one of my new classes, we read Little Brother with its central idea that young people should trust no one over the age of 30.

Do any of our assigned texts have an inarguably positive message? Perhaps The Odyssey, in which goodness and loyalty prevail — and to find it, we go back to a text written thirteen centuries ago.

Even as I write this, I’m arguing with myself. These pieces of literature are great classics because they are dark, because they are conflicted without any clear final-chapter sunlit resolution. And what I’ve written is admittedly the bleaker take on all of those texts; there are certainly sunnier messages to be taken from (many of) them (I maintain that there’s nothing positive to be taken from Ethan Frome).

But do we? Do we focus on the hopeful, the uplifting? Or do we underline the darkness, reinforcing what is apparently a pre-existing state of cynicism in our students?

On Facebook, a student of mine wishes that he was old enough to vote against “these clowns” as he posts a cartoon labeling Romney, Obama, Ryan, and Biden as hypocrites. Another, who is impressively well-informed and wants to major in political science, shares great articles and provides his own commentary — in which he sees no glimmer of hope from either candidate and expresses his belief that no one should vote for either major party ticket. My colleague assigns students to draw satirical cartoons and collects posters depicting the candidates as cash-hungry cronies conspiring against the American people.

I don’t know what to think.

There’s definitely a part of me that is shaking her head, wondering when I turned into such a Pollyanna — and that part of me believes and will continue to believe that it is imperative that our children don’t reach adulthood ignorant of the world and those who would take advantage of them. It is so important that they don’t go out into the world without their eyes opened. I know too many adults who blindly believe anything they hear so long as it comes from someone with the right little letter next to their name on the ballot, too many adults who wouldn’t know satire if it bit them, too many adults who believe that [fill-in-the-blank biased “news” show or column] is trustworthy.

And then there is another part of me that weeps to think that they may go through young adulthood — and perhaps their entire lives — blind to the possibility of good… that they may never find inspiration and hope in a political candidate… that they may never trust the systems built by the people, for the people. I picture them as old men and women shaking gnarled fists at “the machine,” having never taken the time to realize that like any machine, it is only as good or bad as those operating it. Or worse, I picture them NOT shaking their fists, because they grew so cynical that they stopped paying attention at all.

Maybe this is just me getting old and falling into the recurring trap of worrying that today’s kids can’t live up to past generations. Maybe this is just me working my way through year five as a secondary educator and worrying about the efficacy and value of my practice. Maybe it’s just election season burnout.

But it bugs me.

Define "cynical"

Muppet Trouble and Other Non-News

Hooooo boy. Mama Kate is about ready for a few days without students. B, who teaches down the hall from me, and I are blaming our recent crankiness at students on pregnancy hormones, but honestly? Some of these kids are acting dreadfully! And really, it is a rare sort of punishment to schedule any freshman class last period, especially when that’s going to end up falling on the last hour before a three-day weekend. Tomorrow is a Teacher Work Day (no students) because it’s end of term, and while I haven’t got much in the way of grading to complete, I’m very glad to have a little bit of time to catch my breath, decompress, and straighten up my room a bit. (Just realized I still have Odyssey stuff up on my walls… yikes.)

Well… a few updates, shall we?

Naughty Kermie

Baby KermitKermie Batman has been causing Mama some trouble this week.

Morning sickness? In the first trimester? Ha ha. At 9:30 last night I threw up so hard that I thought my head was going to explode. And this morning, I’ve got a burst vessel mask of red freckles all around my eyes. Powder doesn’t really cover them up, either. If you vomit so hard that you burst blood vessels in your face, do those go away? Or is my complexion permanently changed? Blah.

So yeah, anyway, burned my throat and strained my neck muscles, and turned my face red for… oh, 18 hours and counting…

I (jokingly) figure it might be punishment for child abandonment. A couple of nights ago I dreamed that I basically forgot that I had had a baby, and just left it on the sofa, wrapped up in a blanket — an ugly blanket! — for two days while R and I gallivanted around Manitou Springs, a little town near Colorado Springs. Brand new baby, completely forgotten. Got to love the pregnancy equivalent of the “Oops, I enrolled in a class and never went and tomorrow’s the final” nightmare!

Homecoming Week

I already shared pictures from Twin Day, when the department dressed up as Robert Palmer and his backup “band,” and from Superhero Day.

Yesterday we had some fun for Western Day:

Santa Fe Style

English Department in Western Wear

Today is Spirit Day; I haven’t got a picture, but I’m wearing a CHS shirt over a yellow sweater, with maroon capris over yellow tights, and maroon shoes. All very colorful. At one point I had thought about doing something festive with my hair, but then last night happened, and I had very little energy for hair festivities this morning.

Sinking In

I’m still not 100% connecting the grainy ultrasound image with my belly. I figure, as I get bigger and begin to feel Kermie, this will become easier. In the meantime, I’m kind of trying to force myself to visualize, trying to make it become more real. I mean, seriously — whodathunk there’s a three-inch long kiddo in an anti-gravity chamber inside my stomach? (I keep thinking of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they drink the Fizzy Lifting Drinks, and Grandpa is doing somersaults and flips in midair.)


In two of my upper-division classes today, we did Literary Speed Dating so that the kids could do some turbo browsing and pick out their next books to read. I love this because it’s so much fun to watch the kids get excited about picking a book — even fighting over them and calling dibs. And I’m not talking an honors class, either, or a class full of readers. Even my reluctant readers get pretty worked up after a good Literary Speed Date. Today’s wasn’t great because I misjudged my time so they didn’t have as much time to browse, but my two-second book talks seemed to do the trick. Now I just have to take some time to figure out how to fairly and effectively distribute the books — hopefully there’s not a lot of overlap in interest, or if there is, maybe they’ll be titles I can find cheaply this weekend.

HR, FMLA, STDI, and Other Annoying Acronyms

Tomorrow morning I’m going to the district office to talk to the HR person (who takes two weeks to answer emails grumble grumble grumble) about how maternity leave works in our district. They are pretty careful not to put any of that into writing, which is of course awesome, but I think the deal is that I can take FMLA and use my short-term disability insurance to get a large (but not complete) portion of my paycheck while I’m out. I’d like to know whether I have to use up what little sick leave and personal days I have before STDI kicks in. I’d also like to know what in the sam hill is wrong with a system that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave for teachers, but I doubt HR is going to be able or willing to answer that. I suppose I should be happy that I’m eligible for any pay at all — if this were my first year in-district, I wouldn’t have any STDI to use.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, it is almost 4 PM and I would like to go home soon, so I am done with this post. 🙂