Archive for the Novels Category

Update: Reading Nerd Contest

Posted in Novels, teaching on September 17, 2014 by Mike

I’m thinking I’m in a bit of trouble.

Last May I had the brilliant idea [need sarcasm font] to enact a draft of “important” books with several other high school teachers. Read about it here.

Well, four months later and I’ve read exactly one and a third of my four choices. And really, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus barely counts because it’s the shortest of the four I selected and I read it FOUR MONTHS AGO.

I’ve been reading The God of Small Things off and on [emphasize the OFF] since then and I’m finding it easy to find things to do other than read it. That does not speak too well of me as an English teacher, I believe. And now that school’s started, I’m staring down multiple stacks of homework that need grading and lesson plans that need forming and miscellaneous other things needing to take priority, and this doesn’t even include my family and their demands, which take priority over the former.

I should have read the description of Roy’s novel first: it compares “favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens.” I never cared for Dickens, dammit!  C’mon, I’m an American lit guy!  (Yes, I’m conveniently ignoring the Faulkner reference there).

The even worse thing is that this book was gifted to me by one of my favorite students YEARS ago, and I still haven’t read the thing.  Don’t get me wrong, what I’ve read shows promise, but Roy has an ornate style that is not my typical fare.  Here’s a sample:

Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons. Short creatures with long shadows, patrolling the Blurry End. Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu was when she died.

The writing is lush with similes, metaphors and other figurative language. At times I feel like I’m wading waist-deep in her prose, her intent at times breaking the surface, other times brushing against my legs and other times passing by me in the current unseen.  It’s definitely rich, rich prose, but at times I’m swallowed by it.

The other two works I drafted are sitting by my desk, unopened, as of yet.  It doesn’t really help that BRP has continually heaped praise on one of them (Tobias Wolff’s Old School); I’m eyeing that one constantly, tempted to put off Roy’s novel even longer. And now, here at my newspaper late night, I’ve discovered I don’t have my copy of God… in my bag.

I’m going to break into BRP’s room and grab a copy and resume reading.

It’s better than grading.

Reading nerds: The Literature Draft

Posted in Entertainment, Novels, teaching, Vacation with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2014 by Mike

A few weeks ago I was watching the NFL draft waiting to see where Johnny Football would be drafted when I started thinking (it’s a problem – it usually leads to all sorts of work for me). My initial thought was what a literature draft would look like; that is, if a group of people were drafting works of literature, who would pick what first, and how would those choices be justified? I mean, James Joyce’s Ulysses is considered by many to be the single most important work of the 20th century, but I wouldn’t take it in a draft because it’s nigh-unreadable (I tried once). Okay, maybe that’s a little unfair to Joyce, but there are other novels higher on my list.

It was this thought that led me to, on a whim, post to my “Books” Facebook group (a cadre of English teachers who post about what they’ve been reading) the following:

Silly idea: let’s have a novel draft. We could use, say, Time’s Top 100 list (or something better) and compile our own squad of books, then read them (if we haven’t already).

This might have been the end of it, as it got only 4 “likes”, but then eLaffint commented with

Yes let’s do that. But please explain more.

So eLaffint forced me to think about this some more, and closer to the end of the school year I woke up one morning with the following rules in my head:

1) There’s a $10 entry fee – this will be important later.

2) We will each choose 4 works from one of two lists: either the AP title list or the “Top 100 Works in World Literature” (

3) The four works must include a) an American author b) a female author c) an author whose original language is not English and d) a play. None of the choices may be a work taught at the school or something you have already read (you’re on your honor).

4) The draft will be done by email – the order will be pre-determined and everyone in the group will “reply all” when it’s your turn. It doesn’t matter what order you “draft” your works, but no repeats are allowed.

5) Once your list (“team”) is complete, you have pretty much the rest of the year to read them.

6) Once finished, you must write a brief essay (3-5 pages) that reflects on what you’ve read. 10 point font, Times New Roman, double spaced.

7) These essays are due to me by December 12, 2014.

8) An independent panel of three judges (three people not in the draft) will read these essays and determine the winner. All essays will be published to this site, as well as to any blogs the participants might have, with the “winning” essay designated as such.

9) The winning essay’s writer will receive all the money collected from the entry fees. There is no second place. If we have 10 people enter, the winner will receive $100.

A couple notes: I decided on the AP list because it’s quality literature and diverse.  Selecting from that list could also benefit teachers who are looking for literature for their class libraries and want to branch out from young adult fiction and the more common works that most high schools already have on their reading lists (I’m looking at you, Gatsby).  Plus, it’s a pleasure to read. [bonus points for identifying the allusion]. The other list I found through Google, and thought it might help find works that help fulfill requirement “c” on number 3.

The essay requirement was a bit of a worry as I thought that might turn off possible participants, but I wanted something more to happen than “I read it, and it was _____” posts on Facebook. The opportunity to reflect on what you’ve read is an important part of the reading process, and I wanted to give everyone a chance to demonstrate their writing chops.  Hell, it’s something we ask of our students all the time, so, physician, heal thyself, IMO. Let’s put ourselves in our students’ shoes a bit, but also show off what we can do. We’re English teachers for a reason (okay, one of our group is not, but J-ROY’s a reader).

Eight of us decided to give this a shot.  We held our draft on Saturday, and, after a bit of delay due to J-ROY’s travelling, we each have our four works selected:

RAINY Invisible Man The Color Purple In the Time of Butterflies Glass Menagerie
E-E-RON House Made of Dawn When the Emperor was Divine History (Elsa Morante) Zoot Suit
JAX A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Handmaid’s Tale Purple Hibiscus Trifles
DEE-DEE Love Medicine Alias Grace A Thousand Splendid Suns Hamlet
eLaffint Cat on A Hot Tin Roof Wide Sargasso Sea Lysistrata Equus
J-ROY All the Pretty Horses Cat’s Eye The Trial Mother Courage and Her Children
BRP In the Lake of the Woods Member of the Wedding Gargantua and Pantagruel No Exit
ME Old School – Wolff God of Small Things Blindness Doctor Faustus

I think we’re all looking forward to reading our selections, but I’m particularly anxious to read their essays.

I’ll periodically post on my progress here.

My Half-Price Books story from ILPC weekend

Posted in Novels, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 16, 2014 by Mike

A few weekends ago my newspaper staff attended the ILPC conference in Austin. It’s an opportunity for them to learn from professional journalists and award-winning newspaper advisers from across the country, as well as a chance for them to bond and celebrate the almost-over year.

And since BRP is my assistant adviser, it’s also an opportunity for us to do some book-deal hunting at the nearby Half-Price Books.

Austin’s Half-Price Book stores have a much wider selection than my local store, of course, and the particular store we visited always has a grand collection of signed novels and collectibles (BRP calls it his “mecca”).  For instance, back in its collections room it has an uncorrected proof copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (yours for $700) alongside a first edition of a Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (yours for $6000). BRP was really impressed with an early copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl” while I was (and still am) desperate to find a first edition of John Williams’ Stoner (no dice…probably couldn’t afford it if I found one, though).

We also scoured the fiction section for less-rare first editions and signed copies. I picked up a first edition of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound.  Then I headed over to the end of the alphabet to check what Twain they had – I’m always looking for another copy of  A Pen Warmed Up in Hell and to check on any John Williams novels they might have (answer: none).  BRP was there in the same aisle – I moved past him and eventually came to Richard Wright, where I saw an old hard cover edition of Native Son on the shelf.  I pulled it down and noticed it didn’t have a price tag , but it did have $10 penciled in on the first page.  I took a look at the back of the title page – “first edition” was there, followed by 1940.

A nice find. Native Son is Richard Wright’s seminal work, and one that I read long, long ago.  BRP looked at the book and said if I didn’t buy it he would, so I kept it with my others.

When we got back to the hotel that evening, BRP asked to take another look at it.  I handed it over to him, and as he flipped it open on the table, he said something to the effect of “what the hell?” causing me to look back.  BRP pointed. I looked down – in the pages of the book lay a $100 bill, as crisp as the day it was minted (which was apparently in 1969). Despite being surrounded by my impressionable staff, I couldn’t keep myself from repeating “Holy shit!” a few times.   I immediately picked up the book and looked for more bills.  Nothing. I shook my fist angrily at God and…no, I didn’t – that would have been greedy.

The Benjamin in question.

The Benjamin in question.

I did find a pamphlet inserted in the book, though, that suggested the copy was a “Book-of-the-Month” Club edition. Not quite an actual FIRST EDITION (/angels singing), but, still, a nice find, indeed.  Half Price Books, from a particular point of view, PAID ME $90 to take that book off their hands.

The next day BRP and I returned to the store to check the old copy of Wright’s The Outsider that we ignored on our first trip.  Nothing.  The book stayed on the shelf.

So, now BRP is eating his liver with jealousy, and I’m sure he has his own version of how things went down that fateful day.  Ignore him – I’m the one God smiled on that day.

Sidenote: A lot of people ask me if I’m going to “pay it forward” – it’s found money and all that.  Hells, no. I’m a public school teacher – I “pay it forward” every day I go to work. The person who put the bill in the book was obviously storing it for a rainy day, and not as any part of a plan to make someone’s day 40 years later.

I spent it on a birthday gift for my wife.


Huck Finn without the “n word”, Part II

Posted in Novels, teaching with tags , , , , , on January 6, 2011 by Mike

A few years ago a member of the Dallas School Board (Ron Price) raised a ruckus about Huckleberry Finn for the same reasons Gribben is publishing the edited version.  I wrote about the situation on a previous blog attempt, and was reminded of it by a long-time reader (read:  my brother).  I’ve decided to post it again here as it’s still very much relevant to today’s “controversy”, and, in my opinion, is a bit more memorably put.  Enjoy!

[note: some works listed here are no longer on my school’s reading lists, not b/c of complaints or challenges, but because we like to vary our reading lists up from time to time.  Needless to fear, any novels we read today could very easily be added to this post.  We’re rebels like that]


In an article about the current controversy surrounding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn up in the Fort Worth area, Ron Price, a Dallas school board member, states, “We are here today to say we will not tolerate the N-word being used by any educators anywhere in our school district, throughout our region or the state of Texas. It’s critical that we examine all of our textbooks to ensure that the language is proper and that the language is not being used to abuse any child in any school.”

As an English teacher for ten years, I find Ron Price’s statement scary, and not just because of my feelings about Twain and Huck. His statement suggests that any word deemed offensive by any student can and should be removed carte blanche from the curriculum. With this threat in mind, I started looking through my high school’s reading list in an effort to determine which works could be targeted.

Let’s start with the word “nigger” – obviously, Twain’s Huck Finn is gone.  Tom Sawyer is, too.  So are any number of his short stories and essays, including a scathing condemnation of a southern lynching entitled “Only a Nigger.” But Twain’s not the only author whose works will be culled. So, too, will Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is removed, as are any number of his novels.  Flannery O’Connor is also guilty of using the word in a few of her stories. Catch-22 is gone. A few Hemingway works won’t make the cut (including The Sun Also Rises) and, to be consistent, neither will Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, Richard Wright’s novels Black Boy and Native Son, and Frederick Douglass’ Autobiography (and most other slave narratives I’ve read).  So right there we’ve effectively silenced four of the greatest African-American voices in American literature.  But, hey, at least students won’t be exposed to the word “nigger,” right?

Swear words (not just racial epithets) are offensive, too.  Good-bye, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, Cold Mountain, Catch-22, Invisible Man, A Lesson Before Dying, and Fahrenheit-451 (oh, the irony!).  The boys of Lord of the Flies should have their mouths washed out with soap, and Orwell’s 1984 is horrid.  Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima is gone (and I haven’t even mentioned the witchcraft in that one…oops), as are Seabiscuit and A Separate Peace.  Don’t even get me started on Grendel, that monster (why can’t he act civilized?).  No wonder I hear all sorts of curse words in the hallways – the literature students are reading is setting the standard.

Let’s move on to not just words, but actions (actions speak louder than words, you know).  I know many people find sex offensive, particularly between unmarried people.  So, so long, Scarlet Letter and Cold Mountain; good bye, Romeo and JulietThe Great Gatsby has an affair in it, so scratch that, and the trouble in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible all starts with an affair between John Proctor and Abigail (but maybe we can leave that one in, since John is hanged at the end). Wait a minute – Willy Loman has an affair in Death of a Salesman – obviously Miller has some strange fixation on sexual trysts so let’s ban ’em both.  Catch-22, A Lesson Before Dying, and Invisible Man are now three-time offenders, so perhaps we can burn them and drive home the point (I mean, do they have ANY redeemable qualities?  Oops, that’s beside the point).  Dances with Wolves – Dunbar masturbates!  And then he fools around with Stands With a Fist (this is after being fondled by some young indian women). The senior level reading list is chock-full of sex (implicit and explicit) — Kate Chopin, you’re not fooling anyone.  Nude women abound in The Odyssey, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is scandalous (the foreword Wilde writes notwithstanding). Not a sexual episode, but in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the titular Gulliver actually pees on a house to douse a fire – how lewd!  Students don’t need to be reading that, it’s distracting and they’d laugh, and then the next thing we know THEY’LL be peeing on house fires (maybe we could just excise that portion).

And what about witchcraft?  Of course there’s Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, but we’ll also say goodbye to Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar (is there ANY Shakespeare work that would be safe?) and The Crucible centers around it.  If we throw in religion (don’t want to start in with what any religious books say, as it might make some students uncomfortable) we also have to get rid of The Poisonwood Bible, any Puritan readings (Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, for example), and let’s just ignore any allusions made in any other works (“Mr. Williams, what does Patrick Henry mean when he says ‘Don’t be betrayed by a kiss’?” “Just ignore that line, student of mine, it could be offensive if I explain it”).  Practically nothing Abraham Lincoln wrote could be read (he was President!  How dare he quote the Bible!), and more recently published novels being considered by our English staff like Life of Pi and The Kite Runner (both finalists for a local community reading program) are immediately verboten.  Oops, perhaps I shouldn’t use German because of the negative connotation it might have.

Strangely enough, graphic violence doesn’t seem to offend anyone.  But violence is usually accompanied by swearing (people who get shot/stabbed/poisoned are generally nonplussed) so it’s a moot point.

Some reading this might reply that I’m descending onto a slippery slope.  Perhaps a bit, but I would also point out that every specific work mentioned above has been challenged at a school somewhere in this country for the exact reason given. So here’s the question: if we shouldn’t include anything in our curriculum that could possibly/maybe/might offend someone, what exactly do we read? Does context not count anymore?  Does authorial intent not mean anything?. My entire AP reading list is gone, based on Ron Price’s argument that began this missive.  Most of the works included in my school’s English curriculum are questionable because they could make some students uncomfortable, and apparently that’s not what some in high places believe literature should do.

But I would argue that this is EXACTLY what it should do.  This is what great literature (i.e. education) does: it makes us question our society, our world, our selves, and questions without immediate answers are uncomfortable.  When we read any novel, we come into it with preconceived ideas and if the book makes us question those ideas, we’re forced to think about WHY we believe the things we do.  Huck Finn makes us think about race (which will ALWAYS be an issue in the U.S., even if we abolish the word ‘nigger’) and how supposedly civilized people treat one another.  It’s a tale of how difficult it actually is to overcome the supposed “truths” society feeds us from day one, and it’s a tale of friendship.  To ban this book (and others) for the use of deemed “offensive” words, disregarding entirely the context of such use and the author’s intent, is a crime far greater than making a student uncomfortable.  Yes, some ideas we encounter in our education can be offensive, but if teachers are just in the business of reinforcing preconceived notions/ideas, playing it safe, why the hell are we here?

Huck Finn without the “n word”

Posted in Novels, teaching with tags , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2011 by Mike

Saw an article this morning that reported on a new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that would replace every instance of the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” For instance, an excerpt from the new version’s chapter 2, where Huck comments on Jim’s behavior after Tom plays a trick on him (placing Jim’s hat in a tree while Jim sleeps), would read:

Jim was monstrous proud about it, and he got so he wouldn’t hardly notice the other [slaves]. [Slaves] would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any [slave] in that country. Strange [slaves] would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder. [Slaves] is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire; but whenever one was talking and letting on to know all about such things, Jim would happen in and say, “Hm! What you know ’bout witches?” and that [slave] was corked up and had to take a back seat.

This is not the first time such an edition has been published.  Huck-critic John Wallace published a similar version a number of years ago which was much lampooned by academia, but now this new version has a much-respected Twain scholar on its side, Auburn University American literature professor Alan Gribben, who is leading the effort in an attempt to introduce more “general readers” to the classic, without the distasteful epithet.

It’s a misguided attempt.

Twain knew from the get-go that Huckleberry Finn would be considered by many to be an unsavory book.  That’s the point of the novel.  Slavery/racism/prejudice is detestable, and readers of the book SHOULD squirm when Huck starts throwing that word around.  Many defenders of the book (myself included) make the very valid point that “nigger” was the operative term for blacks in the South circa 1835-1845, when this book takes place.  But Twain’s use of the word goes beyond just “realism”.

When Huck uses the word, we squirm because it’s a 12 year old boy using the term, and to our 21st century sensibilities (as it was for Twain’s readers in the late 19th century) the term has no place in polite society.  It’s vulgar and hateful, but Huck just keeps using it.  There’s the point – Huck has been raised in a society that in Twain’s eyes is vulgar, is hateful, and Huck can’t help but use that term.  The prejudice has been taught to him – by Pap, by the Widow Douglas, by Miss Watson, by the church, by his school-teachers.  If Twain were to use another term (such as ‘slave’), the ugliness of St. Petersburg and the rest of the slave-holding South is white-washed (as it were), and instead of throwing its ugliness in our face, he’d be concealing that truth.   We as readers NEED to see the South as it was, and, more importantly to the novel’s progression, see just how deep Huck is influenced by his upbringing. Changing the language makes Huck’s decision to go to hell for Jim, despite all the shit society has taught him is “right”, less profound. No, Huck doesn’t stop using the word at that point in the novel.  But he has done something greater – he has attributed humanity to a “nigger”, shirking everything he has been taught.  And that’s why I teach the novel to my students – because of Huck’s decision to rise beyond the limitations and pettiness of what we call civilization for love.

Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel about the devastating effects of hate disguised as a boy’s adventure novel.  Perhaps if so many people did not carry such romanticized notions about Huck and Jim on the journey down the river there wouldn’t be such a fuss over the book.  We could better accept the novel as the biting satire it is, rather than a depiction of the halcyon days of youth that better describes Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a thematically inferior yet more pleasant read (because Twain is not challenging us in this one). Huck would be treated as an “adult” novel, and perhaps then it would be read with the understanding that it’s meant to make us uncomfortable, rather than indulge our nostalgia for a simpler past.

The controversy over Huck Finn will not end with Gribben’s new edition of the book.  Hell, the controversy’s been raging since 1885, when it was first published.  What the new edition will do, I’m afraid, is water down Twain’s message, water down Twain’s truth.   And I’m afraid it will fit right in in a world where even the risk of offending someone is an intolerable crime.

Twain knew this when he wrote: “Truth is the most valuable thing we have.  Let us economize it.”

Gribben’s edition does just that.

Three years ago I entered a writing contest…

Posted in Entertainment, Novels with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2010 by Mike

… put on by Wizards of the Coast, the company responsible for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game and legions of fantasy novels that occupy the shelves of your local bookstores. This particular contest was a chance for an unpublished writer to tackle a novel revolving around a particular god/goddess in the pantheon of the Forgotten Realms (and I figure most of the people reading this are now rolling their eyes – yes, we’re talking hard-core geekdom here – but in case this doesn’t turn you away I’m providing some links for the uninitiated); in this case it was a goddess named Loviatar, maiden of pain.

Now, I hadn’t played D&D since junior high, but I had been reading a few of the Forgotten Realms novels (particularly the Drizzt Do’Urden novels written by R.A. Salvatore), and had been playing various video games set in the realm (plus I stayed at a Holiday Inn…), so I decided to give it a shot.  I spent that summer cooped up in my high school classroom – I would teach summer school each day and then spend a couple hours working on my 10 page sample and plot outline.

I was in heaven.

Don’t get me wrong: because I knew very little about the Forgotten Realms/Faerun, I spent quite a bit of time (and money) reading the various D&D books educating myself  about the world and the key figures there.  The research was oftentimes a pain in the ass because WotC (reasonably) expected its authors to know their history and be familiar with the major events of the fiction set there.  I was hopelessly behind the curve. But writing that sample, creating that storyline was intoxicating – I loved the process, and by the time I finished my sample I thought I had a puncher’s chance to at least get noticed by the editorial board over at Wizards of the Coast.

The rejection letter came about three months later.

I console myself a bit by telling myself that, judging by some of the message boards I lurked at where other posters who had submitted their entries had received rejection letters early on, my own rejection came later suggesting that perhaps my entry made an early cut.  Of course, the rejection letter itself doesn’t say that, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Another point I pride myself on is that I actually submitted the sample – I could have started it and left it for dead once I realized just how much I didn’t know, but, in what to me is actually a startling exception to my normal pattern of “get good idea, get distracted and move on to something else”, I followed through.  And I’ll also say this: I still have the sample, and I still like reading what I’ve written; again, normally not the case.  Sure, there are some changes I would make, but I still think it’s an engaging, intense read.

My brother and a couple others who I asked to proof the sample have on occasion asked me if I’m ever going to finish it. Right now I’m toying with the idea of doing so on this blog, though I fear the whole “start it, not finish it” if I do commence to serializing it.  Another problem is that last year I got rid of all those damn manuals and books detailing the realm, so I’d have to either start looking at Wikipedia to refresh my memory or just wing it, and not worry so much about getting it right as far as Faerun is concerned.  The latter option appeals to me.  We’ll see what happens…

Stoner, by John Williams

Posted in Novels, teaching with tags , , , on March 31, 2010 by Mike

One chapter in, and I’m hooked.  William Stoner, a Missouri farm boy, is given the opportunity by his father to attend the University of Missouri to study agriculture.  Two years in he changes his major to literature, yet is uncertain about what he will do.  He doesn’t tell his parents.

Sloane,  an English professor there at the school, brings him to a realization a year away from graduation:

Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stoner saw the lines on the long thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”

Maybe it is.