Tag Archives: literature

Some book recommendations for the rising sophomores

Members of our Class of ’19 (rising sophomores) have a summer reading assignment for English to read The Other Wes Moore and write five blog posts about it. Additionally, they must read one other book of their choice from a list of authors/works compiled by the department. The list can be found here. Since the list is long and a little chaotic, I thought I’d give some recommendations.

Each year over Winter Break, I like to read books from the NYTimes “10 Best Books” list. Two books from The 10 Best Books of 2015 that I read over break made it onto the summer reading list: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. I loved both books, but it is the Berlin collection that has really stayed with me. It is long, and since she returns to the same themes often, some of the stories feel repetitive. However, the investment in time is well worth the effort, and any young writer interested in writing short stories in an autobiographical mode should consider picking up that collection. You’ll notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is also on the NYTimes Best of 2015 list. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but the entire faculty is reading it this summer, so stay tuned.

There are a lot of other authors on the list for the rising sophomores that my English department colleagues recommended, and whom I adore and enthusiastically endorse. We put Evelyn Waugh on there. My two favorite books by Waugh are Scoop and A Handful of Dust. Scoop is a satire about the media and journalism, and it is as funny and fresh today as it was when it was written (1938). I taught it one summer about seventeen years ago when I was teaching summer school at Hun, and I’ve often thought about teaching it again. The Modern Library Association put three novels by Waugh on their 100 Best Novels list, the two I mentioned plus the over-hyped Brideshead Revisited. Back at the turn of the millenium, I made a project of trying to read all 100 novels on their (just-published) list, but I only made it through about 80 of them before I gave up. Go ahead, call me a quitter!

A few books that we recommended last summer and the summer before (when the blogging assignment was different and students only had five books to choose from) have reappeared on this year’s list. I strongly recommend Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They are two of the best novels written in the last decade, and rising sophomore bloggers who have written about them over the last few summers have enjoyed them immensely. The Art of Fielding is great if you happen to be a baseball fan, but it is funny and brilliant and can be enjoyed by anyone. Wolf Hall is perfect for readers who enjoy historical fiction. It is set in the England of Henry VIII, and it has spun off an entire industry of TV shows, stage adaptations, etc. Read it! (And then read the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, and get ready for the final book of the trilogy, which is coming soon.)

I was a fantasy and sci-fi fanboy in my younger years, and we put some great options on the list. I’m not particularly a fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but it’s there if you want to go in that direction. (I read the first six books in the series, or something like that, in high school and college, and I admit that peoples’ tastes change over time. I find his work too derivative now.) I’d rather see you get to know the work of Terry Pratchett, who died in 2015, and who is one of the funniest fantasy writers of all time. (The Discworld series is the obvious starting point.) We also put Philip K. Dick on the list, and his writing is so influential, eerie, and intelligent that I would encourage everyone to read him. I guess I would recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a starting point, but I like VALIS, too.

Finally, you’ll see that Raymond Chandler is on the list, and you pretty much have to read Chandler if you want to call yourself a well-read citizen of the planet. Start with The Big Sleep, and then read The Long Goodbye. His detective stories don’t ever quite make sense, but the pleasure is in Chandler’s style, and the atmosphere, and the wonderful narrative voice of his protagonist, Philip Marlowe. High school students often try to write in this genre, so it is a good idea to feed yourself the roots of great detective fiction.

Disagree with my recommendations? Have some recommendations of your own? Leave a comment!



On the eve of spring break

This has been a devastatingly busy, enervating winter term. The challenges brought on by weather disruptions caused constant juggling and too many late nights. I’m still processing everything I’ve learned and find myself limping towards the finish line that is spring break.

The news about changes being made to the SAT is most welcome. Democratizing test prep and refocusing the content (such as it is) will make the college preparatory school world a slightly more sane place. Bravo. Of course we’d all be better off if the most selective colleges and universities showed real leadership and completely abandoned the SAT.

The ongoing crisis in Syria paired with new developments in Ukraine reminds those of us who teach at boarding schools of the importance of our work. This morning’s #sunchat was a conversation about how schools can connect their students with their surrounding communities. As usual, my boarding school perspective left me feeling like an outsider. My school’s immediate community is Newtown, PA, but we spend more time thinking about the ever widening concentric circles of town, state, country, and globe when we consider where we fit in. Unexpectedly, one of my contrarian tweets almost went viral (“School should be center of local community. Not just sending students out, but bringing people in for sports, arts, lectures, etc.”). I suppose I was thinking about work we are doing in the English department to create a lecture series that will bring poets and other writers to campus for events open to the public. It seems that many teachers and administrators out there, both in the public and private school worlds, are putting as much thought into how they can make their school campuses centers of community as they into their plans to send their students out to do service learning.

While I’m trying to relax over break, I also need to keep working on my plans for the English department’s summer blogging assignment. I’ve got documents to produce, processes to troubleshoot, and colleagues to email. (I hope they are all on a beach somewhere and don’t respond for a while.) I’ll be teaching Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World for the first time when we return from break, so it would be worth my time to begin writing lesson plans, quizzes, prompts, and so forth so that I’m not scrambling every night in April. I’m thinking about doing the old reverse-flipped-class concept for a week in there. That would involve my students reading the book in class and blogging about the reading at night. I haven’t tried this before, and I have a variety of concerns. Freshmen aren’t great about bringing their books to class, so I’ll need to have spare copies available (and maybe use a little carrot/stick action, which I detest). I need to correctly judge how much reading they can get done in class, and I’ll need to get the prompts just right to inspire good results. I need to plan a communique to go home to parents as well. These are easily surmountable obstacles, but they loom large in my exhausted end-of-term state.

What should I read over break for my own enjoyment? On the top of my list are Roddy Doyle’s The Guts and Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure. What could be better than new books from two of my favorite authors? Do you have any spring break reading suggestions for me?