June 30, 2015

On My Bookshelf: Four Souls by Louise Erdrich

In Four Souls by Louise Erdrich the main character seeks restitution from and revenge on the lumber baron who has stripped her reservation. But revenge is never simple, and her intentions are complicated by her dangerous compassion for the man who wronged her. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
Plot: The novel has two alternating, but sometimes intersecting plot lines focusing on two characters, Fleur and Nanapush. Nanapush narrates his own tale. He is a leader of his tribe and struggling in his marriage with his wife Margaret. He, like many of his fellow tribesmen, is struggling to hold onto his land. His jealousy also gets him into trouble and he returns to drinking, which gets him into even more trouble. Fleur's tale is narrated by her employer, Polly, who later becomes her friend and her husband's ex-sister-in-law (it's complicated). Polly runs her sister and brother-in-law's home and hires Fleur as a laundress, primarily to take care of the sheets her brother-in-law, John Mauser, sweats through each night. Fleur has come to Mauser's home intentionally; he took her land from her and she plans to kill him as revenge. Things don't quite work out as Fleur plans. She cures Mauser of his strange fits and he falls in love with her. He divorces his wife (Polly's sister), marries Fleur, and together they have one child, a son. When Mauser's money runs out, he and Fleur separate and Fleur returns to reclaim her land, which her son helps to win back in a poker game. The very end of the novel is narrated by Margaret, Nanapush's wife, who shares her feelings about her husband and tries to help Fleur readjust to being a native woman.

Why I liked it: It took me a little while longer to get into Four Souls than some of Louise Erdrich's other novels. I think that is because the parts of the book are told in a distant first person narrator, the focus is on Fleur, but another character is telling about her. Fleur's story is also just sad. Her land has been taken from her, her plot to get revenge doesn't work out as planned, and she becomes enamored with the materialistic white lifestyle. Nanapush's storyline was much more humorous as he does one foolish thing after another out of his love for his wife. His fear of losing his wife to another man causes him to catch his wife in a snare that almost kills her (intended for the man he thinks is wooing his wife). When he cuts a hole in Margaret's brand new linoleum floor trying to catch a fly, he cuts a hole to match in the roof and tries to tell her that a star fell through. One of the best moments in the novel is the poker game where Fleur wins back her land. The scene is filled with both suspense and humor.

Classroom application: The novel parallels many of the themes in The Great Gatsby: materialism, the American Dream, disillusion, etc. and the two would make a great text pairing. In a history course, excerpts of the novel could also be used to explore Native American issues, particularly the taking of their land.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Four Souls for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

June 16, 2015

On My Bookshelf: Swamplandia by Karen Russell

In Swamplandia by Karen Russell the Bigtree family own an alligator park, but after Hiola Bigtree, the mother and star of the alligator show dies, things start to fall apart. Ava, the youngest Bigtree, is determined to save the park with a red skinned baby alligator and by replacing her mother in the show. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
Plot: The Bigtree family own an alligator park. Think those crazy road side attractions you never stop to see meets the movie Wild Hearts Can't be Broken. After Hiola Bigtree, the mother and star of the alligator show dies, things start to fall apart. Grandpa Hiola bites a tourist and is put in a nursing home. Kiwi, the brother and oldest sibling, leaves the island for the mainland to earn money to save the park and get an education. He finds employment at the World of Darkness, an amusement park on the mainland. Chief, the father also leaves for the mainland, for a "business" trip. Ossie, the older sister, becomes obsessed with the supernatural and begins dating ghosts. Ava, the youngest sister, also wants to save the park with a red skinned baby alligator and by replacing her mother in the show. After Ossie runs off with her ghost "fiancĂ©" Ava is left alone with the Bird Man, the man hired by her father to kill off the vultures on their island. I won't ruin the ending for you.

Why I liked it: The park and the family's relationships with the alligators in it were charming. I am a sucker for all things animal. I think it started with being read Charlotte's Web as a child by my mother. On the mainland, Kiwi's World of Darkness was full of ironic humor, while back on the island, Ossie and Ava's days were filled with legends of the Florida swamp, reminiscent of the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.

What I wasn't so crazy about was how the book ended; I just felt like some of the plot elements were unresolved. I also thought the author was trying to take on too much. You can't do comedy, tragedy, the supernatural, myths/legends, etc. all in one story (unless maybe you are Shakespeare).

Classroom application: The novel, or excerpts of it, could be used as a mentor text  for writing about the supernatural or myths/legends in a modern day setting. I also think the novel is an interesting exercise in how the dynamics between characters changes when one is removed (first the mother Hiola, then the brother Kiwi, then the father Chief, then the sister Ossie). Students could examine a well-known story or one of their own to see how events would change with one of the main characters removed. Finally, the text is great for analysis of flat, round, static, dynamic, and stock characters because there are so many different and interesting characters throughout the book.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Swamplandia for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

June 9, 2015

On My Bookshelf: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian focuses on the Armenian genocide that takes place during World War I. An American young woman volunteering to help refugees falls in love with an Armenian young man who has lost his family. The cultural divide and the tragedy around them will test the strength of their relationship. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
The basic plot: The novel flashes between the past and present. In the past, before the US joins World War I, Elizabeth and her father travel to Syria to aid the Armenians, who are being persecuted by the Turks. During her stay in Aleppo in the American Embassy, Elizabeth tends to the wounded, sickly, and weary after their march across the desert. She falls in love with Armen, a young Armenian who has lost his wife and young child in the genocide. In the present, Laura, Elizabeth's granddaughter is a novelist recounting her family history as you learns more about it and discovers some dark secrets.

Why I liked it: Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and this novel doesn't disappoint. There is a much greater focus on World War Two in historical fiction novels, so this focus on WWI and the Armenian genocide was a nice to see light shed on another era. There is also the terrible irony of the Germans who are horrified by the Turks' treatment on the Armenians.

Elizabeth, the main character, is a very relatable character. As a young woman, she is growing into herself: sometimes childish, but at other times giving and courageous. I can't imagine seeing and doing all that she does at her age in that time period.

Classroom application: This novel would be a great fiction text to use when teaching about US isolation, World War I, and/or genocide. Compared to the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide is a much lesser known event, but with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide recently commemorated on April 24, 2015, the event has gained more attention. The events in the novel could be compared to the more recent issues of genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Darfur.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of The Sandcastle Girls for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

June 5, 2015

The Literary Maven Looks Ahead to Next School Year


You've made it! Another one bites the dust! Your school year has ended, or if you are like me, you are in the last week or so and things are winding down. Despite this year coming to a close, you are a teacher and teachers are planners, and you are already looking ahead to next year. How to teach differently, how to do things more efficiently, how to work smarter not harder.

Unless your district has gone paperless, one thing we all struggle with is the paperwork, the daily handouts, the assignments for absent students, the extra copies. My tip for you...


...create a "while you were out binder." 

You will need a large binder, two or three inches, and plenty of page protectors. Make plenty of copies of this free "while you were out" sheet. Each day that you give out handouts, fill out the sheet and place extra copies of handouts behind it. 


You can check off the different activities completed in class and fill in notes about the assignments or any important announcements. This would be a great job to assign a student with great attendance (work smarter not harder!) I place the most recent items at the front of the binder so students have less pages to flip through to find what they missed. 

Having this binder puts the responsibility on the absent student to get the information and materials he/she missed. When a student asks you, "What did I miss yesterday?" you can just point to the binder. No discussion needed, no class time wasted. This binder is also extremely useful for that point at the end of the marking period when that student who has slacked off all marking period suddenly wants to get caught up with all his/her work. Everything is in order and missing assignments can easily be given again.

If you are looking to start the year, each week, and each day right, check out this must-have product...



Because so many words in the English language include Latin or Greek roots, focusing on roots rather than just vocabulary terms at random will increase your students' vocabulary exponentially. Each week, before introducing one root and five connected vocabulary terms, have students make predictions about the meaning of the new terms based on context clues.


Weekly PowerPoints provide student friendly definitions as well as warm-ups/bell ringers, word practice, and exit tickets/closings for each day of the week. This resource also includes a homework choice board and choice-based assessment, both of which can be used weekly. Using this resource means part of your Mondays are planned (introducing vocabulary), part of your Fridays are planned (assessing vocabulary), and the beginning and end of your classes ALL week are planned (warmups and exit tickets). Can you say time saver? You can even download this sample for free.

In between reflecting on last year and planning for next year, your best year ever, be sure to also make time to rest up and relax. It is summer time after all!

June 2, 2015

On My Bookshelf: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

In We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Cadence is spending the summer on her family's island, trying to recover from a head injury and amnesia. She is looking forward to spending time with her cousins and friends, but as she spends more time on the island, she remembers more and more about the terrible injury that caused her memory loss. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
The basic plot: Cadence is recovering from a head injury and amnesia, the cause of which she can’t remember. It’s summertime on her wealthy family’s island. Her mother and her two aunts (her mother's sisters) each have their own houses on the island in addition to her grandfather’s house, which he recently rebuilt. Cady is looking forward to seeing her two cousins and a family friend/love interest; together they form a foursome self-titled “the liars.” As Cady spends more time on the island, she begins to remember more and more about the terrible injury that caused her memory loss.

Why I liked it: Cady and “the liars” are at a wonderful age where they have bursts of maturity mixed with innocent childishness. Cady and Nate have a relationship that is intense without being overly physical or sexual.

While I struggled with the author’s writing style at first, the main character often just trails off at the end of each chapter, the writing does move fluidly between past and present.

There isn't a set date yet, but it looks like this novel, named a best YA book of 2014 by GoodReads, will become a movie. I am intrigued as to how it will transfer to film.


Classroom application: Your students will likely either love it or hate it based on how much they love or hate the narrator. It's definitely one to add to your classroom library.

Because of the novel’s surprise ending, the novel would make an excellent mentor text for plot structure. After students have finished the novel, have them re-examine the book, identifying clues that point to the ending. Then have students plan their own narrative starting with a surprise ending and working backwards to the start of the story, planting hints at the ending as they go. Work with students to make those hints subtle rather than obvious. Students can test the subtlety of their clues by having a peer read their narrative minus the ending and see if their ending can be predicted. If it can be, then the clues are too obvious.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of We Were Liars for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.