My students tackle their ideal bookshelves

For my birthday last May, my teenage son, Connor, gave me the most marvelous gift ever: My Ideal Bookshelf by Thessaly La Force & Jane Mount. This book is a book voyeur’s dream-come-true. Essentially the authors asked 100 plus people to curate their ideal bookshelf – no restrictions. Then they were invited to talk about their reading lives and to explain some of the books they had chosen.

When I finished the book, I had this crazy notion. I teach high school English and I have worked pretty hard over the last few years to create a text-rich environment in my room. I want my students to read. A lot. I have hundreds of books in my classroom and I am happy to say that my little library is well-used. My students know that I love to read and I love to talk about books and I love to recommend books and argue about them. I have some avid readers in my classes and I wondered what they would think about creating  their own ideal bookshelves. Heck, I wanted to create one!

The notion of trying to choose ten favourite books is ridiculous for any bibliophile, right? I stood in front of my bookshelves at home and pulled out 17 books without any trouble. Then I started the process of negotiation. Then I gave up. It’s hard. (In the end I decided on a YA shelf and eventually I’ll do another less specific shelf, but the thing is I’ll never be happy with my choices; I’ll always feel like I’ve left something important out.)

Here is my YA Ideal Bookshelf:

idealbookshelfya

When I suggested to my grade ten students that they were going to create their own ideal bookshelves, they were, I have to say, enthusiastic. They began the work of making lists and I was gratified to see that they had as much trouble choosing ten titles as I did. Once their lists were chosen, I gave them the bookshelf template which is provided in the back of My Ideal Bookshelf and also at their blog . The results were quite delightful.

LouiseT

Louise wrote: “In the fourth grade I was stuck in a Geronimo Stilton phase and I had a cousin who was bound and determined to see me break out of the 100-page cycle. She began sending me “adult” books. The first was The Giver by Lois Lowry. My mother read it first and then advised me to put it away for a few years until I could better handle it. I read it anyway, mainly out of sheer curiosity. And although it kept me up at night thinking about it, maybe that’s what I liked about it. I’ve read it every year since, and it always feels like I’m reading it for the first time.”

DanielleC

Danielle wrote: “The reason I like books so much is because I like to experience other lives; lives that would be impossible for me to even know someone living them let alone live them myself. Books open whole other worlds for me and reading them and experiencing them is like being reborn.”

DylanS

Dylan wrote: “I don’t just read these books, I make my own stories with them and when I was not doing that I’d be dreaming of the worlds of those realms and have myself take a place among the ranks of heroes. Reading definitely changed my life. It gave me refuge from the hardships of life and it’s probably the best hobby ever.”

EricaT

Erica wrote: “My personal favourite book on my shelf is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. I read this book in two days and immediately began to read its sequels. I’ve read the series twice now and I loved it even more the second time. This series had a great influence on me. While reading the third book, I had a strong desire to follow the elves’ path and become vegetarian. One of the main reasons I love this series so much is because of the characters: Eragon’s honour; Shaphira’s wisdom; Roran’s bravery, and Arya’s strength. There is nothing negative I could say about Eragon; I couldn’t recommend it enough.”

BriannS

Briann wrote: “I was a born reader. I even read before I was born. Well, I guess my mother read to me technically, and only when she wanted me to stop thrusting my feet against her stomach. These books are very different from one another, but they all gave me the same pleasure of living a different life through the unique characters. They all show how life can be wonderful and horrible, even if it’s fiction. I could never aspire to write anything as amazing as these authors did, but reading their stories is a reward on its own.”

AlaraS

Alara wrote: “Even though there were many characters I liked, I never identified with any of them. They are their own person; they’re like real people to me. I would be happy for them, get jealous of them, and cry for them and get sad that I couldn’t help them. I love fictional worlds better than this one, I think. I have more than 750 books in my room (I paid my sister $20 to count them) and I wouldn’t get rid of any.”

NoahR

Noah wrote: “I always had great interest in the noble Count Dracula. He was my favourite character for his strength, smarts, fits of rage and great passion. Everything about him was over-the-top, from his ability to shape-shift to his hypnotic and telepathic abilities. He was so cool to me. Every power he had was every power I wanted for my own as a kid.”

AndrewB

Andrew wrote: “My fondest memory of Calvin and Hobbes was in grade five during silent reading I lost it laughing and got kicked out of class. That’s a really stupid and funny moment I won’t ever forget.”

ErinG

Erin wrote: Books that make me cry are the most memorable because it’s a rare occasion when a novel is powerful enough to make me cry. War and slavery books usually leave me blubbering like a baby. The endings of The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas left me wailing. The Lottery Rose gets me to cry my eyes out after chapter three. It’s not easy to make me cry, so these books are extremely important to me.

This is an activity I will continue to do with my students because it was AWESOME!

Saturday Sum-up – February 15

Here’s what I found bookish & interesting on my tour around the Internet this week:

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I’m celebrating my 500th post with today’s Saturday sum up.  That’s a lot of book talk, people!

Do you judge a book by its cover? Of course you do. Buzzfeed has posted 22 Absolutely Stunning Victorian Book Covers

ca7d632dd0ddbade22edddec8f6c6cbaI actually love this idea for the classroom – at the end of the year, I’ll have have students choose a book from my library that they loved and wrap it up for students to choose the following year. It’s something I actually planning on doing in the spring.

I watch my students choose books all the time. The students who don’t really care about reading just walk over to the shelves and grab a book – barely even looking at the cover. The keen readers do what I do: look at the cover, read the blurb on the book, maybe even check out the first paragraph before deciding to take it. More and more students are asking me for my advice – and they all know that I LOVE to offer it.

Not that I ever have any trouble deciding what to read next – I practically have a bookstore’s worth of unread titles in my house – but if you’re someone who isn’t sure what should be next on your tbr pile, check out What Should I Read Next, a handy site that lets you enter your current read into a search engine and then spits out a variety of titles which might interest you. It’s very cool.

And did you know there is actually a book cover archive? lr shelves

Book covers are actually one of the reasons (okay, call me superficial) that I prefer physical books over virtual ones. My reading life is like art…and looking at my heaving bookshelves never fails to give me pleasure.

I’d like to celebrate my 500th post with a little contest. Leave a comment below, or follow my Ludic Reader Facebook page (link on the right) and I’ll enter your name in a draw to win a bookish prize pack. Contest closes tomorrow (Feb 16) at midnight (Atlantic time).

Have a great Saturday!

Bookish lists – I want yours

I have a love/hate relationship with the end of the year. On one hand it means I have to reflect on all the ways I have flailed and failed, my squandered opportunities, that 10k I didn’t quite manage, the times I wasted worrying about things and people I can’t change. On the other hand, once 2013 slips into the past, I can start thinking about what I can accomplish in 2014. The places I’ll go, the people I’ll gather close, the ways I can improve my life, the books I’ll read. calendar

And that’s another reason I love this time of year – every book lover/organization on the planet shares their best books lists. I love lists. I love reading about the books that have risen to the top of the heap. I love it that there’s always disagreement and someone’s best book invariably ends up on someone else’s worst list.

It’s easy enough to find fantastic book lists online. Book Riot has a great selection of the Ten Best Top 100 Book Lists . And, of course, at this time of year everyone wants to weigh in on the best books of 2013. Here’s a small sampling.

Good Reads

Publisher’s Weekly

NPR

Huffington Post

Kirkus

Seabury Reads

I, too, always offer a top ten list. I’ll do that in the next few days because although I did meet my reading challenge of 60 books, I am hoping to read a couple more before year’s end and, who knows, perhaps one of those books will be worthy of a place on the list.

In the meantime, I’d love to feature your favourite books of 2013 here at The Ludic Reader. If you’ve posted a list at your blog, link me up. Otherwise, shoot me an email (ludicreader AT rogers.com) and I’ll let you have the floor in an upcoming post. Or leave a comment and tell me about the best or worst book you’ve read this year.

A Peculiar Grace – Jeffrey Lent

peculiargraceIt took me forever to finish Jeffrey Lent’s highly praised novel A Peculiar Grace. Forever. Just under 400 pages, it felt twice as long because Lent’s prose is just shy of purple and nothing happens. Nothing. Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. Stuff happens.

40-something Hewitt Pearce is leading a solitary life in the Vermont house he inherited from his father. Hewitt’s a blacksmith, a prickly artistic type who “had to sit there a while to see if  it was a day for iron or not. This was the essence of what his customers perceived as a great problem – the fact he refused to state a deadline however vague.”  A sign near his forge’s door states: “If you want it done your way learn how to do it & make it yourself. Your commission is not my vision.”

Well, okay then.

Into Hewitt’s insular life comes 20-something Jessica. Her VW breaks down on Hewitt’s property and he offers her something to eat and a place to clean up. So she pretty much moves in. Jessica isn’t 100% emotionally secure, and Hewitt is 100% emotionally closed off so anything that’s going to happen between them is going to be a long time coming. (No pun intended.)

There are complications. Hewitt’s still hung up on Emily, a girl he met and loved many years ago. She’d married someone else and Hewitt has worshipped and brooded from afar ever since. There are also some family skeletons including  a famous painter father, and  an older sister Hewitt’s on the outs with.  Then Emily’s husband dies and Hewitt decides it’s time to make his feelings known to her once more, but really – can these two crazy middle-aged kids overcome their past and make it? And what about Jessica?

I kept reading. I don’t know why. When Hewitt’s mother, sister and niece arrived for a visit and these family members started talking to each other it was bizarre. People don’t actually talk to each other like this, do they?

“Jesus mother. Don’t you flush?”

“I certainly do. …And haven’t you heard about conserving water? Speaking of which you need to change the gaskets in the faucets of the tub and sink upstairs. At Broad Oakes they sent around a pamphlet about the unnecessary use of water. And not just because of the drought but because there’s long-term stress on the aquifers all over the U.S. and people still want green lawns in August”

“I don’t think so, girlie. Whatever nonsense you’re up to here I want to be able to watch your face when it comes out.”

By the time Hewitt and Jessica (and Emily and Hewitt’s sister)  finally work out their messy and strangely overwrought lives,  I had reader’s fatigue. Partly it had to so with the stylistic nature of Lent’s prose – weirdly fragmented and dense – and partly it had to do with not really caring very much about any of these people.

Best in 2012

This meme comes from The Perpetual Page-Turner. I love an opportunity to reflect on my reading year, so here goes.

Best In Books 2012

1. Best Book You Read In 2012? (You can break it down by genre if you want)

I spend most of my time reading either Young Adult fiction (mostly chosen from my classroom library) or books from my own massive to-be-read pile. (And I am not exaggerating, I’m talking hundreds of books).

Best YA  – no contest…The Fault in Our Stars – John Green.

In fact this might have been my favourite book of the entire year despite the fact that, you know,  it ripped my heart out.

Best Fiction – Room – Emma Donoghue

I actually had a harder time choosing this one. I read a handful of books that I really liked this year, all of them for different reasons. This one, though, was just so unusual and compelling I had to put it on top.

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

Graveminder – Melissa Marr

This was the first book I read in 2012 and I’d been really looking forward to it. I loved the cover. I loved the premise. But the writing and the plot and the characters = hot mess.

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2012?

I just wasn’t anticipating liking The Casual Vacancy at all. I haven’t read the Harry Potter books (except for The Philosopher’s Stone) and I just couldn’t imagine liking a really long book about a small British town. But I did like it. A lot.

4. Book you recommended to people most in 2012?

I have happily recommended The Fault in Our Stars over and over to students in my classes. That’s generally who gets the brunt of my bookish enthusiasm. Other books I’ve flogged include: Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy (which I can include here because I read the second and third books in 2012!), Nevermore by Kelly Creagh and Ashes by Ilsa Bick.

5. Best series you discovered in 2012?

Nevermore by Kelly Creagh The second book, Enshadowed, is currently available in hardcover.   This series features a feisty heroine, a creepy Edgar Allan Poe-ish nightmare world and some terrific writing.

Ashes  trilogy by Ilsa J. Bick. The second book, Shadows, is currently available in hardcover. This series features a world gone horribly awry, flesh-eating zombies and a fabulous main character.

6. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2012?

John Green. Emma Donoghue. Kelly Creagh. Ilsa J. Bick. Kate Morton. These are all authors I will definitely read more of.

7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?

Because I am reading a lot of young adult fiction these days I find that I am reading genres (fantasy, for example) that I wouldn’t normally read. I still don’t think I would enjoy straight up sci fi, but who knows. I want to be able to have those discussions and if I’m gonna talk the talk, I’m gonna have to walk the walk. (Or, read the book!)

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2012?

Nevermore – Kelly Creagh

I’m not sure it was the most thrilling book, but I did have a hard time putting it down.

9. Book You Read In 2012 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year:

If I re-read any book from this year, it would probably be The Fault in Our Stars…or I might skim through Ashes and Nevermore before I read the second books in the series.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2012?

major

11. Most memorable character in 2012?

Samantha from J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I totally got her.

Hazel and Augustus from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I just can’t say enough about these characters and my love for them.

Jack from Emma Donoghue’s Room. Incredible.

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2012?

Oh dear. I am going to have to go with…Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter. I am a longtime fan of Dunmore; she never fails me when it comes to the quality of her prose. But I was also really surprised by how impressed I was by Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. It was really good.

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2012?

The Fault in Our Stars. I laughed out loud and I sobbed uncontrollably  into my fist in the middle of the night.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2012 to finally read?

I actually don’t get all hung up on not reading books when they first come out. I don’t often jump on the hype wagon. I just add books to my tbr list, purchase the books eventually and read them when I get around to it…or I am in the mood.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2012?

Oh dear. I will have to get back to you on this one.

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2012?

Shortest: The Uncomon Reader – Alan Bennett, 120

Longest: The Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling, 503

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It? (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc. etc.) Be careful of spoilers!

I can’t tell you of any one particular scene. I can tell you that my book club had an excellent night discussing The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I have also loved talking books with students in my class.

18. Favorite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2012 (be it romantic, friendship, etc).

Hazel and Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars. Just perfection on the page.

19. Favorite Book You Read in 2012 From An Author You Read Previously

Evidence of Blood – Thomas H. Cook

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

I really love both of these authors and enjoyed both of these books in 2012.

20. Best Book You Read That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else:

None. Other than books I read for book club, I don’t run out and buy books based on someone else’s recommendation.

Rape: A Love Story – Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates wastes no time cutting to the chase in her novella, Rape: A Love Story.

After she was gang – raped, kicked and beaten and left to die on the floor of the filthy boathouse at Rocky Point Park. After she was dragged into the boathouse by the five drunken guys – unless there were six, or seven – and her twelve-year-old daughter with her screaming Let us go! Don’t hurt us! Please don’t hurt us!

Teena  Maguire and her 12 – year – old daughter, Bethie, leave a July 4th party after midnight and cut through Rocky Point Park.  They take a short-cut through the woods and encounter the group of drunken men – many of whom are known to Teena from around her Niagara Falls neighbourhood.

Although Bethie is beaten, she manages to escape and hide under a boat. She listens as her mother is raped and savagely beaten and left for dead. The reader is not spared from the horror of this crime, but Oates – skillful writer that she is – never crosses the line into gratuitous.

Bethie manages to attract the attention of a police officer and it happens to be Officer Dromoor, a man who knows Teena because of an encounter they’d had one night at a local bar. Dromoor is a good man –  a married father-to-be with a finely attuned sense of justice.

Teena survives the attack, but her life is forever altered. Rape: A Love Story sets about examining the ways in which this horrific incident changes her and Bethie and Dromoor and even three of the perpetrators and their families. It asks questions like was Teena dressed inappropriately and thus ‘asking for it’? Oates doesn’t offer any answers, though.

I have a love/hate relationship with Oates. There’s no denying her considerable talent, but sometimes I find her hard work. It’s not style over substance – although, no question she has some stylistic tics which take some getting used to. In Rape, she employs second person narrative (always a risky choice, imho, although clearly well-handled here), choppy sentences, and a narrative that jumps around. But, let’s face it, she’s Joyce Carol Oates.

I always want to like her more than I actually do.

So Much Pretty – Cara Hoffman

I rarely pick up a book randomly anymore, but So Much Pretty was calling my name. Not only was it calling my name, it actually jumped the pile instead of languishing on my bookshelf for months and months. Still, despite the endless glowing praise I had a hard time settling into the book. Perhaps it was the time of year I started to read it – late June, when school is busy. I took the book with me on a family holiday and while the kids were swimming, I sat on a beautiful screened porch and lost myself in Cara Hoffman’s small-town drama.

Told from multiple perspectives, So Much Pretty flips over the small town of Haeden, NY and exposes its creepy underbelly. When the body of a missing teenager, Wendy White, is discovered in Tern Woods, it kick starts an examination of several lives particularly Flynn, the brittle newspaper reporter and  Claire and Gene and their daughter, Alice, transplants from NYC. The book also includes police reports and interviews. In this way, the book is difficult to navigate at first. It really deserves to be read in one sitting because once I made time for it, it really wouldn’t let me go.

Although there is a horrific crime at the center of this book, the real crime has more to do with the ways in which people are often complicit.  Parents misreading their children; neighbours turning away from each other; individuals looking for the spotlight. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, making sure the reader understands all the players and their connections, but I feel like I missed a lot of clues – no, not even clues – signs that things were not quite right in Haeden because my mind was occupied trying to figure out how Alice was connected to Wendy. I got it horribly wrong, btw.

There are questions to be answered here, but Hoffman’s  feelings are opaque. She masterfully navigates all the pieces, but I never got the preachy feeling I often get with, say, a Jodi Picoult novel. The bulk of what happens to Wendy is left to the reader’s imagination, and her fate is far worse because of it. This would be a fantastic book club pick because of the inherent opportunities  for discussion. So, while it took me a bit to get into, I ended up loving So Much Pretty. Its copious praise is well-deserved.