Category Archives: academia

The End of a Semester (or, How I Turned into a Softie)


I have tried and tried and tried to finish a blog post this morning and just can’t. I have about 10 drafts going, but alas. Nothing. So I’m going to go au natural this morning.

I think part of it is the end of the semester has just really wiped me out. Grading nonstop until 1:30 in the morning is exhausting. And then, brilliant me decided to have a Christmas party. THE DAY AFTER GRADES WERE DUE. So that turned into a whole evening/morning of manic cleaning, menu planning, and decorating. The next day my parents moved out of my house (they stayed with me for a month between the sale of their old house and the closing of their new house), so the weekend was spent painting rooms and unpacking them. Their new house is beautiful and closer to me and not 100 years old, which is good for a number of reasons. Then Monday, my brother (aka Picky Boy) came in from NYC. In other words, it. has. been. crazy.

However, it’s a good crazy. I’ve done a little bit of reading, but honestly, I’ve been so busy, reading hasn’t been much on my mind. Plus, reading dozens of essays right at the end of the semester did me in. I had to share one story, though:

I had one student who, from the beginning of the semester, I really liked. He’s a young kid, from an inner-city school, and he was just so enthusiastic. When the class turned in its first essays, his was awful, though I could tell he spent some time on it. Truly. It was terrible. There was no organization, no coherence. The grammar was abhorrent, and there were sections I could barely read. So I pulled the kid aside and asked him to set up a time to meet with me because he failed the assignment. Those of you who teach know, not every kid will take advantage of extra help. This student did. He came to my office. I gave him two specific areas of concentration to focus on and told him to rewrite one paragraph. He did and brought it to me, and I increased his grade based on that paragraph.

Throughout the semester, he remained engaged and worked diligently, but he could never seem to really make the cut. We continued to work on several problems in his writing, and he improved steadily. During the final, I graded their final essays, and when I came to this particular student, I put my pen down. I read it through, and it was very obviously still his own work, but guys, it was good. It was organized. The essay topic was dead on, and I was so proud of him. I marked a few things and slapped a 90 on that essay and wrote him a note about his hard work.

When he came up to turn in his final, I pulled him aside and told him he couldn’t take the essay with him, as I wasn’t handing them back but that I wanted him to look at his grade. He scowled at my mark-ups on the first couple of pages, but when he got to his grade, he clutched his chest, looked at me, looked down at the essay and back up at me: “Really? I really got an A? I’ve never made an A on a paper.”

I told him he had done the work, had improved steadily and that he did a fantastic job on the essay. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he looked at me and said “Thank you so much. You made my Christmas.” I explained to him that the grade had absolutely nothing to do with me and that he should be proud of himself. He thanked me again and walked off, saying he would text his mom and grandma. I discreetly wiped tears from my eyes as well.

And you know what? He really made my Christmas. It’s easy to wish I made more money and gripe about how teachers don’t get paid enough (we don’t). It’s simple to fall into the trap of whining about those who don’t put in any effort and then complain because they get a C in class. But to really see a student persevere and improve and then appreciate your and his own work? It was really touching. The only problem is, ever since, I have been boo-hooing at the smallest things, and I am not a crier. Hell, last night we watched Cupcake Wars, and I practically cried. We watched Miracle on 34th Street yesterday, and the second Santa spoke Dutch to the little girl, off I went again. Don’t even let the ASPCA commercials come on. Frankly, it’s embarrassing, but I guess it’s better than the alternative.

So, to you and yours, whether or not you celebrate Christmas or just use the break as an excuse to read, I hope there is a little softie in you (if, for nothing else, so I don’t feel quite so foolish), and as always, happy reading.



(Almost) back to regularly-scheduled programming…

Merry Christmas! I feel awful for not posting in so long and hope you haven’t abandoned me. However, I have been doing a whole lot of this:

And not a whole lot of this:

But I do have reviews and exciting news right around the corner. So stay tuned, dear blog readers, I will return.

In the meantime, what the heck have YOU been reading that I should add to my TBR (To Be Read) list?

I am invisible … because people refuse to see me.

Teaching is a funny profession. Teaching well is insanely difficult. At this point in the semester, I am usually battling an upper respiratory infection. I don’t want to grade another essay. Students asking for their averages in the middle of class elicit blank stares and a speech balloon above my head that looks like this: $&@*! In other words, I am ready for a break.

However, the end of the semester for my American Literature class is also the point in the semester during which I get to teach and discuss one of my favorite novels – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I believe it is a vastly underappreciated novel. Also, don’t make the mistake one of my students did and download THE Invisible Man.

Invisible Man is a novel of race and identity, but it’s also a bildungsroman, the story of a faceless, nameless narrator and his realization that everyone around him only uses him for his or her own purposes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Epilogue of this novel begins:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Pie; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

The narrator is living in a basement in Harlem, a good bit after the Harlem Renaissance, surrounding himself with light bulbs, leeching electricity from the city, desperate to see himself. The proceeding novel is the story of why he can’t see himself. Told in episodic fashion, the novel begins when the narrator is young – school age, in fact. He is intelligent and knows he is intelligent, winning a scholarship to an all-black school, Tuskegee Institute. He is invited to speak before his town’s leading white citizens, which culminates in one of the most anthologized chapters of this or any other book, “The Battle Royale.” The scene, in which other young black males are blindfolded, stripped down to their underwear and told to fight, is brutal and horrifying. The men are taunted by a blonde white woman dressed provocatively, and the fear and scent of that fear is palpable. The men are then tossed coins as payment, but the coins (fake) are tossed onto an electrified rug, and the older white gentlemen see sport in this.

During this humiliation, though, our narrator can only think about his speech. He is proud, and he is focused. My students, when we began discussing the novel last week, were confused by the scene as it is rather chaotic, but even more so because, thankfully, they also saw how disgusting this behavior was and is and couldn’t believe anything like this could or would happen. We also discussed the subtext of the erotic here, and the danger for these men in this scene, particularly as our narrator then goes on to give his speech, slipping up and saying “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” and the tense moments after before he is basically told to “know his place.” Even as we only discussed half of the book last week, they were already beginning to pick up on one of the key themes of this book – blindness.

The narrator feels invisible, says he is invisible, yet he, too, struggles to see throughout the novel. In the scene depicted above he feels “a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness.” Once he arrives at Tuskegee, again he is blind, but in a different way, believing his intelligence will be his champion; unfortunately, at every turn, he is thwarted. He leaves Tuskegee and the South for New York, a place where he can eat yams if he wants, wide out in the open, and he “no longer ha[s] to worry about who [sees him] or about what was proper.” However, the narrator never fully realizes that even the North has its own racial code, and there are consequences for every action, no matter how you gloss it over.

One day he watches as an old couple is evicted from their walk-up, seeing their possessions dumped into the street, and as he watches the crowd becomes more and more expectant of violence, until he steps up shouting at the people to remain “law abiding” in one of my favorite moments in the book:

Did you hear [the old man]? He’s eighty-seven. Eighty-seven and look at all he’s accumulated in eighty-seven years, strewn in the snow like chicken guts, and we’re a law-abiding, slow-to-anger bunch of folks turning the other cheek every day in the week. What are we going to do? What would you, what would I, what would he have done? What is to be done? I propose we do the wise thing, the law-abiding thing. Just look at this junk….Look at that old woman, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, maybe….Eighty-seven years, and poof! like a snort in a wind storm. Look at them, they look like my mama and my papa and my grandma and grandpa, and I look like you and you look like me. Look at them but remember that we’re a wise, law-abiding group of people. And remember it when you look up there in the doorway at that law standing there with the forty-five.

I can in no way do justice to the brilliant journey this spontaneous moment will begin for the narrator or its accompanying symbols of darkness and light, blindness and vision, invisible and visible. Suffice it to say, whether our narrator is working in a paint plant watching “the right white” paint made whiter by a dark black tint or standing on the porch to a small walkup shouting “Dispossessed!” after the old couple is forced out of their home, Invisible Man is an intricate, enthralling read that forces me to think about the ways in which we choose not to see certain people in our society or the ways in which we simply ask (or require) they take on our own comfortable idea of personhood in order to be recognized and seen.

Hm.. this one would also make a great readalong. I’d love to get some discussion going in comments if you have read it. I haven’t heard many bloggers mention it, so I’m wondering – has anyone out there read it? Or am I alone in my love of this book?

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Image from The Fire Wire

Is the cover of this book not amazing? I’m always inspired by Frances at Nonsuch Book; she posts the most intriguing books and book design. When I started blogging, I knew I would have to feature this book’s art first and foremost. The photos above really do not do it justice. This is one of the most intricate, beautiful books I’ve ever owned. If you’re lucky enough to land one somewhere, hang on to it. Jordan Crane did the cover art, and it truly is art. [Maps and Legends is a collection of essays published by Michael Chabon in 2008.]

Ah, the essay. I think about essays constantly. I teach essay writing. I write essays. I enjoy reading essays. However, over the last few years, I have noticed that essay writers can be the most pretentious, self-important writers out there. A well-crafted essay is probably one of the most difficult things to write. The writer must be succinct but engaging. Very often, the essay topic is interesting to only a small subset of the population. Most importantly, there is just enough space to diverge from the main topic to explore other tangents, but the writer must once again come back to his or her main point.

My most recent brush with Michael Chabon was in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The experience was mixed as I really liked the story and some of the characters but felt Chabon’s voice was very present in the text, distractingly so. Of course, in this book of his essays, Chabon’s voice is ever present. While there were many points on which we agreed, that pretentious voice still irked the hell out of me. Overall, though, the essays did everything I require – they were entertaining, well written (although a bit wordy), and varied.

I almost wholly agree with his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” wherein he explores genre, saying:

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre …. is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as “guilty pleasures” (a phrase I loathe). A genre implies a set of conventions – a formula – and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates.

Bang on, Chabon. I’m right there with you, but wait…

Like most people who worry about whether it’s better to be wrong or pretentious when pronouncing the word “genre,” I’m always on the lookout for a chance to drop the name of Walter Benjamin. I had planned to do so here. I intended to refer to Benjamin’s bottomless essay “The Storyteller,” and to try to employ the famous distinction he makes…

Yeah – see, I did not even have to call him pretentious; he knows he is. And, he goes on to talk about Walter Benjamin… namedropper. Of course, before you think me moronic and incapable of reading his sardonic voice, let me skip to another section of the same essay:

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula…

Aaand, we’re back to pompous ass. His voice, particularly in this passage, reminds me of oh-so-many insecure graduate students, just learning theory. No longer is a story a story. Suddenly, it takes on so many theoretical contexts that not even they are capable of finding their way out of the rabbit hole.

This is not to say that each essay is unfulfilling. The first, already referenced essay regarding the short story is wonderful. There are also several essays devoted to the writing process and Chabon’s first and second novels.He discusses Sherlock Holmes, Cormac McCarthy, and Will Eisner, while also exploring his fascination with Golems in an essay entitled, “Golems I Have Known, or Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon.” The Eisner essay is short but fantastic, and Chabon’s love of anything comic book related definitely comes through.

One of my favorite passages discusses a popular topic, the inevitability of lies in fiction.

There is a contract between the writer of fiction and the readers he or she lies to, as there is between a magician and the audience he hoodwinks; they are in it together. They are helping each other to bring a story to apparent life or an edible orange to grow from the branch of a clockwork tree.

And, in “The Recipe for Life,” he expands on this idea:

Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed…. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves…if the writer submits his work to an internal censor … the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth….[T]he writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing life.

I know there are many readers out there who steer clear of essay collections. However, I have enjoyed them for years. Similar to a collection of short stories, you can pick the book up for one essay before bed or on a lunch break, without losing the flow of the story, as in a novel. This book has been on my bedside table for weeks, and I have picked through it, skimming the ones that I couldn’t relate to (I’ve never read The Golden Compass, so his essay about it was not for me) and relishing the ones that piqued my interest. This particular collection was coherent and enjoyable, and I am curious if anyone else out there has read it. If so, what were your thoughts?

Week in Review

Teaching two classes in a summer session is not for the faint of heart. I’m extremely grateful for the work, but the pace is really difficult. If it were a course I had taught before (or in the last year or so), it wouldn’t be as difficult, but each night is full of prep work for the next morning. I am teaching an Intermediate ESL Reading course from 8 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. I then rush off to the gym – or home if I need extra prep time for my second class – and head to a city about half an hour away to teach Developmental Writing from 12 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. Ah, the life of an adjunct.

Teaching ESL is tiring but so rewarding. I have four students: one from Ukraine, two from Saudi Arabia, and one from Iran. Each has a degree from his or her own country and is here to learn English and gain an additional degree in the States. These students are so incredibly eager to learn; in fact, some days, I don’t look up until it’s already 9:30 – past the end of class. One in particular loves to talk about slang. He’s already asked me about the phrases my bad and shotgun and even taught me one: mean mug (giving a mean face, if you’re slang illiterate like I am). However, teaching this course is also exhausting. I have to be conscious of every single word I use as my students’ vocabulary is good but still limited. We have a great book with units that teach a bit of grammar, vocabulary and culture in each lesson. That said, there is still a lot that I have to come up with on my own. Plus, the students have questions outside of the lessons. Try explaining the word certainly to a non-native speaker. I can sense their frustration at times, and I am sure they can sense mine. I have always heard English is a very difficult language to learn, and partly, I think it is because we have so many words like certainly that are not necessary but do assist the language. And don’t get me started on how many times I have to say: “Well, that is an exception.” Grrr.

Developmental Writing is a course for students who are not yet able to matriculate into the regular writing courses offered. Almost every student has some sort of learning problem. On top of that, I am dealing with years of incorrect instruction. Ever heard anyone say “Put a comma where you pause”? Yeah, I want to roll that person in poison ivy. (I know. I’m so violent.) Each student is capable of writing a complete sentence, but the writing is littered with fragments, misspellings, and incorrect verbs. It is overwhelming to try to correct that in 19 days, and frankly, I am appalled that the course is being offered in a summer session.

So, dear reader, this picky girl has not had much time to read this June. I come home really exhausted, but this week, I have manages to read the final two books in the Stieg Larsson trilogy and thoroughly enjoyed them. I will try to wrap up my thoughts and write something coherent in a couple of days. I was not sure if I would be able to read the last two as the first really, really scared me (I stayed up all night with a shovel next to my bed). A Facebook friend asked why I was so frightened by it, and I think I would have to say it was the torture/sexual torture aspect of it. I cannot watch Law & Order: SVU either. There is something about that kind of evil that sticks with me. It’s odd because I love mysteries and really do not scare easily when reading. I am glad to say that The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest were not only not scary but very enjoyable. I wish Larsson were still alive to finish the 10 books he had originally planned.

The rest of this week included:

  • making black bean soup (delish)
  • exercising in a Zumba class at the gym (fun!)
  • watching Extract, a Mike Judge film (also creator of Office Space)
  • walking the dog
  • napping
  • trying to find energy to blog

This evening, I was planning to go with my Wine Night girlfriends to Kemah (near Houston, Texas) for a special Wine Night on the water. One of the girls’ fathers owns a boat and property on the water and was planning to take us out to enjoy fireworks and wine. Unfortunately, I strained a muscle in my low back this morning and won’t make it. So now, I’m debating on what book to start next. Happy reading to all, and happy weekend!

Carrie Bradshaw is a real you-know-what.

Sorry, dear reader, for my absolute lack of posts this week. I’ll be back next week. I have been prepping for the start of summer school at the university. I have been reading, but it’s been textbook reading, and I figured you guys may not be too interested in what I thought of those books.

This weekend has been busy busy: salsa dancing in Houston Friday, errands and shopping in Houston on Saturday, a dear friend’s housewarming brunch this morning and a viewing of Sex and the City 2 this evening. My thoughts are succinct: Carrie Bradshaw is a real so-and-so, and wow! those are some over-the-top outfits. I may have more thoughts later, but that’s it for now.

Sweet dreams, and happy reading!

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella (Did you think I was talking about myself?)

This undomestic goddess finally finished grading research papers last week – all 100 or so of them. I figure I read about 620-720 pages of some good and some not-so-good research on “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” A Doll’s House, “The Swimmer,” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Needless to say, once finished, I armed myself with some old movies and cheap sangria for the weekend. I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Dial M for Murder, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’ve seen all of these before, but it had been years. The Hitchcock, unsurprisingly, was by far my favorite of the three and actually one of my favorite Hitchcock movies as well. It’s quite ironic, as my own life in recent days has mirrored Tippy Hedron’s in The Birds. Yes, a mockingbird has been dive bombing me when I’m in my front yard. The past two days, he/she has tried four times. The first time I thought it was my imagination; there was only a swooshing noise and a small breeze at my back. However, the next three occasions were blatant and a little petrifying. I’ve been ducking to get to my car only when absolutely necessary.

Yesterday I had some last-minute university business to clear up and went to the library for the first time in years to get my library card and check out books. I was so excited. However, I was reasonable. I only check out six books. Then I promptly came home (just missing a wonderful thunderstorm) and read and finished The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella. I’m not much for chick lit, but I love her quirky, funny voice. This was a quick read, but I loved it. It was fun and light and just what I needed. The main character Samantha is a high-powered attorney, set to make partner, the youngest partner to date, at Carter Spink. The day she realizes this goal, however, is the same day she realizes she has made an awful mistake, a career-ending mistake. So she leaves the office, leaves her life, and gets on a train. She ends up in a small village with a roaring headache and knocks on the first door she sees. The woman inside mistakes her as a housekeeper from the agency she called and promptly takes Samantha inside. The book was funny, fun, romantic, and full of Bridget Jones moments.

Then, last night I started The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova – no, The Case of the Missing Book is still open. I couldn’t stand it anymore and picked up a copy at the library. I’ll post my review tomorrow as I just finished reading it this afternoon. I need to let my impressions set a bit before I delve into this review. Suffice it to say that I like her writing style very much.  I’ll leave the rest for tomorrow.

Tonight, I think I’ll have a walk with Maddie, a bit more sangria, and a new book. Hmmm, which one? Probably a mystery. I need something else light after the 561-page brick I just finished. 🙂 What about you? What are you reading?

Comfort food and comfort reads

I am feeling under the weather. It’s a combination of the changes in weather, my insanely-busy schedule over the last couple weeks, my detour from working out regularly and probably lack of vitamins. Regardless, this past week was not stellar, and today I feel awful. Cancel class awful. I don’t ever cancel class, but I am having a colleague put a note on my classroom door. I feel so guilty, but I just would not be on top of my game today.

When I don’t feel well, I crave certain foods – baked potatoes, macaroni and cheese, soup. Basically, I want fattening starchy foods without a lot of nutritional value. I want my reading material the same way.

Last Monday I finished Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man which was good, but oddly enough for Robinson, it was the type of mystery where all is revealed at the end in an Aha! moment. I typically do not like these mysteries, but as it is Peter Robinson, I’ll let it slide this time.

Then I picked up Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty. My mom bought this book for me because she enjoyed it so much. The book begins on Gemma’s 16th birthday, her mother and she arguing in the street markets of India. Gemma wants more than anything to go to London, where her family is from, but her mother refuses. In a quick twist of events, Gemma’s mother is killed, and Gemma realizes she has an odd power. She is sent to a finishing school and learns more about her power and herself, while navigating the dangerous tides of adolescent girlhood. The book was a fast, enthralling read. The book is rated YA; however, the only YA aspects of it were, to me, Gemma’s naiveté and Bray’s interference in the story, “conveniently” pointing out things Gemma has missed. Without those two elements, I would have enjoyed this book much more. I believe this is a series, but I’m not sure if I would read the others unless Bray steps it up a notch.

Yesterday, after throwing a baby shower Saturday, I recuperated all day with another Mom-Recommended Book – Adriana Trigiani’s Very Valentine. I was reluctant to pick it up because I thought: Valentine? Valentine’s Day? My least-favorite holiday? But Valentine is a 33-year-old, single woman who quit her teaching job to apprentice under her Gram, a master shoemaker. This book was fantastic. A comfort read? Yes. Chick lit? Not really. It didn’t feel formulaic. The main character, Valentine, is just as concerned with making a name for herself in the world of shoe design as she is in finding a boyfriend (sometimes to her relationship’s detriment), and strong, independent women are scattered throughout the book, tempered and complemented by boyfriends/husbands. Plus, much of it is set in Italy, and after three trips to different regions, Italy is a place I feel even more “me,” if possible. Since I am not financially able to take a big trip this year, it was such fun to relive Italy through Valentine’s eyes. If you need a break from something more literary but don’t want the tripe that is chick lit, I highly recommend this. Plus, it’s a series! I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one. Thanks, Mom.

Today, I will try and finish The Brothers Karamazov Part Three in order to post on Thursday. Until then, I am going to fortify myself with Vitamin C, B12, juice and whatever else I can to feel better. Happy reading!

Persepolis and more Book Thief Pages

This week, my students are studying the Islamic Revolution in Iran in preparation for reading Persepolis. Many had never read a graphic novel before and went ahead and zipped through it. Most have really enjoyed it, but I’m looking forward to hearing their perspectives once we know a bit more about that time period. Today, I showed an interview with Marjane Satrapi. She’s really fascinating; I had the opportunity to meet her and hear her speak in Houston two years ago. I don’t simply want my students to discuss the book. I want them to understand the impetus for Satrapi’s novel and it’s medium/format. If they learn anything during this semester, I hope it’s that these elements are deliberate choices by a writer/author to affect the reader in a certain manner. Video here:

Also, the end of last week and early this week brought a few more repurposed pages from The Book Thief lesson. They were still discussing it earlier this week after we had already moved on, so I took that as a good sign and did a little happy dance inside. I always feel like a mom blending broccoli into brownies or something when they tell me they enjoy something I assign. So, without further ado, here are a couple more repurposed pages. Tomorrow, I’ll post about The Brothers Karamazov, Part Two. What are you reading?

Teaching: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

I am haunted by humans.

I first read The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak several years ago. At the time, no one had heard of it, but I read it and immediately passed it to all my book-loving friends. (Thank goodness for those.) Of course, I know most of you have read and reviewed this amazing book set in Nazi Germany that shows the overwhelming beauty and brutality of humanity, but I wanted to bring it up again A. because it’s such a phenomenal book that doesn’t ever leave you and B. I taught it to my college freshman and high school seniors the last two weeks.

It is difficult to teach a novel to college students. First, I have two different type of classes – classes that meet three times a week for 50 minutes and classes that meet twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes. I know it’s the same time, but the breakup of that time can sometimes be difficult to deal with. Second, some novels lend themselves well to teaching: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is episodic. Others you can split up easily in terms of theme. Although The Book Thief certainly has many themes, I was still having difficulty. I looked online, but there seem to be mostly resources for younger grades or high school. College is so different.

I framed the conversation in terms of narrator, first of all, because, well…. narrator. It’s Death. I showed some clips of Meet Joe Black on the recommendation of another professor to really illustrate the detachment and curiosity that Brad Pitt’s character, as Death, feels. We related that back to our novel. We also discussed how setting the novel in Nazi Germany could have been a dangerous move for Zusak had he not had an impartial narrator, such as Death. My students were very interested in Death. On some level, I think it bothered them to have to think of little “d” death, but on the other hand, they were really gripped by capital “D” Death’s storytelling.

Then the last several classes, we discussed that more than anything, more than the Holocaust, or Nazi Germany, or destroyed innocence, the book is about words and about the characters’ relationship to those words. Liesel first steals a book before she can even read the words it holds, and we discussed that her stealing begins, at least, as an act of reclamation, filling the void with some physical evidence of what is missing.

However, as Hans teaches her to read, painting words she knows on the walls of the basement, she begins to have a hunger for what those words enable her to do. Similarly, Max, the Jewish refugee the Hubermanns hide in the basement, also has a growing relationship with words. He carries around a copy of Mein Kampf, and when Liesel asks him if it’s a good book, he responds it’s the “best book” because it literally saves his life on the journey to Molching. However, and for good reason, he also hates the book, representative of the evil that caused his life to be in danger in the first place. He rips out the pages and repurposes them, claiming the pages for himself and his own story, instead of Hitler’s.

I asked students for the moments in the book where words stood out to them, and they came up with the books within the book, Standover Man and The Word Shaker, the latter written by Max for Liesel, which describes Hitler’s realization of his own power:

He’d seen a mother walking with her child. At one point, she admonished the small boy, until finally, he began to cry. Within a few minutes, she spoke very softly to him, after which he was soothed and even smiled.

The young man rushed to the woman and embraced her. “Words!” He grinned.

The Word Shaker goes on to say that Hitler plants symbols and words of hate that multiply into a forest of hatred and “farmed thoughts.” One day, the word shaker plants a different kind of seed, and the story ends with hope. Continue reading