Writing with At-Risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method (Gold)

This summer, I am teaching a creative writing course at a local juvenile justice center. It’s my effort at tikkun olam. It’s what I can offer, and there are many who say it can help those teens who are incarcerated. I did some research and found information about the Pongo method and was intrigued. It’s a good book. Though I’ve never understood the designation “at-risk,” (isn’t everyone at-risk, especially teens?), I think the book itself is useful. Gold provides a compelling combination of theory and practice that gives me the confidence to move forward  with more specific lesson plans. There’s guidance here about how to listen, take dictation, structure your session, deal with sensitive topics, etc.. This book, together with the website (http://www.pongoteenwriting.org/) will serve me during the summer and the school year.


An Equal Music (Seth)

A gentle and stunning book about Michael, a member of a string quartet, who finds himself with the unlikely opportunity to try to return to a crossroads in his life and take another path. He proceeds in fits and starts, with some successes and some disasters, and while he is not completely successful, he does find some measure of redemption in the end.

I am far from an expert in classical music, so I can’t attest to the authenticity of those sections, but I found them successful and moving. The sections set in Venice were especially beautiful.

The only bit of dissonance I felt about the book was an effort to locate it in time. The emphasis on classical music sets a very particular tone and when modern things would intrude, it seemed jarring, perhaps deliberately so.

I want to believe that Seth is right, that we can recover from our mistakes, if not completely, then with at least some modicum of grace.

The Whites (Price, writing as Brandt)

I love Richard Price’s work. I know he gets a lot of credit for his dialogue – and he should – but his ability to sketch out a world in just a few apparently easy and deft strokes – is just remarkable. A few words, and you are just right there. You are ready to be out there, doing the night shift, patrolling New York’s streets and your own life, between the hours of midnight and 8am.

I was bothered by Price’s decision to delay a key reveal until very late in the book, but upon reflection, I don’t see any other way he could have done it. We all have our whites (Moby Dick allusion); it’s just that for some of us, even naming it is the accomplishment.

One of the final speeches, made not by the main character, but by one of his friends, moved me to tears.

That’s the thing with Price; it’s all just so real.

The Lost Hero (Riordan, adapted by Venditti, art by Powell, color by Collar)

We’re deep in Rick Riordan land here at the house, and my son wanted me to read this one, one of the first I brought into the house. It was an effort to bridge the gap between his comic book stage and novels. And it worked. He’s absolutely hooked into Riordan’s stuff and has pretty much finished it. We’re working on finding him alternatives until Riordan’s new series comes out in September.

In any event, our son, 8, warned me that now that he’s read some of the novels that he didn’t think much of this graphic novel adaptation anymore. You know what? He’s right. Venditti’s adaptation moves between quips and lengthy, awkward and sudden exposition. I found Powell’s art overwrought. The books are better. Mythological tales seem a natural fit for graphic novels. This one just doesn’t work.

The Wild Iris (Gluck)

It would be easy to dismiss this collection, a Pulitzer Prize winner, as just another nature collection, but that would, I think, be to miss the point. Sure enough, there are flowers, but the persona, perhaps Gluck, is angry. Her tone with her listener (God?) is aggressive. Consider –

What is my heart to you

that you must break it over and over

like a plantsman testing

his new species? Practice

on something else.

Note the imperative – practice. And the slightly dismissive tone inherent in that word choice.

Gluck has boundaries on her mind – between time, especially seasons, and between humans and their version of God.

As for why there are 9 poems called “Vespers,” no idea!

Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School (Gallagher)

This is less a book to read and more of a resource book. Gallagher offers his rationale for her 9 reading reasons (1. Reading is rewarding. 2. Reading builds a mature vocabulary. etc.) and then provides comprehensive and concrete mini-lessons to use with students in order to try to help them find their reason to read. There is nothing to argue with here. It’s a book I’ll keep on the shelf. I’ll try pretty much anything to get students to read. So I look forward to trying some of Gallagher’s ideas with my students.


Ruby (Bond)

Sometimes, I will choose a book because of the comments made about it by an author I admire. So when I saw that Edwidge Danticat had blurbed Cynthia Bond’s first book, I added it to my list. Here’s what’s easy to say. Bond is a remarkable writer. You can pretty much open the book at random and find a passage that will carry you away, by virtue of its syntax and momentum, its diction and insight, for pages at a time.

But in addition to the beauty of the language, there is also the brutality of the content. Incidents and history wrap around each other and explain why these damaged people continue to damage each other. For me, the sexual violence was hard to read.

Ruby returns to Liberty (perhaps a better title for the book?). She has returned to her past to both escape and return. And she disrupts a community that’s found a kind of awful harmony with itself. Ephram Jennings tries to change the course of things, but the prospect of change, especially in such a small town with its own troubled history, does not sit well with anyone, including and especially his sister Celia, whom he calls Mama.

There’s magic here, too, a disturbed cousin to the prevailing and often superficial religious devotion. But magic here seems like the wrong word to describe what goes on here. The woods in Liberty have seen too much, both magical and otherwise.

Though I didn’t think the story was resonating with me, I must’ve connected at least a bit as I was dismayed and then grateful when Bond presented Ruby’s first redemption as insufficient.

According to Oprah, it’s the first of a trilogy (http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Oprahs-Favorite-Passages-from-Ruby).