Lit Up — Thoughts on Teenagers and Reading

Together and alone, we need literature as California valleys need rain.
David Denby, Lit Up

9780805095852_LitUp_JK.inddBack in the 1980s, film critic David Denby wondered “how anyone could be hurt by reading a good book”. The controversy at the time, which continues to this day, was how we define a “good book” and whether the traditional Western classics are relevant in our multicultural society.  The 48-year-old Denby returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, and spent a full academic year studying the Western canon. He wrote a book, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and the Indestructible Writers of the Western World, about how the experience reinvigorated his intellectual life.

Denby describes his new book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives, as a “prequel” to Great Books. He spent an academic year (2011-12) in sophomore English classrooms at the Beacon School, a  magnet school in Manhattan, and another year (2013-14) in English classrooms at two other public schools — Mamaroneck High School, in a wealthy New York suburb, and James Hillhouse High School, in inner-city New Haven, Connecticut. He wanted to learn:

How do you establish reading pleasure in busy, screen-loving teenagers — and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?

Denby’s time in the classroom with some unusually gifted and devoted teachers — who are passionate readers themselves — shows that it is possible to transform reluctant or even hostile readers into engaged and curious readers. But it’s an uphill battle, and even more difficult for students who lack the context or vocabulary to understand what they’re attempting to read. If students don’t know when or why the Civil War was fought, they’re not going to connect to The Red Badge of Courage. If they don’t know what the Holocaust was, they’re not going to make any sense of Elie Wiesel’s Night.

The teachers Denby introduces in Lit Up have the difficult, nearly impossible job of getting students to read the assigned texts and of helping students find books outside of the required reading that they will enjoy and relate to on a personal level. Both Denby and the teachers acknowledge that the way to get kids to read is to get them first to read anything they like: “Get them started as readers by giving them books they could easily enjoy, including young adult novels; get them caught up in narratives, stories, outcomes.”

As a bookseller, I agree with this philosophy wholeheartedly. As Ann Patchett said, “I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.” I’ve always been a bit mystified by parents who are overly concerned about the content in their children’s reading material. If your third grader who struggles with reading loves Captain Underpants or Junie B. Jones, who cares? They’re developing a habit of reading and enjoyment of the written word. And anyway, do you want the reading police ticketing you for reading Us Weekly?

The problem is that these teachers know, just as all avid readers know, that one of the greatest benefits of reading is to develop an understanding of the wider world and the people in it. Reading isn’t just about holding a mirror up to ourselves and validating what we already think and feel. The teachers we come to know and admire in Lit Up work hard, with more success than I would have anticipated, to get kids to read challenging books that open their eyes to people and experiences far beyond the limited scope of their lives.

Jessica Zelinski, who teaches sophomore English at Hillhouse High School, the worst-performing public school in New Haven, regularly organizes a classroom event called a “Read Around”. She chooses several books she thinks will interest her students, and brings multiple copies to class, encouraging every student to sample each book.  One of the students, who initially looked at Ishmael Beah’s devastating memoir of his years as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, and said, “This doesn’t interest me,” ends up reading the book with great interest — and, through the efforts of Miss Zelinski, meeting the author at a nearby college. Miss Zelinski, who feels that the Hillhouse curriculum often condescends to the students by not expecting much from them, says to the author, “Maybe they’ll enjoy life more, if I can get them reading. I would like to nurture in them the idea that there are other worlds.”

I was so fascinated by Denby’s stories about the students and teachers he came to know that I read this book in just one day. It’s a very personal account, not a sociological treatise. Denby says of the students he observed:

I decided not to suppress my feelings about them. I would describe them physically (or they would never come alive on the page) and commit the sin of ‘judging’, always bearing in mind that they were very young. Fifteen-year-olds, through an academic year, develop stems and roots, their cells divide. In particular, I wanted to see if readers could be born — what happens when a non-reader becomes a reader? — which meant necessarily recording the students’ mistakes and awkward moments as well as their insights and breakthroughs as they struggled into life.

americangirlsimageI read this book just after I finished another book about American teenagers, American Girls: The Secret Lives of American Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales, which is truly one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. If Sales is to be believed — and I hope with all my heart she’s not — the lives of most teenage girls revolve around taking pictures of themselves and posting them online, hoping for validation. In this book, physical appearance is everything, the search for male approval is paramount, and feminism is completely dead. A recent Wall Street Journal review said: “The secret life of teenagers sometimes seems entirely a response to nude pictures and requests for them—a response, that is, to male adolescent desire, as it shows up digitally. But female vanity is also at play.”

I wish the teenagers (both boys and girls) in American Girls had teachers like Sean Leon, Mary Beth Jordan, Jessica Zelinski, Mary Whittemore, and Daniel Guralnik, who would introduce them to inspiring books that would help them develop into empathetic people.  At the very least, they should consider the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, one novel I’m certain every high school student is required to read:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.





Girl Through Glass –Author Interview

Girl Through Glass coverDancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning, they are just beautiful. We’re like flowers. A flower doesn’t tell you a story. It’s in itself a beautiful thing.
George Balanchine

The other girls, and their imperfections, fade away as Mira runs ahead on a stream of energy and light. Her body tells her what to do and she just goes along with it . . . Something great is growing in her, unrolling its tendrils, sprouting buds in all directions. Sometimes the song in her body is almost too loud; it fills her eyes, makes them tear up in something like gratitude.
Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass

The first thing you need to know about Sari Wilson’s debut novel, Girl Through Glass, is that it’s much more than a “ballet book”. Like every memorable book, it transcends its surface subject matter and explores universal themes; in this case, art, obsession, sexuality, and family relationships. “I really wanted to write a book that wasn’t just about ballet,” Wilson said at an event at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. “The idioms and milieu of ballet make for compelling human drama.”

The world of ballet in late 20th century New York provides a fascinating backdrop for the novel’s two narratives. Mira is a young girl with a difficult family life who finds refuge in the art and discipline of ballet. Kate is an ex-dancer and college dance history professor who can’t seem to move forward and is forced to revisit her buried past. For both, George Balanchine’s ideal of feminine beauty looms large. “Ballet is woman,” Balanchine famously said. The subject of Kate’s Ph.D. dissertation was “Corporeality Subverted: The (Dis)embodied Feminine in the Aesthetic of George Balanchine, 1958-1982”.

b7160f981f4922d5ab7bf9eababa9085Doesn’t almost every little girl dream of becoming a ballerina? My dream died quickly, after several months of patient instruction from Mrs. Goneconto at the local YMCA. I was disappointed to learn at the first class that I was not immediately issued a tutu and toe shoes, and things went downhill from there. Mira and her fellow “bunheads” exist on a different level, pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits in what Wilson calls “pure devotion to an ideal”.

Wilson, whose own dance career was cut short by an injury, called herself a “recovering ballerina” in a recent New York Times piece, “My Nutcracker Recovery”. When her daughter is cast in a production of “The Nutcracker”, Wilson has mixed feelings — but as she watches her little girl rehearse, Wilson remembers her childhood passion for dance: “My own early swooning love for ballet — for the pure motion and expression of dance — floods back to me, confusing, powerful, bittersweet, and it finds me a little bit healed.”

Girl Through Glass is at its heart a coming of age story, focusing on a girl and a woman at inflection points in their lives. Wilson spent years crafting the novel, which was a creative endeavor, she points out, not unlike choreographing a dance.

How would you compare the art of writing to the art of dance?

In a lot of ways they seem inverse: dance is an art that is performance-based, completely dependent on the body as instrument for communication; writing is a cerebral art and employs written language as an instrument for art. But underneath, they share a lot: the need for discipline, repetition, and a strong desire to communicate. In the age-old days, dance and poetry were integrated, I think, but they split off from each other and became their own disciplines. But in their roots, they are very related.

Like many fiction writers, you started out by writing short stories. You mentioned that Girl Through Glass had its origins in a short story about a young ballet dancer. How would you compare the process of writing short stories with the process of writing a novel?

Writing short stories is sustainable in sprints, whereas writing novels is a marathon undertaking. For me, the novel demanded a wider range of skills—analytic and associative. Novels are aptly named—each adheres to its own rules, its own logic, they are very elastic. I enjoy the form because it can accommodate multiple dialectics and tensions.

Have you made any particular effort to connect with the ballet community? How do you think members of that community will view the novel?

One of the things that I have been really gratified about is that the ballet community has been so accepting of the novel. I have had dancers and former dancers and “recovering” dancers (my term) tell me that the novel describes their own experience. It’s not a glowing portrait of the ballet world, but it is a one told with love and passion—maybe the passion of a child who can love and be hurt deeply. I think dancers understand that the novel is full of admiration for what they do, as well as what the costs can be.

You very deftly weave the two narratives — Mira’s and Kate’s — together. Was one of them more difficult to write than the other? Did you know where the story was going when you began?

I actually didn’t know where the story was going. I first wrote Mira’s storyline. When I had finished, I realized that the novel wasn’t complete—around the same time, I started writing from this other voice, a 1st person voice, a much older voice, a bit bitter, even angry. I didn’t know who it was at the time. As I wrote her story I realized who she was and how she was connected to Mira. I realized I could use Kate’s story as a frame for ordering Mira’s story; it was only then that I felt I had a book, a novel.

You paint a vivid and accurate picture of 1970s New York City. New York has changed a great deal in the past few decades. What, if anything, has been lost? 

It’s trendy, I guess, to be nostalgic for 1970s New York, but for me it is very specific nostalgia: the nostalgia of the world through a child’s eyes that has been transformed. So it’s a journey into personal memory of a lost childhood world, a New York City of the past—a very frayed urban landscape. But what has been lost? Well, there is a great Edmund White piece about this in The New York Times ; in it he basically says it has to do with the economy and real estate. What is largely lost is the sense of freedom to fail abundantly that the city allowed people at that time—that ecosystem benefited creativity and allowed a certain kind of romanticism around art-making, but at the cost of safety.

How has ballet changed since MIra’s and Kate’s years as young dancers?

Mira’s era was a very specific era, when Balanchine aesthetic was at its very height. I think the playing field is much wider now—there are so many more different types of companies with modern and ballet cross-over. And the conversation about body image and race that is happening around Misty Copeland’s terrific rise is all very exciting and overdue.

Kate finds that the world of academia is, in its own way, as cutthroat and competitive as the world of dance. Can you comment on that?

Yes, that actually surprised me. I’m not in academia, but as I did my research I came to realize that there was an incredible amount of cutthroat competition in that world—especially at Kate’s level. Kate has made it into a pool of very talented and ambitious candidates for which there are not enough permanent positions, which makes her situation very tenuous. Not unlike the hierarchies of the dance world, in which there are very few coveted spots for soloists and principals.

Sari Wilson AP Photo credit Elena SeibertFor generations, little girls have dreamed of becoming ballerinas — and some of them have suffered, physically and emotionally, as they’ve pursued their ambitions. Certain parents (and not just ballet parents) are willing to sacrifice and also to let their children experience physical and emotional harm in the hopes of raising superstars. Adults, like Maurice, can become obsessed with the beauty of ballet. What is it about ballet that inspires such passion?

Maybe it is the kind of innocence that it requires, a kind of passionate innocence and a ungovernable belief in beauty (in the broader Romantic sense, Beauty as in Truth)? There probably will always be something captivating about noble suffering in pursuit of some truth? So much art is about this theme. Ballet displays it in the vernacular of the body and in a kind of nobility of form that can be as hypnotizing as well as destructive. It can contain, I suppose, our best and worst impulses as humans. It holds a mirror up to our inner selves, perhaps.

Thank you, Sari, for answering my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully!

Just Breathe: Thoughts on Writing Book Reviews

A good day is a day when I can not just read a book, but write a review of it.
Christopher Hitchens

The critic leaves at curtain fall
To find, in starting to review it,
He barely saw the play at all,
For starting to review it.
E.B. White

Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.
Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria to Mozart in the movie Amadeus

the-elements-of-style“Too many words” was how a customer recently characterized a book on the bestseller shelf in our store. I knew exactly what she meant. Many nonfiction books fit this description. They should have been magazine articles, but their authors were determined to stretch the material into full-length books. I’ve also read plenty of novels that would have benefited from the most valuable advice in Strunk and White’s classic writing guide, The Elements of Style: Omit needless words.

It’s easy to criticize a book you have mixed feelings about, or don’t like at all. What’s difficult is to review a book you love, without mindless gushing. When I recommend a book, in person or in writing, I don’t want to sound like an evangelist for the Church of My New Favorite Book. I want to communicate two important things:

  • Specifically why I think the book is worth a reader’s time, with particular attention to the quality of writing and  level of originality.y6482
  • Why I connected with it, and which other readers will connect with it. Not every book is for everyone. (Except A Deadly Wandering and Being Mortal. Everyone who drives a car and/or isn’t immortal should read those books.)

I’m not the only one who struggles with sharing my enthusiasm without the use of hackneyed, meaningless language. Everyone who writes about books, from book reviewers in major newspapers to marketing executives at publishing companies to readers who post online reviews to authors who write blurbs for their colleagues, all end up using the same overblown adjectives: transcendent, stunning, luminous, incandescent, spellbinding, gripping, compellingunputdownable, dazzling . . . I can’t count how many times I’ve read that a book was breathtaking. Several books recently left the reviewers breathless, and one will “have the reader breathlessly turning pages.”  I like to read more than the average person, but spin class, not reading, leaves me breathless.

Authors try to help each other when they come up with blurbs. An author might want to write “Run-of-the-mill midlist literary novel with a moderate amount of family dysfunction and a predictable plot that might keep your interest if you’re on a plane with nothing else to read”, but wants to support a friend, so she writes, “Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before.”

Author Gary Shteyngart, who’s written more than 150 blurbs and apparently considers it his duty to support other writers, told NPR he doesn’t need to read an entire book in order to come up with an endorsement:

I can figure things out pretty quickly. I’ll look at a first sentence [of a galley], I’ll look at the cover and it just comes to me. … Sometimes I try to read further — but you know, how far can you get? Does anyone even read these books anymore? . . . I’ve compared people to Shakespeare, Tolstoy or whatever. I’ll do anything.

Well, I promise that if I recommend a book I have actually read every page of that book. While I enjoy supporting authors whose work I admire, I have no obligation to post positive reviews of their books. I’m spreading the word about books I love because in the insanely competitive world of book publishing, where hundreds of thousands of books come out each year in the United States alone, individual books need all the help they can get. Cream doesn’t always rise to the top on its own.

The hardest part of writing rave reviews is explaining why a book found its way into my heart, and why it might make its way into yours, without resorting to describing it as captivating, unforgettable, enthralling, brilliant, or mesmerizing. I’ve been guilty of using all these words, but I am proud to say I have never called a book luminous.

I have a little collection of hyperbolic or silly quotes from reviews — here’s one from the New York Times, on Lawrence Osborne’s The Forgiven: “A lean book that moves like a panther”. I can’t decide if it’s ridiculous or radiant. What do you think?


What to Read Next — February 2016

I do so hate finishing books. I would like to go on with them for years.
Beatrix Potter

Every reader knows the feeling. As you turn the final pages of a book, you start to think, But what will I read next? You look at the stack of unread books on your nightstand, or you search your computer for that list of must-read books you saved. You hunt for that little scrap of paper with the title of a book that a friend said you absolutely have to read. You plan a trip to the library or bookstore to pick up more books to add to your pile.

Of course, you can always hedge your bets by reading several books at a time. When you finish one, you just move on to the middle of the next one. Sooner or later, though, you have to choose a new book. Sometimes the choice is made for you — you need to read your next book club book, whether it’s something you’re in the mood for or not. Many of my favorite books have been books I’ve read out of obligation.

January was a terrific reading month for me, leaving me with several books I highly recommend and only a couple of disappointments. If you’re looking for your next great book, here are my most recent favorites:

9780399160301Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Four teenage narrators, each with a unique and memorable voice, tell the story of the events leading to the worst maritime disaster you’ve never heard of: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea during the final days of World War II. Nearly 10,000 people died, most of them refugees fleeing from the Soviets. Author Ruta Sepetys brilliantly constructs an addictive historical narrative that will appeal to readers who enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See or The Nightingale. (And isn’t that almost everyone?) Don’t be put off by the YA categorization — Salt to the Sea, like The Book Thief, is perfect for both teenagers and adults.

The Wall Street Journal calls Salt to the Sea “masterfully crafted”, noting that “Ruta Sepetys seizes on this tragic and forgotten episode to create a superlative novel.”

Sepetys is now on a national publicity tour — I’m looking forward to meeting her on Monday, February 8 at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. For her event schedule, check out her website.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
9780812988406When Breath Comes Air is one of those books you want to give to everyone you love. If you  start reading the book with a pen in hand, ready to underline your favorite passages, you’ll find yourself underlining almost the whole book. Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 37-year-old neurosurgeon, wrote the book after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He didn’t quite finish, but the memoir he left behind — with a beautiful foreword from Abraham Verghese and an equally lovely epilogue written by his widow, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi — is a masterpiece.

Ann Patchett says: “It’s a brilliant piece of writing and a singular and profound piece of thinking, but it’s also more than that: When Breath Becomes Air makes us stop and think about how gorgeous life is, how heart-wrenching and brief and amazing.”

y648Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Our YA book group at Lake Forest Book Store chose Challenger Deep because it was the 2015 National Book Award winner in the YA category. After I read the first 30 or 40 pages, I had no idea what was going on. I considered calling my co-leader and suggesting we apologize for our selection and pick another book. However, I decided to trust the National Book Award judges, and I persevered. I ended up loving this novel, which vividly recreates a teenage boy’s struggle with mental illness. The narrative switches between straightforward accounts and hallucinations, dreams, and distorted versions of reality. I don’t know if it’s ever really possible to comprehend mental illness, but Challenger Deep, more than anything I’ve ever read, helped me gain a bit of understanding.

51rc2b8fvkbl-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Abby Geni’s debut novel is a literary page-turner, perfectly blending evocative writing and deft characterization with a tension-filled — and creepy — plot. The novel is worth reading just for its setting, the isolated and dangerous Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco. Miranda, a nature photographer, accepts a one-year assignment there, with only a few odd and unfriendly scientists for company. Not long after her arrival, one of them is found dead. Accidents happen all the time on the “islands of the dead”, but was this an accident?

The Chicago Tribune says:

Part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, part ode to one of the western world’s wildest landscapes, this dark, compelling tale is an astonishingly ambitious debut . . . In this, her first work of long-form fiction, Geni shuns predictable protocols of plot, character and setting. Taking a leap off the literary cliff is not for wimps. It’s a testament to Geni’s skills that she takes her readers with her.

My next two books will be While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness by Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Sanders,to scratch my true crime itch, and The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, because a page-turner about parental love and reincarnation sounds irresistible.  How about you?