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:


Bratty Gingerbread Hot Chocolate


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


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?


Book Pairing of the Week: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Every now and then, I have to read something that is over one hundred years old. I love all sorts of books, and it is so easy to fall into the trap of reading the same genre ad nauseum. I read one book, and immediately I want another just like it, and another and another. It’s like binge-watching television, but with my library card.

So I make an effort to mix it up. This week, I’ve been trudging through The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg.

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I say trudging because I’ve found it absolutely impossible to move through this one quickly. I read a bit, put it down, read a bit, put it down…The story is slow and repetitive. It essentially tells the story twice from two different perspectives. Although there is violence (whee!), it’s mostly just a lot of chit-chat, so I have to get through all that anti-predestination philosophy to get to the MURDER. It’s kind of like the last hundred pages of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which I just totally skipped because it was just a long essay on socialism. It’s a bit much.

But I’m going to finish it. And I’m going to finish it with a red wine. I drink red wine much like I’m reading this book: slowly and sporadically. I am not a wino. In fact, I know nothing about wine. This is my red wine collection (note how it’s on my bookshelf).

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I’m not even going to pretend to know what I’m talking about when I say that the Gouguenheim was my drink of choice for The Private Memoirs and Confessions… Something about its simplicity. I can drink a glass of it and reflect on the moral floundering of the elect. Ah yes. So deep. So deep.

But at any rate, drink red wine! Even though white is better, and beer is the best.

Getting in It

Classics, as much as I love them, can be a challenge. They’re especially difficult to read when interspersed with more modern books. They may have good stories and be well written, but because of the conventions of their time, they can seem to drag or to be obtuse. There was a certain period (cough nineteenth century cough) where brevity was NOT valued, and this can be a problem for me, who likes to keep it short and sweet.

I recently finished Relish by Lucy Knisely, which like most graphic memoirs that I read, I finished in about a day. I can tear through those like a bear through a beehive. I did not start my next read until I was on the train the next day. It was the only book I had on me, and it was The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg. At first, I flipped past the entire first section of the book, because it is labeled as the Editor’s Notes. But, as I quickly realized, the Editor’s Notes are part of the book. One of those old “these are real documents whoa!” kind of books. Immediately I was disappointed, because I suddenly had seventy-eight more pages of classic to read, after having just been in a lighthearted world that included pictures! But I began my slow plod.

It’s not that I don’t like The Private Memoirs and Confessions…I do. It’s just difficult to get into it, which is a bad situation when you’re stuck on a train. I kept wishing I had a second book so that I could alternate, to escape the antiquated writing style for ten minutes and then get back in. Despite the action, there is not much in Hogg’s masterpiece that usually hooks me. There aren’t any strong and sympathetic characters. Everything is pretty one-dimensional, and since things go so slowly, I am able to skim passages and still get the idea. It’s certainly not one that I’m going to abandon, but I’m not super stoked to pick it up on the train.

So how does one get into a book that doesn’t have the easy way in for modern readers? For me, it’s persistence. I find something that I care about (with this one, it’s the religious fanaticism leading to violence, which I think is the one element that transfers disturbingly well to modern times), and I dig into my stakes in that. With every new development in how much of a murderous creep Robert is (it says it on the back of the book; this is not a spoiler), I feel rewarded for sticking with it. Plus the writing is fun.

But if I need a break, I take it. I read today for half of my commute and put it away for the second half, because I did not want to get sick of it. Plus I was a little tipsy, so it was more difficult to focus. Is that relevant? Probably. The point is, I get vertigo when I try to switch reading paces quickly, and I adjust by taking it easy.

Magical Realism around the World

This week’s Dream English Course is a look into magical realism, focusing less on its homeland, Latin America, and more on how it has influenced literature around the world. Unit I looks at Latin American magical realism, mainly to define what magical realism is and where it comes from (and, of course, for the pleasure of reading it). Unit II gives an overview of literature from a diverse group of authors, set in different places and times. From these works, we can look at how the genre changes based on location and the different feelings/themes it can create.

Magical Realism around the World

Unit I: Magical Realism in Latin America (6 weeks)

Texts: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernieres

Questions: What is magical realism? What aspects of Latin American culture/politics/history led to creating this genre? What is the magic’s purpose? How much is magic, and how much is real? What are the rules for magic and reality?

Unit II: Magical Realism in Other Cultures (12 weeks)

Texts: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle  by Haruki Murakami, Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Life of Pi by Yann Martel,The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Questions: How does magical realism change based on the setting and author? How does the magic differ? What is taken from Latin American magical realism? What is new? What about these cultures leads to using this genre? Is it effective? Again, how much is magic, and how much is real? Are the rules always the same, and if not, how do they differ? Ultimately, does magical realism lend itself to a particular type of book more than another?

Book Pairing of the Week: The Girls

I felt so cool checking The Girls by Emma Cline out of the library. For once in my life, I’m hip on literary trends! I mean, for goodness sake, I still haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. And I probably never will. Back in high school, one of my teachers held a book club in class, and while all the other students were discussing their feelings on Freedom and The Help, I had never even heard of these titles. These are also books I have never read and probably never will.

But now I’m hip to what the kids are reading, and it feels good. I swiped The Girls off of the New Fiction shelf after circling it for a few minutes, debating on whether I have the persona to pull off checking it out. I took it up to the desk and swelled with hip pride. I am in the know. I am in it.

I finished it in two days. As I read, I was in no way anticipating using it for the Book Pairing of the Week this week. I figured that, since I was starting A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess right after, I would use that. But then there was a problem. Namely, I decided that I did not care for A Clockwork Orange for reasons that I think are quite justified. The first thirty pages are so violent that I was completely desensitized and did not care. Plus, Burgess smacked me over the head with heavy-handed symbolism TWICE. It was absurd. And it has not aged well since the 1960s. It’s very difficult for me to imagine this future, particularly with all the references to typewriters and landline phones. I kept waiting for the violence to become meaningful, and then I gave up. Most critiques are about the slang, but that was not the problem for me. The problem was completely purposeless violence. So no orange juice and whiskey/rum this week.

Since I’m now using The Girls unexpectedly, I cannot offer a recipe per se, or even anything specific. I say just sit down with some cheap frozen pizza and cheap beer in a can (like, halfway decent canned beer. Have some self-respect and don’t sip a Miller High Life while reading a book) and dig in. The novel itself is not only a beautifully written account of cult life, which everyone is saying, but also an intricate and unique exploration of what it means to grow up a girl in America. All of the main character’s anxieties about her appearance, her flirtations, and her disgust with men’s attitudes were so familiar to me, but no one had ever presented them as Cline does. The pressures that she details feel almost too real, and to me that was the main purpose of The Girls; the cult is just a setting for an exploration of one girlhood. As I said, I finished it in two days. So I liked it.

Now maybe I’ll go back and read The Help. But I probably won’t.


I took an online quiz the other day, and it asked me for my favorite hobby. I was torn between the more adventuresome options, such as exploring a city or going out for drink, with reading a book. I eventually chose the reading option, because I definitely read more than I go drinking. Although I don’t think the two have to be separate by any means.

At what point did I start to think of myself as a reader? Are there any qualifications for being a “reader?” I’ve always, I think, thought of myself as a reader, but there were plenty of times, especially when I was in school, that the only reading I was doing was for class. So although I was doing plenty of it, can I say I was a reader?

I’ve also only recently become in any way in tune to book news. This newfound interest in what’s going on in the world of book selling and publishing came immediately after I no longer had school reading to do. I blame my freedom. Now that no one is telling me what to read, I have to decide for myself, and I like to keep in touch with the news so that I can constantly expand my “to-read” list and not get bored. Otherwise, I envision myself sheepishly wandering around the fiction section, only to slouch over to classics where I know I’ll find something that, if not enjoyable, is “important.”

I read a decent amount. I average about one book every week, which I know is not an insane amount, but it’s not a small amount, either. If I read one book every month, would I still be a reader? What about every six months? Every year?

I think being a reader is a state of mind. If you only have enough time to read a page every day, then you’re still a reader if you enjoy it and it’s part of your identity. Still, I think it requires some upkeep, or at least an intention to continue. I don’t exactly consider myself a poker player, even if I occasionally play a game. Maybe that’s a bad metaphor. Maybe not. Maybe I’m in a Thursday.

At any rate, I take a lot of pride in my reading. Which I guess is clear, since I have a whole blog about it. And that pride is what makes me a reader, yo.

Creative Writing for Readers

For this week’s Dream English Course, we’re looking at a potential Creative Writing course. For this one, I decided to make it very broad, but in the future I may create more specific sub-categories. Creative Writing the Novel? Creative Writing the Play? The possibilities are endless.

Creative Writing for Readers

Unit I: Fiction (4 weeks)

Texts: The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Assignment: Write a short essay which chooses a literary tool that either Camus, Morrison, or Ishiguro uses and analyzes what effect that tool has on the novel.

Unit II: Fictiony Nonfiction and Nonfictiony Fiction (5 weeks)

Texts: The Glass Castle  by Jeanette Walls, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman

Assignment: Write a longer piece of either fiction, nonfiction, or something in between, using at least three of the tools from any author we’ve read so far. Also write a companion essay explaining which tools you used, why, and what effect you hope to achieve with them.

Unit III: So Poetic (2 weeks)

Texts: A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, The Collected Poems by Langston Hughes

Assignment: Write a short essay tracking one literary device throughout all four authors, discussing how they use it and what effect it has.

Unit IV: Short Stories (3 weeks)

Texts: Dubliners by James Joyce, Selected Stories by O Henry, The Complete Tales of Edgar Allen Poe by Edgar Allen Poe, The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker

Assignment: Write longer collection of short stories and/or poems. For at least one of them, analyze which techniques you used and why.

Unit V: So Dramatic (4 weeks)

Texts: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Endgame by Samuel Beckett, The Odd Couple by Neil Simon, The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman

Assignment: Write one act of a play, plus a short explanation of your process and some of the craft decisions you made.

Questions for every text: What literary tools is the author using, and what is their effect? What is the text’s structure? How does the author’s style differ from the other authors? How do different authors utilize the same tools differently? What is the theme, and is the author successful in conveying it?

Additional Assignment: For every unit, there has to be a daily writing journal which explores the current topic in some way or another.



Book Pairing of the Week: Alias Grace

I know I’ve been overusing this one for weeks now. I was hoping to be able to deliver a pairing this week with a fresh read from the weekend, either Then Comes Marriage by Roberta Kaplan or The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Now that I come to think of it, I’m on a real queer lit kick, with those two books up next on the list and Carsick just finished. Not that I’m complaining.

But this past weekend I was out of town, and I got absolutely no reading done, which is unheard of for any other vacation I’ve ever taken. Ever. The combination of it being a car ride (I don’t like reading in cars) and a whirlwind weekend of activity made cracking open the library book a complete impossibility. I didn’t think I could do a good pairing off of the little I had read since Carsick, so I’m bringing one back from the archives that I never got around to posting.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood immediately made me crave coffee. The earlier, slower chapters demanded more focus than my un-caffienated brain can provide, and the later chapters gave me chills that craved a little boost. For my coffee, I picked the darkest blend that my local coffee and tea shop had. I wanted the bitterness of the novel to reflect in the cup, and frou-frou flavorings seemed out of place when reading about a woman in prison. It’s called Northwest, which I also thought was appropriate considering that the novel takes place in Canada.


But the main character is Irish, so I decided to give the old Irish Coffee a twist. I think I’ll call it a Canadian Car Bomb. Grace is, perhaps, a murderer, but everyone agrees that there’s something so polite about her. Indeed, she seems like the most well-behaved character from her recollections. I added a generous helping of a cheap Irish cream (again, can’t get too fancy here) and a shot of Jameson.



The extra kick from the whiskey really brings out the novel’s dark underside. As I sipped, the three layers of coffee, cream, and kick really highlighted the various layers of Alias Grace, the suffering, the femininity, and the violence. Plus, one won’t get you drunk. Not making any promises about two or three.


Or ten.