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My Year in Books: Fiction for You and Your Students Part 2

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

As I mentioned in my last post, during my leave year I read a good number of novels. Listed below are those I read when I returned from my travels and had more leisure time on my hands. These books might be good reading for either you or your students.

March by Geraldine Brooks

Written to complement the story of Little Women from the perspective of the girls’ father, who is away at war, this short epistolary novel also serves as something of a prequel-through-flashback. There are interesting touches of Civil War history as told by a man heavily influenced by transcendentalism. Brooks lost me a little bit, though, with what I considered soap-operatic plot twists toward the end. Still, like many good historical novels, this one will animate the period for students, especially if they are studying Emerson or Thoreau.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I don’t love most of Atwood’s novels, but for some reason I enjoy her science-fiction-flavored satires. This sequel to Oryx and Crake fleshes out a world devastated by environmental and economic breakdown, and was enjoyable particularly for its tongue-in-cheek depiction of the nouveau-hippie ultra-survivalist Gardeners, complete with dopey didactic hymns. I do a dystopia synthesis project with my students, in which I ask them to find the parallels between the book and our own society to evaluate the nature of the author’s commentary, and this novel would fit right in. A conclusion to this trilogy is due out soon.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

What? You haven’t heard of British author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas)? Run, don’t walk, to get this book. Mitchell, a two-time Man Booker finalist, is a prodigy of voice and genre, and in this case absolutely nails the experiences of an awkward, precocious preteen trying to navigate the seas between the adolescent and adult worlds. As in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the perspective is limited to the young, rather naïve narrator’s point of view, so that the adult reader is able to discern many of the subtle shifts in relationships before he is. The voice is utterly authentic.

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

Quirky, dysfunctional families and mental illness are staples of Toews’s repertoire, and combine here with a road trip search for an absent father. It’s relatively light fare, but there are some entertaining characterizations and humor that students will enjoy. From here they might be enticed to read her more thoughtful A Complicated Kindness or the truly poignant semi-memoir Swing Low.

The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan

A series of interconnected vignettes spiral outward from the central event of a tragic murder (inspired by the story of an actual murder in nineteenth-century, small-town Ontario). Because of this structure, the plot is thin, but Swan’s writing strongly evokes the characters’ states of mind. Many students will be frustrated by a narrative that repeatedly abandons storylines, but some might enjoy that fleeting sense of recognition that comes from briefly entering the worlds of individual characters all contemplating the same events from different perspectives. This novel was a student-selected finalist in my grade 12 “Canada Reads” independent study project in June 2009.

Fault Lines by Nancy Huston

Another series of interconnected stories, this one going back a generation with every story. Each narrator is a child of the same age, each is miserable for different reasons, but every story is linked to a family secret buried in the past and revealed gradually throughout. This is an intermittently powerful family drama with some strongly drawn characters (though the family in the first section truly irritated me, and almost made me put the book down). If students can get past the rather unnatural and disturbing precocity of the first narrator, they may find themselves drawn in by the question of what happened to make all these people so miserable.

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald

MacDonald, who wrote the Oprah-lauded Fall on Your Knees, is primarily a playwright, and this is only her second novel, but her dramatic talents are quite clear as she weaves her plot and characters together. The climactic elements are based in part on the true story of Steven Truscott and the sensational murder case in Ontario in the 1950s, but really the story revolves around the protagonist’s happy little family and their various disillusionments and losses of innocence as a post-war idealism gives way to the hard realities of the Cold War. Like Fall on Your Knees, it’s a long, absorbing, plot-driven story with many threads, very readable and rich in period detail. Although I found the third act a bit tacked-on, I still enjoyed the read overall.

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan

A multi-voiced story with some nods to Southern Gothic, this short novel, set in post–WW II Mississippi, moves along well toward an ending with a slight twist. It complements other stories of changing race relations in places that resist such change. Students will find it very accessible; the narrating voices are strong and distinct and illustrate how different perspectives can lead to misperceptions on the parts of characters and mistaken conclusions on the part of the reader.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

This was a reread for me; as I mentioned, I’m not the greatest fan of Atwood's longer fiction, but this novel stuck in my mind as being a better story than many of her others. It held up to a second reading, probably because I now have a greater appreciation for the historical context than when I first read it. Like two other books on this list (I swear I wasn’t doing this deliberately!), its inspiration is an actual crime, the most sensational murder case of nineteenth-century Toronto. It employs multiple voices and perspectives to simultaneously reveal and hide key elements of the backstory. Laid out a bit like a mystery story and a bit like a psychological procedural, it’s a bookish, Victorian Cold Case, complete with potboiler moments, but guiding the gripping storytelling is an expert literary hand.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

As I read this slim book, my prevailing impression was “these people are sad. Not run-of-the-mill sad; irredeemably sad.” My impression didn’t really change after I’d turned the last page. And, to be honest, I don’t know that either of the two main characters really stayed with me. Yet I actually enjoyed the prose (even translated from Italian), and think that a certain kind of student would (sadly?) identify with one or both of the wretched protagonists.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I mentioned in my last entry that I had revisited E. M. Forster while in Florence, reading A Room with a View. I revisited him again in this reworking of Howard’s End. I’m not sure whether students would fully appreciate the satire in this novel, but perhaps with some guidance they could appreciate its deft and (mostly) slyly lighthearted portrayal of academic pretentiousness (from both instructors and students), class and race tensions, and other types of hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. I know I did.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

Though not quite the action-driven story that Little Brother is, this book is equally educational about current issues—in this case, the relative situations of the haves and have-nots in our global economy and the bizarre emergence of online virtual economies. In fact, it might be a bit too didactic; Little Brother worked particularly well because it was a tense action-adventure/political thriller for teens, whereas this story stalls a bit in places and gets even more bogged down in technical explanations. However, at its best, it animates some of the ideas in The World Is Flat, and could be a good pairing with that book in a Language course.

October by Richard Wright

It’s hard not to compare this book to A Separate Peace, with the flashback scenes featuring the sullen, introverted protagonist, James, forced to be a companion to the charismatic, indulged, and over-confident older Gabriel during the summer of 1944. But there is another layer, a quieter sense of fatalism, as the much older James and Gabriel encounter one another quite by chance while James is visiting his terminally ill daughter abroad. In the end, it’s not a flashy story, and perhaps in some ways it’s a bit predictable, but the back-and-forth of present and past give us a layered, if not especially remarkable, narrative.

Feed by M. T. Anderson

Another book technically labeled YA but with potential for high school students in grades 9 or 10 (provided language and some drug use don’t create problems). A dystopian sci-fi story in which those who can afford it have their internet feeds surgically implanted directly into their neurological systems as children. There is some great commentary on hyper-commercialism, environmentalism, and the usual related issues pertinent to teen life today, and the central story of the protagonist and his love interest will catch some off-guard in its unfolding.