Top Five Friday: Books from the Teaching Years

People frequently ask me if I miss teaching high school. I find this question surprising, because when I was teaching, people inevitably had one of two reactions when I told them about my job. Most people said, “What’s that like?” in a tone that suggested they would rather have all their teeth pulled at once without any anesthesia. Alternatively, they would just shake their heads at me and say, “Oh, I could never do that,” with varying degrees of implied “Bless her heart,” or “What is wrong with that girl?”

The answer, by the way, is no. I don’t miss teaching. What I do miss, in addition to some great teacher friends and a handful of wonderful students, is the books. Teaching gave me a great opportunity to interact with some of my favorite books alongside my students. We made edible models of Frankenstein’s monster, learned to dance the moresca from Romeo and Juliet, and played quidditch after a test on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on a regrettably muddy afternoon. You don’t get to do those kinds of things with books when you read them by yourself. I do miss that particular aspect of teaching.

So this Friday, here are my top five favorite books from the teaching years.

OM&M 1. Of Mice and Men. Oh, how I love this book. I read it aloud for my CP kids twice a semester for four years. I NEVER got tired of it. It generated so many great conversations, and several times, students had some deep thoughts on the ending that I found really moving. The only thing I didn’t like was that, for some reason, students love to spoil the end of this book for the next class. I had to threaten them with my eternal fury to convince them not to ruin it for the students who would read it the next semester, and I’m sure several of them ignored me.
 romeo and juliet 2. Romeo and Juliet. Listening to the kids read Shakespeare aloud in their hilarious NC accents (not judging – I have one too) was priceless. One particularly enthusiastic pair of students insisted on being allowed to act out the balcony scene, and they brought in their own homemade “balcony” for the day. Also, each group of students did a project with R&J where they basically made me an illustrated version of each scene of the play using bingo dotters. I loved these. Some of the kids spent so much time on them and came up with some really beautiful work.
 mockingbird 3. To Kill a Mockingbird. The students never really got excited about the first half of the book, but by the time Tom Robinson enters the story, they were into it. The last six or seven chapters especially would just fly by. One year, when we were talking about Tom Robinson’s trial, I asked the kids offhand if they felt sorry for Mayella Ewell. I didn’t have to say another word for the rest of the class period – several of the kids had very firm and very opposite opinions on that subject, and they just ran with it. It was fun to watch.
 hound 4. The Hound of the Baskervilles. I only taught British lit for my last two semesters, so I only had two groups of students to read this one. I was surprised by how many said it was their favorite thing that we read. Now I just wish that the Benedict Cumberbatch “Sherlock” had been out at the time so I could have shown them an episode.
 streetcar 5. A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s hard to pinpoint why I enjoyed teaching this one as much as I did. I didn’t start using it until my third year of teaching, but each class that I used it with did a great job with it. There is just so much to work with in the play, and a lot of the students picked Blanche as the subject of their projects for the end of the semester – she was always a fun character to talk about.

Have a wonderful weekend!


Blackberry Pie Murder

I’m honestly surprised I’ve gotten any reading done at all this past week, seeing as how Brad and I have just discovered the BBC Sherlock series (three years late, I know – mea culpa).  When I did get reading, I decided I should pick something from my NetGalley queue.  I requested Blackberry Pie Murder a few weeks back because I’ve seen these books, with their yummy-looking baked good covers, in stores for years.

ImageThis is the seventeenth (!) book in Joanne Fluke’s mystery series about Hannah Swenson, owner of Lake Eden Minnesota’s coffee shop and bakery called The Cookie Jar. Hannah, along with her mother and sisters, has developed a reputation for uncovering dead bodies. It’s been several months since the Swenson girls solved a mystery, and Hannah is looking forward to focusing on her bakery and planning her mother’s wedding. But Hannah’s peace of mind is short-lived, and in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm, she accidentally hits and kills a stranger with her Cookie Jar delivery car. As she awaits the date of her trial for vehicular homicide, Hannah searches for the truth about the man she hit – what was he doing in Lake Eden, and why was he waiting by the side of the road in the storm?

I really enjoy mysteries, and I liked the idea of a bakery owner who solves crimes in her free time. While the mystery plot was fine, and I enjoyed the recipes that Fluke scatters throughout for the cookies she mentions in her chapters, this book left me cold. Maybe it’s my own fault – maybe it was arrogant to think I could slide into a series with book seventeen and pick right up where all Fluke’s regular readers left off. But something about Fluke’s style of writing rubbed me wrong.

First, Fluke has a habit of creating a metaphor for a situation and torturing it out over multiple pages. At one point, she compares Hannah’s emotions to the feeling of riding a roller-coaster. Fluke treats the reader to five pages of “Hannah’s emotional roller coaster car climbed toward the top of the slope… Hannah pictured the roller coaster car as it teetered on the very apex of the downslope… Hannah’s roller coaster car was on its way up the track again… the car on her emotional roller coaster was starting down the slope again…” She does the same thing about a hundred pages later, comparing her questioning of a suspect to a pitcher trying to strike out a batter. I appreciate the use of the metaphors in the story, but once the comparison has been made, trust your readers to understand and go with it – no need to reiterate it so much.

Second, Fluke seems fond of the technique of “telling” rather than “showing” in her writing. She tends to be repetitive. We are told time and time again that Hannah’s mother, Delores, loves chocolate. Every time Hannah bakes something chocolate for Delores, readers are reminded that Delores is a chocoholic, or that Delores thinks chocolate makes everything better. Also, there are several places where the sentences themselves seem repetitive – for example: “It seemed the ongoing feud was still going on.” Yikes.

I did think the actual mystery element was interesting. Fluke did a good job of tying together some plot lines that I didn’t realize were connected. She does create the atmosphere of the cozy small town where, when accidents happen, a community comes together to make things right. Also, I plan to try the recipes for some of the desserts that Fluke includes, like Fresh Blackberry Cookies and Yummy Yam Cookies. These look great, at Fluke added “notes” from the characters with baking tips and tricks.

If you’ve read the other Hannah Swenson mysteries, you’ll probably like this one. I read reviews for some of the earlier novels, and they are pretty positive overall. Again, maybe my issues with this book come from unfamiliarity with a set of well-established characters. If I’m in the market for this kind of mystery novel again any time soon, I’ll probably stick with Donna Andrews.