I've been a big fan of James Baldwin's work since graduate school when I read Giovanni's Room and encountered some of his essays. Since then I've readI've been a big fan of James Baldwin's work since graduate school when I read Giovanni's Room and encountered some of his essays. Since then I've read and began teaching some of his short stories, but it wasn't until recently that I was able to pick up another of his novels. I read this one for a short course on African American Identity where it was coupled with Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Mat Johnson's Pym. As with most coursework, I liked it all the more once I had a chance to discuss it with a professorial leader and other high school English teachers!
The narrative is sort of brilliant given that it was first published in the early 1950s: the entirety of the contemporary plot takes place one night as the teenage protagonist John crosses over to salvation during a storefront revival meeting run by his stepfather, a man John believes is his biological father. Much of the story however takes us back through time in a telescopic style of flashback where earlier truths are unmade and unseemly actions are justified. (The style actually reminds me a lot of Morrison's The Bluest Eye.) At times, I found myself having a hard time following the overlapping storylines and the ways in which these characters were all related, but once I had a substantial amount of the text behind me, it all came into sharper focus.
The novel is apparently fairly autobiographical, as Baldwin himself was a teenage member of his parents storefront church, and he struggled with his own homosexuality just as John does in the text. The real focus here though is the ways in which these African American men and women struggle with their own salvation--both religiously and socially--and how this grappling with the soul manifests in maintaining the cycles of oppression of the dominant white world.
The book isn't necessary an easy read, but it is one that provides some terrific perspective on the major works that followed it....more
Just as my recent forays into Henry James, this is precisely how I like my canonical texts that focus on the repression of emotion boiling over from tJust as my recent forays into Henry James, this is precisely how I like my canonical texts that focus on the repression of emotion boiling over from the Victorian Era: short and sweet. Wharton's short novel effectively captures the paralysis of a life half lived, and the foolish tendencies of us all to make things worse by following the allure of passion rather than dealing with the realities of our lives....more
I really enjoyed this super short novella (some call it a long short story) by Henry James. With its focus on the upper class hypocritical expectationI really enjoyed this super short novella (some call it a long short story) by Henry James. With its focus on the upper class hypocritical expectations of feminine decency, the book presents the titular character as "an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence." Her pseudo-suitor, Mr. Winterbourne is conflicted about his attraction to her and his own place in society that would be jeopardized by too close a connection to the woman. In the end, the short span of the narrative ends up a distilled version of Wharton's The Age of Innocence, one that reaches its point far more succinctly and with much more endearing characters....more
I picked this up anticipating teaching it this fall to my high school students. This is my first time reading a James novel in its entirety, and the sI picked this up anticipating teaching it this fall to my high school students. This is my first time reading a James novel in its entirety, and the spooky mystery that surrounds the plot here had me hooked immediately once the plot began to unfurl. Admittedly, this happens a few chapters into the book, as James uses the nineteenth century conceit of having one character tell the story essentially through hearsay. The unnamed governess at the center the book relates an eerie experience presiding over two young children who appear to be under the influence of two ghostly characters that once worked at the grand estate called Bly where she now resides. The initial appearance of these apparitions is riveting as the reasons for their presence are immediately deemed sinister and dangerous. In the final chapters, the characterization takes some sharp turns, and while the climax in the final line of the story leaves far too much open to interpretation, I am looking forward to discussing with students what exactly the ending means, especially as it pertains to the governess and her experiences at Bly and her reliability as a narrator!...more
I want to enjoy reading Chang-rae Lee more than I do. His prose has a lyrical quality that is gorgeous at times, but his narratives leave me feeling aI want to enjoy reading Chang-rae Lee more than I do. His prose has a lyrical quality that is gorgeous at times, but his narratives leave me feeling a bit cold and aloof. Native Speaker is a worthy read for a variety of reasons. It is an interesting character study of the Korean American man struggling with societal racial tensions and familial responsibilities. This is all overlaid with some late-developing political intrigue when the narrator and protagonist Henry Park begins working as a spy for up and coming New York politician John Kwang, an older Korean immigrant possibly making a bid to replace the white mayor of New York City. The interplay between Park and Kwang providing a great structure for the final hundred pages of the book, and I wish Kwang had been introduced as a counterpart for Park earlier. The many flashbacks to Park's past, including his struggles with his immigrant parents and a Boston-born white wife, could only have been strengthened with the scaffolding that the Kwang storyline provides in the late part of the novel. This would be a great book to read in a graduate seminar, or as a friend suggested to teach as a companion to Invisible Man, but I think I suffered a bit simply reading it for recreation....more
Definitely not my style of novel, The Age of Innocence only mildly held my attention with its themes of societal hypocrisy in the upper class, a commeDefinitely not my style of novel, The Age of Innocence only mildly held my attention with its themes of societal hypocrisy in the upper class, a commentary that may have been intriguing in the 1920s but seems tired in the twenty-first century. Archer Newland and Ellen Olenska are slaves to their positions in New York's elite stratosphere, yet their paralysis to act on their passions, especially when the option to do so without hurting anyone avails itself to them, inspired lots of eye-rolling on my part. While the Puritanical values of America still deaden us in many ways, the style of Wharton's writing isn't as engaging as postmodern texts on the same themes. (However, I am incredibly happy to check off Pulitzer winner number three off my list and move on to Alice Adams!)...more
Based on my experiences reading student essays and just listening to the general literary grapevine, I was already pretty familiar with the plot of ThBased on my experiences reading student essays and just listening to the general literary grapevine, I was already pretty familiar with the plot of Things Fall Apart before I started reading the actual text. I knew the narrative to be a compelling representation of the collision between British colonialism and Nigerian nativism. Upon engaging with the text however, I was struck by the level at which Achebe succeeds in allowing both the civility and the barbarism to coexist within both societies so eloquently. Okonkwo's characterization and arc are difficult portrayals of the effects of Western greed disguised in salvation coupled with the harsh realities of a shifting native culture that cannot catch up with its destructive deliverance from primitivism. This is a book I'd like to read again in the future, especially if given the opportunity to teach it. My four-star rating is due primarily to the disconnected style in which Achebe relates the story; perhaps this is culturally stylistic or even representative of an allegorical technique, but I found it difficult to truly connect with Okonkwo in the way I expect to when reading fiction. In hindsight though, this might be due to his character's truly difficult position of being a father caught in changing times within his chosen homeland. Some of the difficult actions he takes(view spoiler)[--beating his wives, murdering his adopted child, disowning his son-- (hide spoiler)]which might be unpalatable if the reader feels too close to him....more
Gaines's premise--chapters narrated by many different characters, each unfolding the mystery of the white man's corpse surrounded by dozens of old blaGaines's premise--chapters narrated by many different characters, each unfolding the mystery of the white man's corpse surrounded by dozens of old black men claiming they each individually killed him--is certainly a great study in perspective; however, the many different characters and the jolting shifts in voice from chapter to chapter make this a rather discombobulating read. In the early portions of the book, the reader's confusion mirrors that of the characters, learning of the white man's murder secondhand amidst a confusing flurry of action as the old men gather at the scene of the crime, yet as the book progresses, that uncertainty about who is who and what is happening dissipates for the characters yet remains for the reader.
There is too my sense that Gaines's narrative is a bit dated. I am a huge fan of racial identity theories being integrated within a piece of literature, yet this story, set on in the late 1970s, feels too heavy handed in promoting the theme that times are changing. That said, there are still important social elements of this book, primarily the past injustices that force men and women to make brash, bold decisions.
I didn't feel truly involved in the plot until about a third of the way into the book, and the only time I felt compelled to continue reading was during the final staccato chapters that bring the story to a conclusion. ...more
This was definitely a great read from a purely historical and cultural perspective. Reading the original text of story that has totally infiltrated ouThis was definitely a great read from a purely historical and cultural perspective. Reading the original text of story that has totally infiltrated our popular culture even hundreds of years after it was written was totally intriguing! The most interesting piece for me though was how little Shelley devotes to providing veracity to the outlandish elements of her narrative. I suppose I'm just a product of modern science fiction in which verisimilitude is of primary importance, but there is absolutely NO discussion here about how exactly Frankenstein creates his monster. The narration literally suggests he just works really hard and then suddenly succeeds. The same is true of the preposterous voice of the monster. He speaks incredibly eloquently in more than one language, a product of eavesdropping on a family for a few months through a hole in the wall.
Clearly the focus here is the morality of science and creation, which in itself is totally worthy of devotion. At times Shelley hits us over the head with her themes, particularly when the creature voraciously reads John Milton's "Paradise Lost" and immediately identifies with Adam, as well as elements of the fallen angel Lucifer. However, the themes morality, responsibility, and even parenting are sufficient to make this a truly absorbing story!...more
I wish I had read this book in high school with a great teacher who could have walked me through the complexities of this novel. Having never experienI wish I had read this book in high school with a great teacher who could have walked me through the complexities of this novel. Having never experienced the book that way though, I'm glad I'm not the teacher being asked to lead a group of students down that path. The book is great, and at the same time, my head was spinning as I tried to make sense of the disjointed chronology of Billy Pilgrim's time travel and alien abduction. The scenes of the war, and in particular the bombings in Dresden are devastating, and the fantastical science fiction elements tempered what could have been a far too heavy book. Displaying some of Vonnegut's trademark dark humor in what seems like a deeply personal tale for him knowing what I do about his own experiences in the war, the book at once enjoyable and moving. It's a worth a read, especially if some erudite literary scholar can lead you through hard parts....more
I've been a high school English teacher now for eleven years, and this was my first time reading The Scarlet Letter. In all my years of schooling, theI've been a high school English teacher now for eleven years, and this was my first time reading The Scarlet Letter. In all my years of schooling, the book was never assigned to me, and I've never had to teach a course where it was required reading. I've graded plenty of AP Lit essays on the novel, and I have a working knowledge of the inner-workings of the classic, but I was still pleasantly surprised at how intriguing the plot is.
Granted, the first chapter is deadly, and at nearly a fifth of the novel's total length, it's a doozy trying to get through it, but once Hawthorne actually takes us back into Puritan New England, the characters and structure of the book pulled me in. Obviously, it would have been an even more engaging read if I hadn't known the identity of Hester's baby daddy, yet still there were pleasant plot and character surprises peppered throughout that kept my interest.
It's a very difficult read--and I can't even begin to think how I might break it down for students in a manner that they might actually read the original text (and not just detailed summaries)--but one that's fairly rewarding in the end....more
Sorry ladies, but this wasn't my cup of tea. I really struggled with whether or not to give this book two or three stars, but I never considered givinSorry ladies, but this wasn't my cup of tea. I really struggled with whether or not to give this book two or three stars, but I never considered giving it anything higher. It took me a few months to get through the whole book; I kept putting it down to read something more exciting. I persevered however, and I do have a nice sense of accomplishment for having finished it.
Early on, I felt myself totally distressed at the story, this nineteenth century romantic comedy seemed actually totally dark to me. The Bennets' mother is comically concerned with her five daughters' marriage prospects and their father sits idly by making witty jokes at his wife's expense. Their mother is truly distressed about their daughters' future, but she's painted in such caricatured tones that the true sadness behind all of these women's plights is totally obfuscated. Then there is the reality that the vast majority of people's lives during this time period were not consumed with moving from estate to estate and attending balls; the sheer decadence of the lifestyle (especially when it is portrayed as near destitution) was a bit appalling to me.
As a piece of history, I can appreciate this important stepping stone in the advancement of women's literature and women's rights, yet I literally slogged my way through it and barely enjoyed a moment....more
Not much to say on this one other than that it was a real challenge. I'm sure if I read it in college with a literature professor to unpack everythingNot much to say on this one other than that it was a real challenge. I'm sure if I read it in college with a literature professor to unpack everything for me, I would absolutely adore this book, yet reading it on my own with nothing to keep my endurance than the embarrassment of not having finished it for my book club, I found it hardly enjoyable. Faulkner constructs some beautiful prose at times, but the narrative structure here is incredibly confusing. (Had I the time and the inclination, this would be a great second or third read, knowing what I do now having finished it once.) A friend showed me her copy, which includes an appendix that Faulkner wrote detailing intricate backstories and explanations for each character, an aid that would have been invaluable on my first reading. However, if such an appendix is necessary for mere comprehension, I wonder what the value is of crafting such ambiguous characters and situations is in the first place.
I definitely won't pick up another Faulkner book for a while, yet I still have this burning desire to read As I Lay Dying and a friend told me that it's not nearly as "difficult" a book...so perhaps some day in the future I'll try to climb Faulkner's mountain again....more
I knew the basic outline of the plot before sitting down to read this for the first time, but I was in no way prepared for how truly screwed up theseI knew the basic outline of the plot before sitting down to read this for the first time, but I was in no way prepared for how truly screwed up these people are. In what must be the original dysfunctional family, Bronte's characters are true animals, salivating and foaming at the mouth (at times literally) as they fight over all the petty possessions that come with being the upper class. The irony here is of course that their station in life in no way sets them above the working class. While the novel is essentially narrated by an upper class gentleman named Lockwood, it is really Nelly, the longtime servant of the Earnshaws and Lintons, who relates the true depravity of the plot. Lockwood's fascination with the story (at one point he even contemplates he is in love with a character he has only met briefly based on Nelly's explanation of the past few decades) exposes him as a shallow fop. While Heathcliff is the true villain here, his wickedness is cultivated early on by the other characters, the ones who, unlike him, are born in this life of privilege and materialism. His marginalization as a child turns him into the bitter and crazed man he becomes as an adult. Bronte's commentary here on the hypocrisies of the British elite are brilliant and riveting, and this certainly makes me wonder why people are so into Jane Austen when there is this clearly superior alternative....more
My head is still spinning from this utterly fantastic book. (I'm not quite sure how I got out of high school and college without having read it!) WritMy head is still spinning from this utterly fantastic book. (I'm not quite sure how I got out of high school and college without having read it!) Written almost a century ago, Huxley's novel is eerily prophetic in its depiction of a culture that promotes promiscuity as "virtuous" and that pushes individuals toward chemical happiness. The narrative naturally includes all of the standard dystopian literary elements: Bernard is the underdeveloped Alpha who becomes "elated by the intoxicating consciousness of his individual significance and importance" in spite of the government's attempts to eliminate individuality; Lenina is his unquestioning love interest who willingly embraces the propaganda that sustains society's status quo; and John the Savage is the outsider who provides an alternative perspective to the shallow perfection of the World State. Unlike feeling tired after so many decades of reinvention by other authors, the story is invigorating in a manner that is far more easily preserved than some of its contemporaries, such as George Orwell's 1984, which although equally as brilliant suffers from a title and setting that has dated it for the past thirty years.
Beyond the precision with which Huxley predicts our reality from the vantage of the early twentieth century, what is so scary about the book is its honesty in depicting what utopian societies truly require: a prominent figure claims that "the secret of happiness and virtue [is] making people like their un-escapable social destiny." The novel suggests that humanity requires a caste system, whether formalized as it is in the World State of Brave New World or conveyed as subtext as it is in our own world. Admitting the static nature of those social positions however is antithetical to the ideals that promote capitalism in the Western world and would likely lead us inevitably down the path to this "brave new world" in which babies are born in test tubes and chemically engineered to fulfill their future line of work. The commentary here though provides for an inescapable contradiction. The perceived perfection of the World State is actually a flaw, supposedly only because we have history and our own reality to which we can compare it. Near the novel's closing, a government official details his belief that "actual happiness always looks squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand." Perhaps this is precisely why our current society soldiers on in the face of such vast disparities in social justice and economic representation....more
I'll start with a confession: I'm a thirty-something English teacher who got out of both high school and college without having read The Awakening! ThI'll start with a confession: I'm a thirty-something English teacher who got out of both high school and college without having read The Awakening! This was one on a long list of books that I feel I always should have been forced to read in some literature class somewhere and yet probably never would have even then. A few week ago though I thought it was time to cross off one more of the "classics," and this was a fairly short one!
As with most of those classics on my list, I knew the novel's plot fairly well long before beginning: New Orleans woman (Edna) at the turn of the century feels trapped by her loveless marriage, flirts with young men, and is enveloped by a lot of avian symbolism. I even knew the novel's "dramatic" ending. With all that baggage, I found the opening fairly jolting. I don't think this would necessarily qualify as in medias res, but Chopin's contextualizing leaves a lot to be desired. This of course may have been due to the fact that I usually read this late at night after a long day, but I found myself confused by who certain characters were, particularly Edna's primary love interest Robert, the man who unintentionally entices her to escape the confines of her marriage. The opening setting finds Edna at a posh beach resort halfheartedly spurning Robert's fairly innocent flirtatious advances, and all I could picture was the young pool boy chasing after the aging cougar. (I actually had to go to Sparknotes at some point only to discover he was the resort owner's prodigal son. I must have missed something key in the opening.)
The remaining chapters (at least a third of the book) that follow those summer months irritatingly mirror the slow pace that the wealthy vacationers hope to enjoy while on holiday. Once Edna returns to New Orleans though, the narrative took some interesting turns, and I found myself enthralled in Edna's exploits, including "the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded...a flaming torch that kindled desire." Attempting to exert control from afar, her clueless husband "beg[s:] her to consider first, foremost, and above all else, what people would say" about her liberal attitudes about independence, a dolt of a representation of male ignorance and oppression. As her summer romance with Robert morphs into something truly intriguing, Edna notices "a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual."
Edna's final realizations regarding the men in her life and their power over her future--and probably more importantly the way in which they have shaped her present through the role they have played in her identity development in the past--lead to a believable controversial ending. Still, the style of the novel didn't live up to my expectations, and it especially didn't live up to the elements of the plot that truly piqued my interest....more
I escaped high school and college having never read any George Orwell and having just finished 1984 I understand what a tragedy that is! This novel isI escaped high school and college having never read any George Orwell and having just finished 1984 I understand what a tragedy that is! This novel is totally brilliant, especially given the time period in which it was written. Orwell’s ability to see with utter clarity the mad power grab of those in power as they strive to maintain the hierarchical nature of Western society is something I never (and perhaps this is a fault of my own deficiencies of history and philosophical thought) considered to be as keenly focused it is presented within this book.
I see so much of what Orwell details in this futuristic dystopia that is London in 1984 as part of our current political establishment in America. When Winston is given the book by The Brotherhood, he reads Emmanuel Goldstein’s dissertation on the power structure of the “oligarchical collectivism” that exists in his world. As Big Brother’s archenemy, Goldstein lays out for would-be activists the how and the why the Party maintains order and it reads (admittedly a bit didactically) almost as a manual for the powers that be of the read world today. He claims that “if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realise that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.” While this thought might be a bit radical, I really feel that many politicians, especially those on the right subconsciously suppress social programs to maintain the balance of power in their own favors. Goldstein’s thoughts on war or similarly prophetic: “The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed.” In his book, he makes the argument to his readers that war in particular feeds the need to keep the lower levels of social hierarchies from achieving a comfort of living that would afford them time to consider their country’s leadership while also taking an emotional toll on the people, provoking fear and patriotism. In the context of the novel of course, this knowledge eventually wreaks havoc on Winston’s own attempts to rebel and the accuracy of the very existence of Goldstein is called into question, leaving Winston and the reader to wonder if the rumors of rebellion that are characterized by the elusive Brotherhood are merely another tactic of Big Brother in controlling the masses, particularly those intellectuals like Winston.
So much of the book reads as though it were written in response to today’s world and not the world of the mid-twentieth century; however elements of it are clearly dated. Orwell’s pre-sexual revolution male perspective comes through slightly in his depiction of Winston’s lover Julia, a much younger woman who wants nothing more than a sexual relationship with Winston. It is not until he sees her with “just a few dabs of colour [make up:] in the right places” that he discovers she is “not only very much prettier, but above all, far more feminine.” Julia not only represents the dated male fantasy of the oversexed younger woman who is madly in love with the man beginning his midlife crisis though. Orwell sets up the age difference to also brilliantly bring into the play the varying attitudes of different generations to political oppression. Julia is only concerned about subverting Big Brother and the Party in so much as it effects her own pleasure. She could not care less about playing a role in a larger and longer political movement, whereas Winston understands that he will likely never live to see the day that the masses overthrow Big Brother and is still willing to play his part. Winston idyllically tells her that he “can imagine little knots of resistance springing up here and there—small groups of people banding themselves together, and gradually growing, and even leaving a few records behind, so that the generation can carry on where we leave off,” to which Julia responds, “I’m not interested in the next generation dear. I’m interested in us,” clearly representing the voice of egocentric adolescence and early adulthood. Winston reacts with an objectifying and biting comment that she is “only a rebel from the waist downwards,” again displaying some of the misogyny that creeps into the novel from time to time, perhaps even deliberately on Orwell’s part.
In 1984, Orwell creates a brilliant depiction of an oppressive society that seems far too realistic to be true fiction, something we should all be wary of even as we move further and further away from the actual 1984! ...more
This was a totally incredible book (until the second to last chapter, but more on that later). This is the only novel of the three that I've read by MThis was a totally incredible book (until the second to last chapter, but more on that later). This is the only novel of the three that I've read by Morrison that I totally understand why people consider a truly gifted writer. The craft of her writing here is fantastic; everything is so carefully constructed for the first thirteen chapters. I found myself just pausing several times while reading to bask in her words. And beyond the poetry of her prose, the storyline is totally riveting too. I'm finishing up teaching it right now, and while most of my sophomores are struggling through the weight of the text, the majority of them have said it's the best thing they've read this year in class! I recently read A Mercy and virtually hated it, and I've read The Bluest Eye, which I loved but didn't realize how good her writing could be until reading Song of Solomon!
Now even though I'm going on and on about how great this book is, the second to last chapter was a bit of a let down. As my friend Ingrid says, Morrison just gets too "didactic" in that section. The storyline is centered on the protagonist finding his identity, and in chapter 14 (of 15), he runs encounters a woman who answers every last question he could possibly ask about who his family is. I literally felt like Morrison's editor read chapter 13 and said, "Honey, we need to wrap this thing up." (She returns to the beauty of the first portion of the book for the final chapter luckily!)...more
I just read this for the first time since sophomore year of high school...although come to think of it I may not have actually read it then. I just stI just read this for the first time since sophomore year of high school...although come to think of it I may not have actually read it then. I just started teaching it to my own sophomores, and in rereading it I'm struck by how subtle so much of the meaning is here. I know my students are going to struggle with that. But it's a great read, and I need to do some serious considering of how I'm going to access so many of the mature nuances for my students so that they both enjoy it and think critically about it. (Not much of a review, but such are my thoughts at 11:00 on a school night...)...more
Oh my god. How did I go 31 years without reading this book?!?! I'm starting it with my sophomores next week and I cannot wait! It's so good! Why wasn'Oh my god. How did I go 31 years without reading this book?!?! I'm starting it with my sophomores next week and I cannot wait! It's so good! Why wasn't this taught at Leigh High School?!?!...more