Book Review: A Lowcountry Heart (Reflections on a Writing Life)

It’s an odd thing, to read a book about writing by a writer you’ve never read. Oh, I’ve heard of Pat Conroy before — with The Great Santini and My Losing Season and The Prince of Tides — but I never picked up one of his books and read it. Not even once.

So why pick up A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life?

I suppose my interest in writers writing about writing has me poking around the stacks at the library and there it was, a cute cover and a wondering about the thinking process of this writer I’ve never read. Conroy is part of the Southern tribe of writers, and apparently, used his own personal life as inspiration for his novels about living in and living beyond the American South.

This collection of small essays, curated by his wife after Conroy’s death, is a curious tome of voice. Conroy’s engaging and funny observations of people, and himself, come through loud and clear, as does his obsession with the Citidel, tradition, and Southern Culture — all of which he seems to both cherish and ridicule in equal measure as he takes stock of the world around him.

via Washington Post

via Washington Post

 

In some ways, this is less about the art of writing and more about Conroy’s view of the world as a novelist, mostly told through the lens of the tapestry of people who were woven in and out of his life over time, and whose quirks and friendships and falling outs made their way into his fiction. As his wife explains, Conroy was a collector of stories — and he was apt to steal and adapt any story you told to him, and apparently, he was a master at getting you to talk.

I believe it. His writing is very personal and inviting, and you feel as if you sitting around the sitting room, sipping iced tea on a hot Southern day, as he tells the stories he writes about here. There are great moments of Humanity here — I am thinking of his friendship with a gay Southern man who died from complications of AIDS and how Conroy moved to San Francisco to take care of his friend, and to understand the disease better so that he could help others.

I’m still not sure that his writing style is my reading style — it all feels a bit too John Irving for me, and I find I am not in a John Irving mood these past few years, although I read Irving at one time — but I admire what Conroy does here. He’s working to peel back the layers of a writer, to show how life is the biggest point of inspiration, and how it takes courage and insight to bring fiction into a light that seems true and worth writing about.

And any insights into what makes a writer click .. that’s always worth a read.

Peace (writing it about),
Kevin

The History of Stories through the Eyes of Book

This is the second year I have used the creative nonfiction text — Book: My Autobiography by John Agard (illustrations by Neil Packer)– as an opening novel with my sixth graders. I read it aloud (and we do some various activities with it, including some sketch-noting) so we can talk about where stories come from, and where books and texts have evolved from.

This short book (which we humorously refer to as Book book in class), with lots of woodcut drawings, does a nice job of giving Book (a collective voice of every book ever written) a role as personable and wise narrator as we move through the timeline of history, from oral storytelling to papyrus to paper to illuminated texts to printing presses to libraries to ebooks and more.

In using the Book book, I laying the historical foundation for why we write and why and how we read stories, and how stories change who we are in powerful ways. I wish I could spend a few more weeks doing more activities — long ago, I did a printmaking activity for a newspaper unit — but I need to keep moving along.

We do make time for activity in which they design a book, or story delivery system, for a time 100 years into the future. I wonder what they will be making this week …

My students mostly enjoy Book book, although the chapter where we learn about book burning and the ways dictators often target writing and writers as symbols of dissent is a little unnerving. (It gives me a chance to chat about banned books, too).

I also do love how the book itself is scattered about with poems and proverbs and excerpts from writers from all over the world, from many cultures.

And of course, the storyline of Book book is another entry into how literacy has shaped the world, particularly during moments when an innovation opened up the possibilities of reading and writing to those who would not otherwise have had access, leading to eras like the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

Strange Things in Sixth Grade (Picture Book Project)

Sixth Grade Picture Books

Last spring, my sixth graders worked on a book of memories from their time at our elementary school (they have now all moved on to either the regional middle/high school or another place). It’s a tradition that our librarian and myself have started with our writers as they leave our school.

For the past two years, we have also been working with author/illustrators Peter and Paul Reynolds through the Fablevision media company out of Boston, beta-testing their Get Published publishing site for writing, illustrating and publishing books. Like any beta system, the spring project had its glitches and only this week did the boxes of published picture books get delivered.

Sixth Grade Picture Books

The books look great, and I am coordinating with families to get them into the hands of the writers. It’s pretty neat to see a story in a bound edition like these, looking very official. And the books are packed with memory stories from kindergarten through sixth grade.

I was also writing and illustrating with my students, so that as they were working, so was I. Partly, it was to experience what my young writers were experiencing, from a technological standpoint. And partly, it was because I wanted to write a book, too.

My picture book is called Strange Things in Sixth Grade. It’s about funny things that have happened in the classroom over the years. I’m pretty happy with how it came out.

Take a look. I used Animoto to make a video book of the book’s pages.

Speaking of Peter and Paul Reynolds, tomorrow is International Dot Day! Make your mark and get creative!

 

Peace (between the pages),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Mighty Jack and the Goblin King

I am a huge fan of Ben Hatke, and this second book in his Jack series  — Mighty Jack and the Goblin King — has only deepened my appreciation for his talents as a storyteller and artists.

Hatke has taken the Jack and the Beanstalk into strange, new territory here, and I love that the story splinters and then comes back together in a way you might not suspect. He always has strong female characters, too.

Mighty Jack’s story is not over, and the end of the novel brings another movie-like twist, reminding my son and I of another Hatke character that drew us into his world many years ago: Zita the Spacegirl (another series you should read).

The Jack series is a solid read for elementary students, but middle school readers would probably enjoy it, too.

Peace (in adventure),
Kevin

Book Review: My Life with BOB (Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues)

A book about reading books? I’m in. I know that sounds strange to be reading books about the reading of books, yet I find it strangely fascinating to wonder what other people are thinking as they read and love (or hate) their own books.

Pamela Paul has an envious and powerful job — she is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Part of what she does is discover new writers and determine which books get reviewed, which get noticed, which get featured. Needless to say, Paul reads a lot of books.

The BOB in the title of this memoir is not a man, but a book of books (or Book of Books: BOB) that she has been keeping as a private curation for years. My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues taps into her love of books, as she connects novels to major events of her life, and dives deep into why we love reading so much and how powerful books can shape a life, anchor our memories and change our perspectives on the world.

It helps that Paul comes across as a regular, if voracious, reader, and her style of writing is very inviting. You can sense the reluctance to share BOB with the world. It really is her private list, and I envy that she has BOB. I have Goodreads, which is not the same, is it? Amazon owns Goodreads, which means someone else owns my list. If only I, too, had kept a BOB of my own for the past thirty years or so. What would I notice?

Overall, I enjoyed Paul’s tour of her literary world, and her world escapes, and the connection between the writing she was reading, the writing she was writing, and the bridges made visible between our reading lives and our lives outside of books.

Peace (I read it),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Flying Machines (How the Wright Brothers Soared)

FirstSecond Publishing has been putting out a series of graphic novels under a “Science Comics” banner that are quite interesting for merging informational text with story in graphic novel form. The latest — Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared by Alison Wilgus and Molly Brooks — is a fine example of how this format works.

Narrated with sass and wisdom from Katharine Wright, a somewhat-forgotten sister of Wilbur and Orville, the story is a deep look at the engineering marvels of flight, and while the focus is on the Wright brothers, the book does not skimp on many others (mostly in Europe) who contributed to the art of flight over a short period of time in the early part of the 1900s.

While the Wright’s story is familiar, the graphic story takes on a very scientific approach to the ins and outs, and ups and downs (sorry) of success and failure, of the move to get into the air with wings. Wilbur and Orville’s passion, and intentional engineering design approach, come through clearly. They were both driven to fly, and faced danger along the way. Many pioneers of flight died in crashes.

The book does not skimp on the science, either, giving over full pages to explain the technology and engineering ideas behind flight. This may leave some readers wanting more story, and less science, but Wilgus and Brooks do a nice balancing act, with Katharine as our host.

The last sections of the graphic novel include short biographies of other pioneers of flight, as well as bio of Katharine, and a glossary of scientific terms and more resources to wander into. Overall, Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared is a solid read, and may appeal to a middle and high school audience.

Peace (fly free),
Kevin

Book Review: Child Labor Reform Movement (An Interactive History Adventure)

To call this an “adventure,” as the subtitle does, seems awfully odd to me, but Child Labor Reform Movement (An Interactive History Adventure) by Steven Otfinoski does effectively use the elements of interactive fiction by giving the reader choices. Unfortunately, as you might guess from the title, nearly all of the choices end badly, as the book explores the horrible working conditions of children in the workforce during the 1800s.

I appreciated the historical, archival photographs sprinkled throughout this book (with three main story paths and 23 different possible endings). The photos, coupled with the stories and narrative choices (we call them branches when my students make their own Interactive Fiction stories) really draws the reader into the experience of a young child living, working and then mostly dying in an unfair system in which children were regularly abused in many ways.

That said, the book is very effective in its rhetorical design, and is written for an upper elementary/middle school audience.

The reader can “become” a pauper’s apprentice in England, signing away their childhood for awful living conditions; a factory girl in Massachusetts; or a newsie in New York City. The narrative keeps circling back and you realize that no choice is a good choice, because children working in these conditions had no agency or choice, only the need to survive (which many did not).

Historical anecdotes and research dot this book, and it makes clear the movement that came along to try to change the way children were used in the work force. Much has changed for the better, at least in First World countries, but a final word from the author notes that, according to a report by the International Labor Organization, there are still about 246 million children working in places around the world. That should open the eyes of young readers.

Peace (let children be children),
Kevin

Book Review: The Dark Prophecy (The Trials of Apollo)

I’ve not been as big of a fan of Rick Riordan’s Trials of Apollo series as some of his others but my son still enjoys the read-aloud aspects, so I am full in on reading the series. We just finished The Dark Prophecy, but it took us all summer to read, which is unusual for us. I think what gets me is the voice of Apollo here, as he undergoes his trials as human to learn humility.

I do appreciate seeing familiar characters — Thalia Grace, Grover, etc. — and can see how Riordan continues to plant the seeds for future books in the current ones, dipping into other cultural mythologies as he explores the main terrain of Greek and Roman myths.

Here, Apollo continues to confront past decisions made when he was  God who cared little for his human followers, and as a human now, he must both make amends and depend upon others. His godly powers come and go, and he is beholden to a young girl demi-god who has the power to give him orders he must follow. Meanwhile, his quest to confront and defeat former Emperors as well as grapple with the various powers of prophecies moves the narrative along.

I think upper elementary and middle school readers of a certain genre will appreciate Riordan’s writing style — a mix of humor and adventure that seems a bit light on development — and my 12-year-old son still wishes they could make some of these books into good movies (he was not impressed with either Percy Jackson flick.)

Peace (by the gods),
Kevin

Book Review: Wasting Time on the Internet

I just finished an interesting examination of digital media, technology, the Internet, and writing by Kenneth Goldsmith. The book has the evocative title of Wasting Time on the Internet, and his premise is that what seems like “wasted time” is often not wasted time after all. In fact, he argues that a whole new way of looking at writing and reading is emerging from our online interactions and creating efforts.

I’ve grabbed some quotes from the book that I think are intriguing, as a way to think about Goldsmith’s ideas (the book stems from a college course he taught by the same name).

Goldsmith Quote1 citystoryI found this concept of the cityscape as a compositional canvas interesting, particularly when we do think of how our devices give off so much of our data. That ‘story’ is rather invisible to the naked eye, but not to the companies that track us. Isn’t that a narrative shaped by data? The question is, who controls that story?


Goldsmith Quote2 browsermemoirThis examination of our web browser as personal memoir stunned me, for all the right reasons. For surely, it is, right? Or at least, it becomes a memoir of our online lives. Can we curate that? Should we curate that? Do we even wonder why our browsers track our history and what becomes of those trails? I wonder, is there a way to shape our browser history into a story or narrative? What would that look like and how would you approach it?


Goldsmith Quote3 ArchivingBack to the question of curation. To stem the onslaught of information and data, we have to find better ways of making sense of it all (signal to noise and back again). The “larger vision” is the story we tell of ourselves, now, and how we will remember the story of us, then.


Goldsmith Quote4 gifsWe had just explored animated GIFs in CLMOOC so this section in which Goldsmith dives into the GIF world was interesting. His observation of GIFs as small silent movies, telling a story with gaps in the narrative, set into a looping pattern, expresses much of what we in CLMOOC were exploring, too. How to move the GIF from just funny visual meme into something larger? That’s a worth exploration.


Goldsmith Quote5 mememachineYeah. Imagine that. A recent conversation about using Mastodon, where I join others in writing small texts on a regular basis, centered on this “writer as meme machine” because we talked about the disappearing texts. Not as something to mourn but as something to perhaps celebrate for the way they come and go and remain in memory, if not on the page. As a writer of this “short form” writing, every word and every sentence has to have some resonance. There is no wasted space.


Goldsmith Quote6 shortformAnd this, too. Nothing new is happening here. Just a new platform. Good to remember.


Goldsmith Quote7 mediauseGoldsmith ends his book with a reminder that what seems to be inattention or what seems to be zombie-like connection to the screen may, in fact, be something more, something deeper than appears at first glance. I agree, yet fall back into the “get off that screen” when I see my kids hunched over their iPod or phone.


Finally, for the very last chapter of the book, Goldsmith includes a list of 101 Ways to Waste Your Time on the Internet, via a crowdsourcing endeavor with his college students. I pulled some that I thought were worth remembering (I am curating!) and decided to dump them into an app that animates text. Notice how all of the words got mashed together. The app couldn’t handle the flow. The smashing of words was not planned but amusing just the same.

Wasting Time

Peace (time),
Kevin

 

Book Review: See You in the Cosmos

My son and I were enjoying See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng when somewhere towards the second half of the novel about a precocious boy wanting to send his Golden iPod to space on a rocket suddenly took a turn that surprised us both. I won’t give it away, except to say that the book, already enjoyable as a read-aloud, went deeper still as Cheng’s protagonist, Alex, learns more about life than we would have expected.

The novel is told mostly in the voice of Alex, an 11-year-old who narrates his world into the voice recorder of the Golden iPod, which he hopes to send into space on a rocket he intends to build, in order to emulate his hero, Carl Sagan (also the name of his dog). References to Carl Sagan (the scientist) and the movie, Contact, abound.

Alex hopes whatever life in space finds his iPod will come to understand the Human Race. Meanwhile, listening in, we come to understand Alex, and the constellation of his family (both known and unknown), and the way that time and space fold in on us in strange and unexpected ways.  Alex is an innocent but attentive observer of the world.

See You in the Cosmos a beautiful book, full of voice and compassion and complexity. You’ll cheer Alex on, and wonder if maybe we, the readers, aren’t the very life forms he is writing to, reading the transcripts of his life, in order to understand the beings on Planet Earth.

Peace (here and there and beyond),
Kevin