Posted in Reading

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography – Book Review

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own AutobiographyNeil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally finished this fun book. It took me a long time because sometimes I buy books and then keep them on my shelf for years before reading them. Sometimes I even wait for hours in line to have the book signed by the celebrity who wrote it, basking in my 1.5 seconds of breathing the same air as him, and STILL leave it on the shelf for years before reading it. (I don’t know why I do these things. Don’t ask.)

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It also took a long time because the choose-your-own-adventure format of this memoir is CREATIVE and HILARIOUS and AWESOME, but it’s also a little confusing. When I started the book, I considered using sticky notes to mark the pages I’d read, but ultimately rejected that OCD idea, opting for a more organic experience instead. So I sat down and read and read and read about NPH’s early years and Doogie years and exploring-his-sexuality years. And then I read, read, read some more about his TV movies and his love of magic and his wonderful husband and their emotional journey into parenting. I got to “the end” multiple times and, eventually, decided I’d mostly finished the book. It was time to start back at the beginning and read only the pages that I’d skipped the first time around. This won’t take long. I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee and sit down and finish this thing.

I made the coffee. I sat down. I read. And read and read and read. It turns out, I was over 100 pages from finishing the book! The fact that I hadn’t yet read anything about his award-show hosting or How I Met Your Mother should have been a clue. Anyway, I continued in this manner until I was really– truly– finished with the book. Which was a couple of hours ago.

The fact that this book sat on a shelf for a couple of years and then confused me into thinking I’d finished it when really I’d only read half may make you think it wasn’t that good. But you’re wrong. Neil Patrick Harris is a great actor and a great singer and a great host, but he’s also a great writer. His anecdotes and footnotes and self-deprecating humor kept me smiling the whole way through, and his clever “alternate endings” are a nice touch and an amusing nod to the choose-your-own-adventure format.

All in all, it was fun hanging out with NPH for a few hundred pages. Despite the fact that my home (and life) bears no resemblance to that of his good friend Elton John, I think we’d get along.

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Posted in Reading, Teaching

Reuniting with The Outsiders

 

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Some books become part of our lives.

The first time I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was in 1990, when I was in the seventh grade. I checked it out of the library for a book report. I don’t remember why I picked that novel. I wasn’t a big reader at the time, so maybe someone recommended it to me, or maybe it was on a list of options, and I chose it based on the title. I don’t know. I don’t even actually remember reading it, though I know I did and liked it. Honestly, only two things stand out about the experience: the movie and the cover of my book report.

imagesI remember renting the movie on VHS and watching it with my parents. I can vividly picture laying on the living room floor in front of the television, watching the rumble scene. My mom had told me there were a lot of famous actors in it, including Tom Cruise. I had a big crush on him at the time (I was obsessed with Top Gun) so I couldn’t wait to see it. I remember liking the movie but being extremely disappointed with Tom Cruise’s role.

I have no idea what I wrote in my book report, but I remember the cover. I drew a big, pretty house with lots of windows and curtains, and in front of it, I drew a tall wooden fence. My English teacher, Coach Day, took off points for my cover, writing something like, “What does this have to do with the book?” in his comments. I was embarrassed that he didn’t get it and too shy at the time to explain myself. I guess he was expecting greasers and switchblades, but I drew my cover from the point of view of the main characters. They were outside the fence, separated from the big nice house. I loved Coach Day, but my symbolism was apparently lost on him.

Nine years passed before I came across Ponyboy and his gang again. I had just graduated from college and was about to start my teaching career, so I was brushing up on the novels I’d be reading with my seventh graders. The Outsiders was one of them. I bought a copy and read it again.

Over the course of the next thirteen years, I would read The Outsiders forty-one more times.

I read it aloud to three classes a day for twelve years and then five classes a day for one more year. I read it until I had entire sections of the book memorized. I read it until, during the last class of the day, I could stare creepily at an off task student while reading without missing a single word. I read it—the same paperback copy every single year—until every page was marked and highlighted, the paper soft as velvet against my skin. I explained slang terms like “cooler” (jail) and “heater” (gun) to almost a thousand students. I watched their jaws drop when I told them the book was written by a teenager. I perfected my “We’ll just have to wait and see” when the kids asked if Johnny would be okay and cherished the silence in the room when he told Ponyboy to “Stay gold.”

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At the beginning of my teaching career, when we taught a different class novel every six weeks, I always read The Outsiders first. It was the only book every student loved, and it taught them to trust me. As the years went on and education changed and the focus shifted from guided reading to independent reading, the number of class novels dwindled to two. But one of them was always The Outsiders. Every year.

And then I quit teaching.

In my post about why I left the classroom, I wrote, “Although part of me still can’t believe it, after forty-three readings of The Outsiders, I have survived my final rumble with the Socs, seen Dally crumple under the streetlight with a look of ‘grim triumph’ for the last time, and will tell Ponyboy to ‘stay gold’ no more.” Saying goodbye to the gang really was one of the hardest parts of leaving.

Four years passed. Then, last summer, I found out that a new 50th Anniversary Edition of the book was being published on November 1, 2016, the day after my 40th birthday. I marked the date on my calendar and added the book to my wish list, but I was a little sad. Sad that such a big milestone was coming, and I had no students to share it with.

By the time my birthday and the novel’s anniversary arrived, I’d gone back to teaching. Seventh grade. My new school only reads one class novel a year, and guess what it is?

Today, I introduce Ponyboy Curtis to a whole new group of seventh graders. I can’t wait to see him again.

Posted in Reading, Writing

How Natalie Goldberg Turned Me Into a Thief

People say TV and video games are bad influences, but it was a book that made me a criminal.

[This story was originally posted on my previous blog, The Black Cat Diaries, on March 4, 2013.]

How Natalie Goldberg Turned Me Into a Thief

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Books can be bad influences.

Today I bought Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.  This book became famous for its inspiration to writers back in the 80s. After hearing it praised by several friends, I finally decided to see what the fuss was about.  Between errands, I popped into Barnes & Noble and picked it up. Then I stopped to grab a quick lunch.  But my quick lunch quickly became a slow leisurely meal as I dived into Goldberg’s book and found no desire to resurface.

From the very first page, I could not put it down. I suddenly felt like I was having lunch with an old friend, one who is really good at writing and really into Zen and who only came to lunch so that she could sit me down and tell me she believes in me and wants to give me a magical gift that will solve all my problems.  (Don’t you love friends/books like that?)  I wanted to linger in that taco shop all day and read all 200 pages, but I had more errands to run, so I ran.

My next stop was the car wash.  Not the drive-through kind, the hand-wash kind.  But not the hand-wash-it-yourself kind, the kind where you pay someone to hand-wash it for you. Specifically, I wanted the dog hair vacuumed out of the backseat before company arrives this weekend.

I drove to the car wash in an altered mental state.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Goldberg’s book.  In particular, I was contemplating her theory of writing as meditation.  I was concentrating so hard on this thought that I entered the car wash through the exit.  Whoops!  When I got myself turned around, I learned it would cost $25 to clean my car inside and out.  Somewhere in the back of my cloudy brain that sounded high to me, but… I was in a rush and decided that I certainly didn’t want to clean the car myself, so I nodded.

Besides, I still wasn’t REALLY thinking about car washes at all.  I was thinking about the part of the book that said, “Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves.  This process teaches us about sanity.  We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories.”  I tried to remain sane as I got out of the car and handed the keys to the attendant.  When he handed me a ticket in return, I (thinking about how nice it would be to write a book and not want to kill myself) said, “What do I do with this?  Put it on my dashboard?”  He said, “No, you keep it.”  So I put the ticket in my pocket, floated through the building to the outdoor waiting area, and sat down at a picnic table.

For the next forty-five minutes, I completely lost myself in Writing Down the Bones—reading, underlining, jotting notes.  Before I knew it, a man was calling out, “Honda Civic?”  I waved.  He walked over, handed me my keys, then turned and pointed across the parking lot to my car.  I became vaguely aware that I should tip him.  In my wallet, I had only a twenty and a five, so—what the heck—I handed him the five.  Then I moved to my car, still gliding in the pleasant haze of Goldberg’s words.  I got in, pulled out onto the road, and, realizing I was in heavy traffic, snapped out of my reading-induced fog.

traffic_lightAt the first stoplight, I thought, “Oh my gosh!  It’s 4:30!?  I still have to buy groceries and make dinner!”

At the second stoplight, I looked in the backseat and thought, “Wow, there is still a LOT of dog hair back there!  That stinks!  I’ll have to clean it myself after all!”

At the third stoplight, I thought, “I tipped that guy five bucks.  That means that was a $30 car wash.  And they didn’t even do a good job.  I wonder if I should go back and complain.”

At the fourth stoplight, I thought, “HOLY CRAP!  I DID NOT PAY FOR MY CAR WASH!!!”

Yep, it’s true.  A guy handed me a ticket, I sat down at a picnic table and read a book, a guy handed me my keys, and I left.  The assumption here is that I skipped a step somewhere.  I was probably supposed to hand that ticket to someone inside the building who would then have asked me to give them money.  But I didn’t.  The only money I paid was the $5 tip.

You can judge me all you want, but I didn’t go back.  I was already halfway to HEB in rush hour traffic, and I didn’t feel like driving all the way back just to say, “Hi, I forgot to pay you, so here’s the money.  And by the way, you totally need to clean my car again.”  I do feel bad, but I am hoping the universe will forgive me for this one.

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My new bookmark

Anyway, though I may be lacking in morals, this story is not.

Moral #1:  The key to stealing something and getting away with it is a complete and total cluelessness, combined with a flighty, head-in-the-clouds attitude.  In short, ignorance = confidence, and if you act confident, no one will stop you.

Moral #2Writing Down the Bones is such a good book it can turn you into a criminal.  Thanks, Natalie Goldberg.  You owe the nice guys at the car wash $25.