Student Picks: Wasserman, Curtis


K. A. Hamilton-- Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire is the story of teenagers struggling to reclaim their identities from the grips of small town life. The central character is at once a daughter, an outcast, and a rebel, and impossible to refer to by name without taking sides. She is “Hannah,” “Dex,” or “Hannah Dexter,” depending on who you ask, and the prime battleground on which Kurt Cobain-worshipping Lacey and popular Everygirl Nikki wage their intimate culture war.

To read Girls on Fire is to experience the cautionary tale firsthand. Wasserman presents raw teenage realities a la carte, free of the morality-story garnish so commonly heard on the news. With startlingly clear technique, she humanizes figures we’re so often warned not to empathize with. By keeping close, readers are allowed to let go of the “why” just long enough to remember the “why not,” and maybe even recall “how good it felt to burn.”


Jemiscoe Chambers-Black-- We’ve all heard that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” and my literary mind feels we should turn to literature for this history. There is no better book for that than The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

It follows the Watsons, who make their way from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama because their son has been getting into trouble, and his parents think staying with his grandmother may be the change he needs. But 1963 is a turbulent time in the South, and Curtis weaves fiction with the historical event of the September 15th, 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The event in this book is almost 55 years old, but racial tension still exists, and places that should feel sacred or safe, are instead places where children are met with fear, hate, and violence.

If you’re a parent, read this with your children. If you’re a teacher, share this with your students. If you’re neither, but a human, read it anyway. Start the conversation that Curtis sparked: one that asks how we can change and make sure that violence is not so easily accessible, especially when our children are the target.

Faculty Picks: Thien, Shepard, Bellow


Robin Wasserman-- I've spent my summer lurking in Parisian cafes, drinking infuriatingly tiny cups of so-called coffee and trying not to feel like too much of a cliche when I pull out my journal and surreptitiously scrawl down some profound thought. (Said profundity slightly limited by the aforementioned caffeine shortage.) I'm a promiscuous but loyal customer: one cafe for writing, one cafe for critiquing student work, one cafe for hot chocolate, and one cafe, in the shadow of my favorite Parisian church (and, conveniently, favorite Parisian crepe stand), for reading. The last one is obviously the best one, but it's upped the stakes a bit: A book has to be pretty great to distract me from the wafting scent of nutella. Fortunately, I had Madeline Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, one of the most absorbing and ambitious novels I've read this year. A story within a story within a story about the Cultural Revolution and the struggle of art and artists to survive in the face of oppression, Thien's book is brutally beautiful and a reminder that making art is both a privilege and a necessity.


Justin Taylor-- This September Tin House will publish Jim Shepard’s first collection of nonfiction, The Tunnel at the End of the Light: Essays on Movies and Politics. Shepard’s cinephilia has been well-represented in his fiction (cf. his stories “Gojira, King of the Monsters”, “Boys Town”, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, his novel Nosferatu) so it’s a treat to read his wonkish and acerbic takes on the classics: “Badlands, and the ‘Innocence’ of American Innocence”, “Fool me Twice, Shame on Me: Saving Private Ryan and the Politics of Deception.” The essays first appeared in The Believer in the early and mid aughts, so the “politics” of the subhead largely concern the depravities of the second Bush administration, which periodizes the book but hardly dates it. Indeed, Shepard’s meditations on “the power and resilience of the lies we tell ourselves as a collective” have grown—if anything—even more dispiritingly prescient than they were a decade ago. I was going to say this is all less grim than it sounds, but it isn’t. What it is is smart, earnest, and unsparing. 

For nonfiction students in particular, these essays are a solid model for a certain kind of personal-critical essay that puts engagement with a published work of art at its center but is not a "review" of the work in question. And for all Mountainview students, the essays have much to teach in terms of how to approach your close reading assignments and craft papers. Though the essays are polemical and make no pretense of "objectivity" (why would they? how could they? they're framed as persuasive arguments) Shepard is a rigorous of reader of texts--which in this case happen to be films and not books, but the point is the same. He is meticulous in his inspection of the material, noting craft elements like camera angles and minutes of screen time for a given character the way you might keep track of point of view shifts or the page-lengths of a given scene. Once he understands what something is, it's only natural to ask how it got that way, and to explore whether--and why--it succeeds or fails on the terms it has set for itself. 


Benjamin Nugent-- For years I’ve considered myself a short-story writer, and I have just this month discovered Saul Bellow’s short stories. This is like considering yourself a drummer, and then, after years on the road, finally getting around to checking out Led Zeppelin. Track after track, you go, “Wait, what?” First you are filled with joy. Then you are filled with shame.

Here’s the businessman protagonist of Bellow’s “A Silver Dish,” published in The New Yorker in 1978:

"Woody, now sixty, fleshy and big, like a figure for the victory of American materialism, sunk in his lounge chair, the leather of its armrests softer to his fingertips than a woman’s skin, was puzzled and, in his depths, disturbed by certain blots within him, blots of light in his brain, a blot combining pain and amusement in his breast (how did that get there?) Intense thought puckered the skin between his eyes with a strain bordering on headache."

We’re outside the guy, looking at him, and we’re also inside him, feeling what it’s like to be him, at more or less the same time. As a bonus, we’re considering his symbolic significance. (Bellow is interested in the fact that Woody looks “like a figure for the victory of American materialism” but he’s also determined to make Woody more than a figure, to make him flesh.) When you’re writing short, it helps to be able to dig into a character quickly, the way Led Zeppelin digs into a rhythm. Bellow does it fast.