Reading lists, reviews, teaching

Reading List 2021

I set a goal of reading 20 books this year and managed 32, so that makes it a GOOD YEAR. Most I read in hard copy but I also count audiobooks as reading and have been enjoying non-fiction texts read by the authors. Below is my reading list organised into some loose categories…

Pedagogy and English teaching

When the Adults Change, Everything Changes by Paul Dix.

This one came out of the UK but very much reinforced some ideas I already had about teaching and discipline. The insights were valuable in what was a short book to read, and that is part of its popularity. The author talked me through his experiences of turning troubled schools around and of the need to be sensible in regards to rules, with the main three coming down to being ready (prompt, having your books and pens and an open mindset) respectful (of yourself and others) and safe. The most affirming part came from the reminders that punitive discipline is ineffective and really all you have are those ‘compassionate chats’. Sure, keep students back for detention, but let the detention be filled with deeply caring conversations and grounded in wellbeing and a shared approach to learning, and never filled with writing lines or sitting in silence.

Closing the Reading Gap by Alex Quigley

There was a key reminder in this one about how we teach reading. In primary school, students learn to read and in high school they read to learn, but there is often a gap that widens if high school teachers don’t know how to support reading comprehension. I’ve adapted strategies from this book, even for my highest level Extension English students. If you set them a passage or even a dense academic reading, think about the important parts you want them to understand and comprehend. Work with glossaries, form connections and give reading a clear purpose.

Penguin Rhyming Dictionary

I had a student writing a poetic suite this year and this was genuinely helpful, especially for writing sonnets when the rhyming pattern was important. An English teachers’ must-have. Also, there are words that rhyme with orange.

How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen

This book was an unexpected favourite. If you are a book and writing nerd and find yourself looking up ‘famous opening lines’ or ‘unreliable narrators’ then this is a joy to read and quite funny in places. Cohen has done so much research and includes well-chosen extracts to illustrate his clever exploration of different aspects of writing. Even the anecdotes about motivations or conflict between writers were entertaining and the ideas were inspiring.

Writing Fiction by Amanda Boulter

I constructed a series of lessons for Extension 1 and 2 with this useful how-to book. It has some very clever ideas for activities on narrative voice, among other things.

They Say/ I Say: the moves that matter in academic writing by Graff, Birkenstein and Durst. This one was recommended for students doing the critical response for Extension 2. It has excellent advice for effective citation of the work of others but also assists writers to construct responses that agree with or refute the work of others. This one will be on high rotation and might even be worth buying in a set if you have lots of Extension 2 students.

Reading for pleasure

The following books were mostly read during my holidays. ‘Where the Crawdad’s Sing’ had nice writing of place, and I do like a bit of botanical information with my romances. ‘The Hate U Give’ was one of my reading picks of the year, and the narrative voice is one that successfully takes the audience inside not only the recent events of the black lives matter movement, but further back into the intergenerational problems leading to current events (check out big Mav’s gentle lecture to his daughter Starr). ‘The Fish Girl’ gets inside a colonial narrative and I’m sure we will see a lot more of this genre as people retell stories from previously marginalised perspectives. ‘The Animals in That Country’ was a wild Aussie sci-fi ride. I’ve never had a yobbo granny protagonist tell me a story before and who would’ve thought McKay could pull off a pandemic narrative during an actual pandemic. You will never look at your pets the same way again. ‘Neverwhere’ by Neil Gaiman explores London below and was pure escapism. ‘Their Lost Daughters’ set in the boglands of the East Coast of England had a very high body count and all the usual trappings of a well-written crime thriller.

Books to help me be a better English teacher

This year I was teaching English Extension, and I got to do HSC marking. I worked through a few of the more popular choices for the electives I wasn’t familiar with. In the end, I only marked ‘re-imagined worlds,’ but enjoyed the reading regardless.

The Shipping News. E. Annie Proulx has a knack for painting complex life and wild landscapes with minimalist but punchy prose. She writes of a relationship ‘There was a month of fiery happiness. Then six kinked years of suffering.’ I adored this one which is an option for ‘intersecting worlds’ elective.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. This has multiple narrators and moments of exquisite American gothic prose. I’d love a ‘literary mindscapes’ teacher to explain it more fully to me, and I’m sure it would offer rich pickings for student essays.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. This was one I had to read to make sense of the many literary allusions I’ve met in the last few years that reference this novella. It’s okay to hate on the people and the privileged colonial tone in this one. Mistah Kurtz can stay dead.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is an offering for Literary Homelands extension elective. It’s told by a charismatic narrator who explains Indian culture in detail, especially via clever analogies of the ‘rooster coup’ and ‘the darkness,’ but the casual misogyny turned me off by the end.

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood. Set in a correctional centre and on the HSC list for English Advanced, this adaptation of The Tempest is fast-paced, funny, post-modern for its use of from and makes some comments on how things stay the same, no matter how much time passes.

Dante’s Inferno is an intertextual journey through the circles of hell, filled with mythical, historical and often whining sinners. As an alien to the Catholic worldview, it was difficult for me to appreciate but helpful for decoding TS Eliot references, I guess.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’ en. I was doing a literary worlds timeline activity with my Extension class and we all set out to read widely texts from the past and from outside the western canon. I found myself reliving all my favourite childhood tales from Monkey Magic TV through this work. There is still something so comforting about Eastern spirituality to me. Monkey reminds me of Loki from Norse mythology.

Junior bookroom

There are always books in the English bookroom I haven’t read, so I set about adding a few more to my list, and I subsequently fell in love with two of Neil Gaiman’s offerings. Coraline (ignore the dated movie made in 2009) is a fantasy-horror tale that children find exciting, and adults find terrifying. Scariest of all is the ‘other mother’ with her black button eyes. Gaiman has a knack of speaking straight to the child in me and he knows exactly what to say. The Graveyard Book also by Gaiman was OUTSTANDING. Set in a graveyard, and a hybrid genre of ghost-story and historical fiction, this took me effortlessly to dark scary places and back out again almost unscathed. You could do this with Stage 4 or 5. Highly recommend buying a class set.

Trash by Andy Mulligan. A tale of luck, poverty and adventure, told by multiple anti-hero kids on a mission against corruption. if you are teaching this, I recommend getting the audiobook because the different narrators bring this story vividly to life.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. We do a historical fiction focus in Year 10 and get them to write their first big proper essays. My class had learnt about The Holocaust in history but this took their empathetic understanding to a deeper level. Morris met the central Lale at the end of his life and tells faithfully the story of a young couple in love and forced to do morally questionable things to survive in the most depraved of circumstances. Some of my favourite pieces of student writing this year were in response to this novel.

The First Scientists by Corey Tutt. I bought a class set of these and hope to do a cross-curricular project with the Science faculty in future. It features rich illustrations and is an important addition to STEM teaching in Australian schools for Stage 4.

Poetry, short stories, re-telling of mythology

The 2019 collection of stories ‘Sudden Traveller’ by Sarah Hall is masterful and provides good examples of contemporary prose. If you teach senior English, especially Extension, the title story is an excellent example of second-person voice and moves effortlessly between present and future tense.

I’m obsessing over Tracy K Smith’s ‘Life on Mars‘ collection of poetry. It is mindblowing for its examination of the universe and human existence and comforting for its depiction of the mundane and everyday. There is a version read by the poet herself on audible and it’s wonderful. I’ve been writing essay paragraphs about her poetry as part of teaching Extension 1 and some of my students have come up with really profound responses to her work. One said to me recently that Smith’s poem ‘Don’t you wonder sometimes’ shows us that we do not know what we do not know.

maar bidi (made by hand) is a collection of creative writing by uni students in Perth. The poems are simple and honest and are liberated in form and content. I took great comfort from some of the everyday honesty in this poetry collection.

In Norse Mythology Gaiman brings his own voice to these stories that seem to be etched on my bones, not least for the depictions of the irrepressible Loki. Memorable was ‘Mead of the Poets.’ People who make magic with words have tasted the mead of poetry but people who write crap poetry have tasted the foul version ejected from Odin’s ar$e.

Mythos by Stephen Fry is also a witty retelling of the Greek myths and I’ve learnt so much, not least about the origins of words. I feel smarter for reading this one.

Non-fiction

See what You Made me do by Jess Hill. Hill is an Australian journalist who won the Stella Prize in 2020 for this harrowing and up-close examination of domestic abuse in Australia. This is one that I recommend listening to on Audiobook read by the author. She explores the unique set of circumstances that have got us into a total mess when it comes to keeping women safe in this country and offers some positive suggestions and case studies from other countries where things have changed for the better. Especially scary are some of the ingrained problems with the family court which many victims describe as an ‘alternate reality’ where shared care at all costs, even when children are in extreme danger, is the default setting. Hill understands that language is powerful and we can expect to see the term ‘coercive control’ becoming key in addressing domestic abuse in this country. Pretty sure they have criminalised coercive control now in NSW which is a positive step. If your partner tracks your phone or car, controls your bank account or puts hidden cameras around your house, this is a red flag and now illegal.

Turns out I’m fine by Judith Lucy

Read by the author, this was funny and sad and I love Lucy’s outlook and commentary on dating and life in general.

So you think you know what’s good for you? by Doctor Norman Swan

An important foil for all the stupid dieting advice, health influencers and other crap we get served up on a daily basis. Swan gives common-sense advice (if only I could follow it all) and validated some of my own approaches to a healthy lifestyle. I found the exploration into the longevity of different groups and the reasons behind this really interesting.

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