Dana Swier Huff's Blog
June 21, 2016
[image error]Not too long ago, I joined Litsy, which has been described as a combination of Instagram and Goodreads. It’s not, but I guess that’s as close as it gets. I posted a picture of the books I had purchased and wondered which to start with. A commenter recommended Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. While I’ve had some things going on and haven’t felt much like reading, it’s also true that this book only sort of half grabbed me. I picked it up because the opening pages are excellent, but they also deceived me about what the book would be.
You’ll have to forgive me. I haven’t read any of her other books, so from what I understand, this one is familiar territory for her: set in Roland Park in Baltimore, about family dynamics and the million tiny ways families disappoint one another. The Whitshank family lives in a house built by the patriarch, Junior Whitshank. His son Red and daughter-in-law Abby live in the house after the passing of Junior Whitshank and his wife (Red’s mother) Linnie Mae. Red and Abby raised their own four children in the house. The novel moves back and forth in time, beginning in the 1990’s with a phone call the Whitshanks’ son Denny makes to announce he’s gay and ending as Denny boards a train to New Jersey to see what appears to be an on-again, off-again girlfriend who is battening down the hatches for Hurricane Sandy. In between, we meet the rest of the Whitshank family and see the Whitshank grandchildren born, we go back and see Red and Abby before they started dating, and then we go further back and meet Junior and Linnie Mae both before and after they move into the house on Bouton Road.
When I say I was deceived by reading the beginning, here is an example of what I mean. Denny calls to announce he is gay. And that whole thread is completely dropped after the opening as Denny has relationships with women and even a daughter, Susan. I have to wonder what the point was. The thread is never picked up. And yes, I am using that metaphor on purpose. Maybe that was what Tyler had in mind. Leaving a lot of loose threads around. For instance, we learn Junior and Linnie Mae died in a crazy car accident, but we don’t really learn why. How did they really even feel about each other? After you read the section about Junior and Linnie Mae, you will wonder if there is more to it. The novel ends without a clear resolution, too. It doesn’t feel satisfying at the end. I wanted to like it more because I do feel that Anne Tyler drew very realistic and recognizable characters, and I liked them. I just didn’t get to see enough plot. It was sort of like peeking through the drapes and watching snippets of a family’s development. I guess I wanted to be a bit closer. In the end, I just kept wondering why Tyler wove in certain scenes and didn’t go anywhere with them.
I am not sure how to rate it because there are parts I liked, but as a whole, it didn’t hang together for me. I will not count it as historical fiction, even though much of it is, because the main storyline is too current.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
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June 4, 2016
[image error]This book has been on my radar since a colleague donated a copy to my classroom library. However, in the last few weeks, it was also chosen as the upper school summer reading selection at my school, so I would have had to read it this summer in any case. I bumped it up in my to-read queue.
Do you ever think that books come into our lives when we really need them? Sometimes I read the perfect book at the time when I absolutely need it, and this book was one of those books for me.
Everything I Never Told You is set in late 1970’s Ohio. The Lee family is a Chinese-American family. Their middle child Lydia, the one upon whom the family pins most of their hopes and dreams, is missing. In fact, the family does not know and will not learn for a while that she is actually dead. The novel is the story of what happens to the family in the wake of Lydia’s death as well as the story of all the events leading up to it. Each family member, including Lydia, suffers under the weight of the conversations they never had. At its heart, this book’s strongest message is about the emotional damage caused when people don’t communicate. However, for those who might be reluctant to pick up a book that might seem to be a downer, I’ll share that there is a note of redemption for the family.
I connected strongly with this book because one of the biggest problems I have is that there are a lot of important conversations I have needed to have with people in my life, especially family, that I have not had. I haven’t had these conversations for the same reasons as Lydia and all of the Lee family—fear. I carry the heavy weight of these conversations around inside me just like the Lee family did. I am learning that I need to change this behavior. This book is more than just a cautionary tale about the dangers of not having important conversations, but it was important for me to read at this time in my life for that reason.
We have recently suffered a tragic, sudden, and unexpected loss in our family as well. I don’t feel right laying out in a book review. I don’t know if that diminishes the loss or not. But having recently finished this book, this loss reminds me too that life is precious and fragile, and we are not promised time. We have to live the lives we want to live now and set aside the fears we have about others and what they will think. That includes family. Perhaps especially family. It’s hard, but our lives are worth it.
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May 28, 2016
So what’s on your literary travel bucket list? What literary hot spots have you already hit and is it worth going back?
I have a couple of literary bucket lists, mainly because I love my adopted home of New England, which is the cradle of American literature, and also because I am an Anglophile who lives British literature and is desperate to visit the UK, where there are many places on my bucket list.
New England Bucket List
Walden Pond in Concord, MA. I have been there before in the dead of winter in February. The pond was frozen over. I took this obligatory picture of my feet standing on the frozen pond. I want to go back some time this summer. I don’t live far, and it’s sad that I haven’t had a chance to go because of an unreliable vehicle, but I have a new car now, and we are road tripping the hell out of this summer. I can’t wait to go to Walden.
Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, MA. The Dickinson home is now a museum, and I have already visited, but I want to go back during some special occasion or event. I just became a member of the museum, so it will even be free. Oh, I was just so happy here. I visited Emily’s grave. If there is one poet I really love, it’s her. Obviously I named my blog after one of my favorite of her poems.
The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT. I haven’t ever been here, but Hartford is not very far from where I live, and Twain is a favorite of mine. Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while living here. I teach that novel and absolutely love it (until the end, which Tom Sawyer ruins).
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA. I want to pay my respects to the authors buried there, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. There is something kind of special about visiting the grave of an author you love.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, MA. He wrote most of his work here and hosted meetings of the Transcendental Club here as well. I think it’s open to the public.
Robert Frost’s Stone House in Shaftsbury, VT. I wrote a research paper on Frost in high school, and that kind of thing makes you feel ownership over a writer. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was written here.
Boston by Foot has an interesting-looking tour of the literary haunts of writers like Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Alcott, James, Dickens, and Longfellow. I want to try that tour for sure.
United Kingdom Bucket List
The Brontë Parsonage and Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire. Must see. I want especially to explore anything that may have influenced Wuthering Heights. I think some of the sites are scattered a bit, so it might be more accurate to say I want to visit Brontë Country.
Jane Austen’s House and Museum in Chawton, Hampshire. I don’t want to miss a chance to see where Dear Aunt Jane lived and wrote. I don’t think they let you touch anything. It’s probably like Emily Dickinson’s house that way. I would so want to touch her stuff, though.
Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, with trips to his birthplace, New Place, the church where he is buried, and perhaps a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The whole town, really. I mean there is Anne Hathaway’s cottage, and the home where Shakespeare’s mother lived, too.
Bath, Somerset. Austen wrote about this town and lived there for a time. Many films set in the Georgian era are filmed here because it still looks Georgian. Of course, Austen set Northanger Abbey and Persuasion here as well.
The Charles Dickens Museum in London. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist while living here.
Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales. William Wordsworth wrote “A Few Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey” here, and I feel pretty positive pictures don’t do it justice.
The Lake District. Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both called it home, and there are places all over that I want to see, including Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere.
The New Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London. A reconstruction of the original Globe. I must see a Shakespeare play here.
The British Library in London. I don’t really even know where I’d start here, but I want to go.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum, London. Not exactly located at 221b Baker Street, but close. I do love Sherlock Holmes.
John Keats’s home near Hampstead Heath in London. Because Keats.
Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. I want to pay my respects to Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Edmund Spenser, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Among others.
Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station in London. Because Harry Potter.
The Fitzroy Tavern in London. I heard that Dylan Thomas would give out poems written on beer mats to any woman who asked while he was drinking here. A girl can dream.
Bloomsbury in London. I want to walk in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. Yeats lived nearby. I really just want to sit on a bench, maybe the same bench Virginia Woolf once sat on, and think.
Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire. Byron lived here. His beloved dog Boatswain is buried here. Byron was buried nearby.
Field Place in Broadbridge Heath, West Sussex. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was born here. I’m not sure it’s open to the public, but I could at least look at the exterior.
I’m sure if I thought about it, I could come up with quite a few more places to visit.
I haven’t made any progress on the #ShelfLove Challenge since last month because I’m in a reading slump. Just not really excited right now. I am sort of waiting for school to wrap up so I can spend more time reading. I have a bunch of books I “need to read” right now, too, for various reasons, and I am not excited about it. I don’t know why it is that when I “need” to read it, even if I wanted to read it before, I can’t get into it as much.
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May 14, 2016
A three-year-old Book Riot post with a clickbait-y title came across my radar this morning. While I didn’t learn anything about my personality based on my reading rules, I did start thinking about just what those rules are, exactly. I think most people have reading rules. It could be certain kinds of books you read or won’t read. It could be how you treat a book. It could be whether or not you re-read books and what you re-read. It could be how your ratings system works. At any rate, these are my own special reading tics, and I guess you could call them rules if you want.
I don’t dog-ear pages. I am trying to promote reading in my classes, and one of my students borrowed The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. And he dog-eared the pages. I was horrified when I saw it. It took a lot of self-control not to react, but I didn’t. After all, I did donate the book to my classroom library. But now I might need to have to buy a pristine copy for myself.
I always have a few books going. My mood strikes differently. Sometimes I want to listen, and sometimes I want to be on my iPad and not in paper book. Sometimes I want to read a paper book. For that reason, I usually have at least three books going all the time, one in each format. Often more.
I review pretty much everything I read here, and I rate it, too. I have done this for the last decade at least. I find I remember the books better if I reflect on them a bit before moving on to the next. Had Goodreads been around before I started this blog, I”m not sure this blog would exist. However, now that it’s established, I don’t want to move everything over to Goodreads. That said, I don’t like the Goodreads rating system. I have devised my own rating system instead. I still use stars, but my stars mean different things.
I prefer paperbacks or e-books to hardcovers. I just find them difficult to hold. I don’t fold over my paperbacks or anything, but if a book is not available in paperback, I will try to get it in e-book or wait rather than get it in hardcover. The exceptions to this rule are special collectors books.
I don’t like to break the spines in my books. Sometimes it happens with the cheaper ones.
I don’t like stopping in the middle of a chapter. Sometimes it is unavoidable. If a book has really long chapters or worse, no chapters, it’s probably going to lose at least a star in its rating for me because it has inconvenienced me as a reader and possibly required me to break this reading rule.
I re-read whatever and whenever I feel like it, and I don’t worry about it. I count those books as reads for whatever challenges I am doing as well because I see no reason why they shouldn’t count.
I really prefer reading longer books on my Kindle. They are easier for me to get through that way. I am very sad that Citizens is not available for Kindle. It will take me forever to read.
I give myself permission to stop reading books that are not grabbing me. I don’t have a hard and fast rule about how long I give it before I stop. Mainly, I play it by ear. But I never force myself to finish a book that is not working for me, and I think that is a rule everyone should follow. I helped a student out with this rule earlier this year. I think he was grateful. It might surprise some folks that kids might not understand you don’t have to finish a book just because you started it, but it’s true. I am, of course, excluding class reads from this rule. However (shh… don’t tell), if I kid doesn’t finish a required text for class, well, they missed out on a good book. I don’t get mad at them about it. I hope they’ll pick it up later when they are ready, and the choice likely means they will do poorly on some reading quizzes and writing assignments, but that’s their call. I don’t see any reason to flog a kid over it. I think (sadly) that I am unusual in this regard, and I think that’s how and why we create adults who don’t read.
I don’t worry about what anyone thinks about my reading. I read what I want. If people judge others for reading, then they’re book snobs, and they are not worth my time. The most important rule I have about reading is that everyone should read. They should read what they want to read and not apologize.
Do you have any reading rules? I know some folks disagree with a few of mine, and ultimately, the thing I care about most is that people do their reading thing and don’t feel judged for it.
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May 8, 2016
[image error]Alison Umminger’s novel American Girls will be released next month on June 7, but I received an ARC at an English teacher’s conference in November. I hadn’t picked it up until recently. April and May were busy and stressful at work, and I’m afraid my reading life took a bit of a backseat. I share books I think my students will like each class period because they are doing independent reading, and I know hearing about a book that sounds intriguing will encourage them to pick up books to read. Book talks make all the difference in helping students select books to read. I shared this book a couple of weeks ago and found myself rather intrigued by the book’s premise, so I picked it up instead of putting it back on the shelf for my students.
Fifteen-year-old Anna steals her stepmother’s credit card and buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the vague notion of visiting her sister, who is trying to make it as an actress. As the story unfolds, it is clear Anna is running from a fairly dysfunctional family. She feels sidelined and ignored by both her mother and her father, and her best friend Doon talked her into bullying a classmate of Doon’s. Anna’s mother agrees to let Anna stay in Los Angeles for the summer, but she needs to work to earn back the money to repay her stepmother. Delia, Anna’s sister, manages to find Anna a job researching the Manson Family for creepy film director Roger, Delia ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Delia also arranges for Anna to stay with Delia’s current boyfriend Dex on the set of the TV show for which he writes, Chips Ahoy, a ridiculous and terrible show starring the Taylor twins, Josh and Jeremy, the younger brothers of washed-up superstar actress and pop singer, Olivia Taylor. Anna spends her summer hanging around the D-list, immersing herself in the history of the Manson Family, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the Manson “girls,” Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle, Susan Atkins, and Squeaky Fromme. Ultimately, what this book really explores is the way in which American society crushes its girls and women, particularly in Los Angeles, where “pretty winds up looking like a hundred girls who look like a hundred other girls who are all trying to look like the same person,” and “after a while, pretty doesn’t even register” (263).
This is an interesting book, and not only because it’s probably the first YA novel I’ve ever seen to explore the Manson Family. Anna’s voice is whipsmart and sarcastic. She has a chip on her shoulder, but she has pretty good reasons. Even with its sometimes dark subject matter, there is plenty of humor in this book, courtesy of the strong first-person narration of Anna. She is realistically drawn and easy to sympathize with. The book skewers the Disney child-star road to ruination quite effectively. We should all be praying for those kids with Disney shows. Olivia Taylor is clearly similar to Miley Cyrus/Britney Spears, and the Taylor twins (and even their TV show) make one think of Dylan and Cole Sprouse, whose TV show The Suite Life on Deck sounds remarkably similar to Chips Ahoy. Though it should be said, the real-life Sprouse twins don’t seem to have as many issues as the Taylor twins, and they have even taken time away from Hollywood to go to college. Olivia, Josh, and Jeremy’s mother could be Pamela Des Barres or Bebe Buell—she was a groupie whose children are the results of relationships with rock stars. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Olivia Taylor’s name is so similar to that of Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and groupie Bebe Buell.
One thing the book captures really well is the disposable way in which young women in Southern California are treated. I lived there for a few years when I was in high school, and if there is any place in the country that is the absolute worst for sexualizing teenage girls and taking their identities away and replacing them with these plastic veneers—all facelifts, capped teeth, and anorexia—I can’t think of one. One scene stands out vividly in my mind. I was in marching band, and the girls in the flag corps were running some drills or practicing or maybe getting ready—that part is actually fuzzy—but I clearly remember their coach saying, “Be sexy! Be sexy!” They were fifteen and sixteen. I could tell you about worse, but I don’t really want to put it on a blog. Suffice it to say I don’t think teenage girls grow up in Southern California unscathed. This book really exposes what it’s like. A couple of passages that particularly resonated:
But If I had to write a memo to America, on what to do to improve the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from the inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table. (262)
Later, Anna connects her understanding of what she has seen in Los Angeles to the American Dream of Jay Gatsby:
Maybe Los Angeles was like Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, but for all of America. Instead of sitting on a pier and gazing at a green light across the water, now people just sat in their living rooms and watched the wide-screen, 3-D version of some life that was out there for the taking, if only they could get off the couch. (284)
Anna thinks a great deal about the Manson girls and what led them to follow Charles Manson’s orders to kill. Ultimately, her conclusions should make all of us shudder. I thought this book was different from most YA I have read, and I would highly recommend it. The gritty picture it paints of American girls will trouble you, but it’s all the more troubling that the picture is real.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free at the NCTE annual convention. I was not asked to write a review in exchange.
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April 30, 2016
The 2nd Week of April is Library Week. Tell us about your local library and what makes is special to you.
I have to admit that I haven’t been able to visit the Worcester Public Library in a while. It is a beautiful library, but for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with transportation, which is a problem I resolved when I bought a new car last month), I haven’t been to the library in a while, and indeed, my library card has expired, so I need to renew it.
However, because I am a teacher, I have access to a school library. When I first started working at Worcester Academy, I was a technology integration specialist, and I worked in the library. I tried to increase the size our young adult collection, and I worked to encourage young readers by recommending books and visiting classes to do book talks.
We have a new library director this year, and she has transformed parts of the upper floor into a maker space, including a LEGO wall and 3-D printers. One wall has been painted with whiteboard paint, as have several tables. The fiction collection has been “genrefied” so that students can more easily find books they like. I took my students to the library, and our new library director conducted a “book speed dating” experience for the students, who read a book for a few minutes and either decided to pass or to keep the book. It was fun for the students and a great way to have a taste of a new book. I wrote about it on my education blog in more detail. In addition to a large collection of books, my school library has many DVD’s I can use with my students to enhance their learning. Some are movie versions of texts we study, while others are documentaries or educational films.
The library is a gathering place for students, who are encouraged to collaborate. It’s warm, inviting atmosphere has turned it into a real hub on campus. I don’t actually work out of the library anymore now that I’m the English department chair, but I go there when I can to work because it’s one of the best places on campus to be. There is a special spot looking out over the small quad in front of the building that has a great view in the fall as the leaves are changing.
I definitely need to make better use of our public library now that I don’t have any constraints that make it a challenge, but I must admit my affection for the Mildred H. McEvoy Library at my school. Our librarians make it a great space for our students to learn and help our teachers as well.
A quick check-in on how I’m doing with the #ShelfLove Challenge—not much progress this month. April is indeed the cruelest month at school, at least for a person in my role as a department chair, because it involves selecting department awards, placement of students, course ballots, and scheduling (as well as the spring fever slump and senioritis). I elected to try to read between 11-20 books that were already on my shelves (either my physical shelves or my Kindle or Audible library) before January 1, 2016, and so far, of the twelve books I’ve read up to this point, five of them have been #ShelfLove books, which is one more since last month.
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March 27, 2016
[image error]I picked up Tim O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical novel/short story collection yesterday while trying to think of something to write for the blog challenge I’m participating in on my education blog. I have been wanting to read it for a long time, and I purchased it so long ago that I can count it for both the #ShelfLove and Mount TBR challenges, but I struggled with whether to count it as historical fiction. It blurs the lines between memoir and fiction perhaps a bit too much for me. In the end, though, Tim O’Brien says it is a novel, and I shouldn’t argue, but if you’ve read it, perhaps you will understand.
The Things They Carried is a collection of vignettes or chapters, some might say individual short stories—and most chapters certainly have a full story arc—based on Tim O’Brien’s time serving in the Vietnam War. Many of the stories were previously published. The stories are not arranged chronologically. For instance, “On the Rainy River” takes place before O’Brien goes to Vietnam as he is contemplating going to Canada to avoid the draft, while the few stories preceding it all take place during the war. Three post-war stories are interspersed throughout the remainder of the narrative as well.
I’m fairly certain I read “Speaking of Courage” in another form in college. The other stories were all new to me. I’m finding it hard figuring out what to write in this review because it’s hard to review books like this book. What can you say, aside from that the stories and writing are fantastic, and everyone should go out and read it? As I grew up, the country was still processing how it felt about this war, and in many ways, it still is. I couldn’t believe, for instance, that this novel was published in 1990. I felt sure it had been around longer than that. It’s a book I feel like I’ve been hearing about for much longer than that.
You know, Westmoreland visited my high school. I remember it. I didn’t really know or understand who he was, but I distinctly remember feeling like he expected us to be hostile. But maybe that was the teachers. I am still baffled as to why he came. We were all born during the war. Our fathers may have served in it, but beyond that, what connections did we have? And yet I still remember how his back was up as he spoke to us. He was very defensive. I can no longer remember anything he said—just how defensive he was.
When I was young, I remember the controversy over the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. I remember hearing stories about vets in the news. That war was all around me in media when I was young. I always had this powerful sort of personal connection to it because I knew my dad had been there when I was born, and I had been told the story of how he missed the first six months of my life because he was in Vietnam. He must have been there about a year. He was in the Air Force, so he was not out on patrols, in the thick of the most danger. Still, he was in a war zone, and it was all, more or less, dangerous.
O’Brien’s spare stories remind me a great deal of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, I find “Speaking of Courage” to be a descendant, of sorts, of Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home.” Of the stories included in the novel, I think “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” and “Speaking of Courage” were my three favorites, but the stories do speak to each other and weave together. I think one of my favorite aspects of the book is O’Brien’s awareness of the importance of telling stories. O’Brien writes the reader into that time and that place. It seems effortless, like the best art is, and the reader is unaware of the stagecraft at play until the next chapter, when O’Brien uncovers it. I’ve not quite read anything like it. I was reading a Buzzfeed article the other day about a list of books you wish you could read again for the first time. I know that feeling of envy—the desire to have that wonderful book in front of you again for the first time. Someone had put this book on the list. I don’t necessarily agree with all the choices other readers made for the list—I do agree with many of them—but I can see why this book made someone’s list. I gulped it down in a day. It was one of the most engrossing books I’ve read for a while.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I requested this book via PaperBack Swap in June of last year. I don’t believe I’ll be putting it back into the pool. I want to keep it. It’s been on my to-read list for a lot longer, however.
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March 26, 2016
What is one book trope that gets on your nerves? What do you wish the publishing world would STOP doing?
Okay, this one isn’t too hard for me. I hate that vampire books have these weak, defanged vampires who don’t prey on people because it’s wrong and have managed to find ways around being horrible killing machines. Either they kill and drink blood only from animals, or perhaps they just take a little bit of a human’s blood but not enough to kill. If you’re going to be a vampire, you should be full on Dracula. Even Anne Rice understood that with her antihero Lestat. One reason the first few books in her Vampire Chronicles were interesting was that Lestat was a killing machine. Powerful. Unpredictable. Often completely without a moral compass (c. f. the making of Claudia).
I think we can blame Stephenie Meyer for this trend. She made Edward dark and edgy, revealed he was a vampire, and then took all the real danger out by reassuring the reader that the Cullen clan only hunted animals and drank animal blood. Come on. I saw it continue with Deborah Harkness’s vampires in the All Souls Trilogy. The vampires in her books, at least the ones in Matthew de Clairmont’s family, either only take a little blood from willing donors (like Diana Bishop), or they hunt animals. They also drink wine, which is really weird to me.
What the heck is happening here? Bram Stoker would turn over in his grave. Vampires are supposed to be frightening creatures who will kill you. They can be tortured and despise themselves for what they have to do, but they do it because they are vampires and killing people is what they do.
I’m actually swearing off vampire books for a while. If writers are all collectively deciding right now that vampires have to be relatively harmless, then I quit. I truly did enjoy the first few books in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, but I haven’t really enjoyed one since The Tale of the Body Thief. I actually threw Memnoch the Devil across the room. It remains to this day the only book I have actually thrown across the room. I am just going to quit giving her more chances after Prince Lestat.
A quick check-in on how I’m doing with the #ShelfLove Challenge—so far, so good. I elected to try to read between 11-20 books that were already on my shelves (either my physical shelves or my Kindle or Audible library) before January 1, 2016, and so far, of the twelve books I’ve read up to this point, four of them have been #ShelfLove books, which is no change since last month, but I had done so well early on that I’m not worried.
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March 18, 2016
[image error]Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours is an ambitious undertaking: to retell, engage in conversation with, and illuminate Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The novel focuses on three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who unwittingly re-enacts Clarissa Dalloway’s day as she prepares to throw a party for her friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary prize; Virginia Woolf, who is engaged in writing Mrs. Dalloway and puzzling over some of the plot points; and Laura Brown, a woman suffocating under her life in 1950’s suburban Los Angeles. Just as the stories of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith (and their loved ones and friends) coalesce at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, the stories of the three women at the heart of The Hours entwine by the end of the novel.
I first read this novel in 2003 and later watched the movie in 2005. At the time, neither resonated with me much, perhaps because I wasn’t ready for either of them. I struggle with two warring ideas a lot: we enjoy books more when we’re ready for them, but I am also an English teacher, and I teach full-class novels—and I’m fully aware that the students aren’t ready for for some of them yet. I don’t mean that they can’t understand them. I mean that the characters and their stories will not necessarily be relevant—yet. As I grow older, I believe that more stories seem relevant to me than when I was younger because I’ve lived more, and I have developed more empathy. So I am thinking all of these thoughts because I re-read The Hours in preparation for teaching it after spring break is over. My students studied Mrs. Dalloway before the break. My students proved to me much more capable than I would have been at their age of empathizing with an older woman planning a party, but I could tell the person they were really drawn to was Septimus. And why wouldn’t they be drawn to the young, doomed, poet Septimus?
In some ways, the task is so monumental that it shouldn’t work. You almost have to admire Michael Cunningham for even trying, never mind succeeding. I know he is a big fan of Mrs. Dalloway. For this book, he borrowed not only the author and plotline of Mrs. Dalloway (though with his own twist), but also the working title Woolf was considering for Mrs. Dalloway. The book speaks to the ways in which all of literature can really be seen as one big conversation, though books rarely talk to each other as directly as Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. I feel like I understand Mrs. Dalloway better seeing it now through the lens of The Hours as well. I have to wonder what Virginia Woolf would have thought of it.
When I was in college—a freshman, in fact—I was assigned to read Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.” It’s impossible not to see this story’s influence on The Hours as much as Mrs. Dalloway’s influence. The couple in “To Room Nineteen” live in Richmond, a suburb of London, which is where Virginia and Leonard Woolf are living in The Hours. Much like Laura in The Hours, Susan goes to a hotel and stays in room nineteen (here the allusion is at its most assured). Both Laura’s and Virginia’s stories in The Hours can be glimpsed in that of Susan in Lessing’s story. Even when I was myself only 19, I connected to that story. It is one of the few things I read in that year that I still remember and think about. Why I was ready for the story of Lessing’s Susan at 19, but not ready for the women in The Hours at 32, I’m not really certain.
I have a theory that we should try to return to some books later because we will read different books. We will bring the experiences, the other things we have read, the person we are at that later period in life to bear on whatever we read, and the book will not be the same to us. I recall distinctly feeling annoyed by Holden Caulfield’s whining when I read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I had very little empathy for Holden, and I had none at all after he hired Sunny. Years later, I read the book again when I had children, and saw in Holden a lost child who was desperately reaching out for someone, anyone, to listen to him and love him. And there was no one. A completely different book. So, The Hours is a completely different book because I have now read Mrs. Dalloway, and because I’m 44, not 31, and because I felt empathy for the characters closer to my own age now than I did when I was younger. I see myself in the women of The Hours in a way I just couldn’t 13 years ago.
One strange moment I have to mention—Clarissa is in the florist’s shop buying flowers when she hears a loud noise made by a movie production up the street. When she looks out, she think she sees a movie star—maybe Meryl Streep, but maybe Vanessa Redgrave. Meryl Streep would play Clarissa in the film version of The Hours, and Vanessa Redgrave would bring Mrs. Dalloway to life in a film that was released the same year as Michael Cunningham’s book. I’ll bet that creeped him out.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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March 16, 2016
[image error]Lily King’s novel Euphoria is based on the lives of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively. While many of the details are changed, including some rather significant details, much of the story, as it unfolds, is firmly based on the actual experiences of the three anthropologists who worked together, for a time, on the Sepik River in what is today Papua New Guinea.
As the novel begins, Nell Stone and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen, are looking for a new tribe to study. At Nell’s insistence, the couple leaves behind their research on the Mumbanyo tribe when Nell felt she could no longer stand living the group. They meet up with Anthony Bankson, a fellow anthropologist from England, who has been alone in the Sepik, and is relieved and excited for the company of fellows. Soon, however, Bankson finds himself entranced by Nell. He is inspired by her intellect, insight, and work ethic—all aspects her personality that her husband both envies and disparages. Their lives become entwined as they work together, but Fen has secrets. Suddenly their relationships, their careers, and even their very lives are careening toward disaster.
While I understand why King took liberties with the stories of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson so that she could tell the story she wanted to tell, there are so many details drawn from their actual lives that it seems strange to me that she didn’t just go all the way with a historical fiction account of Mead in New Guinea. For example, like Bateson, Bankson had two older brothers, John and Martin, and their respective deaths prior to the start of the book, in battle in WWI and in a spectacularly public suicide under the statue of Anteros at Piccadilly Circus, were identical in all details to those of the real Bateson. I suppose you can’t make that stuff up. Like Bateson’s father, Bankson’s father was a renowned geneticist who coined the term genetics. Like Mead herself, Nell studied with Franz Boas and probably had an affair with Boas’s fellow student, Helen (who is based on Ruth Benedict).
However, as I said, the story does deviate from that of the historical anthropologists involved in some significant and rather spoilery ways, so I can’t delve too deeply in exploring those differences without endangering your enjoyment of the book (if you want to read it). Suffice it to say the details make for a highly romantic and cinematic story, especially near the end. I suppose reality didn’t play as well for King, hence the changes. Actually, the book would make a great movie—It has romance and adventure, humor, a complicated villain, and great characters—but based on the reading I’ve done about Mead, Fortune, and Bateson, just fact-checking as I read, I have to said their own real story would be equally good fodder for film.
King’s characterization reminds me quite a lot of Hemingway’s: tough women idealized by the men; over-the-top alpha males; masculine men who are also in touch with their feelings. The writing, too, was perfect for the story it told: spare in some details, leaving readers to put pieces together; poetically descriptive in other places. The characters seemed visceral and real. King makes the reader feel the heat and steamy damp of the New Guinea, and I felt as though I had traveled down the Sepik with all three of the main characters. I definitely found myself more interested in Margaret Mead, and her fellow anthropologists after reading this. Aside from an introductory course in college, I know little about anthropology, and I have to admit, some aspects of this science are troubling to me. There is always the whiff of the colonial about it when I read about it. I can’t put my finger on what it is that bothers me. Euphoria is a quick read. I had the paperback, and though the length is about short-average (257 pages), the paper is thick, and the font is largish. I think I probably read the whole thing in about five hours.
I am not sure if the photos are copyright, so I didn’t want to post them here on my blog, but you should definitely check out this exhibit at the Library of Congress. It has a wonderful picture of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune (what a heck of a name!), and Gregory Bateson together, along with their notes about the personality classification system the three of them developed after reading Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture together, an incident that is described in breathtaking detail in the novel. In fact, I had run into this idea without knowing Margaret Mead had anything to do with it in some professional development. Four major personality groups are divided on points of a compass (those who fall between two groups tend toward the intercardinal points on the compass. For the record, I identified myself as a “South” with some “West” tendencies. Here is a link to a PDF about the system. I will be anxious to talk about this aspect of the book with my fellow book club members, most of whom have also had this training and/or experienced an opportunity to define themselves on the compass.
Euphoria is a unique novel. I’ve never read anything set in Papua New Guinea before (nor am I likely to again, as it’s just not a setting writers use). I have also never seen anthropology tackled quite like this in fiction, though it does remind me a bit of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Ultimately, I think it’s a better novel than State of Wonder; I realize I gave State of Wonder 5 stars as opposed to the 4.5 for this novel, but I think I just really hated Fen, and were I to rate State of Wonder now, some time after having read it, it is probably more of a 4 star book for me. But I don’t go back and rethink or change ratings, which are based on my gut response right after finishing a book.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
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