Tag Archives: award winning books

The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo

10460266Marjorie Richards could be my student. In fact, she could be anyone’s student. The seventeen-year-old main character of The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo haunted me for weeks after I finished the book. I had seen her before, lingering in the eyes and mannerisms of some of my teens. The fact that she was so relatable yet so distant was disturbing.

Marjorie’s story is complex and multilayered. She lives in rural New Hampshire where teen girls are being abducted. Her abusive parents are so isolated from society that they have developed their own obscure dialect of language, a language that earns Marjorie the name “the talk funny girl” amongst her classmates. And her town has fallen under economic hardship with the closing of the local mill; in turn, she is forced to take on a job with a stonemason building “a cathedral” to support her unemployed parents.

Marjorie’s transformation is raw, inspiring, and cathartic. Her story is riddled with poetic lines that provide this quiet character with a strong internal voice. In one passage she says, “I had my protective shell of funny talk and shyness, but underneath that lived a wilder me, a girl who would take punishment, and take it, and take it, but who would never let go of herself all the way, never completely surrender” (Merullo 87). As a reader, I both relished and resented her authentic responses to her surroundings. At times she was open with her emotions, clear and contemplative. Other times I struggled yet understood her willingness to stand silent. This ebb and flow made her even more real.

Merullo found balance between maintaining a plot that lasts over years while also intertwining a thread of suspense. I began the book expecting one storyline and was forced to revise my predictions with the turn of every page. In the end, Merullo’s vivid writing, unique dialogue, and brilliant character development left an indelible mark.

Craft Study and a Book Club Addition: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

I needed a book for my next student book club. I knew the book had to deal with war, literally or figuratively, in some way, so when I found Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, I had to crack the pages and give it a try.

I can see why Khaled Hosseini said this:  “Such a rich book. It’s angry, it’s moving, it’s compassionate, it’s dead serious, but it’s also really funny.” (I just finished re-reading A Thousand Splendid Suns as part of my students’ current book club. I trust this author.)

I’ve only read half of Fountain’s book, and I’ve marked almost every page.

Literature lover heaven.

Here’s a review in the NY Times in 2012. You can read how someone else likes this National Book Award Finalist, too.

Honestly, the last time I read something that struck me so emotionally was Yellow Birds, and I rave about it, too.

The story takes place at Dallas Cowboy Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. Bravo Squad is on a national tour “to reinvigorate interest in the war.” Billy Lynn, a specialist in Bravo, experiences moments of “pure love and bitter wisdom” as he meets the owner of the Cowboys, a born-again cheerleader, and various “supersized” players eager for a vicarious taste of war” (back cover).

Maybe I love this book so much because I’ve been there — sat in Cowboy’s Stadium and sort of thought similar things.

“The Goodyear Blimp is making labored passes overhead, bucking like a clipper ship in a storm. The Jumbotron is airing a video tribute to the late, great “Bullet” Bob Hayes, and displayed along the rim of the upper loge are the names and numbers of the Cowboys “Ring of Honor.” Staubach. Meredith. Dorsett. Lilly. This is the undeniable big-time, there is no greater sports event in the world today and Bravo is smack in the frothy middle of it. In two days they will redeploy for Iraq and the remaining eleven months of their extended tour, but for now they are deep within the sheltering womb of all things American — football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus three hundred million well-wishing fellow citizens. Or, as one trembly old guy in Cleveland put it, “Yew ARE America.”

They take the steps two at a time. A few people call out greetings from the stands, and Billy waves but won’t look up. He’s working hard. He’s climbing for his life, in fact, fighting the pull of all that huge hollow empty stadium space, which is trying to suck him backward like an undertow. In the past two weeks he’s found himself unnerved by immensities — water towers, skyscrapers, suspension bridges and the like. Just driving by the Washington Monument made him weak in the knees, the way that structure drew a high-pitched keening from all the soulless sky around it. So Billy keeps his head down and concentrates on moving forward, and once they reach the concourse he feels better” (21).

Not that I am in any way comparing my experience to a soldier’s. I just mean I’ve felt the hollowness of that place, and as I sat there in the leather seats of that stadium, I kept thinking: “Oh, the classroom libraries the money for this place could have filled.” Seriously. It’s huge. And frivolous in an embarrassing kind of way.

Maybe I love Fountain’s book because my four sons are football fans. My oldest son played on a state championship team. Huge deal. If you know Texas football, you know exactly what I mean. For almost two decades my husband I lived high school football — sometimes three games a week. That’s like nine hours on a bleacher.

Maybe I feel a tug into Billy Lynn’s story because two of my sons plan on joining the military. I’ve got about two years before that becomes a reality. (Right now they are serving missions. One in Puerto Rico and one about to leave for Taiwan. Missions then military. Both far from mom.)

I’m trying to show my students how literature can touch us, take us by surprise, raise our awareness, make us feel things we never imagined. That’s what is happening as I read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

That’s what I want to happen to them.

So I keep reading to find books for my student book clubs. Our next one starts after spring break. Students will choose to read one of the following. I am pretty confident everyone will find something that speaks to them (and we can practice analysis skills with pretty much anything.)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

ROOM by Emma Donoghue

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Do you have any suggestions for books that have particularly moved you? I’ll add your suggestions to my TBR mountain.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Craft Study–The Glass Castle

51iqte2Ed-L    At the beginning of The Glass Castle is a brief four-paragraph acknowledgment, the type of side note readers skip over to get to the story. The last line reads, “I can never adequately thank my husband, John Taylor, who persuaded me it was time to tell my story and then pulled it out of me.” The line is sentimental and sweet, but to me, a teacher, it speaks volumes. The idea of unfurling a sordid past like Jeanette Walls’ elevates this book from a simple autobiography to an outright journey, the same journey our students undergo as they explore their own stories.

In turn, every year, I book talk The Glass Castle, a book that sends my students on a roller coaster of emotion. In my upper level Advanced Composition course, I use the first chapter in “Part II: The Desert” as a mentor text since it begins with a brilliant snapshot in time which both startles and intrigues my students:

“I was on fire.

It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. But at that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in the boiling water as the late-morning sunlight filtered in through the trailer’s small kitchenette window” (Walls 9).


The opening line is brilliant: “I was on fire.” It quickly ropes in my students as they are caught by the innocent voice of the next few lines: “It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old…” The interjections of childlike wonder make this passage even more haunting as students go on to learn that Jeannette’s beautiful tutu catches on fire and lands her in the emergency room with third-degree burns.

The chapter, which is six pages long, includes a plethora of craft marks that get students thinking about opening sentences, sensory details, one-sentence paragraphs, and the manipulation of time. The chapter can easily be broken down into shorter snapshot segments, which I have students dissect and analyze within smaller groups. These small discussions culminate in a larger whole class discussion that has students drawing out examples from the text to support their readings and interpretation. The best part though is after reading this mentor text most students are hooked. In turn, The Glass Castle becomes one of the most sought after books in my classroom library.


Reel Reading for Real Readers: The Road

ReelReading2My AP Language students are in the middle of this big book project. I had them choose an award winning book from the Pulitzer or the Man-Book Prize lists. They are reading and discussing these books in small groups. Then they will create an AP exam using passages from their books–we are working on thinking like test writers.  I told them when they were selecting titles that if the book had been made into a movie they had to include a film study into their project and teach class for a day.

One group chose to read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I look forward to their analysis of this movie.

Reel Reading: The Emperor of all Maladies

ReelReading2I read the first part of the prologue to my classes and asked them to respond in their writer’s notebooks. We’r writing the introductions to our feature articles. I hoped that students would understand that the most engaging articles have elements of story. The story of Carla at the beginning of The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddartha Mukhergee grabs with an emotional pull. Many students wrote poignant descriptive responses. I love it when that happens.

A documentary with the same title as the book is in the works. It’s coming to PBS in the spring of 2015. Check out the website and the great trailer here:  CANCER: The Emperor of ALL Maladies.

Reel Reading for Real Readers: The Black Count

ReelReading2My personal reading goal for 2014 is to read more award winning books. The first for the year is The Black Count  by Tom Reiss; it’s the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer for biography.

I cannot even tell you why I was drawn to this book, other than while wandering the aisles and staring at the stacks of books at Costco, I saw the gold prize emblem on the cover. My mother had just died, and I’d rushed off to Utah to plan and participate at her funeral. I needed a book to read or I’d go mad.

I remembered reading The Three Musketeers as a young teen and falling head-over-heels for all four of Dumas’ dashing men. I’d later read The Count of Monte Cristo, which I loved, and once I read the cover of The Black Count, I knew I could escape into the story of Dumas’ dashing and daring father.

Honestly, I do not know if I can get any students interested in reading this book. I doubt many have much interest in French history, although several probably know Dumas’ famous stories. I want to try though. The writing is not just informative, but at times it is moving. Reiss helps us feel the love that the novelist Dumas has for his long-forgotten (but never by him) father.

I only found one book trailer, and it was kind of weak. I’d rather introduce this insightful book to my students through the author’s own words.

Author’s essay from Amazon:

I’ve always loved exploring history. It’s like an uncharted hemisphere, and when you look at it closely, it has a tendency to change everything about your own time. I’m also drawn to outsiders, people who have swum against the tide. I often feel like a kind of detective hired to go find people who have been lost to history, and discover why they were lost. Whodunnit?

In this case, I found solid evidence that, of all people, Napoleon did it: he buried the memory of this great man – Gen. Alexandre Dumas, the son of a black slave who led more than 50,000 men at the height of the French Revolution and then stood up to the megalomaniacal Corsican in the deserts of Egypt. (The “famous” Alexandre Dumas is the general’s son – the author of The Three Musketeers.) Letters and eyewitness accounts show that Napoleon came to hate Dumas not only for his stubborn defense of principle but for his swagger and stature – over six feet tall and handsome as a matinee idol – and for the fact that he was a black man idolized by the white French army. (I found that Napoleon’s destruction of Dumas coincided with his destruction of one of the greatest accomplishments of the French Revolution – racial equality – a legacy he also did his best to bury.)

I first came across Gen. Dumas’s life in the memoir of his son Alexandre, the novelist. And what a life! Alex Dumas, as he preferred to be known, was born in Saint Domingue, later Haiti, the son of a black slave and a good-for-nothing French aristocrat who came to the islands to make a quick killing and instead barely survived. In fact, to get back to France in order to claim an inheritance, he actually “pawned” his black son into slavery, but then he bought him out, brought him to Paris, and enrolled him in the royal fencing academy, and then the story begins to get interesting.

What really stuck with me from reading the memoir was the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. I could never forget the novelist describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father’s gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Little Alexandre replied: “I’m going to heaven to kill God – for killing daddy.” When he grew up, he took a greater sort of revenge, infusing his father’s life and spirit into fictional characters like Edmond Dantes and D’Artagnan, with shades of Porthos, too. But the image of the angry child stuck with me and drove me onward to discover every scrap of evidence I could about his forgotten father.

And recovering the life of the real man behind these stories was the ultimate historical prospecting journey for me: I learned about Maltese knights and Mameluke warriors, the tricks of 18th-century spycraft and glacier warfare, torchlight duels in the trenches and portable guillotines on the front; I got to know about how Commedia del Arte influenced Voodoo and how a Jacobin sultan influenced the Star-Spangled Banner, about chocolate cures for poisoning and the still brisk trade in Napoleonic hair clippings. I discovered the amazing forgotten civil rights movement of the 18th century – and its unraveling …

This review here The Sentinel Alexandre Dumas:  The Black Count lends a powerful voice to the impact of this biography. It also includes some audio clips from the book, which I will share with my students.

That’s another of my reading goals:  more audio books. I think busy students need to know the value of listening as reading, too.



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