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Book 4: "a book of short stories"   I checked off "A book of short stories" and read this anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. Gaiman begins the book with an introduction discussing how they collected the stories for this volume. He talks about the idea of four words that indicate a great story: "And then what happened?" This collection is stories that made him and Sarrantonio want to keep turning pages to see what happened next. I definitely see that common thread throughout the anthology. I also enjoyed the fact that each story was from a different author, and that most of the authors were ones I'd never read before. I'll almost certainly look up more of their work now that I've gotten a taste of what they can do. The stories are all over the place in terms of setting, plot, characters, and writing style, though all have at least a little bit of that Gaiman-esque supernatural about them. I found that most... read more

Book 3: "A Play"   I threw this little beauty in my backpack a few months ago for a long day out teaching lessons. I've had Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" on my shelf for a while, but I'd never actually read it cover to cover. I love reading plays, so if I can swing it there might be a few more of them in this year's challenge, but this one fulfills the "play" requirement. I was fascinated by a couple of things while reading. The first was the subtle way that Willy Loman's mental state is depicted through intercutting of scenes. Willy is losing his mind due to stress, and struck me as perhaps having some kind of dementia. He lives in the past, drifting off into memories of happier times when things aren't going his way in the present. Several times in the play, there are two completely different conversations going on, one in the present where Willy is physically seated, and the other in the past where he is actually participating... read more

Toni Morrison's “Beloved” is a beautiful, poetic, and haunting work about love, motherhood and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children. The runaway slave woman Sethe kills one of her children (and attempts to kill the others) in order to save its life, and in doing so destroys the beautiful world she's tried so hard to create for the rest of her family. The baby's ghost haunts Sethe's world through the enigmatic character of Beloved, a character with at least three distinct possible interpretations. Is Beloved the ghost of the “already-crawling? baby,” or a simple runaway slave who just happens to call herself “Beloved,” or perhaps not even there at all? The novel is intentionally written to keep our interpretations vague, and each interpretation comes with its own commentary on the relationships in the novel. On the one hand, Beloved could be a real, physical girl, not related to the family, who ran away from an abusive slave owner and found her way... read more

Book 2: "A Nonfiction book"   I came across this one while looking for an e-book to put on my iPad so I'd have something to read on those full-to-bursting-backpack days. It completes the item for "a nonfiction book," and wow...I tore through this book faster than I think I've read a nonfiction in a very long time. My favorite part about this one was Bill Nye's writing style: conversational, informal, strewn with jokes (such as the running gag of his old boss as a lesser-evolved life form), and unquestionably him. Fans of the Bill Nye the Science Guy show from the 90's (like myself) will be able to hear his voice quite clearly in their heads as they read - it's like an adult version of his show in book form! I was also really impressed with the content of the book - I'd expected it to be much more about the debate with Creationist Ken Ham (the impetus for Bill writing this book in the first place). But he actually only touches on the debate... read more

You have one hour with a college prep specialist who can help make your admissions/scholarship essays award winning.  How can you maximize your time?  Here are five tips to get the most out of your time:   Come Prepared. - Bring the essay prompts from each of your colleges.  Bring a sample personal statement and resume.  Be sure to have any information necessary to complete an admissions essay, to include your GPA, test scores, and any major accomplishments. Know Thyself - Always know your stats.  During this time, knowing your GPA and SAT score is as important as knowing your name and birthdate.  Also, know (and have a list of) your interests, hobbies, favorite subjects, etc.  Have an idea of at least 3 possible majors and careers you would like to explore. Be on Time - There is a lot to cover!  The better prepared and earlier you are, the more likely we are to get a lot done. Also, I tend to take my time... read more

For the next few Ellen's Choices, unless I have a brilliant idea that must be discussed immediately, I'm going to start recapping the books I've read for my 2015 Reading Challenge.  The Challenge is an ambitious attempt to read one book a week for the entire year, selecting each book based on prompt items in a checklist.   Book 1: "A Book You Started But Never Finished"   For my first Reading Challenge book, I tackled "A book you started but never finished" - and boy, am I glad that I did! I've had Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff on my shelf for years, after I bought it and read the first few chapters, but got busy and lost interest. Turns out, this unassuming little book is an amazingly unique steampunk-dystopian-epic fantasy! The steampunk dystopia is thorough and riveting - I mean, c'mon, the sky is RED! And in amongst all the civil unrest, plots to overthrow society, and men clanking around in insectoid mechanical suits, there's... read more

Narrative Point of View, sometimes called Narrative Perspective, describes the position of the narrator in relation to the story. Commonly-used points of view include First Person, where the narrator is a main character in the story, describing the events using “I,” and Third Person, where the narrator is a separate entity describing the events of the story using “he” or “she”. Within Third Person there are two sub-categories dealing with how much information the narrator chooses to give. Third Person Omniscient places the narrator above the story, where they can provide narration of events that the main characters are unaware of. A good example of this is the Harry Potter series, where the books sometimes show scenes of the Malfoys, Snape, or Voldemort – things that Harry and his friends would have no way of knowing about. In contrast, Third Person Limited places the narrator inside the main character's head but not AS the main character – events are still described as “he did this”... read more

So-called “Young Adult” fiction seems to have gotten a bad rap lately among parents of teenage students. It seems as though adults tend to view YA as somehow “lesser” to other works, particularly as compared to the classics students are assigned in high school. I suspect this is because “Young Adult” as we conceptualize it today is a relatively recent invention – most bookstores and libraries didn't even have a YA shelf until the mid-1990s. When we were teenagers, there was no “Young Adult” section at the bookstore – there was “Children's” and there was “the rest of the store,” usually organized by genre. So as teens, too old for the Children's section, we chose books from the rest of the store based on genre or author. I enjoyed sci-fi and fantasy, for example, so I found each next reading experience in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle of the store, reading greats like Larry Niven, Neil Gaiman, and Isaac Asimov. Young Adult, though, is a completely different animal. It's... read more

War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, is classic science fiction. Written in 1924, it depicts the catastrophic and totally unexpected near-extinction of humanity by aliens from Mars. One of the main themes running through War of the Worlds is the idea that mankind's assumptions about their world, the universe and the nature of life are constantly being challenged. The main reason the martians' landing is so catastrophic to humankind is because the humans, by and large, have been lulled into a false sense of security. They believe they are capable of overcoming anything, that they are the most powerful beings in the universe, and as such are completely unprepared for the martians' attack. Humans at the beginning of H.G. Wells's novel are portrayed as very self-satisfied. Even when confronted with the landing of the first martian cylinder, humanity is quick to dismiss the event as a mere curiosity. The story on the eve of the first day was “dead men from Mars,” (P. 14) and... read more

I recently read an article which reported the favorite books of 50 celebrities (actors, musicians, politicians, etc). I noticed that several of them mentioned that they started out hating reading because it seemed to always reminded them of schoolwork and school until they made a special connection with a particular book. After that, reading became a joy!   I've long found this attitude surprising because I can't remember a time (after I learned to read, of course) when I didn't love to read. Weird, right? I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority here, but I think I can explain why reading has just never felt like a chore:   1. My parents never placed restrictions on what my siblings and I could read.   This may seem like a terrible idea to parents wary of their children getting their hands on "Fifty Shades of Gray" and similar age-inappropriate material, and I can't blame them. While my parents did not place formal restrictions, they made... read more

Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, is a story about the American dream. Set in New York during the “period of Ragtime” between the turn of the 20th century and the beginning of World War I, Ragtime tells the story of three different families struggling to find their place in this new America. Doctorow makes use of an unusual writing style in Ragtime. He eschews the use of quotation marks and line breaks during dialogue, making the visual appearance of the novel one of long, blocky paragraphs. In addition, Doctorow writes the novel in third person from the perspective of not one but all of the main characters, allowing us to see the innermost thoughts and feelings of everyone in the story in turn. The characters have various degrees of name specificity, ranging from simply “Mother” and “Father” to “Sarah” (nobody knows her last name) to “Coalhouse Walker Jr.” All of these stylistic decisions come together to make a surprisingly fluid novel where actions speak much louder than words... read more

ALERT: This week's Literature Spotlight contains spoilers for The Hunger Games trilogy. Read at your own risk! This week my Bring Your Own Book club met for tea, and our topic for the month was Dystopias. I had offered to host this month, because dystopia is one of my absolute favorite genres. As I sat listening to the others recount various dystopian tales, I was struck by a thought that had been niggling at me for weeks – there's a significant difference between a dystopian setting and a true dystopian novel. With the increasing popularity of brilliant YA novels such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, it's becoming more and more common to see stories set in corrupt dystopian societies – but are these stories true dystopias, in the classic sense of the word? There's more to a dystopian novel than a corrupt society setting – classic dystopias also share certain plot and character elements. When viewed in this way works such as The Hunger Games seem to fit more as... read more

Bram Stoker's Dracula is a novel told in epistolary form – meaning the story is told entirely through documents, in this case journal entries and newspaper clippings. Epistolary is a very effective technique for writing certain types of stories, and one that I feel is generally under-appreciated. In Dracula the epistolary form is used brilliantly to enhance the sense of mystery and suspense in the novel, and to add to the overall chilling effect of the story. One of the ways in which epistolary form enhances the suspense is through the use of first person narration – from multiple sources. In a traditional first-person narration the reader follows a single protagonist, knowing only what they know and seeing only what they see. This can be a welcome insight into a character's psyche, but can also be restrictive to the author since they cannot add outside information to the story. In epistolary form many characters can contribute first-person narratives to the novel at once,... read more

As a literature teacher, my favorite activity ever (bonus that it's educational) is reading in a setting that lends itself well to the book you are reading. In the case of literature, the possibilities are only limited to what's available. One of my favorite memories from last summer was reading Dracula on a back lit Kindle at twilight in my front yard, while bats swooped around above me and the moon rose. Some other fantastic matches?              1. Secret Garden in a botanical garden, or sitting in the middle of your own garden at home or a friend's              2. Paradise Lost in the same setting, but maybe around eight or nine o'clock, in that last hour of readable light, when the light starts to fade and shadows grow longer and take over the landscape              3. Inferno (by Dante... read more

This past weekend I went to see the long-awaited movie adaptation of John Green's bestselling novel “The Fault in Our Stars.” I'm a big fan of alternate-medium depictions of various art forms (movies based on books, theater, or games, books that expand upon a movie or TV show, etc.) and I love to think about the ways in which a story is adapted for a new medium. Movies, TV, books, and live theater all have their own distinct methods of storytelling, and it's an enlightening exercise to think about how the source material has to change to fit the new style. The Fault in Our Stars movie is one of the most faithful, and I think successful, adaptations I've seen in a long time. I'd like to take a moment to discuss a few of the ways in which I felt they most successfully navigated the transition from book to movie. I'll refrain from spoilers in case any readers have not read the book or seen the movie yet. Visual Effects The Fault in Our Stars, in book form, contains a... read more

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a novel about guilt, morality and emotion. Throughout the novel many characters espouse the idea of reason and willpower over emotion – that if you have sufficient mental faculties you can prevent emotion from getting in the way of your actions and behave truly rationally. The student Raskolnikov believes this with all his heart when he sets out to murder a pawnbroker for the good of the community. This concept is quickly proved to be fundamentally flawed, however, as his inner guilt throws him into emotional turmoil and his brain attempts to protect him from the ugly truth of his actions. Raskolnikov displays several textbook examples of psychological defense mechanisms throughout the course of the novel, proving that even the most thorough reasoning and intellect cannot prevent the emotional and psychological response to a crisis. Psychological “defense mechanisms” are the brain's way of protecting itself from full awareness... read more

School's almost out for the summer, and to me, summertime is a perfect excuse to try learning and growing in new, fun ways. When I tutor students over the summer, I make a concerted effort to inject some fun into our work, so that it doesn't feel like homework. We read fun or unusual books, or we put a twist on a project. Write a creative, narrative response to a work instead of an analytical essay, or go on a little “field trip” to find learning in unexpected places. I've recently devised a new fun “field trip” type activity, and I'd like to share it today. But first, some background. I participate in a monthly “Bring Your Own Book” club, where each month we are given a topic and we each choose a book that relates to the topic to read and bring in. We always end up with a really interesting mix of genres and types of stories, all revolving around a theme (such as “books with animals as main characters” or “books that have inspired music”). Since I tutor high school English,... read more

Since I've been tutoring English literature students, I've noticed a pattern: every time we read a book that I remember reading in my high school classes, I enjoy it far more as an adult than I ever did as a teenager. Time and time again I pick up a book I remember hating in class, resigned to slog through it and discuss metaphor and symbolism with my student, only to find that I thoroughly enjoy it. Each time I come out of the unit with a fresh new appreciation for the work in question. As this happens more and more I've come to the conclusion that there are whole worlds of theme and subtext in many novels that are only apparent to a reader who has reached adulthood, because they require the reader to have experiences beyond those of an average high-school student. In today's Literature Spotlight I'd like to illustrate this point using a recently-transformed work for me, A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. One of the main themes in A Doll's House is the idea of Nora's reluctance to... read more

Title choice is an often-overlooked aspect of literature. What the author chooses to call his or her work can serve as a window into their intentions, showing in a subtle way the aspects of the novel to which they wish to draw the reader's attention. As an example, take Emily Brontë's classic novel Wuthering Heights. According to the dictionary, “wuthering” means “blowing strongly with a roaring sound” when describing a wind, and “characterized by such a sound” when describing a place. The word also has close associations with the more common “weathering,” implying enduring harsh weather or coming through a storm. Throughout Brontë's novel are references to this idea of weathering out a storm or withstanding howling winds. Most of the major plot developments take place during thunderstorms, and the various characters are likened to different aspects of a storm. This theme comes to a head during Heathcliff's disappearance midway through the novel – not coincidentally in the middle of... read more

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