Category Archives: Books

The Best of Spring 2011

Long time, no post! Since I abandoned my blog sometime during the spring semester, I figured it’d be the most logical to recap the semester before moving the blog forward. And what better way than through highlighting the best of the best from Spring 2011–here are the Top 5 Books I read this past semester, along with why I loved them, and why you should read them!

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5. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Why you should read it:
It’ll only take you a day.

The House on Mango Street has long been considered a classic piece of young adult fiction, and I regret having not read it sooner. Like, 7 or 8 years sooner. This book was required reading for my English Methods class, and we did some literature circles and other engaging activities that would have been a treat back when I was an awkward adolescent. Since I read this book in the context of teaching it, of course I’d recommend it for any teacher or prospective teacher as potential material for English classrooms. The vignette-style narratives are easily photocopied and reproduced for classroom use (i.e. your students can enjoy it without having to obtain a classroom set) and it’s not a difficult read but still blossoming with unique style, theme and symbolism, so it makes a great choice for a class with ELLs or students that read on a lower level.

But teaching methods aside, The House on Mango Street is powerful without being heavy, witty without being weighty…and short, which means there’s no excuse NOT to read it. And make your little sister read it. And her friends.

4. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
Why you should read it:
You can’t judge comic books as a literary genre until you have.

Like The House on Mango Street, The Dark Knight Returns is a book I should have read in middle school. I don’t know how flexible it is in terms of classroom use (although it’s certainly something to think about), but it falls into the same realm of “fun to read and fun to think about.” You know, that awesome middle ground between War and Peace and Twilight.

I read The Dark Knight Returns for my graphic novels class last semester with Professor Mark Sample. There were a lot great texts that we explored in this class, and believe me, it was hard enough just to narrow it down to the two that I included on this list. But The Dark Knight Returns stood out to me mostly because of it’s artistic style. Also, I naturally have a soft spot for urban/dystopian settings in fiction, and I always enjoy when writers are able to explore setting as a character, rather than just “the random place where I decided all this stuff would happen.” Gotham City is just as important to the Batman comics as Batman himself–almost all of Miller’s sociopolitical commentary that the novel is heralded for can be found in his construction and criticism of this urban dystopia.

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3. Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan
Why you should read it:
When was the last time you read a book set in Israel? (The Bible doesn’t count, btw.)

This is another I read for my graphic novels course, and I’m a little surprised to discover that it’s my favorite from the class. One important revelation I made about graphic novels and comics throughout the semester was how graphic novels can really capitalize on perspective in ways that traditional novels can’t. I think Exit Wounds is an interesting example of this–mostly because I haven’t read anything in recent memory that provides an Israeli perspective. Not everyone in my class found this book as rewarding as I did, but I think the key is to try to understand the characters as being from a particular time and place.

As a young, middle-class American, I’ve had the privilege of living in a very sheltered world, free of deadly violence and far removed from the daily tragedies of war. My only experience with such horrors has come vicariously through movies and books, which have had a profound effect on me, mostly because they make me realize how lucky I am to live in such peaceful existence. Exit Wounds can be added to such books, and I think the most rewarding way to read this text is by remembering that these characters live in a world that is not at all like our own, but still very real (and very real to many people all across the globe). It’s impossible to imagine living in a place where suicide bombings are an almost regular occurrence, to the point where you and your community have become hardened to such tragedies. That’s the setting of Exit Wounds, and if you keep that in mind during your reading, you’ll find this book to be a treasure–Rutu Modan invites you into the world of a young, Israeli middle class, and it’s insightful and educational to pick up on the subtle differences between their world and our own.

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2. Dreams in a Time of War: A childhood memoir by Ngugi wa’Thoing’o
Why you should read it:
Because you don’t know anything about colonial East Africa.

Going along the lines of non-Western perspectives, Ngugi wa Thoing’o’s memoir invites us into his childhood, which was shaped by both the beauties and the horrors of the ‘Mau Mau revolution.’ Wa Thoing’o’s story is valuable, as it offers a narrative that not many people can tell–a narrative which many have not heard.

English is not the author’s first language, but this allows him to craft it in ways that make the prose more appealing. For example, he is able to do what many non-native English speakers can do in their writing: he borrows from the structure of his native language to create prose which is unique and subtle differences in phrasing allow him to frame ordinary observations as extraordinary insights. Dreams in a Time of War is both a history lesson, a coming-of-age story, a chance to expand your worldview and overcome essentializations, and it manages to be all of these things while still being an easy read. This would be an interesting selection for a summer reading list for AP World History or a similar class.

P.S. If you do end up reading this novel, please let me know, because I’d like you to read the adaptation for theater that I wrote for my final project in my Cosmopolitan East Africa class.

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1. Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
Why you should read it:
So you can thank me forever for introducing you to Tayari Jones.

Tayari Jones is the best writer you’ve never heard of. You might think I’m over-exaggerating (or underestimating–maybe you have heard of her), but I will say that she’s the “best writer I’ve never heard of until reading her for a college course,” which hopefully says a lot, considering I’m an English major and prefer to sign up for courses that explore non-canonical texts.

Leaving Atlanta is, put quite simply, a book about a lot of things. The class I read it for was titled Southern Fiction, and indeed, it offers a Southern narrative that is critical as well as fictional. But it’s also about the very real Atlanta child murders, which spanned from roughly 1979 until 1981, and left over twenty children dead. It’s a story about race relations, a story about Atlanta, and a very ambitious coming-of-age story about broken childhoods.

Tayari’s writing is masterful given that it addresses a variety of touchy subjects and realities, but does so through the eyes of young children, and Jones is able to make it work. Even more exciting, from a literary standpoint, is her exploration of first, second, and third-person perspective technique. There’s an entire section devoted to second-person narrative, and Tayari makes it look easy. Think about that for a little bit, and then realize that you need to treat yourself to this author’s groundbreaking first novel so you can continue to follow her work (she’s written two books since Atlanta, and I’m sure she has a lot of great stuff in store for her readers yet).

For the record, this list was really difficult to make. And of course, there’s a lot more to say about all of these books that I haven’t included here (hell, I wrote an entire theatrical adaptation of Dreams in a Time of War for my final for that class–I could probably go on about it for another 500 words at least.) But other good’ns: Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell, which I wrote an 8-page critical analysis on for my Southern Fiction class, along with We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I might have to do them justice and write separate blogposts on them later!


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The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey

I just finished reading The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara, and what a ride it was. At first I was thinking that there’s not a lot to say about this book that hasn’t already been said. However, I was wondering how useful it would be to contextualize Guevara’s narrative as a travel story, instead of as some sort of pre-Communist-manifesto. Surely many of Guevara’s revolutionary ideas, such as his opinions on public healthcare, can be attributed to experiences he had on his cross-continental journey. But politicizing aside–how epic of an adventure did Che and his travel partner REALLY have? Is it at all comparable to some of the greater gems of travel literature, such as Kerouac’s On the Road?

Obviously, Guevara’s prose is much less wax poetic than Kerouac’s, although that’s difficult for me to say since it’s been translated into English. It’s entirely possible (probable?) that in his native language, Che’s musings were as eloquent, humorous, and original as the ones we read in Kerouac’s account. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“For me, the sea has always been a confidant, a friend absorbing all it is told and never revealing those secrets; always giving the best advice–its meaningful noises can be interpreted any way you choose.” (page 34)

“In the half-light that surrounded us, phantoms swirled around and around but ‘she’ would not appear. I still believed I loved her until this moment, when I realized I felt nothing.” (page 54)

“As if patiently dissecting, we pry into dirty stairways and dark recesses, talking to the swarms of beggars; we plumb the city’s depths, the miasmas draw us in. Our distended nostrils inhale the poverty with sadistic intensity.” (page 69)

Che with motorcycle, taken from Google Image Search.

Each section of the novel is also poetically titled, examples: “Ever northward,” “Toward the navel of the world,” and “And now, I feel my great roots unearth, free and…” The emotions of the wide-eyed, excited young doctor come through easily in the prose. The entire last section, “A note in the margin,” is one of the most beautiful pieces of reflection I’ve read in a long time.

The edition of the novel that I have, published by Ocean Press, would be particularly useful as a classroom set, and could be taught in a middle school language arts class. I think Guevara’s first-person account could be a great addition to a unit on Latin American or non-English speaking authors. It could also be useful in the context of nonfiction/biographical writing, travel literature (as I mentioned above), or in a historical/political unit about Latin America and Che himself. It’s a very flexible book.

It also lends itself to classroom use because of its vignette-style organization. It’s not broken down into individual chapters, but rather short narrative expositions that are never more than five or six pages long (i.e. could be easily excerpted, photo-copied, and distributed to students, if you want to include the book in your unit but don’t have time to read the entire thing.) Additionally, and maybe most importantly for students, there’s a lot of supplementary contextualization in the Ocean Press edition, including a map and timeline of Che and Alberto’s journey that could be photo-copied, enlarged, and displayed on a bulletin board. It also has an entire section of *gasp* pictures!

But back to the meat of the book. I imagine it’s hard for anyone reading this blog–someone sitting in a comfortable, air-conditioned room, linked up to wireless internet–to imagine what the breadth of Guevara’s travels must have been like. But the one thing I found somewhat unsettling about Che’s writing was his constant complaining about his asthmatic condition. I’m using the word unsettling for a reason–it didn’t annoy me, and certainly was relevant to his discussion about his experiences–but I kept wondering how the hell he didn’t die. From what he writes, you get the impression that his asthma was really, really bad, and certainly the sub-par medical conditions from both traveling and traveling in such underdeveloped countries didn’t help. It seemed like every other day he was having an asthma attack and was completely incapacitated. It made me even more in awe of his commitment to his journey…most people with such a debilitating medical condition wouldn’t have even considered such a grand undertaking.

I’ll try to write more on how to incorporate The Motorcycle Diaries into an English or humanities classroom later. I think I’d most likely use it to highlight a fun example of creative nonfiction to middle schoolers. Kids could see it as an example of how they can write about their own incredible journeys, using figurative language and sociopolitical theme. How would you use it?

Whether or not you agree with his “politics,” you can’t deny that Che was a great revolutionary, and someone to be admired.

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