A completely worthless, non-expert-recommended summer reading 2012 list

Grapes of Wrath

Today, I handed out the summer reading assignments for my sophomores who will be moving up to advanced or AP English, and as it usually goes they accepted them with a mix of enthusaism for next year and the malaise of burnout from the end of this year. I did my best to talk up the books that I had read and enjoyed (one of which, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of only two war novels I actually like), and told them that both of their potential teachers for next year are amazing (which isn’t a lie — the students at my school are blessed with an amazing English department).

Of course, there was the one voice I get every time I do this, which was: “Uh, do we have to read these?” “Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah,” is my usual reply, then a reminder that they can change if they don’t want to take the advanced courses. When I was in school, I bristled at the idea of being asked to read for school during the summer (not reading during the summer, mind you, because I read plenty during the course of a summer). It’s not that I didn’t like reading, it’s just that I was … well, lazy and didn’t want to do work.

Doing schoolwork each summer would severely cut into my time of sitting on the couch and watching The Price is Right followed by 21 Jump Street reruns where the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed and Contour Chair commercials ran three times and hour. And you know I wasn’t having that. Funny enough, once I actually sat down to read the summer reading, I found myself really enjoying it. I still remember spending the summer before high school with Flowers for Algernon and taking about two days to read it because I couldn’t put it down. And then there was the summer before AP Government, where I read Walt Bodganich’s The Great White Lie, which was an expose about how mismanaged and screwed up the United States’ healthcare system is (and based on what went down a couple of years ago, I’m not really surprised it hasn’t changed).

Flowers for Algernon is still an old standby of English departments everywhere; Bogdanich’s book is now out of print (but can probably be tracked down in a used bookstore if you’re interested). They are definitely reminders of summers well spent. My rising advanced sophomores have two works that we, as a team of 10th advanced teachers, chose: Albert Camus’ The Stranger and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Both satisfy the state’s “10th grade is world literature” mandate and both satisfy the overall theme I have for the advanced sophomore course, which is “identity”: what it is, how it changes, the similarities and differences we have the world over, etc. Plus, both are rich enough to make for a solid paper, which I assign in the first week of school (it really seemed to set the tone well this year).

But in reading a list on a website about good summer reading books, I had to wonder what I would recommend for a summer reading list. So here are ten listed in no particular order (and categorized to a certain extent) …

For the kids who like to read ahead …

The Grapes of Wrath  by John Steinbeck. WHAT?! You’d make students read THAT?!” you scream? Yes, because I think it’s a work of literature that is vital to our American identity and our culture. I have to confess that I didn’t read it in high school (my experience with Steinbeck before my twenties was The Red Pony, The Pearl, and Of Mice and Men) and it wasn’t until I had read East of Eden and then saw a copy of Grapes sitting in my English department’s book room that I decided to give it a shot. Epic, enthralling, and still relevant.

The Odyssey by Homer. I HATED The Iliad. HATED it. I took it and threw it across my freshman dorm room with a considerable amount of force. Therefore, I thought I had been spared torture beyond torture when I got through four years of high school followed by four years of college and never had to read The Odyssey. Then, in my first year as a teacher, I wound up teaching freshmen English and on the curriculum was … The Odyssey. I bought a copy in August and began reading (and also bought the Cliff’s Notes in case I couldn’t follow. I have no shame.) and I have to say that I fall into the camp that thinks that Homer might have been more than one person, because anyone who wrote something as good as The Odyssey could not have written The Iliad. And with all of the focus on Earth’s Mightiest Mortals at the box office lately, this is definitely worth a read.

For the kids who always have their iPods confiscated …

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield. While there is a considerable amount of harsh language in this one, it is one of the best pop culture books that I have ever read. Sheffield, who is a music journalist, chronicles his early twenties and his marriage, which ended tragically, in the context of my generation’s medium of choice, the mix tape. I’m not even that “good” of a music fan, but the story that’s contained within is a great example of narrative writing. In fact, I’m going to reread this to see if there’s any excerpts suitable for my advanced sophomores.

Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azzerad. Chronicling the punk, hardcore, and independent scene of the 1980s, Azzerad takes a look at bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen, The Replacements, and Fugazi, showing how they got their start and in some cases how they became successful. It’s one of the best chronicles of struggling to make it as a musician that I’ve ever read.

For anyone who wants a good scare …

It by Stephen King. I see a lot of students walking around with books that feature monsters of some shape or form. For a few years, it was that Twilight crap (and yes, it’s crap. Stephenie Meyer couldn’t write her way out of a plastic bag), but now I see a lot of YA stuff that is either in the same vein or has a little more bite to it. I never really had YA as a kid. I’m sure it was out there, but I graduated from kids’ novels to stuff like Star Trek and Star Wars expanded universe novels pretty quickly. My parents had bought and read It back when it came out in hardcover and the book sat on the shelf in the den for years. I am pretty sure I picked it up after I had seen the TV movie with Tim Curry as Pennywise, because I read It between the summer of seventh and eighth grade. The book is Stephen King at his most horrific and adult and I remember considering it quite an accomplishment that I finished the book (probably because of its massive length), and that as a teenager I felt that it marked my entry into a higher level of reading.

For the sports fans …

Are We Winning? by Will Leitch. One of the founders of Deadspin and a rather prolific writer himself, Leitch writes an entire book about the experience of going to a Cardinals-Cubs game with his father. The book delves into the nuances of the game and what it’s like to be a baseball fan; however, it is also about the relationship between a father and his son and fathers and sons altogether.

For the kids who complain they never learn about recent history …

Columbine by Dave Cullen. Published in 2009 and released right around the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, this book is a very thorough investigation of everything that happened and everything it has come to mean. Cullen’s writing style is engaging and he makes a real effort to get inside the heads of the two young men who executed this horror, and he also does not shy away from debunking myths and presenting critical analysis of those who sought to misplace blame or profit off of the tragedy. It obviously has relevance to high school students, but so many of them “know” what Columbine is without really knowing what it is that it’s a valuable education.

For those kids who seem to always be in the library looking for comics …

The Death of Superman/World Without a Superman/The Return of Superman by various writers/artists. So, my school library has some superhero “graphic novels” (I haaaaaaaaaaaate that term) and a gabillion manga books. They’ve come a long way from when I was in high school in the early 1990s and the closest thing I could ever find was one collection of early 1970s Superman comics reprinted in black and white (I believe it was the saga starting with the famous “Kryptonite Nevermore” cover). And while Superman still doesn’t have the popularity of Batman, the three trade paperbacks that make up the Death and Return of Superman saga that was originally published in serial form back in 1992-1993 are an adventure worth reading not just because there’s a fair amount of great action (the battle with Doomsday in the first third is only the start of things), but a lot of quality character pieces as well (the World Without a Superman trade is heartbreaking at times, especially as Lois Lane comes to terms with the fact that her fiance–Clark Kent–is dead and Jon and Martha Kent have to mourn their son very privately because the world does not know he was Superman). It’s also a great example of creative collaboration. This was published on a weekly basis through four different comic books that had four distinct writer/artist teams held together by a super (yes I went there) editorial team. AND if you want something really cool, download a podcast called From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast. The two guys on the podcast–Michael Bailey and Jeffrey Taylor–have been recapping and reviewing every Superman comic published between 1986 and 2006 and are now in the middle of this saga. Their commentary, interviews with creators, and very comprehensive and in-depth coverage make reading along well worthwhile.

So that’s it, at least for now … a list of odds and ends that is fun and challenging (at times) and worth checking out. If you’d like to comment with suggestions, I would love some because I’m really looking forward to having new stuff to read this summer.

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