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My Year in Books: Fiction for You and Your Students Part 1

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Wow, I read a lot of novels this year! I was traveling and sightseeing from late September into February, so it’s not like I had time or energy to become absorbed in a good book. (And then there are the challenges of finding a good English bookstore in, say, Lisbon or Bologna!) Still, it was much easier to find personal reading time while traveling than while teaching. Then, once I was home and truly at leisure, my library card started to see some serious use.

I made a long list of the works I read while on leave, and have divided the list into two posts. Below is a list of ten “school-worthy” books I read after the end of the 2008–2009 school year and while traveling. I recommend them not only for your own reading, but for sharing with your students, whether in class or as independent reads. Though all are not necessarily AP®-level, they are each memorable for a certain literary je ne sais quoi and richness, and their potential for discussion and learning. Part II of this post will include those books I read in the second, more leisurely half of my leave.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

There was a great deal of buzz about this book for some time before I got around to picking it up. It’s a charming book about the acts of reading and communicating, and the power of stories to change lives. A popular book club choice, it nonetheless introduces students to the concepts of epistolary novels and multiple points of view and voices, and its plucky but recognizably flawed characters and themes of heroism and survival will probably resonate with many of them.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

An oldie, and a staple among the sci-fi crowd, yet one that I’d never read despite my own interest in sci-fi as a teen and young adult. Like any good science fiction novel, it’s less about technology than about society, human nature, and interaction in any milieu. It’s a fascinating character study of a prodigiously precocious leader and the ways in which society may exploit but also underestimate human potential. Card is talented at evoking both characters and settings straightforwardly and accessibly, and, like any master of this genre, is able to balance the human and the technical. While it would take a perceptive student to make a book like this work on an AP® exam, it would also make a good in-class read for several grade levels, and certainly a good independent read for many students.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

I picked this book up at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. To be honest, I was looking for somewhat lighter fare, but the store is intimidatingly busy and my time was short, so I grabbed a title that was familiar to me from the summer book lists we’d given our students. I could not put it down, no matter how gut-wrenching some of the scenes were. This short book is not for the faint-hearted, but it is beautifully executed in most places. The protagonist is thoughtful and ultimately believable, and the prose rich. Students who enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible or the memoir A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah will probably find much to think about in terms of colonialism, childhood trauma and redemption, and the process of internalizing lessons from a questionable role model.

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

You may have seen the movie starring Michael Douglas and had a few good laughs. Well, now read the book to truly appreciate the humor (the scenes surrounding the protagonist’s ex-wife’s family’s Passover dinner, omitted from the movie, were especially memorable!). At first I hesitated about putting this book on the list, wondering how many high school students will appreciate the kind of sly, satirical humor that makes this book such a delight. And many of the scenes or experiences will not resonate with the typical teenager. Students with more sophisticated tastes, though—an appreciation for noir, satire, the tongue-in-cheek roman à clef—will be able to effectively analyze it, or will just enjoy the independent read.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This book has garnered a lot of attention from high school teachers, though it was strangely marketed as a YA novel. Don’t be deceived—there is a lot of meat in this unconventionally narrated book. As in both Guernsey and Mister Pip, much centers on the importance of the transformative power of reading and of books. What I particularly like is that this is a Holocaust narrative told from the point of view of the average German citizen. The point of view creates sympathy but does not shy away from the enormous social and economic pressures that transformed the country into nightmare communities for Jews and non-Jews alike. It is the type of book that can leave a strong and deeply satisfying impression on a young reader encountering a nonstandard narrative or narrator for the first time.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

In another blog post I had a lot to say about this book and the thoughts it inspired. I think it’s a great read for modern teenagers, though they might wonder why you’re promoting such subversive ideas as breaking through school-imposed firewalls and creating underground parallel internets. The bigger message, though, is about true freedom and the measures needed to protect it in an age of “security theater.”

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Allende hovers in that space between popular and literary, and the fact that the plot is a good yarn shouldn’t detract from the book’s role as the rare example of a female bildungsroman and picaresque novel. Great characterizations and generous and colorful doses of little-known cultural history flesh the story out, and make it a narrative students will be happy to follow through its many twists and multiple settings.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I had already left Barcelona behind by the time I started reading this moody, Gothic-inspired novel set in that city’s post–WWII miasma. With my unfortunate relationship with Barcelona (first visit, robbed of all my belongings; second visit, felled by gastroenteritis), it was interesting to have this novel as my only real “tour” of the city. I found its “Gothicness” a bit overwrought but still compelling, with hints of Dickens and Pérez-Reverte. And yes, it’s another book about the power of books, though in this case that power has a more sinister edge. In terms of analysis, the setting and the protagonist’s point of view would probably yield the strongest results, but students will likely enjoy the dark, convoluted mystery at the story’s heart.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I loved Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I liked this earlier novel. I was genuinely entertained by the voice of the primary narrator, a malapropism-prone Ukranian guide named Alex. The linked vignettes about Foer’s putative ancestors had an occasionally lovely (or, in some cases, brutal) magical realism, but ultimately left me a bit unsatisfied. It was a bit like looking at a painting by someone trying to emulate Chagall, but with muddier colors and more clutter. But there’s no denying that Foer has storytelling talent. Students will likely find this book challenging; I had assigned Extremely Loud, with its slightly less daunting and more currently relevant narrative, to non-AP® students as summer reading the year before, and reviews as to its accessibility were mixed. However, with enough background in magic realism and satire, AP® students might get a great deal out of this book.

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

I don’t really have to review this book, do I? I’d already read it years ago, but picked it up (from a very limited collection of English books in a bookstore in Rome) to read while in Florence. Really, the only thing new I can say is that I loved the experience of reading a novel set in a place while exploring it myself. Plus, the refresher course in Forster’s style came in handy for when I later read Zadie Smith’s Of Beauty—more on that in my next post!

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