Friday, February 22, 2013

NW by Zadie Smith

 I just finished reading NW by Zadie Smith and I'm not sure how to describe it.  It is a big book, an important book by one of the freshest voices of a new generation of writers.  I asked for the book for Christmas because reviewers compare its literary style to James Joyce - a comparison that has merit.   But her style is also analogous to video game structure, or rap music, or maybe jazz.  The title refers to the London's north west corner, where central characters Natalie (aka Keisha), Leah, Nathan and Felix grow up together in public housing (British terminology = council estate).  I was drawn into the complicated lives of these characters and found the basic thread pretty easy to follow although the narrative voice changes frequently - as does the pace, the setting, the tone and even the font.  The book is gritty, dismal and urban, and although it is distinctly British, it is filled with universal truth that will allow it to stand the test of time.  I honestly believe it may be Zadie Smith's masterpiece novel.  Coincidently, the line that made me pause near the very end - "This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve." - is a variation of "We accept the love we think we deserve" from The Perks of Being a Wallflower from my previous review.  Again, great literature rings with human truth.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - A Movie Review

This slim book is THE most popular book I ever put in the hands of a high school student in my 30 years of teaching.  After finally getting around to watching the movie adaptation last night with my adult son, who is home on a visit from out of state, and two of his best friends from high school, I realized my thoughts on the importance of this book are long overdue.
I had to dig back to my old analog (notebook) reading journal to find the date when I first connected with this book.  I knew I had discovered it at the University of Pittsburgh bookstore during the summer of 1999 when I was there for a week-long AP teachers workshop.  Stephen Chobsky is from Pittsburgh and the book was on a small shelf labeled Local Authors.  I think the cover caught my eye.  I brought it home, read it in July and wrote in my reading journal that I thought it was ” . . . going to be the Go Ask Alice of a new generation of readers . . .”
When I returned to school that fall, I was finally teaching AP English.  I clearly remember waving the book and singing its praises to my students.  No one had heard of it.  I had to do a lot of cheer leading to get my one copy circulating.  But then a funny phenomena struck!  A dELiA’s store opened in the fairly new shopping mall in our town.  And on a few of the circular clothing racks throughout the store were piles of BOOKS!  Books – in the most popular local shopping magnet  for young girls!  Suddenly, girls were buying copies along with the latest trendy t-shirts and bringing them to school to pass around.  And they were sharing them with BOYS.   The Perks spark was ignited.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel, narrated by Charlie who is a freshman at a Pittsburgh high school in the 1990s.  His mental health is fragile, as he is fixated on the untimely death of his aunt with whom he was very close.  As he begins high school, he is friendless and on the fringe – a wall flower – until he is welcomed into a band of senior misfits which include Sam and her step-brother, Patrick.  The peaks and valleys of their senior year – homecoming, SATs, college acceptance letters, prom and graduation – educate Charlie almost as much as the stabilizing influence of his beloved English teacher, Mr. Anderson, who recognizes Charlie as a kid who can find solace in books.
Perhaps that is the single most potent charm of The Perks of Being a Wallflower for an English teacher.  It is a book that you can hand to almost any student.  I label them lovingly, because  every high school classroom has at least one of every type – honors kid, goth kid, stud athlete, closet gay, band nerd, cheerleader, loner.  Each type would hand it back to you with a comment about how much he could “personally relate” to it. It became a gateway book.  If it is possible that a small but potent reading experience can turn a reader on to the stronger stuff, this book made kids whisper at my desk, “Do you have anything else like this I could read?”
Over the last decade, I listened to countless oral book reports, collected numerous mix-tapes, evaluated PowerPoint presentations and book journals written about this novel, but there is no rubric for the truth.  This book smacks of the reality of high school.  Like Catcher in the Rye, it is a book you want a student to find on his own, and read without a grade attached.  But high school kids don’t grow up surrounded by books anymore.

I am normally incensed when original book covers are replaced by glossy movie star images,  (The Great Gatsby with Leonardo will give me the shakes) but this time, I don't mind.  Probably because Stephen Chobsy, a respected filmmaker, adapted his novel for the screen and directed the film.  The characters are flawlessly brought to life by Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, whose faces grace the new book cover.

The soundtrack of pop songs matches the spirit of the 90s and the Come on Eileen dance number, where Charlie looks on from his wallflower perch is pitch perfect.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show scenes were filmed at The Hollywood Theater in Dorman, Pennsylvania where Chobsky, himself,  saw the movie as a teenager.
The scene in the movie where the perfect song plays on the radio as Charlie's perfect girl appears to fly above the problems of life standing in the bed of a Ford pick-up truck was filmed in inside the Fort Pitt Tunnel.  Chobsky calls this scene a symbolic rebirth - the ultimate symbol of transition.
So, watching the movie last night with three grown kids who bonded in high school and have stayed close for six years since made the movie even better for me. They talked about how awkward high school is for everyone.   It is a marathon run through a dense fog of hormones, relationships and power plays.  The kids who seem best at it are sometimes the least prepared for the challenges of the real world, and the wall flowers are often the ones who turn up at 10 and 15 year reunions and shock everyone with their totally together lives.  The best anyone can hope for in high school is a few true friends who will buoy you up when you are down and fly with you when you are soaring.
My son talked about being a freshman in marching band.   Some senior boys took him under their wings and convinced him to play the tuba his sophomore year  (Ben, Jeff, Tim and Tres - wherever you are - I still thank you.) They were smart, funny, older boys from my AP English class who turned drudgery into fun.  They helped him transition into other new friendships.  Sophomore year he started hanging out with the two guys we watched the movie with.  They buoyed each other up when they were down and still fly around together.  They all read the book at various points of high school.  They each still have the book today.
We decided the movie is The Breakfast Club for a new generation of kids.  I would have watched it again as soon as it ended.  And I admit to having a few tears in my eyes.  The classic quote is as true for adults as it is for teens -
This is my first year as a retired English teacher.  I have read a few books in the last year I would love to wave in the faces of my students.  I miss sharing books with kids. I probably bought a half dozen copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the years since 1999.  I probably loaned them all out and never got them back.  I can't find a single one in the house today and I miss seeing that book on the shelf.  I miss the classroom when I recall that as a teacher, I had the power to be a life-changer.  I got to hand a kid a book.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hump Day giveaway

Today is the day we have been waiting for! Our re-Lit Candles were discover by Stacy at Inkspot Workshop back in January. Stacy grew up in the a Cleveland area, and loved the look and mission behind our candle venture. She sponsors a monthly giveaway on her blog where she pairs two shops and offers a chance to win $50 of free merchandise from each shop.
The contest is open today and runs through midnight on Friday, February 15. Please tell all your friends to enter. I would LOVE to have the winner be someone who is already a friend and supporter of our cause.
Remember, a portion of our proceeds go to support the good work of Ohio City Writers!