Dr’s Prescription: Read this book

Sarah Mazetti, June 9, 2015

Sarah Mazetti, June 9, 2015

From The New Yorker blog: an article about bibliotherapy. Those of us who read a lot already know what books do for our sense of well-being, and not just because they relieve us of day-to-day concerns. The neuroscience suggests that reading fiction builds empathy. This article suggests that reading fiction also helps us work through big issues in our lives.

For instance, the blog post’s author, Ceridwen Dovey, was worried about how she would fare when faced with the death of a loved one. A bibliotherapist suggested a few novels, and Dovey found herself reading Calvino, Narayan and Saramago.

Hidden in the middle of the article: news about a book of prescriptions for young readers, adapted from the version for adults, The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies.

I’m eager to see what the authors recommend for teens dealing with the usual set of issues (I’m not popular, my best friend is dating the person I’m in love with, my parents don’t get me, I wish I was someone else, I have to hide my real self). I’m even more curious about which unexpected issues the authors will uncover.

2015 and a new course

huckpicHere’s the reading list for this term’s course: Huck Finn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Our Town, Dave at Night, Fifteen, The Outsiders, The Bluest Eye, Feathers, American Born Chinese, Donald Duk, kira-kira, and Where Do You Stop?.

Are some of these titles new to you? Well then, keep an eye on this blog to learn more about each of them. Our focus will be on how children and adolescents are portrayed in American fiction, and I hope we can come up with some useful insights.

Happy reading to all!

“Please lie about this book”

Made it to last night’s book launch. Results:

Lizzie Ross

wewereliars e. lockhart,  We Were Liars (2014)

This post’s title is what Lockhart wrote when she signed my copy of We Were Liars at her book launch last night.

I’m usually willing to comply with authors’ requests, but any lie I told would be a tip off to the truth, because you’d know I was lying.

So: two truths and a lie (your task is to spot which is which).

1. At last night’s book launch, Lockhart had TRY written on the back of her right hand, and AGAIN on the back of her left. She was quirky, lively, at times silly, and never uncool. She was happy to sign not just my copy of this book, but also my copy of Disreputable History (on which she added “WOOF” in a speech bubble coming from the basset hound’s mouth). She is funny, but she can also be serious. Her summer reading list includes AS…

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Ella, Sophie, and the active fantasy heroine

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (1997), and Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

Ella_enchanted_(book_cover)These two books work well as source materials for that old English class stand-by, the comparison essay¹. Ella Enchanted can be set against the story of Cinderella, and both can be set against their movie versions. But what I hope teachers will do with this assignment is push their students to go beyond merely listing the similarities and differences between or among whatever works are being compared, to asking their students to explore the reasons for the differences.

UnknownFor instance: the fairy tale Cinderella² gives us a rags-to-riches story, spiced up with some sibling rivalry and a handsome prince. Levine takes the basic premise and inserts a backstory that gives the heroine not just depth and reality, but also agency. When we discussed these differences in class, we noted how flat and passive Cinderella is. The most active she becomes is when she wishes to go to the ball. Ella, however, when given the “gift” of obedience, no longer has the option of choosing to obey, so she shows agency in how she obeys. Levine also puts Ella on a quest (one of the strengths of this book is how Levine so deftly mixes genres). It’s possible to argue that Perrault, writing in the late 17th century, can’t be expected to be a feminist. Fair enough. So when Levine in the late 20th century re-envisions this story from a feminist viewpoint, she creates a tale that surprises with its depth. Even the evil step-sisters have more to them than jealousy and the desire to be rich.

We didn’t have much time to speak of Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, except as part of a larger discussion of Keeling and Sprague’s article, “Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer: Reimagining the Female Fantasy Heroine” (2009). To clarify this dichotomy for ourselves, we started listing characters from novels, and then from movies and TV series, whom we thought were one or the other. Lara Croft and Buffy are definitely dragon-slayers (and I’ll now add Mrs. Emma Peel, from the 1960s series The Avengers). Ella and Sophie are somewhere in between the two (as with any dichotomy, these categories are useful only as opposite ends of a spectrum; few characters are purely one or the other). Lizzie Bennet’s name came up as a candidate for the dragon-sayer side (although her face-off with Darcy’s aunt is more slayer than sayer).

Next up: two novels from non-Anglo cultural perspectives: … And now Miguel, about a family of Mexican immigrant sheep farmers in New Mexico, and I, Juan de Pareja, about Diego Velazquez’s slave. Both are Newbery Medal winners.

¹Will someone please explain to me why English teachers, so quick to stamp out redundancy in students’ writing, can’t see it in the tiresome name of this rhetorical mode, the “compare and contrast” essay.

²Andrew Lang’s excellent analysis of Perrault’s version of this European folktale can be found here, and Bruno Bettelheim provides a fascinating Freudian interpretation in The Uses of Enchantment.

Posted by BR