Narrators Gone Wild

Let’s talk about a classic class topic: unreliable narrators. This week, I’ve got an entire course centered around narrator unreliability. Along with the usual examples that teachers use to demonstrate unreliability, I’ve included a few more modern and unexpected reads. Do you trust that these titles will be good? (I know. Hold your applause.)

 

Narrators Gone Wild 

Unit I: Thinking Differently (9 weeks)

Texts: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Unit II: Age of Innocence (6 weeks)

Texts: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Room by Emma Donoghue

Unit III: What’s Reality? (3 weeks)

Texts: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Time’s Arrow  by Martin Amis

Questions: Why don’t we trust the narrator? How much do we need to trust the narrator in order to read the story? How does the narrator cultivate trust? What is truth? Does something need to be true outside of the narrator’s reality in order to be true in the novel? Do value judgments need truth behind them? How do the narrators struggle in their reality? What effect does unreliability have on the novel?

Book Pairing of the Week: American Psycho

I’m keeping it super simple this week.

I have started American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and I can pretty much say with certainty that I cannot get enough. The voice is absolutely addicting, and there is so little direct violence that it becomes absolutely ordinary and mundane whenever he casually mentions it. It’s everything I wish that A Clockwork Orange was. Yeah, I kill people at night; I wonder what I should get for dinner.

No recipes or drinks to go with this one. I just picked the one thing I crave every time I read it: sushi. Ever since that first chapter where they’re munching sushi at home, and the raw, dead fish is so vivid on the plate, I’ve been wanting it. I caved in yesterday and ordered some. This book is so intriguing that I did not want to pause it to think of some concoction to make for myself, and it’s so wrapped up in the upper class that I probably couldn’t afford to make anything stylistically appropriate.

That’s it for this week. Short and sweet. Mostly because I want to keep reading.

Drunk Booking

Thursday night bar hopping turned into a talk about books, and I was all about it.

It was Whisky and Wing night. I was drinking a cocktail, and my friend was munching on wings when we started talking about books that we love but that are difficult to talk about. He mentioned The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. How do you have a discussion about it? Can you teach it to high school students? Or is the feeling that you get when you read it too ephemeral to analyze?

This is what we talk about when we’re drunk.

I think that any piece of literature worth its salt is teachable. The question is, at what level? I don’t think I would give The Age of Innocence to students who are struggling to read. But for students who want/need a challenge, it is perfectly teachable. The only way to learn is to challenge oneself, so more challenges! More problems!

I am quite hungover.

That’s all for this week. Reading and drinking: my favorite partnership.

American Drama

This week, I really wanted to put together a Dream English Course on one of my favorite genres: plays. I decided to focus on American plays, which I found both exciting and challenging. Why is almost every “important” American play written by a man? Why can’t I put every Tennessee Williams play in one course? How do I group these very different works together in a cohesive way? Luckily, with a little brain-digging, I put together a list with enough writers who aren’t white/male/straight for me to feel good about it, and I organized them by both general idea and time period. The first unit is meant to be an introduction to American drama, and the rest deal more specifically with various classic themes. I’m excited about it.

American Drama

Unit I: Things Aren’t So Simple, 1938-1990 (2 weeks)

Texts: Our Town by Thornton Wilder, The Piano Lesson by August Wilson

Questions: How do these plays make the ordinary extraordinary? Why do the stories of these families matter? How do they capture a historical moment? How are they structured? How does their structure effect the experience?

 

Unit II: That Darn American Dream, 1953-1971 (4 weeks)

Texts: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, A Hatful of Rain by Michael V. Gazzo, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel

Questions: What is the American Dream? How do the main characters look for it? What effect does their family have on their quest? Do their desires harm their families, and if so, how? What’s preventing them from achieving their dreams? Is the problem internal, external, or both?

 

Unit III: Let’s Laugh at Our Dysfunctional Family, 1963-1981 (3 weeks)

Texts: Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon, Same Time, Next Year by Bernard Slade, Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley

Questions: Why are these plays comedies? How would they differ if they were dramas? How does the genre change family drama? What greater problems do they address?

 

Unit IV: Defining Gayness, 1934-1993 (5 weeks)

Texts: The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner

Questions: How do the different texts define and discuss homosexuality? Do the characters consider themselves gay? How do other characters perceive them? What other problems to they face besides their sexual identity? How do they cope (or not) with the struggle? How does the subject change throughout the decades?

 

Unit V: New Century, Same Problems, 1996-2012 (4 weeks)

Texts: The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, Proof by David Auburn, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn

Questions: What changes in American drama in the twenty-first century? What stays the same? How are these plays structured? What do they reveal about modern society?

Book Pairing of the Week: Howl’s Moving Castle

After finishing NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, I was excited to read something a little lighter and less murder-y. I was explaining Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones to someone, and she said, “Wait. So you’re reading another book in which some magical man with a magical vehicle who kidnaps young people and feeds off of their youth?” To which I replied, “Allegedly kidnaps young women and eats their hearts. Sheesh.” I guess I am still on my murder kick. Heck, American Psycho is up next.

But for now, I’m drinking up my “Poor Sophie” tea. I knew that I had to pair this book with tea, in honor of poor old Sophie trying to get comfortable with a hot drink. I found a tea at The Coffee and Tea Exchange called “The Magic of Roses” and knew that it was the tea for the job.

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If the tea is for Sophie, the flavor is for Howl, ever magical and ever romantic. It’s sweet and floral and fruity, and it brews a deep red color. I made two cups of it, and I feel like I’m drinking one of his cloaks.

To this tea, I added some honey (about one tablespoon) for sweet Lettie and some Fireball (one and one half ounces) for Calcifer, the fire demon who steals the show.

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The result is a sweet drink with a fiery kick behind it. It’s warm and tastes like magic.

It’s a pretty simple book, and it’s a pretty simple pairing. But delicious nonetheless.

Recommendations

I have a really hard time with book recommendations.

Sometimes, I’ll be reading a book and I’ll immediately think of a person. I think this has happened to me about twice in the past five years. I recommended City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg when I was reading it to a friend who is from New York culture and is obsessed with 1970s punk/zine culture, and I recommended Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen to a Jewish friend from New York. So basically, when I’m reading about niche New York cultures, I think about people from those niche New York cultures.

Other than that, I have a hard time. I was trying to think of books the other day for a middle school reader who likes fantasy/science fiction that would give him experience with older writing styles. At first I thought of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, but he’d already read all of them. I was able to think of three more: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (which I think is too easy), Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory (which I don’t think he’ll like), and Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (which I don’t think fits any of the criteria). For all the books I’ve read, I was at a total loss.

It’s tough for me to recall books after I’ve read them, unless they make a very big impression. It could very well be that I’ve read ten books that are perfect for him, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head. What fantasy author writes like Jane Austen?????????? These are the struggles.

I am going to become better at recommendations. I have decided.

From now on, every time I finish a book, I have to think of at least one person to recommend it to, and I have to know why. This rule only applies to books I personally like. And I will begin this rule after I finish Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, because for the life of me I can’t think of anyone I know who would be all about Joe Hill’s NOS4A2Hm. Yeah no. Little too much kidnapping and murder I think. And mild, unaddressed misogyny. Meh. I’ll think about it.

Anyway, mad props to anyone out there who can organize their reads in their head automatically. Because I sure can’t.

We’re All Mad Here in the Attic

I love crazy bitches.

This week, I put together a course that looks at literature’s classic mad women, stuck in attics and in rooms and in jails and in the oppression of society. It’s a course about feminism and mental illness, and whether historically the two of them have been combined. Because who locks their wife in the attic and lets her scratch around? That’s not cool, man. The course looks at the main texts in order, with the supplemental texts dispersed throughout.

We’re All Mad Here in the Attic

Questions for all texts: Who is mad? Who considers her mad? Does the author want you to think that she is mad? How does the author construct her madness? What are the symptoms of her madness? What, if anything, drives her to be mad? How does her madness reflects societal standards for femininity? Is she really mad? Does she ever overcome her madness, and if so, how does she do it? Who are the sane characters, and how do they contrast to her? Are they too mad?

Main Texts (14 weeks):

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (2 weeks)

Gaslight (AKA Angel Streetby Patrick Hamilton

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1 week)

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf  (2 weeks)

Macbeth by William Shakespeare (2 weeks)

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1 week)

A Rose for Emily and Other Stories by William Faulkner (1 week)

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (3 weeks)

Miss Julie by August Strindberg (1 week)

Supplemental (4 weeks):

The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Garber

Dora by Sigmund Freud

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

 

Book Pairing of the Week: NOS4A2

It’s been a sweltering August week. Sounds like the perfect time for hot chocolate!

Or not.

I second guessed my instinct when I picked up NOS4A2 by Joe Hill last week. It is the middle of summer, and this is a book entirely about a serial killer who takes children to a place called “Christmasland.” If anything, this is a Halloween/Christmas combo read, to be opened only during the months of October-December. Yet there I was, deciding that the summer is exactly the time I want to experience NOS4A2. Am I tripping?

But actually, the summer is a really good time for NOS4A2, because as it says in the book, there’s something extremely off-putting about Christmas music/food/decor when it’s out of season. Imagine going to the mall and hearing “Holly Jolly Christmas” in the middle of June. Creepy, right? So why not have the heat of August as the backdrop to NOS4A2? Besides, Christmasland is invasive, so I’m letting it invade my warm months.

Such a departure from normal requires a similar departure in terms of drink. I therefore paired NOS4A2 with a gingerbread hot chocolate, spiked with Maker’s Mark.FullSizeRender (13)

The gingerbread taste/smell evokes all sorts of scary moments in the book (no spoilers!), plus it seems like every time someone thinks about Christmas, they’re craving hot chocolate. I picked Maker’s Mark because it gives a little bite to it, a nice reminder that Christmas isn’t all sweet, plus it’s Vic McQueen’s drink of choice in the novel. FullSizeRender (11)

Is it wrong to choose a whisky brand because an alcoholic heroine like it? Does she like it because the bottle looks like blood is running down it, and the villain is, essentially, a vampire? Am I overthinking this? Probably. Here’s my recipe:

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Bratty Gingerbread Hot Chocolate

Ingredients:

2 cups milk

2 T granulated sugar

2 T brown sugar

1 T molasses

1 t cinnamon

1/2 t pumpkin pie spice

1/4 t ground ginger

1 T unsweetened cocoa powder

1 t vanilla extract

As much Maker’s Mark as your little heart desires

Whipped cream

Red sugar sprinkles

Directions:

Warm milk in saucepan over low heat. Add the sugars; stir until dissolved. Add molasses; stir until combined. Add cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and ginger; stir until smooth. Add cocoa powder; stir until smooth. Pour in as much Maker’s Mark as you want (I added what I figured was about a shot, but in retrospect was probably about three. Oops) and add vanilla. Increase heat to medium, stirring constantly, until steam rises. Pour into a summery mug and add a boatload of whipped cream and red sugar, so it looks like a child decorated it. Grin evilly to self. Merry Christmas.

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Judgement Day

I’m pretty sure my librarian thinks I’m going to murder someone.

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And it could have been worse. I was going to check out The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson too, if it had been on the shelves. I don’t know why, but I must be on a creepy horror kick. Oh well.

Usually I feel great reading in public. I feel a point of pride about whatever I’m reading, or someone will start a conversation with me about my book. In general, it feels good to project my personality through my literature choices to the strangers around me. It’s like fashion for nerds.

But what about those times when the current read doesn’t quite fit what you want people to think? For example, a middle grade novel. I spent an entire morning in a coffee shop once, reading Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine and crying. The entire time, I was wondering if people thought I was a middle school teacher testing new material or a crazy person. Never mind that people probably didn’t know what Mockingbird is; I felt the judgement, whether it was real or not.

Or, perhaps, when I was reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. There are many people who feel VERY strongly that that book is utter garbage spewed by an unfeeling capitalist, so I always hoped that no one would confront me about capitalism on the train. I just didn’t need that in my life.

So this week, when I checked out two books about psychopaths and one book from the children’s section, I sincerely hoped that no one was watching me and assuming that I murder people in my spare time. But, as I go forth onto buses and trains and read these books, I will proudly raise them aloft, daring anybody to question my decisions. After all, if I am crazy, do you really want to have that chat?

We Must Protect the Children

This week’s Dream English Course looks at books commonly banned in the United States that are written either for or about children. The first unit looks at texts that depict a version of childhood that is considered too explicit for various reasons and that could be read by children. The second unit looks at books that are aimed more at adult audiences, but which again feature stories of childhood that could be inappropriate. The final unit looks at childhood fantasy books that many people find objectionable for religious or other reasons.

Unit I: Children Can’t Read Reality (3 weeks)

Texts: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

Unit II: We Can’t Read about Children’s Reality (8 weeks)

Texts: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  by Mark Twain

Unit III: Children Can’t Read Fantasy (7 weeks)

Texts: The Witches by Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl,  A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson,Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

 

Overarching Questions: Why are these books banned or challenged? What about them makes them unacceptable for children or unacceptable depictions of children? How do American fears play into the decision to censor? Do the reasons for censorship change across genres? What is lost if the book is banned or changed? What is an “acceptable” portrayal of childhood?