Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 25

1. We love Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO (show is now on hiatus until February). It's comedy, yes, but also deals with political and social issues that the major news networks ignore, for they are too busy with stories about Ebola and other matters whose principal virtue is that they frighten viewers. (Here's a link to a YouTube video of his piece on lotteries.)

2. Earlier this week, I wrote about my memories of one of my mentors, George Hillocks, who died this week. I said in that post that I'd given away the book he'd co-authored, The Dynamics of English Instruction, Grades 7-12. Guess what? It turned up in one of the piles we're trying to deal with (new shelves, donations, sales).
My Copy!

As I read through it now, I find all kinds of insights that I probably indicated were my own when I was teaching. Yes, the text is a bit dated now (1971!), but it remains the single most thoughtful and comprehensive text I know on teaching English. I'm grateful that I got to tell that to George Hillocks only a few years ago.

3. An Exciting Friday Night: Still not completely recovered from the Bug That Bit Me on My Birthday, I've been unwilling/unable to go outdoors much. I usually make it to Open Door Coffee Co. in the morning (a couple of blocks from our house--a nice walk, except for Saturday, when Black Ice reminded me at every step of my mortality). But that's been it since last Wednesday when we got back from Pottsville, PA, on our mission to deliver our John O'Hara collection to the Schuylkill County Historical Society. But Friday night we ventured out--though we did not leave the car (I kept my slippers on--an Old Man move for sure). We went to the Starbucks drive-thru in Stow-Kent, where, during our last visit, they had presented me not with the venti decaf Americano I'd ordered but with a pumpkin spice latte, an error I did not discover until my first sip--about halfway home; we turned around, got a replacement and a we-screwed-up card from Starbucks that saved us $4 on our order on Friday night. After we got home, I lit the gas logs in the living room for the first time this year, curled up and read and wrote for an hour before heading upstairs for a Wallander episode. (Are you still awake? I'm not sure I am, and I'm writing this!)

4. Finally, I want to recommend Brock Clarke's latest novel, The Happiest People in the World (a title that may win the Irony Award this year!). I first encountered Clarke's work when I read his 2007 dazzler An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, a novel I liked so much I settled in and read all of his previous works:

  • What We Won't Do (short stories), 2002
  • The Ordinary White Boy (novel), 2001
  • Carrying the Torch (short stories), 2005
I reviewed Arsonist's for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Sept. 2, 2007) and then his next novel, Exley (2010) on Nov. 7, 2010 (link to that review).

I got to meet Brock after arranging for him to spend a day with our students at Western Reserve Academy in April 2008. At the time he was teaching creative writing at the University of Cincinnati (he's now at Bowdoin), and he drove up on Sunday evening (April 27) and had supper with the English Department. He was a hit with us and, the next day, with the students. He spoke to our Morning Meeting and then visited classes all day and then attended a reception hosted by one of our parents' groups--the Pioneer Women, who had funded his visit.

I see I'm running out of space, and I'll have to talk more about his new book in a post later this week. But I thought you'd like to read the introduction I delivered when he spoke to Morning Meeting that day in 2008, so here 'tis ...

Last spring I was paging through a recent issue of Kirkus Reviews, looking for a forthcoming book I might like to review for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  My usual pattern when I do this is to look for writers I’ve heard of—writers I like.  I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews and know that good writers usually—though certainly not always—write good books.  I think of Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees and Jack London’s Michael, Brother of Jerry as two of the worst books I’ve ever read, both by very good writers.
            Anyway, last spring, paging through Kirkus, I came across a novel with a strange title by a writer I’d never heard of.  An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke.  I skimmed the very positive Kirkus review (just skimmed—didn’t want to influence my own thinking too much!) and decided: This is the book for me!  Not only did the story sound engaging—a high-school boy accidentally burning down the home of Emily Dickinson (in the literary world, a heinous act comparable to, say, converting this very chapel into a Chipotle—though Mr. Gough, I know would love THAT)—but the story involves arsonous assaults on a number of other New England literary landmarks, including the homes of Mark Twain and Robert Frost.  Writers I teach!  Writers whose homes I’ve visited!  Writers whose graves I’ve knelt beside and wept!  (Yes, I’m one of those.)
            The Plain Dealer was willing to assign me the book, but before it arrived, I ordered and read Brock Clarke’s previous three books—another novel (The Ordinary White Boy) and two collections of short stories (Carrying the Torch and What We Won’t Do)—and was greatly impressed with his range, his sense of humor, his ability to coax from ordinary experiences some most uncomfortable truths about our lives.  I laughed when I read Brock Clarke, and when I read that story “Starving,” a story a number of you have also read, I cried (yes, I’m also one of those).
            And then the galley of Arsonist’s arrived; I read it late last June; I loved it.  I wrote the review, sent it to the PD, and they ran it on September 2, right about the time the book was released—and I soon discovered that I was just one reviewer among many who loved the book.  The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post—these and many other publications ran rave reviews of the sort you rarely see these days when it’s more fashionable to trash than celebrate a book.
            I knew, too, that I wanted my students to read it—near the end of the year when they would be more familiar with many of the allusions Brock Clarke makes in the novel—allusions to The Scarlet Letter to Emerson to Frost to Twain to so many other American literary figures—and to one very special non-American, a non-muggle, in fact: Harry Potter.
            And I knew that I wanted to have Brock Clarke visit WRA.  I found him on the website of the University of Cincinnati, where he’s taught writing and literature for seven years (after other teaching experiences at Clemson and the University of Rochester, where he earned his Ph.D.), and on the Cincinnati site I learned, too, of his many previous literary awards (Pushcart Prizes among them), his publications in some of the most prestigious literary journals in the country (Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, Southern Review, Georgia Review).
            I e-mailed him to see if he does this sort of thing—visiting high schools, meeting with students.  He responded quickly: Yes, he does this sort of thing, and he would love to come here.  And my next move was to approach the Pioneer Women, who have for so long supported so many different activities around the school—including financing the visits of and holding receptions for several other prominent writers, among them Tobias Wolff, Matthew Pearl,  and Sharon Olds.  The Pioneer Women were eager; they were generous; they are the principal reason that we have with us today a young writer whose Arsonist’s Guide has been swirling our American literary waters, a young writer whose works—past and future—will, I am confident, one day assure his place among those very folks whose homes are torched in this funny and wonderful—but also very wrenching—novel.
            Please welcome to this school (the school where the grandfather of Emily Dickinson once worked) and to this podium (the podium where Ralph Waldo Emerson himself once spoke) … writer Brock Clarke.

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