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Fall Back Into the School Year With Books by, for and About Teachers

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Look Sharp

For comic novels with more bite, turn to “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Muriel Spark’s novel about one unconventional teacher’s influence over her small circle of handpicked students, and two novels by Tom Perrotta. In both “Election” and “The Abstinence Teacher,” Perrotta features the perspectives of educators — and other members of the community — as he wryly plumbs the pathos of the suburbs.

And once you’ve read enough about the younger set you might be ready to graduate to higher education: Zadie Smith’s satirical stunner “On Beauty,” inspired by E. M. Forster’s “Howards End,” features an unmoored British-born art history professor on an elite American campus and his mixed-race family, and displays Smith’s affinities for both young adults and the elders charged with edifying them.

First Person Plural

The wealth of memoirs by teachers seems to spring from a well-worn career path — so many writers are also educators; they know the allure of the natural narrative arc of the school year. Two moving autobiographical stories, both with comic touches, offer largely sober accounts of life in the classroom. Mark Salzman’s “True Notebooks” charts his time teaching writing to a group of young men in a juvenile detention center in East Los Angeles. And in “Reading With Patrick,” Michelle Kuo details her relationship with a gifted, troubled student whom she met when she was a Teach for America volunteer in rural Arkansas. Both books are honest and beautifully crafted, but it is through the students’ writing — generously reproduced — that readers can learn the most.

The last in a trilogy of memoirs by Frank McCourt, “Teacher Man,” chronicles the 30 years he spent as a public-school teacher in New York City. Anyone who took to the colloquial charms of McCourt’s first two books — “Angela’s Ashes” (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1997) and “’Tis” — will appreciate the warmth and surprising turns of his creative classroom style, and his expansive, enveloping storytelling skills.

McCourt aspired to become a teacher and dreamed of impressing folks back home in Limerick. By contrast, Garret Keizer, as he bluntly explains on the first page of his memoir “Getting Schooled,” first became an English teacher to fulfill his parents’ expectations. He returned, after a 14-year absence, to the same school in northeastern Vermont where he’d started his career to become a yearlong substitute, mainly for the health insurance: “It’s fair to say that I have never gone to work in a school with what might be called purity of heart, though much of what I know about purity of heart I learned there.” His whole gorgeously evocative book notably avoids sentimentality and instead probes for wisdom and clarity. And, despite Keizer’s equivocating about his profession, it inspires.


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