8/14/2009

Summer Reading

The concept of "summer reading" has loaded meaning around GFT's house, for it is no secret that I am an English teacher, and since I teach Pre-AP/AP English classes (what we used to call "honors" classes back in the day), my students routinely have summer reading assignments. Typically consisting of a book or two, (choices tend to tie in to themes or material taught in class during the school year), with a corresponding written task to accompany them, these assignments are the subject of much complaining from both my students and my own children (who routinely wait till the last possible moment to begin their work, in spite of all my nagging, threats, bribes, schedules, and other efforts to get them to spread the work out all summer long.) When school convenes each year in August, the teens I know will complain that it is all very easy to assign these projects,"since you don't have to waste your summer doing the work". What they fail to understand of course, is that : 1)Teachers have to read all the books they assign, at some point, 2)teachers often are required to attend in-services and various other training sessions, which are 1000 times worse than lazing around a pool or in a hammock reading a book, 3)any assignment we make - we shall eventually have to grade....and therein lies the rub.
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In spite of all this, I do manage to find time to read for pleasure. I keep a running list on amazon.com of books I hear about, read reviews of, are recommended to me, or are coming up soon for discussion in my various book clubs, and each payday select a few titles to add to my library. This is the one time in my life I let my choices drift with my fancy, and relish not having to read or do something as dictated by work or some other external criteria.
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As summer draws to its end, I am reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and really enjoying it. (If it sounds like I say "I'm really enjoying it" to everything I read, that's because, if something doesn't just captivate me in the first 50 pages - I put it down and move on. Figure I can always go back, later, if my mood changes. Used to feel guilty about this, but now I don't. Life is too short! Too many great books to read out there !) So far, Water for Elephants is the story of a young man, trained as a veterinarian, who experiences personal hardship during the Great Depression and decides to hop a train and join a circus. I am expecting he will learn all about life and love along the way as he has adventures with all the weird circus folk. People kept recommending this one to me, and for whatever reason until now, I didn't have the time to read it or the mood wasn't right. Sara Gruen is a captivating writer and I am just pulled in to this story. The "frame" for this novel is that the main character is an old man in a nursing home, remembering his adventures from long ago....and his comments about aging are spot-on (at the beginning of that slippery slope, I share many of the same sentiments, myself.) The title has been explained as a metaphor for b.s. ......which may lend a key to unraveling whether what the narrator tells us is true, or not. A fun ride; I stayed up late last night and could not put it down.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is not a galloping fun wild sexy read, but a fascinating one, nonetheless. This is a non-fiction, "documentary" type analysis of the food industry and agri-business in America in the 21st century, with some historical anecdotes how we got to be where we are, why obesity is rampant, why, biochemically speaking, our health and our ecosystems are related and are both out of whack. This book is organized into 3 main sections : the mainstream sources of most foods that appear in our grocery stores, the "organic " revolution and how it has evolved over time, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Intense biology lessons (the food chain, the nitrogen-photosynthesis cycle) thrown in for good measure. I found it informative and enjoyable - but I trend towards being a foodie and a health freak and just a little bit "green", all rolled up in to one. Even if you are a beef loving steak-chomping Texas carnivore....you might want to think about about switching to more upscale organic grass-fed meat sources. It's all the rage nowadays, anyways ! As I said to some friends of mine the other day : "I will NEVER let anyone I love eat a chicken nugget again."
Jhumpa Lahiri is the beautifully poetic Indian-American (Indian as in India, not Native American) author of The Namesake, which achieved commercial success and was made into a movie (starring Kal Penn, of "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle " fame), a few years back. The Namesake,which deals with themes of families across the generations, the immigrant experience, expectations we have - both for ourselves and our children, won a Pulitzer Prize. Lahiri has several newer books out that are on my list ...this is one of them. I was surprised to find that Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories ( nowhere in the reviews I read did anyone mention this fact). As I read through them, I was filled anew with many questions to myself, such as : Why has the short story nearly all but vanished as an art form in the past 20-30 years ? Who else is writing short stories today? This collection of stories puts Lahiri in a class with some of the great American writers of short stories such as Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Twain, Parker, and Lardner, for these are truly beautiful little gems, each one more poignant and perfect than the last. Her themes remain similar to her previous work: hopes and dreams, parents vs children, families - but with a fresh new twist in each. The great thing about reading a short story or a collection of them, is that if you are pressed for time you can read one, put it down, and come back and read another one, later. Because the action is compressed, the messages/themes are more intense, leaving the reader with lots to think about after one is finished. A beautiful collection; I may teach some of these gems this fall in my class.
ItalicPeople of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks (author of the Pulitzer prize winning March, the imagined story of the father in Little Women) was recommended to me awhile back by one of my librarian friends, who was so excited when she tried to talk about it that she was nearly speechless. This is a historical novel, all about a very unique and valuable haggadah (layman's terms : a special copy of the Torah, or sections thereof, designed for use during Passover), which survives 600 years of war, famine, political chaos and anti-Semitism as it is bandied about all over Europe, from one owner to the next, secretly carried and saved (at the risk, often, of the owner's life) due to the beautiful and unusual illustrations the volume has. While tracing this story, ( which goes backwards through time), one learns a great deal of history, not just about the Jewish experience in Europe, but about the history of book -making, about the history if Islam in Europe, along with some very memorable descriptions of specific places, at specific moments in time ( such as 17th century Venice). A captivating read; I could not put it down.
One of my book clubs read The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn last spring. While we all agreed that we enjoyed the escapist qualities of Flinn's account of how she left her high-powered financial job and studied at Le Cordon Bleau for a year, we also agreed that her memoir, while enjoyable , was awfully self-indulgent. Who has the time or money to abandon everything for a year, at mid-life, and attend an tres expensive cooking school ? Especially if one does not go on to become a chef, but simply intends to write about one's experiences ? We can't all be like Julia Child. In a similar vein, but as a much more compelling read, is Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl. Here our plucky heroine recounts her rise from a commune dwelling ex-hippie restaurant reviewer for a local mag in San Francisco, one who can barely pay her bills or who is ashamed to park her crappy beat-up car at the valet parking of the toney restaurants she is there to review, through her two affairs, doomed marriage, frustrating attempts to get pregnant, to her ultimate success as restaurant critic for the LA Times. Along the way we are regaled with anecdotes of famous people she has met in the gourmet foods industry, amusing and lustful tales of incredible meals all around the world, travel adventures, a few rolls-in-the-hay, and wonderful recipes. As a memoir, it is a much better read than Flinn's The Sharper Your Knife, because the food adventures and the personal adventures intertwine, and the one becomes a metaphor for the other. This book is an eclectic mix that works, and another I-couldn't-put-this-one-down read.

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