Primary school teachers share their favourite books for children

Book Reviews, Reading, Teaching

Some kids are natural born readers. Many others develop a love for books because of the time that their parents spend reading with them. For others it starts with a single book that sparks just enough of a reaction to get them to read one more book, and then another, and so on.

As a teacher, to know that you’ve inspired a love of reading in a child is a wonderful thing for so many reasons… not least the fact that a child who reads will come to my classroom with a more expansive take on the world and an exponentially greater vocabulary.

Review: The Small Backs of Children, by Lidia Yuknavitch

Book Review: The Small Backs of Children, by Lidia Yuknavitch

All, Book Reviews, Books, Reading

Okay. Before I begin, let me just say something: this is not going to be your typical sort of traditional book review. It’s not going to be like most other reviews, in which you get a précis of the book’s plot, and a bunch of reasons why the reader liked or disliked it. I mean, I guess I’ll do all that, out of courtesy for other, potential readers or whatever, but really this is less a review of the book and more an expression of love and gratitude to its author, Lidia Yuknavitch.

Penguin Modern Classics – Paul Bowles

All, Book Reviews, Reading

One of my favourite things at the moment is the Penguin Modern Classics series. Little books with a silvery-grey cover, each containing two or three short stories by one of the twentieth century’s most noted authors—authors who sought to push boundaries, be they social, sexual or linguistic. It includes works by luminaries such as Kafka, Joseph Conrad and Dorothy Parker, as well as lesser known names like Ryunosuke Akutagawa and M.R. James.

The Purple Crisp

All, Creativity, Reading, Teaching, Words, Writing

Greetings…

It has been a while, eh? Yeah, well, I been busy. Weddings, marathons, general elections (all as an attendee and/or viewer, rather than a participant, I should add).

Mostly, though, I’ve been learning about gutter opera, with D. Foy. The whole experience has been fantastic, a lot of fun, and hugely, incredibly inspiring—and so the next few blogs I post will be either posts I wrote for that class, or pieces inspired by the assignments I was given. I hope you like them, and perhaps feel inspired to take D.’s class yourself.

Anyway, there are several things D. has been trying to get us to do during the course of this class. One was to compile a commonplace book, in which you store or make a record of all of your influences. (And by all of your influences, he means all of your influences. Doesn’t matter how random, weird, or seemingly irrelevant.) Another thing he encourages you to do is pay attention to the language around us. Again, by this, he means all of it. Everywhere…

Look around your immediate surroundings and note the myriad types of language you see (e.g., online, print magazines, books, advertisements, mailers, street directions, billboards, airline tickets, bus passes/transfers, take-out menus, and so forth, and so on). Do this often as you go through your day…

Sounds simple, right? It is, but try it and you might be amazed at the creative avenues it opens up.

Take for example, the other day, when I bought a packet of crisps [or “potato chips” for my American readers] and took them to the school where I teach, to eat at snack time. Before opening the packet, I read all the text—and there was a lot of it. Sheesh. Crisps aren’t just crisps anymore. Oh no. These had “BEST OF BRITISH POTATOES WITH ANGLESEY SEA SALT HAND COOKED CRISPS” written across the front of the packet, and then, underneath, “BRITISH POTATOES grown in HEREFORDSHIRE and specially selected for their quality. Our potatoes are thinly sliced with their skins on, HAND COOKED in small batches, and tumbled with sea salt from ANGLESEY to give a delicious and crispy snack.” (All upper casing and italics the manufacturers’ own).

Wow. Tumbled. I don’t think I’ve ever had crisps that have been “tumbled” in sea salt before.

And if I didn’t before, I really wanted to eat those crisps.

Then I opened the packet, and the first thing I saw was… yep. You guessed it. A purple crisp. And it totally threw me. In fact, the crisps were all different colours—red, purple, yellow. Que raro, I thought, but then almost immediately I had an idea for a story-prompt for the boys in my writing group.

The Purple Crisp.

Yes!

Imagine you found a purple crisp in your bag. What would you do? Would you eat it? What might happen if you did? Etc., etc., and so on.

Anyway, I put it to them; they loved it, and off they went. Then a weird thing happened. While the boys were busy writing, I looked at the packet again and noticed that under all the blurb was an image of the Anglesey Sea, serene and blue under a cloud-streaked sky. I must have seen it before, but nothing registered. It was weird, because Anglesey was where I went last November, with a group of mates to commemorate my friend, Warren, who’d died the year before… And it was weird, because I suddenly started thinking about him, and all the stories I wanted to tell. Warren. AKA: Norm. A, er, how shall I say? Bit of a rogue. Yeah. And then some! Oh, boy. The stories I could tell you about Norm… Point is, just like that, there he was, in my thoughts. And I wanted to write about him.

Problem was, I was in the middle of a class. Couldn’t just pick up my pen and start writing about that time he got arrested for shoplifting sausages and gave Stuart Brown’s name and address instead of his own, now, could I? So, I thought, what I’ll do is keep the crisp packet, put it in my commonplace book, and write about Norm later… which is exactly what I did.

Book Review: Disintegration, by Richard Thomas

All, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Horror, Reading, Words, Writing

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become rather used to seeing Richard Thomas’s name appear in my news feed. It seems hardly a week goes by without one of his stories finding a home—not surprising, really, given that he’s one of the most prolific and hard-hitting writers out there. Operating primarily within the neo-noir genre, Thomas has put out, to date, over a hundred pieces of fiction, including a novel, Transubstantiate, and two short story collections, Herniated Roots and Staring Into The Abyss. He’s also an extremely skilled editor, a gifted and generous mentor, and as highly respected for the advice he shares in his columns about writing as he is for his own fiction.

Book Review: The Art of Character, by David Corbett

All, Books, Creativity, Editing, Reading, Words, Writing

There’s a chapter in Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Stranger Than Fiction, in which the author explains how, every year, he finds himself having to re-buy a copy of each of Amy Hempel’s works, having given them all away to friends or fellow writers. In recent years, I’ve found myself doing the same thing with one of Palahniuk’s own books (Choke) along with Mark Poirier’s Modern Ranch Living and all of Junot Díaz’s novels. I now find myself doing the same thing with David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV, because not only is this book an invaluable tool for all writers of fiction, it’s also an endlessly fascinating read, regardless of any literary aspirations you may be harbouring.

That said, The Art of Character is, primarily, a guide to the craft, and to this end, Corbett kicks things off with a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon: “A writer should create living people; people not characters.” Easier said than done, right? Fortunately, you’re in good hands. Very good hands indeed. With several novels already under his belt, and a New York Times Notable Author award, it’s fairly safe to say that Corbett knows his shit. Allow him, then, to lead you straight into Part One, titled Conceiving the Character, which focuses on the “examined life” and the idea that, in order to make our characters real—to create those “living people” to whom Hemingway referred—we must look at them closely and determine precisely what they want, what they fear, what they hate, what secrets they hide, and so on. In order to answer these questions, Corbett argues, we must know these things about ourselves… or at least be prepared to find out.

There are several key themes that Corbett revisits throughout The Art of Character. However, one question concerns him above all others. “Who am I?” he asks—or rather, he asks you to ask this of your work, throughout its evolution. A daunting task, certainly, but Corbett guides the reader through this process in a detailed yet clear and personal manner. “Take it in bits,” he advises at the beginning of chapter thirteen, ‘The Tempest Within: The Character’s Psychological Nature’, the longest of the book’s twenty-five chapters. “There’s a lot to consider.”

He’s not kidding. However, as I mentioned, the essence of this book’s appeal lies largely in the fact that it’s so damn readable. As wise and experienced as Corbett clearly is, at no point does he come across as aloof. Yes, his knowledge is vast, and his style forthright, but there is an unmistakeable generosity of spirit in the way he delivers his words. He also draws from a broad selection of key works in order to illustrate his points, and in many instances he goes into great detail in his breakdown of these works. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad via Death of a Salesman and Citizen Vince, these examples—aside from confirming both the central importance of character in all the great works, irrespective of medium or genre, and the universality of the principles that underpin the creation of great characters—provide hooks on which readers of all tastes can hang their hats.

There are few bases Corbett doesn’t cover, but it’s in the Epilogue—subtitled The Examined Life Redux: Our Characters, Our Selves—that he proffers the most fascinating food for thought. Drawing on the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, he revisits the idea of “lack” as a driving force for creating characters. To be an artist, Corbett argues, one must cast aside “the comforting notion of I Know Who I Am”. Be daring, he urges… but not at the expense of alienating those among whom we must live, on whom we depend, and whom we wish to impress. This, for me—and the conflict to which it gives rise—is at the heart of what Corbett refers to as “the writer’s journey”, and why I’ve already given away two copies of this excellent resource.

Matt Pucci

The Thrill of Creative Effort

All, Barcelona, Creativity, Reading, Words, Writing

Tourist season in Barcelona brings with it an abundance of slogan-bearing t-shirts at which to stare as you stroll down La Rambla. The majority of these messages are banal at best, but you’ll always see a few that are truly baffling for their complete lack of logic. I’m not just talking about the badly translated, or grammatically incorrect; sometimes it’s the incongruity between the statement slapped across the wearer’s chest and the age, appearance or attitude of the wearer. Remember the kid on the cover of Fatboy Slim’s album? Mind you, I prefer the ones worn without that knowing irony. The other day, for example, I passed a sweet old lady of around 80 years of age. She was rocking an over-sized, lemon-yellow number telling me: “You were born an original, don’t die a copy.” It made me smile… unlike the “facefuck” one I saw a teenage boy wearing, which made me want to cry.

Every so often however, I see one that stops me in my tracks, because it carries a catchphrase of genuine inventiveness. Admittedly, it doesn’t happen too often, and no doubt I look like a bit of a crackpot as I stare after the owner of said garment, but I always try to make a mental note these little nuggets of inspiration. The last one that made me do a double-take like this was a Japanese kid in a white t-shirt with black lettering that read “The joy of achievement” across the top, and “The thrill of creative effort” across the bottom. I thought it was cool, not because achievement does give joy, and creative effort is thrilling, but because the former is almost always preceded by the latter, so it, like, totally made sense…

Right now I’m chest-deep in the thrills of creative effort. Without giving too much away, or jinxing it in any way—not that I’m superstitious like that—I have a project going on at the moment that started off as one thing, but is slowly becoming something else entirely. I think. I don’t know—nor do I care, particularly. All I can be sure of is that I’m doing it and I’m loving it. To quote the German conceptual artist, Wolfgang Laib, “That is always what is exciting about art: being something that is not yet there. That is not graspable, not yet achieved, that has an open end.” (Try convincing H&M to put that on a t-shirt.)

Of course, it doesn’t always come easy—it requires effort, in the same way as any job does, to get up every morning, to open your notebook and handwrite that next scene, that one you’ve not even got set out in your head, let alone found the words with which to lucidly render it on the page—but with the aid of a strong cup of coffee and a smidgen of self-belief, it starts to come. And damn, it’s a good feeling. Thrilling, even. And who knows? Maybe I’m getting closer to the joy to which that t-shirt’s axiom also alluded… but for the time being this’ll do nicely.

A Writer’s Shame

All, Barcelona, Book stores, Books, Bookshops, Reading, Writing

La Central bookshop in the Raval district of Barcelona is fast becoming my hang-out spot of choice. Not only is it air-conditioned and quiet—making it a safe-haven from the brocationers, flashpackers and multigens that descend upon this city in droves during these unbearably sticky summer months—it also houses a wonderfully diverse selection of reading material, which includes a pretty decent English language section. Here you’ll find everyone from Paul Auster to Zadie Smith; Vladimir Nabakov to Chuck Palahniuk; Jane Austen to William H. Gass… whatever your tastes, be they classic, contemporary or cult, this place has something for you.

Before I start sounding too much like a company representative, it’s worth pointing out that, for me, browsing the shelves of a well-stocked bookshop triggers a whole bunch of emotions—and not all of them positive. On the one hand, it’s great; I love it, being surrounded by so many inspirational works of literature, and indulging in fantasies of one day seeing my name up there as well… on the other, I hate it, because I get what I call writer’s shame. That realisation that there is a serious number of key works of literature I still haven’t read. And many of them, I really should have read by now, shouldn’t I? Books that every writer worth his salt has read. When I look up at the numerous titles by the likes of J.G. Ballard, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe, I hear a voice inside my head—and for the record, it’s not my voice, or any one particular person’s, but rather a composite of all my better-read friends and family members—asking that horrible, rhetorical question; “What, you’ve never read [insert title/name of immeasurably important novel/author]? And you call yourself a writer?” My response to this tends to be something along the lines of: “Hey, I’ve been busy. Working… Eating… Reading other books—books you haven’t read and probably should have, so shut up, yeah?” And then I get all pissed off and walk out, deliberately knocking over the display of Paul Coelho novels on my way.

Then I calm down and remind myself that I’ve actually read a shit-load of books, from a whole range of genres, and that they were all important, because I came to read each one of them for a reason, and each one has helped me on my journey as a writer in terms of finding my own ideas, my own style, and my own voice. And yes, there’s a shit-load more to read, and it’s good to stretch yourself, to diversify, but goddammit, there are only so many hours in the day. So, I select just one of those Terribly Important Works of Literature, or one of those books that someone has recommended—or even one that I’ve never even heard of but just like the colour of the dust jacket—and I take it to the counter and pay for it. And then I head back out into the sunshine and promise myself that next time—next time—I’ll buy Empire of the Sun… or As I Lay Dying… or Beloved… or The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test…