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At a conference in town earlier this year, I presented several panel discussions centering around the difficulty of defining and quantifying art. Our discussions in these panels got me thinking about literature, and how one of my main points could apply equally easily to much of the literature that students read in high school. The point in question is this: one of the defining characteristics of art, in my view, is that it is something that creates an emotional response in the viewer. Experiencing it changes you in some way. This is easy to see when the emotions are ones we generally see as 'positive;' if a play makes your heart swell with hope for the future, or a ballet duet makes you flush with the excitement of new love, or an epic novel makes your heart race with anxiety over the safety of the main characters, it's easy to argue that those works are art and have changed you. But what if the emotions you experience are more negative – what if a novel bores you, frustrates... read more

I'm a huge fan of the novel structure known as epistolary, where the story is told through primary sources such as diaries, newspaper articles, or letters back and forth between characters. Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of my favorite examples of epistolary, as the mystery is heightened by Stoker's clever choices of whose diary to show at which point in the story. Epistolary form allows the author to strengthen the reader's immersion in the story by allowing the story itself to influence the final form the novel takes. Leave off a character's diary in a tense situation where he's about to go do something dangerous and stupid, with the cry “Goodbye all!” and then cut to someone else's diary for the next hundred pages, and you leave the reader begging to know what happened back there – did he make it out? Why are we not reading more of his diary? Is he okay? Tell me please! I recently finished another epistolary novel that has quickly made it onto my list of great examples... read more

“It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil.” ~(Author's Introduction to A Clockwork Orange, P. xiii) The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, is a depraved young teen named Alex who has a love for 'ultra-violence.' For the first third of the book, Alex gleefully commits felony after felony, robbing, raping, and beating up random innocents just for the fun of it. At first glance, anyone witnessing his nighttime escapades would probably call him inhuman, a monster. And he is certainly degenerate and warped – but is he really inhuman? After all, humanity has sunk to some pretty low depths in history, and the human race is capable of acts of incredible violence and devastation. What do we really mean when we call someone inhuman? Are there some qualities absent in Alex that we feel should be present in all humans? A sense of morality, perhaps? A Clockwork Orange explores the link between morality, free will, and humanity, and shows... read more

At BYOBook Club last month, we were discussing possible topics for the final meeting of the year. Someone suggested “The best book you've read all year,” which seemed to be well-received in the moment as an option. Since I'm participating in the Reading Challenge this year, I set myself the goal in January to read 50 books over the course of the year. (Right now I'm on book 45, so I'm right on track.) So I started thinking about it, talking with friends about how to choose a 'best' book, and I've realized that's a trickier question than I expected. For one thing, how do you define the 'best' book? The one you enjoyed the most? The one you're most likely to re-read? The one with the most well-crafted story? The one with the most interesting setting? The one you're most likely to recommend to a friend, regardless of genre or other interests? The best nonfiction vs. best fiction? What about the one you're most glad you read? This is a tricky question, to say the least,... read more

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby presents the dark side of the American Dream and does so with unusual panache. The shimmering surface of Fitzgerald's prose style mirrors the daylight optimism of the dream, reflecting the ideal of a society wherein talent and hard work routinely get rewarded and upward mobility is based at least as much on merit as on luck or charm or who you know. Ruthlessness or deceit … but who could need such things? The narrator, Nick Carraway, likewise begins this adventure with a fair measure of this robust American optimism. He envies the high society spoons in his new top drawer of polished acquaintances, interpreting their frivolity and hedonism as an abundance of life. Yet as the narrative progresses, this bright-eyed optimism dims. Nick sees, on the one hand, heirs to inherited wealth who are arrogant, bigoted, selfish, and only superficially cultured – Tom Buchanan and his ilk. On the other hand, he sees those who are... read more

Hello! I come from Spain and I am a Writer and worked as a Journalist for a variety of Media back in Spain. I also had over 10 years of Teaching experience now and then, because I love it. The most important think to start speaking a language is just trying conversation! What better way to speak it to a Spanish native? I am very good in conversation.  It is much more fun than the traditional grammar classes. Try me!

For this week's Ellen's Choice, it's time to run down another month of Reading Challenge books!  Once again, it's a long one, so skim through for the titles in bold if you just want to see what I've read. Book 11: “Red Seas Under Red Skies” by Scott Lynch “a book with a color in the title” Wow - Locke Lamora is at it again! Consider me officially hooked on this series now - yet another winner of a fantasy-action-con novel from Scott Lynch. In this one, Locke gets roped into being a real-life pirate - not by choice, unfortunately. Some great characterization and world-building ensues, with badass female pirates running a tight ship and standing toe-to-toe against much greater foes. Reading as Locke and Jean went full pirate-cliche for a con was incredibly entertaining, particularly since it's contrasted with the nowhere-near-cliche depictions of the actual pirates they're working with. I also really enjoyed getting to see more of the mysterious world where... read more

For this week's Ellen's Choice, I'm going to run down a month's worth of Reading Challenge books.  It's going to be a long one, so feel free to skim through for the titles in bold if you just want to see which books I read and not my reviews of each one.   Book 5: "Catch-22," by Joseph Heller "A book with a number in the title"   This one was to tackle “A book with a number in the title”. Of course, I could not pass up a chance to finally read a book that I’ve been wanting to read for years now – “Catch 22″! The title has since become synonymous with the idea of a self-contradicting statement, a predicament you can’t get out of because of its self-referential nature. Catch 22 follows the experiences of a bomber pilot in WWII whose superior officer keeps raising the number of missions required to complete a tour so that nobody can go home. The protagonist’s efforts to worm his way out of flying missions repeatedly bump... read more

I recently read a new-ish novel by one of my favorite authors, the incomparable Terry Pratchett, that provided me with some much-needed food for thought. The Long Earth, a collaboration between Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, centers around the invention and distribution of a simple contraption enabling its user to 'step' between an infinite number of parallel dimensions. Each of these dimensions is slightly different from every other, possibly depicting a series of 'what if?' alternate Earths, and the entirety together is referred to as 'The Long Earth.' One of the most curious things about the Long Earth, however, is that none of these alternate Earths have any humans on them – no cities, no civilizations, simply wild and beautiful vistas with plenty of local wildlife and a few enigmatic 'humanoid' races that are rarely seen. Forget space travel – mankind can simply step across the Long Earth and find millions of pristine new worlds to conquer! The novel brings up quite... read more

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

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