Category Archives: book geek

Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

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Ten Things Tuesday

It’s Banned Book Week!

I don’t know about you, but I see banned books lists as a challenge.  Someone tells me I “can’t” do something, and I’m MORE curious about it than I would have been if they’d just kept their mouths shut.  In fact, I went to see The Last Temptation of Christ BECAUSE of all the whackadoodle Christians who were protesting and wailing and condemning the film (most of them, I might add, without ever having seen it; the uproar started before the thing was even released).  How’s THAT for heresy!  (also, and not for nothing, I kind of liked the film…)

Not only do I READ “banned books,” I teach them, too.  Here are ten of my favorites:

1.  Native Son.  I teach this to seniors whenever I have the chance.  The book is difficult and ugly and painful, but it’s also, I think, an important look at the ways in which poverty (and the systems that both create and perpetuate it) affects EVERYONE adversely.  It’s also a great way to talk to students about privilege, which is a desperately important conversation to have.

2.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  I teach this one to freshmen every chance I get.  The novel requires a bit of background for the kids; most of them have no concept of the society in which the novel is set and, as a consequence, they have a hard time grasping the main conflict in the story.  Once we do a unit on Jim Crow, though, everything starts to fall into place.

3.  The Kite Runner.  I taught this in a Film and Literature class, and offered it as a free reading choice to sophomores last year (three of my 16 kids chose that book).  It’s a gorgeous novel that asks students to take a hard look at loyalty, friendship, kinship ties, and responsibility.

4.  The Things They Carried.  I teach the eponymous story when I’m teaching my unit on descriptive writing.  O’Brien’s story is a strange combination of stark, raw, lush, and beautiful.  The end gets me every time, and I’ve been teaching the story for years.

5.  The Lovely Bones.  Here’s another one I taught in both the Film and Lit class and offered as a reading choice to sophomores last year.  I don’t love this novel, but I do love the questions it inspires in the students.  The themes of remembrance and letting go are difficult ones to process, and despite my being lukewarm about the book, I’m always pleased by the work we do with it.

6.  The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’ve taught this novel several times, and EVERY SINGLE TIME, I’m amazed by the really great thinking that it generates in my students.  My most recent go-round with it was last year – you know; just as the whole Sandra Fluke, contraception hysteria was really getting going? – and it was both incredibly satisfying and singularly terrifying how relevant the novel was.

7.  The Golden Compass.  I taught this in a Film and Lit class two years ago, and it may well have been my favorite novel of the course.  It asks students to think about institutional control, what we are and are not allowed to believe, and what belief inspires/compels some people to do, particularly in the pursuit and maintenance of power.

8.  Harry Potter.  Duh.  The righty wingnuts get their panties in a bunch over magic.  Whatever.  I don’t teach the whole series, but I have taught The Prisoner of Azkaban in my Film and Literature class.

9.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Technically, I have never taught this book.  I did, however, encourage a coworker to teach it to sophomores two years ago, and I was planning to teach it this year if I had still been in the classroom.

10.  The Hunger Games.  I taught this to freshmen last year, and I think that it was an entirely successful enterprise.  One of the things I work on is teaching kids to look beyond the stories; to use the plot as a metaphor for something larger.  I think that most of my class was able to see the themes of individual responsibility, protest, and resistance as we made our way through the novel.

 

What are YOUR favorite banned books?

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Why I Love My Job

Seriously.

Did you ever start thinking about something, and then discover, five minutes later, that that thinking led you to someplace COMPLETELY different but entirely connectible?  The other day, for example, I started thinking about Mr. Chili’s impending month-long trip to New Mexico for another instrument launch.  That started me thinking about what we can and cannot bring on airplanes.  THAT thinking led me to thinking about water bottles, which got me to these (which my sister hooked me on to and which I love, despite their hefty price tag.  Honest to Goddess, People; black flask in a black car in a parking lot in August for two hours while I watched a movie.  I came out and the tea inside was still refrigerator cold).  I went from Mr. Chili’s trip to my favorite beverage in three steps.  Kinda like six degrees of Kevin Bacon

So, here’s the scene, okay?  I’m on a lunch date this afternoon with my boss, whom I call Carrie here.  She’s awesome; smart, funny, and fiercely passionate and committed about what we’re doing.  She’s a truly amazing boss – the best I’ve ever worked with – and she’s also a dear and trusted friend; we know, almost instinctively, how to balance the friend relationship with the work relationship in a way that makes both relationships better.  We have a blast every time we’re together, and I’d been looking forward to this lunch for a couple of weeks.

ANYWAY, we’re having lunch and talking alternately about home things and work things.  At one point, we started talking about the fact that I’ve got Mac now, which means that I can teach electives this year.  We’re trying to decide which elective I should teach when, and we got around to the fact that my colleague is teaching his film appreciation class this term, so I’ll teach my Film and Lit class in second semester.  What, then, to teach starting in September?

Somehow, the conversation came around to the fact that Carrie and her daughter sat down to watch Interview with the Vampire the other day.  It seems that her kid was quite ticked off at Claudia’s fate, and Carrie spent a good bit of time explaining that her daughter felt that Claudia’s death was completely unfair.  That somehow led to a conversation about who the villains really are, which led me to observe that our villains change over time; when we were kids, all the bad guys were Russians.  Now, they’re all Arabs.  We go through phases in our entertainment; we get a bumper crop of football movies, then a run of mobster movies, then we get the alien invasion flicks, then we get the supernatural, ghost-and-vampire films, and so on and so on.  What is it, I asked, that makes a certain genre of film so accessible at a certain period of time?

As I was making my case for the cyclical nature of our entertainment choices, Carrie’s eyes got big.  “I KNOW!” she said, “YOU need to teach a seminar on aliens and vampires!

I swear to God, that’s really what she said.

Do you see now why I love working for/with this woman?

We spent the rest of the meal discussing what that course would look like.  I rattled off a bunch of stories that could be the foundations for the course – Dracula, of course, and War of the Worlds – and things like Contact, Alien, Men in Black, and Star Trek set up alongside Dracula, The Lost Boys, Buffy, Blade, and I am Legend.  The objectives would include an investigation of the stories’ history in popular culture and possibly some investigation of some of the earlier treatments of the genres, some critical analysis of the parallels (if any can be found) between the number of pieces in a genre during a particular time and the sociopolitical climate during that time, and some sort of creative component in which the students fashion a story (or a play or a skit or a mini-series) that uses one of the genres to interpret a current issue, like immigration, civil rights, or international diplomacy.

You should have seen us, geeking out over dessert, imagining how much pure FUN this class will be.  I’m off to write a course description; I’ll post it here when it’s ready.  Any thoughts, suggestions, or advice you can offer are, as always, gratefully accepted.

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Fingers Crossed!

I’m in the process of trying to reach Leif Enger, the author of the gorgeous Peace Like a River, which my juniors, seniors, and I are reading as our culminating novel for this year.

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My goal is that Mr. Enger will consent to an Skype conference with my class to discuss this beautifully written novel, his craft of writing, and life in general.  I’ve sent messages through a couple of avenues; I’m hoping one of them gets through.

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Wish me luck, would you?

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More Long Distance Love

Carson Skyped into my classroom again this morning.  I invited him to come and give some background and context about Jim Crow and segregation to my freshmen as they read To Kill a Mockingbird.

A number of my babies seem to be having a really tough time with this book, which stymied me at first.  I understand that I sometimes let my own deep and abiding affection for certain novels cloud my recognition that not everyone can be expected to be as in love with them as I.  I’m working really hard to remember that I’m teaching NINTH GRADERS here; I think I’ve become so used to working with the older, more mature students that I forget, every once in a while, that these little ones probably don’t have the kind of experience, background, or education that they sometimes need to really understand and appreciate the novels we read.

I recognized that a big missing piece for my students and To Kill a Mockingbird was likely the aspect of culture; as mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly liberal Northerners, most of us have never really had to consider the legacy of segregation and racism in our everyday lives, and I think that understanding those things is crucial to really appreciating the gravity and importance of this novel.  Carson did a great job of laying the groundwork for the students’ understanding of the CULTURE of the country – not just the South, but the whole of the US – from Reconstruction on, and I think they left the class feeling like they understood a little better the way that culture informs the characters in Lee’s book.

For myself, I was quietly proud of how much I already know of what Carson covered.  I was taking notes on the board for the kids as he was talking, and at one point I had written the exact phrase that he spoke a moment later.  I joke with the history teacher at CHS that we should consider trading jobs once in a while; he’s a frustrated English teacher and I am most certainly a frustrated history teacher.  I could probably have done a decent job covering the material that Carson taught my kids this morning, but I was particularly grateful that he was willing to get up early (we’re a time zone ahead of him) and beam himself into my classroom.  I think that it’s important for my students to hear a lot of different voices.  I admire Carson’s knowledge and adore his style, and I’m grateful and honored that he agrees to share his time and talent so freely with me.

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Can We Teach Appreciation?

I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my freshmen.  For some of them, it’s going pretty well.  The rest of them, though, are just not that into it, and I’m trying to figure out, five chapters in, how to head those kids off at the Apathy Pass.

The thing is, I remember being a teenager and thinking that everything my English teachers gave me was dumb (I don’t remember if I used the word “lame” when I was a teenager, but that was the general idea I was circling around).  I remember having to read A Separate Peace, for example, and thinking that there was nothing in the novel that touched me; I had no connection to the book and, accordingly, I had no interest in it.  I started reading the novel again last month (I’ve since stopped because I switched that novel in my junior curriculum, but that’s neither here nor there), and I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed the book as far as I read it.  I don’t know what exactly about me had changed, but clearly something had; I found myself settling nicely into the narrative and really enjoying the ride.

I’m trying to apply that to Mockingbird.  I read it as an adult, though, so I don’t have the same experience of slogging unwillingly through it as a teenager that I did with other novels.  I loved this book from the first chapter – the language delights me, the story unfolds at a perfect pace and pitch, the characters are distinct and delightful, and the payoff is complicated and sublime and gorgeous.  My kids, though, are not seeing it as I do; they’re frustrated by the language, they’re bored with the story, they don’t appreciate the subtlety of the text.

What I’m wondering is this; is it possible to teach someone to appreciate art?  I can MAKE them read it (well, to a point), but can I teach them to LIKE it?  I think that I teach best that which I love – I know that my enthusiasm has a tendency to rub off on certain kids – but I want to know if there’s more to it than just loving something; is there some way of conveying the beauty of a thing to someone through teaching?  Are there things I can deliberately do to help my kids understand and appreciate the beauty of a thing?  What do you think?

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My Contribution

I just added up all the receipts for books, videos, furniture (bookcases), and supplies (pens, paper, ink) that I bought for my classroom last year.

My personal (financial) contribution to the success of my students amounted to $3,597.25.

I’m going to try very, very hard to rein that in this year because it just doesn’t seem right that I should be spending that much of my own money when I’m earning so little in return.  That being said, though, I’m going to continue to buy the things I need in order to do my job to the best of my ability.  Anything less would be unethical.

Now I just hope that Mr. Chili doesn’t pop a vein when he sits down to do our taxes.  Thank the Goddess that most (if not all) of those expenditures are deductible….

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The Alice Light Bulb Moment

Yesterday, I posted an entry on the Blue Door in which I said that I was too busy to blog about some things, and one of the things I was too busy to blog about was the fact that in every single class I ran on Thursday, I was able to pull off  what I call “Helen Keller” or “light bulb” moments; that glorious few seconds when a kid leaps from “I don’t get it” to “OH!  NOW I see!!”  I live for these moments, and the fact that I was able to execute the same one in all three of my core English classes was kind of a record for me.  I needed to share.

The entirety of CHS is reading Alice in Wonderland.  Several of the kids have read it before (and a number of them are familiar with bits of the story through various film interpretations), but none of them has analyzed it yet; they’ve read it for the surface stuff, but really haven’t taken the time to really think about all the weird shit that happens in the novel.  I had suspected that the kids were blowing through the book without really getting what they were reading, and I suspected that they were missing some of the funny stuff, so I decided to point something out to them to see if I was correct.

At the very outset of the story, Alice impulsively follows a waistcoated white rabbit down his hole and finds herself falling for what feels like forever; she has time to observe the walls around her and to investigate an empty jar of orange marmalade, and then she starts thinking about how she’s going to apply this experience to her life when she returns to it (though she doesn’t really give a thought as to how she’s going to get out of her predicament; her impulsivity is something which serves as a constant through the novel).  She thinks to herself:

“After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (which was very likely true.)

I read that passage aloud and asked the kids to really think about what was being said here, both by Alice and by our narrator (who, it turns out, has a flair for snark).  They read it, and read it again, and really didn’t see anything much to it.   Just when they started thinking that I was seeing something that wasn’t really there (“because English teachers do that all the time, you know; they try to find something deep and meaningful in everything!”), one girl gasped and her eyes got HUGE and I pointed at her and said “SHHHHH!  Let them work it out for a little longer!”

Of course, this got them all riled up; they HATE it when one of them is in on a joke that they don’t get, so they went back to the passage and tried to will themselves to figure it out.  One by one, a few more kids got the joke, and when about five of them were bouncing in their seats wanting to explain it to all the other kids, I pointed back to the first girl and said “GO!”

“YOU GUYS!” she said, “The narrator is telling us that she wouldn’t say anything if she fell off the top of the house because she’d be, like, DEAD!  She LITERALLY wouldn’t say anything about it because she’s be a smear on the sidewalk!”

Yes, my lovely; that’s it exactly.

That scene played out, in almost exactly that way, in all three of my classes.  It was awesome.  My hope is that this little exercise will inspire my babies to read more carefully, and with an eye toward the snarky and ironic.  We shall see if my hope is well-founded.

I love my job.

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Ten Things Tuesday *Edited*

It’s Banned Books Week.  Here are ten books, which have been banned or challenged, that have shown up in Mrs. Chili’s classes.
*Edited to include some commentary. When I posted this, I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to elaborate…*

1.  Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

I haven’t actually read this in its entirety yet, but I know for sure I’ve read a good portion of it in excerpts.  It’s on my freshman syllabus; I expect we’ll get to it around January or February.

2. Separate Peace by John Knowles

Also on the freshman syllabus.  I read this one in high school and remember not really loving it that much.  I plan to revisit it before we read it, though, with my far more mature and trained eye to see what I make of it this time around.  I’m planning on pairing this with a viewing of Dead Poets Society; those two works should make for some really interesting coming-of-age discussions.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I love this novel.  I taught it to my juniors and seniors last year (after having read it only a month beforehand).  While I can hazard a guess as to why some of the other books on this list have been banned or challenged, I can say with some pretty confident certainty that several religious groups found this one objectionable; it imagines a Puritan-like dystopia in which fertile women are used as surrogates for powerful men.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I can’t begin to tell you how important this book is in my curriculum.  Again, my freshmen are getting this book, and I’ll likely pair it with The Book Thief (I did this last year to great effect).  There is such richness to be mined from this unassuming little book, and I think that a lot of people will tell you that this novel was pivotal for them; I know it was for me, both as a reader and a teacher.

5. Native Son by Richard Wright

I taught this just before Handmaid last year, and I have to tell you that the entire unit was one long string of out-of-the-park home runs.  This novel is SUCH a contradiction.  It is a technically easy read; there are no complex vocabulary words and nothing mechanical that would keep even the most novice reader from getting through the pages.  The concepts that the book deals in, though, deliver non-stop sucker punches to those willing to dig – no, make that scratch – below the surface of the plot.  We could have talked about this novel for WEEKS longer than I scheduled time for, and the students referred back to this work as a touchstone for almost everything we read after that.  Like Mockingbird, Native Son is a foundational piece in my curriculum, and I can’t imagine that ever changing.

6. Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

This one was a bit of a cheat.  I don’t actually teach the novel; I teach the film.  Honestly, I don’t think that the book is terribly well written, and I feel like the style of the prose detracts from the vital message of the story.  Speilberg’s film, by contrast, reaches into your chest from the first frame and doesn’t let go until LONG after the final credits have rolled.

7. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

To be honest with you, I’m not sure that I’ve actually read this novel.  I want to say I have, but I can’t, at the moment, call to memory exactly what it was about.  Regardless, it’s on my junior syllabus, and I’m eager to get to it (or get to it again, as the case may be).  I have a deep and abiding respect for Toni Morrison, and I’m looking forward to the conversations this novel is sure to generate in my class.

8. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

This is our all-school read.  Everyone should have the novel by next Tuesday, when we start reading as a community.  Each of my three core classes has voted to defer the next novel in their reading list in favor of focusing on Alice for the month of October.  Like Huck Finn, this is a novel I’ve never read from cover to cover… yet.  I know the story well enough from the numerous excerpts I’ve read (and interpretations I’ve seen) to feel pretty comfortable teaching it.

9. The Giver by Lois Lowry

A teeny-tiny little wisp of a book – seriously; you could probably read it in one good pre-bedtime stretch – but it packs a pretty heavy philosophical punch.  My freshmen are finishing their final wrestling with this novel this week.  So far, we’ve managed to discuss the ethics of “release,” we’ve rooted around the idea that a dystopian novel critiques the present (and what Lowry was critiquing in this work), and we’ve chased down the reasons why human beings seem unable to deal with a perfect society; each of the kids commented that the novel was “creepy” because it was “too perfect,” and one boy (Goddess LOVE him!) brought up the scene in the Matrix where Agent Smith comments that their first attempt at the program failed because it was too good; there was no want or conflict, and the humans couldn’t handle it.  “Whole crops were lost,” he said.  The students had a GREAT time with that.

10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

I’m relatively certain that all the Harry Potter novels have been banned or challenged at one point or another.  This one is on the Film and Lit syllabus because, even though each of the novels deals with the theme of coming of age (Harry comes of age incrementally in each of the works), I really do think this one is where he (and his friends) turns the proverbial corner.  While my students are a little daunted by the thickness of the tome (and I’m a little insecure about teaching the middle book in a long series), I’m desperately looking forward to this unit; I can’t wait to see how the kids re-approach a work they read as kids (and think they know).

Happy Tuesday, Everyone!

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Ten Things Tuesday

Ten things we’re working with in my classes this year:

1. My film and lit class is watching Willow as I write this.

2.  The Secret Life of Bees, both the novel and the film; Goddess, but I love that story.

3.  The Giver.  My freshmen start this novel tomorrow.

4.  Frankenstein.  My seniors start reading this today.  I’m thinking about showing them a couple of film versions, to boot.  I so love this novel.

5.  Something Wicked This Way Comes.  I’ve never read this, but I’ve always wanted to.  One of the cool things about my job is that I get to decide what we read, so I get to pick stuff both that I love and that I’ve always wanted to read.

6.  Atonement.  I finished reading this about a week ago, and I’m eager to read it with my seniors.

7.  The Client.  My film kids are going to read and watch this.  I can’t wait.

8.  The Book Thief.  Another of my most favorite books.  I’m dying to read this again.

9.  The Empire of the Sun.  Another film class film.

10.  Night.  I’ve read this about a dozen times, but I’ve never taught it.  My freshman get it this year, and I’m eager to see what they do with it.

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