Dana Swier Huff's Blog
August 3, 2015
I am reading my way through the list of texts I will teach in AP in the coming year, and as August Wilson is an important writer who often appears on the test, I found myself reading this play. I’m so glad I did. I have read and taught Fences, which might be his more famous play, but I found this play to be much more exquisite, and I liked the characters a great deal more.
The Piano Lesson is the story of a family piano. An intricately carved work of art, the piano’s legs include family portraits carved by Willie Boy, the family patriarch. Willie Boy, a slave owned by the Sutter family, was asked by Sutter to carve the faces of his wife and child, whom Sutter had sold away, into the piano to please Sutter’s wife. Instead, Sutter carves the faces of his entire family. Willie Boy’s son Boy Charles steals the piano because he believes it more rightfully belongs to his family than it does to the Sutters, The piano entwines the two families even in death. Siblings Boy Willie and Berniece spend most of the play arguing over the piano. Bernice wants to keep it because of its importance to the family, but Boy Willie wants to sell it in order to buy the deceased Sutter’s land.
There are many things going on in this play: the tension between enjoying art for art’s sake instead of more “practical” objects, such as land; the importance of family; what it means to be successful in life. The piano lesson of the title is really the argument that Boy Willie and Berniece are having about the piano: would it be better for the family to keep it or to sell to buy Sutter’s land? It’s an important conversation to have, as the play is set at a time when many African Americans did not have either a family history they knew and could cling to or an opportunity to own land.
Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, and I can see how a production would be quite something to watch. However, Toni Morrison makes a successful argument for simply reading the play in her introduction, and it is indeed a delight to read as well. I would consider this an important work of the Great Migration and of American drama in general. I’m not sure if this would make a good movie—I think it is meant to be on the stage. It does look like it’s been made into a movie at least once.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This story is probably set no later than the 1930’s, solidly in the period of the Great Migration, as Berniece and Boy Willie’s grandparents had been slaves, and Sutter would have had to have still been around at the beginning of the play. However, as the play also includes a truck (that is one of the liveliest characters in the story, I will add), vehicles have to be somewhat common. As it was published in 1988, it counts as historical fiction.
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August 1, 2015
I read Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon in order to prepare to teach it this coming school year. Song of Solomon is the story of Macon Dead III, also known as “Milkman.” Milkman feels lost and disconnected, but he goes in search of his family’s history and in the process discovers himself.
I hardly know what to say about this book. It’s incredible in way few things I have ever read are. I loved the magical realism. I think a lot people find magical realism confusing perhaps because it doesn’t fully conform to fantasy, so you can’t really suspend your disbelief and just go with it, but it also doesn’t conform to realism, and sometimes events can happen that are hard to make sense of. This story is so perfectly layered and carefully written. It’s a masterwork in the art of writing. It’s not only one of the most beautifully poetic books I’ve ever read, but it’s also spiritually fulfilling and a captivating story as well.
One suggestion I have for anyone who reads this novel is not to miss Toni Morrison’s forward. When she reveals the care and thought that went behind just the first sentence, you will understand just how tightly written a work of genius this novel is. I appreciated the way that no thread was left abandoned. Every idea that was introduced was brought back. There was nothing “extra”; no details were just thrown away. As such, it requires quite a close read. Be careful though. I found errors in the online help sites SparkNotes and Shmoop that might cause a reader to be confused, especially if he/she makes the egregious mistake of reading the help sites alone instead of the novel.
I am so glad I read this book. I think I loved it even more than Beloved. This novel deals with some of the same themes as Beloved—the legacy of slavery that resulted in cycle of abandonment by black men and single parenthood and grief for black women. In another writer’s hands, exploration of these theme could go badly wrong. Morrison is an essential writer for our times. She could teach us so much about the ways in which the past still impacts us today and will impact us in the future.
Man. What an excellent book.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This book is a bit contemporary for historical fiction, but I’m still counting it because the ending occurs at least ten years before it was published, and many of the events concern the past. Not everyone may agree with this categorization, but given the importance of the past in this book, I think it’s fair.
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Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It is the story of a dying preacher, John Ames, who worries about leaving his young wife and son with no money (and in his son’s case, few memories of his father). The novel is written in the form of a letter from Rev. Ames to his son as a means for his son to understand and get to know his father.
At the outset, such a setup seems like it would be a depressing novel, but the result is actually more uplifting. Ames may be a minister well-versed in the gospel, but he is not holier-than-thou—in fact, he’s quite reflective about the ways in which he falls short, and he’s a rather open-minded philosopher. More than anything else, this book winds up being a sort of philosophical memoir. Ames recalls memories of his father and grandfather, both of whom were also ministers and who often clashed with each other. His grandfather was a abolitionist who was connected with John Brown in Kansas.
Obviously this book is well-regarded, and it has received a lot of praise. Though I did like it, I can’t really say I loved it, but I think part of the problem might be that I listened to it instead of read a print version. I think this book needs a slower digestion that is possible with print. Though the narrator, Tim Jerome, did a wonderful job telling the story, I think I missed some things as I listened to it. I can tell it’s well-written and spare in its elegance, but the story didn’t do as much for me as I wanted it to. I thought the prodigal son Jack Boughton was the most interesting character, and the way Ames wrestled with his conscience over Jack Boughton was the most memorable part of the book for me. In the right hands, I think this book could be a wonderful book. I’m just not sure it was really written for me.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
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July 19, 2015
Am I weird for not liking summer? I like the time off. I just don’t like the heat, and the types of activities you do in summer are not my favorites. I like the beach okay, but only for about an hour or two. Then I want to go home. I don’t like traveling much, especially not when it’s hot. And I loathe hot weather. I will never forget what a rude awakening humidity can be when I moved to St. Louis the summer before I started high school. I had grown up in Colorado, so I had never felt anything like it. It was terrible. How did people live? Ugh. It was an oppressive, aggressive humidity. I haven’t lived anywhere else that felt quite that awful, but Georgia was pretty darned close. So many days in the 90’s and even over 100 degrees. I couldn’t stand it. Give me a winter with ten feet of snow over a hot summer. We are having a hot day today, and I’m just being whiny. My favorite season is fall, and in my opinion, the temperatures are just about perfect in the fall.
I finally did go ahead and just stop reading I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira. I posted it on PaperBackSwap, and it was claimed right away. It’s in the mail now. So that’s done. I really wanted to like that book. Just couldn’t get into it. I did two reviews this week: March: Book Two and Go Set a Watchman. It would seem I liked that second book a lot more than everyone else, which makes me wonder if there is something wrong with me. Truthfully, though, I rate books highly if I can’t put them down and read them fast. That says something to me about how good I think they are. If I am doing anything I can not to read a book, including setting it aside in favor of other books, then I know I’m not liking it. If I am doing anything I can to read the book and rarely setting it down, then I am loving it. So I guess I’m not very distinguished. I can live with that. I’ve been called worse. One thing I truly loathe is a book snob.
I added a few books to my wishlist/TBR list:
I found out about The Gates of Evangeline through Shelf Awareness and Henry Hikes to Fitchburg through Brain Pickings, which also convinced me maybe to read Walking. I have to admit, while I had checked in on Brain Pickings occasionally, I have really started reading it the last week or so, and I am in love with that blog. The Haven Kimmel memoirs I added because I read most of the chapter “Brother” from the second book, and I really loved it as a piece of creative nonfiction. I am thinking there might be good writing models for my students in these two books.
Speaking of Fitchburg, I will be heading up there in a few hours. My AP Literature training course takes place up there this coming week. Unlike Thoreau, I will not be walking there. I am not sure what kind of reading I’ll do because I imagine I’ll have homework and that I’ll need to do some reading for the course. I will be glad to get it over with. I do love PD. I really do. But this summer has been a lot for me. I am going to be a lot smarter next summer and do maybe one thing instead. I know once I get started tomorrow, I will enjoy it. I have heard only good things about AP training.
Before I go, is anyone else watching Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on BBC America? I am so LOVING that show! I listened to the audio book some time back, and I was excited when I heard they were making a miniseries, and I just think the casting is perfect. It’s like what might happen if Jane Austen met Harry Potter. It’s sort of making me want to re-read the book, and read it this time instead of listen. That is a little crazy given the length and the number of footnotes.
The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.
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July 14, 2015
As I typed the title to this post, it occurred to me I never thought I would be reviewing another book by Harper Lee. And yet, here we have Go Set a Watchman. I have seen a lot of people I respect saying that they will not read this book because they are not sure what Harper Lee’s intentions are. She is 89 years old. She can’t hear well. And isn’t it suspicious, they say, that this novel came out after her great defender, Alice Finch Lee, whom Nelle (as she is known to friends) called “Atticus in a skirt,” died?
When I was at Kenyon College at the Writer’s Workshop for Teachers recently, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Nick White, who read one of his short stories and participated in a Q&A with Nancy Zafris (whom I also had the distinct pleasure to meet). We were at a wine and hors d’oeuvres gathering, and Nick was trying to figure out how to spell hors d’oeuvres in a text to his mother, and I was no help because I had already had a couple of glasses of wine. I remarked to Nancy that I had moved up to Worcester, Massachusetts from Georgia about three years ago. She looked at me gravely and asked, “How is it?” I shrugged and said something about rednecks being the same everywhere. She agreed to that. Nick and I started talking about this new Harper Lee book. He said he was probably going to be a “terrible person” and read it, and I confessed I would, too, because I “can’t NOT read a new book by Harper Lee.” And Reader, despite the misgivings you might have, I would encourage you to read it, too. Yes, even if it tears down your idol.
You have probably read the spoilers. I think CNN (it might have been CNN—I don’t keep track anymore because the news is like so much background noise most of the time) was blaring “Atticus is a RACIST” every ten minutes yesterday. And maybe you also heard about Jem because that happened in the first chapter. Maybe it isn’t even necessary to sum up what happens in the book, but it is, in every way, as much a coming-of-age story as To Kill a Mockingbird. Do you remember in To Kill a Mockingbird when Jem is trying to explain people to Scout? He is categorizing people in to different groups, and Scout doesn’t get it.
“Naw, Jem. I think that there is just one kind of folks. Folks.”
Jem turned and punched his pillow. When he settled back his face was cloudy. He was going in to one of his declines, and I grew wary. His brows came together; his mouth became a thin line. He was silent for a while.
That is what I thought, too,” he said at last, “when I was your age. If there is just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go ut of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I am beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley stayed shut up in the house all this time…it’s because he wants to stay inside.”
Readers tend to pay a lot more attention to Scout here because they want to think they agree with her, but it is Jem who has figured out something really profound. When Scout is upset in Go Set a Watchman, she says something almost exactly the same to her Uncle Jack: “I thought we were just people” (189). In the twenty years between the two books, Scout still believes. She is actually quite orthodox about it. So, when she comes back to Maycomb and she discovers that her illusions about her sleepy little town and the people in it are not reality, she feels as if she has been pulled out of the world. Nothing makes sense. She also seems to channel the reader when she rails at Atticus:
“I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing [attending a white supremacist meeting]. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday.” (250)
A lot of us who read this book will feel the same way. We have held Atticus up as a paragon of virtue, a man ahead of his time. But what we failed to remember is that he is a man.
Scout’s Uncle Jack says, “now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle to your father’s… You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings” (265). In a sense, Scout needed to come home and break with her father (after a fashion)—yes, even Atticus Finch—in order to be her own person.
The novel makes a profound statement about the failings and frailty of human beings. It has its own literary merit. It will suffer in comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, that’s one of the perfect novels, and this novel is an earlier draft. I will add that in my opinion, it’s a pretty excellent draft. It is easy to see how Lee’s editors saw the sparks of Lee’s novel in this one and encouraged her to write about Scout as a child. There is one hilarious scene when Jem, Dill, and Scout enact a tent revival in the yard, and there are several great scenes from Scout’s adolescence. Scout has not changed. She is as feisty as she always was. I think this book is, on the whole, a great read.
The book is not as poetic as TKAM, but it has its moments. It relies way too much on dialogue, particularly at the end. There are some parts that are a bit muddled and confusing in their wording and perhaps in their point, but as a whole, it hangs together well. Other reviewers have said it’s more complex than TKAM, and I would agree. It explores the complexity of human beings, particularly people we love (and especially people we love who hold abhorrent views). I do NOT think, as Michiko Kakutani said in her NY Times review, that this novel upends everything we thought we knew about Atticus Finch. Instead, the novel gives him some interesting and unsettling failings that nonetheless can be reconciled with what he did in the courtroom when he defended Tom Robinson (the fact that he is acquitted in this book, and it wasn’t changed to reconcile with the events of TKAM was a mistake, I think—and it shows this book had very little outside editing).
In terms of the controversy surrounding its publication, there is this to consider: this book was discovered, and it would have been published after Lee died without her blessing. It just would have. There is no way a discovery like that is made and people don’t want to bring it to light, either for good reasons or bad ones. Did Lee want the book to be published now? I don’t know. But either way, it would have happened. One way to think about it is this: publishing the book while Lee is still alive means she will at least reap some of the benefit from the sales. If it had been published after her death, none of it would have gone to Harper Lee at all. This new books has not diminished Lee’s achievement with TKAM, and it has brought interesting nuance to beloved characters we thought we knew.
I haven’t looked forward to a book’s release so much since the last Harry Potter book, and I can’t remember the last time there was so much discussion about a book. Perhaps some of my friends will think I’m bad for reading it, but like I told Nick White, there is just no way I can skip a Harper Lee book. I just can’t. I am really glad I read it. It has some interesting things to say about the complexities of the South, and as Mary Badham (who played Scout in the movie) said during a Q&A livestream I watched, this novel is interesting particularly in light of what we have experienced as a nation in the last year.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I struggled over how to rate this because it’s impossible not to compare it to TKAM, so I asked myself, if it weren’t Harper Lee, what would you have rated it? I probably would have given it a 5 then. I do grade pretty easily, but I also can’t remember the last time I gulped a book in one sitting. Surely, that says something.
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July 13, 2015
I read and reviewed the first volume of John Lewis’s civil rights graphic memoir March: Book One. It took me a little while to get around to reading Book Two, but I picked it up today.
March: Book Two picks up where Book One left off after successful sit-ins in Nashville. In this volume, Lewis becomes more involved with SNCC and becomes increasingly involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He describes participation in several protests, namely attempting to integrate a movie theater in Nashville and testing the Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court decision through participation the Freedom Rides. He rises to Chairman of the SNCC and describes his role in the March on Washington. He also mentions the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham as a pivotal moment that convinced Kennedy he needed to act (of course, he was assassinated before the Civil Rights Act could be passed). The book ends as the 16th Street Baptist Church is bombed.
Graphic memoir is the perfect medium for telling this story. As much as I have read about it and heard about it and even seen some pictures, these drawings of the frequent violence convey the danger and menace in ways that other media cannot. Cameras could not always go the same places as the soldiers on the frontline of the Civil Rights Movement went, but their memories can be brought to life through this artistic medium.
As with the first volume, this volume flashes back and forth between Barack Obama’s inauguration and Lewis’s memories of the Civil Rights Movement. If anything, the device works even better in this volume. It easy to see how the experiences Lewis had in the 1960’s would have been on his mind as he watched America’s first African-American president be sworn into office.
As in the previous volume, this volume taught me some things I didn’t realize. I didn’t know that Lewis knew Stokely Carmichael. I guess I should have known they knew each other because Lewis has talked about being sent to Parchman Farm with the Freedom Riders, and Carmichael was sent there for the same reason. I guess we tend to compartmentalize and organize people who participated in the Movement without the understanding that at first, they were working side by side (at least a little bit). Carmichael succeeded Lewis as chairman of SNCC. Like I said, I didn’t put it together somehow. I am also a bit embarrassed to admit that though I knew Lewis was there at the March on Washington and at Selma, I didn’t realize he was a Freedom Rider. Lewis has said that he wanted to write his memoir in this way to share his remembrances of the Civil Rights Movement because he thought children would learn from it. Not that this book is just for children or could necessarily be considered a children’s book. However, I think Lewis was on to something with this idea. Here are some tweets with images of Lewis at the San Diego Comic Con, dressed in cosplay as himself—as he dressed for the Selma March.
I had the opportunity to recreate what I wore on March 7, 1965 and march with some amazing young people. pic.twitter.com/0zjGj4jv86
— John Lewis (@repjohnlewis) July 12, 2015
— HuffPost Politics (@HuffPostPol) July 13, 2015
— Ari Kelman (@AriKelman) July 12, 2015
Yes, I think Lewis gets it about the way to tell his story.
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July 12, 2015
I am trying to decide whether or not it’s worth it to keep going with I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira. I am about 100 pages in, and it’s still not grabbing me. I have read that it’s a slow starter, but there is slow and there is glacial. I guess the real kicker for me, too, is that it’s historical fiction, and I’m not really learning much. The people are not jumping off the page for me. I guess I have answered my question. Makes me sad because I invested a good amount of time in it and was so looking forward to it. I will be even sadder if I invest more time in it, and there never is a payoff. Anyone read this book and care to comment?
On the plus side, as I put this book aside for a while, I managed to finish several books. Reviews up:
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Shadeland, Andrew Grace
Unless it Moves the Human Heart, Roger Rosenblatt
I enjoyed all three and read each of them quickly (for me). Given the amount of time I’ve spent on I Always Loved You, I haven’t moved much. Oh, I hate to give up on a book. I don’t have any real sense of failure or anything; it’s just that I really wanted to like this one. I mean really! And Susan Vreeland, one of my favorite contemporary writers who writes about art, gave it a lovely blurb.
In other news, Go Set a Watchman is being released on Tuesday, and it’s been all over the news because you can read the first chapter, which drops a big bomb in a shocking, matter-of-fact way. However, a lot more hay has been made out of Michiko Kakutani’s revelation that Atticus is a racist. People who are surprised by this revelation are forgetting a few crucial points:
To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by a young girl (and granted, a grown woman, to a certain extent) who idolizes her father. We so want to see the best in our loved ones.
Atticus is a bit saintly in TKAM. Could it be that this is Lee’s attempt to show the inherent contradictions in people? Don’t we all have someone in our lives whom we love… but who holds opinions we hate? If you agree with everyone in your family on every aspect religion, politics, and civil rights, well, you’re pretty fortunate. It is possible for the Atticus in both books to be the same man. Actually, it’s fairly interesting. Do we wish Atticus were not racist? Naturally we do. In the same way we wish our own family members would just have a different view about ______. Right?
It is possible for a person like Atticus to feel like he should defend Tom Robinson and still not want his grandchildren to go to school with the Tom Robinson’s grandchildren. People have an amazing ability to compartmentalize. Yes, they might say, I believe black and white people can marry if they want to, but they shouldn’t have children. Or yes, they might say, I believe gay people have the right to go about without being assaulted, but they shouldn’t marry. A lot of people have lines they draw. Atticus might feel that it isn’t fair for a black man to be wrongfully accused of rape and go to prison for it, but that doesn’t mean he is interested in equality.
Atticus is older. Sometimes, as people age, they grow more frightened of the “other.” And think about what the Civil Rights Movement may have looked like to an aging man who was frightened of the changes it meant. He might have been more tolerant in a time when it didn’t look like things would change so drastically. I don’t know about you, but in this year when there has been so much racial tension in the US, I have noticed more overt bigotry than I have seen in a long time. People are upset, so it’s easy to cast someone as the “other” and lump people together and stereotype based on prejudice. People are feeling in many ways as though their beliefs and the way they live are under attack. I have seen it. In 2015. Sometimes I wonder how it will look in 50 or 60 years when we look back on this year. Go Set a Watchman alludes to a monumental Supreme Court case (presumably Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, KS.). We had a monumental decision this year, too. And a lot of people felt attacked by it.
I am not excusing Atticus. I am also not saying not to be disappointed in Atticus. I am, too! I would love for him to be the hero, the man ahead of his time. But it might be premature for us to be dismiss the book as untrue to his character. After all, how can we know it is? We only know what Scout told us before, and what we do learn from reviews of GSAW is that Scout herself is disillusioned by what she learns about her father. We all know people who have views we might consider contradictory, and people change over time. Time has passed from TKAM to GSAW. I am still going to read it.
I found some other related links you might find interesting:
Playing Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird changed my life
The Guardian’s review
The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism (Malcolm Gladwell is quite the astute reader of Atticus’s character and picked up on nuances many people missed)
The Atlantic explores the way the gay marriage decision has split public opinion in two
Added to my TBR pile since last week:
The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.
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July 11, 2015
Despite being an English teacher for seventeen years (and English Education major), I have somehow not read Mrs. Dalloway until now. Frankly, I think I was daunted by how difficult I had heard it was. On the other hand, perhaps books come to us when we’re ready for them. Perhaps I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway until now because I didn’t need to. I’m not really even sure what made me suddenly pick it up a few days ago. True, I do plan to teach it in my AP class in the coming year (I have never taught AP before, and this book is often mentioned on the test and shows up as a recommended text for the course). But that is not the only reason. I have more books I need to read for that class, and I have more summer stretching before me to read. In fact, given I just returned from Ohio farm country, you might have thought I would choose something a bit more American to delve into (I’m doing A Thousand Acres in my AP course as well, and I could easily have found myself in the Cook family’s Iowan King Lear). I think I was just ready for this one.
If you’ve not read it and know nothing about it (which was NOT the case with me—I am English teacher/major enough to at least say I knew basically what it was about), Mrs. Dalloway is the story of a day in the life of the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway, who famously begins by deciding to get the flowers for her party herself. The book follows her thoughts as she embarks on this outing, and then flits from her thoughts to those of other characters, including Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Lucrezia, a shell-shocked WWI veteran struggling with mental illness and his homesick Italian wife, whom he married on a whim at the end of the war; Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s former suitor, whom she declined to marry; Clarissa’s husband Richard, the model of British reserve; Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, who feels constrained by her femininity and wants to be a farmer or a doctor; Miss Kilman, a lower-class educated woman who tutors Elizabeth, and who (it is implied) Elizabeth is in love with; and several other characters. It does require some concentration to follow, but it works as a device because of the connections between the characters. Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party—she takes delight in throwing parties and bringing people together, though both her husband and Peter have difficulty understanding why parties are so important to her, and Peter disparages her as a perfect hostess. What is really at the forefront, however, is preoccupation with death. Clarissa Dalloway clearly feels afraid of the prospect of dying, and she worries about the choices she has made in her life, including marrying Richard. Her story is intertwined with Septimus Warren Smith’s, and at the end, her observation about Septimus’s death brings the two storylines together in a satisfying if someone ambiguous ending.
I don’t really know what to say about this book. It’s 90 years old, and given its prominence in literature, it’s been dissected ten ways to Sunday. I don’t really feel the need to dissect it (I will do that with my students!). The first thing I felt as I became immersed in the story is that I was in the presence of greatness. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this book. At the end, when I closed the book on the last page, I was in awe of Woolf’s mastery. She elevated the lives of people many of us would dismiss—namely, Clarissa and Septimus. It’s easy to view Clarissa from afar and see her as shallow, reserved, conservative—someone who squandered her life on silly parties and never felt deeply. But she feels things deeply. She is recovering from a vague illness (the sense that it was a mental illness becomes clear when we learn she was a patient of the evil Dr. Sir William Bradshaw, who announces Septimus’s death at Clarissa’s party). It’s also easy to dismiss Septimus as “crazy.” I found myself particularly drawn to his storyline because of the empathy which Woolf makes the reader feel. Septimus fought for English ideals in the war and came out damaged (he’s one of the first victims of shell shock in literature). The descriptions of the voices he hears and his hallucinations made me truly ache for him, but they were drawn so astutely that it is impossible to forget that Woolf herself suffered from mental illness and also succumbed to suicide.
I love books. I don’t often close books and think, I just finished a masterpiece. Often, I have to think about a book for a while and have a sense of it working on my psyche before I can tell it’s a masterpiece. I didn’t even have to finish this book completely before I already knew it was a masterpiece; I felt all the time I was reading it that Virginia Woolf was a genius. But once I finished it, all I could do is sit and think and be in awe of Virginia Woolf’s command of the English language (this book is really a gorgeous prose poem) and her understanding of the importance of all of our stories—all of us, every person, has a profound story, and there is beauty and mystery in the average day.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I’m counting this as my Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I’ve already done a London book for the Reading England Challenge, but it’s a pity because this is a quintessentially London novel. I had thought I’d read it later in the year and count it for my Bloomsbury group novel in the Literary Movement Reading Challenge, but given I’m teaching it in the coming year, I didn’t feel good about waiting until November to read it. (Boy, I’ve gone off the rails with that challenge.)
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July 8, 2015
I ordred Andrew Grace’s poetry collection Shadeland after reading his poem “Field Guide for How to Pioneer the Midwest” in the May/June 2015 issue of The Kenyon Review.What particularly struck me about that poem was the simple, relatively unadorned language that not only brought the American pioneer to life, but made him beautiful. It reminded me of stories I had heard. My ancestors living in a dugout in the Texas plains until they could build a house. My great-great-great grandmother crying when the wagon stopped for the night because she didn’t know how to do anything except have babies and look pretty. There is something about westward expansion and farming that that really captures the American spirit for me, so I was eager to delve into more of Andrew Grace’s poetry. His website describes the collection as follows:
Shadeland is not only the name of the Illinois farm on which poet Andrew Grace was raised, it is also that elusive space where language attempts to recover all that has been lost. Deeply concerned with the state of today’s rural spaces, Grace’s poems describe a landscape and a lifestyle that are both eroding.
Stylistically rangy, yet united by an ardent eye for intricate imagery, Shadeland features allusions and influences as classical as Homer, Virgil, and Hopkins while still exhibiting a poetic sensibility that is thoroughly contemporary. Employing a blend of baroque and innovative language, these 21st-century pastorals and anti-pastorals both celebrate and elegize the buckshot-peppered silos and instill cornfields that are quietly vanishing from the countryside.
I would definitely agree that the collection is stylistically rangy. Of the poems I liked best, I found myself responding most to the ones that were more like “Field Guide for How to Pioneer the Midwest.” I loved the simple “Pilgrim Sonnet,” which evoked the call to settle the west and elevated it to religious pilgrimage. I’m not so sure it really wasn’t, after reading this poem. I also liked the six-part ekphrastic poem “Dinner for Threshers” inspired by the Grant Wood painting. Possibly my favorite poem was “Z,” which captures with beautiful simplicity the death of the speaker’s father in a farming accident and connects it to “the wind from Illinois” that has shaped and destroyed. It’s really a gorgeous poem. I also really liked “The Outermost Shrine of the Narrowest Road,” “Of Love and Wild Dogs,” “Is to Say,” and “For Tityrus,” all of which I felt were beautifully direct in their language. I think after reading Roger Rosenblatt, I’m noticing the nouns and verbs and the ways in which modifiers detract rather than add. I did try re-writing “Of Love and Wild Dogs” without modifiers in my writing journal, and it has a stark effect, stripping the language in that way. It is something I think I will experiment with in my own writing—drafting it as it comes and then revising to strip the modifiers.
I found this article about Shadeland, which is the family farm that gives its name to this collection. It sounds like quite a place, and I can see why it inspired Andrew Grace. He somehow managed to capture so much about farming in America in this collection, from the promise of early settlers to the ever-shrinking endangered family farm. People have a complicated relationship with the earth, and nowhere does that seem more apparent to me than in farming, which has been a metaphor for the human struggle since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden.
I had more or less forgotten how much I like poetry until going to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers, and now I find myself seeking it out and wondering how I could have set it aside. Andrew Grace’s collection Shadeland was a nice re-introduction.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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July 7, 2015
I picked up Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing based on a recommendation from Marsha McGregor, a teaching fellow at the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers in which I participated last week. It’s a tough book to categorize: it’s part memoir, part writing advice, and part model for teaching writing to others. It takes the unusual form of conversation as it tracks a particular writing class’s progress.
Rosenblatt explains in his preface that the book is “fiction, top to bottom” but is based on the real problems and subjects his class discussed. It’s admittedly a somewhat quirky format for a book of this type. As such, it will not appeal to all writers seeking advice (or all writing teachers seeking advice, and certainly not to people looking for a memoir). Rather than offering nuggets of wisdom in the form of bulleted lists or bold headings, Rosenblatt’s understanding of what it means to write and to teach writing is buried within the narrative about one class. As such, it invites careful reading, and I found myself reading some pages over and highlighting often. Even so, it’s a quick, conversational read.
I pulled a few ideas for lessons from its pages. I loved the discussion he shared of James Joyce’s short story “Clay,” which I also stopped to read before continuing with that part of Rosenblatt’s book. He has a another idea for students to create their own anthologies—not of their own work, but of poems they like and want to group together. As Rosenblatt says, “By the end of the course they have created a little book that speaks for their taste” (67). The book has many excellent reading recommendations (a book that added to my TBR pile—just what I need!). In particular, Rosenblatt shares models he uses for teaching personal essays as well as types of personal essays he assigns. His descriptions of class discussions are great models for lessons.
As I write all of this, I wonder if I shouldn’t have reviewed this book on my education blog, whose audience might more be the audience for this book, but I’m not entirely sure. I think anyone who writes might benefit from reading it. As I said, the time investment isn’t great—the book is only about 150 pages—and the dividends are worth it.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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