Here’s a little secret about high school English teachers: we don’t read.
That’s not at all true, actually. We read all the time. We read student essays and the books we’re teaching. But pleasure reading? Hard to fit it in. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for all English teachers. I know I, personally, have a hard time setting aside blocks of time during the week for pleasure reading. I try to read before I go to bed, but as soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m usually good for maybe three paragraphs, tops, before I drift off. Then the next night, I have to re-read those same paragraphs, just to remind myself what was happening. (I’ve been on pages 7 and 8 of One Hundred Years of Solitude for about ten nights now. Not kidding.)
But I try to make up for it during the summer, and this particular summer, I went on a tear. I read three books (four if you count Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which I finished on Father’s Day). Here are the books, in order of completion, and my thoughts about them:
* Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins: I’ve been on the Hunger Games bandwagon from the beginning. OK, that’s not true: maybe I just sort of snuck onto the bandwagon mid-trip while it was pulled over for a bathroom break. But I really was teaching it in school in late 2009-early 2010, so I feel I knew about the original Hunger Games before a lot of people. Still, I was a little lax in reading the next two books in the series, so I designated this summer as “Catching Fire Catch-Up.” Did I enjoy second book as much as the original Hunger Games? Probably not. But I liked how Collins added new characters (Finnick is a great addition) and increased the stakes. And since it’s the Part 2 in the trilogy, I appreciated how she ended the action on an Empire Strikes Back-esque down note.
* The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls: I’m sort of cheating here, since reading this memoir was technically work; I’m teaching this to my ninth-graders this year. But I’m still calling this “pleasure reading” because… well, because it pleased me. I’m not saying I found the content of the book particularly pleasurable; truly, this book is as far from lollipops and rainbows as you can get. Instead, Glass Castle details the tumultuous childhood of author Jeannette Walls, whose parents, while not exactly abusive, were not Carol and Mike Brady, either. The dad, Rex, was this brilliant guy with big dreams; unfortunately, he never worked toward those dreams… or toward anything, really. As a result, the family never had any money, which meant they were always moving (Rex called it “doing the skedaddle”) from one ramshackle house to the next. He was also a raging alcoholic who had quite the hefty chip on his shoulder when it came to people in authority. And yet, Rex looks like a Model of Responsible Parenting next to the mom, who may just be one of the most selfish characters you’re going to find in any book, real or fictional. She fancied herself an artist, but the only art she ever really mastered was the ability to ignore the needs of her children.
Somehow, Jeannette Walls is still able to write about her parents lovingly—or, at least, without too much judgment. In fact, the author even acknowledges how her unorthodox upbringing taught her valuable life lessons. For example, early on in the book, Walls recounts how, as a child, she wanted to nurse a dilapidated Joshua tree back to life, but the mom didn’t let her. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.” Bottom line: I absolutely adored this book.
* The Schwa Was Here, Neal Schusterman: I picked this book out to read aloud to my twin sons, who are now in seventh grade. (They had to read three books this summer, so my wife came up with this arrangement: they would each read two books on their own, and then we would read one together.)
I didn’t know what this book was when I took it out of the library, but I knew what it wasn’t—i.e. not one of the “post-apocalyptic teenagers forced to compete to save their community” books, the kind that now crowd bookshelves in the wake of the Hunger Games. No, The Schwa Was Here struck me a quirky, entertaining yarn with equal parts laughs and heart. And that’s exactly what it was.
The titular “Schwa” is an eight-grader named Calvin Schwa, whom no one ever seems to notice; even his best friend Antsy has to remind himself that he actually exists. That sounds glum, I know, and I guess at his core, the “functionally invisible” Schwa is a tragic character. But author Schusterman crams his tale with enough witty turns-of-phrase and general wackiness (for example, a character owns fourteen dogs named after the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit) that it gets seems too heavy.
An unusual assortment of books for a 42-year-old man, eh? Then again, my mom always said, while defending my younger brother’s love of comic books, that it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you’re reading. And I guess the same is true for English teachers.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to page nine of One Hundred Years of Solitude…
Leave us a comment letting us know what YOU read this summer.