For some reason the National Book Award winners have left me feeling somewhat flat the past few years. I read them with an anxious anticipation that IFor some reason the National Book Award winners have left me feeling somewhat flat the past few years. I read them with an anxious anticipation that I will embark on some voracious reading journey, only to be deflated by cold characters in overly complicated life scenarios. The experience of reading The Good Lord Bird was no different for me. The concept sounded exciting: historical fiction focusing on a young adolescent black boy unwittingly teamed up with uber-abolitionist John Brown. I tend to steer clear of reviews prior to reading books, so I wasn't prepared for the cheekiness of the portrayal of the historical figures, at least as seen through the young first person narrator's perspective. John Brown is a crazed zealot ignoring all reason and rationale as he plunges into a war that it seems like only he is fighting, while Frederick Douglass is a lecherous polygamist. The cast of characters--both real and imagines--is dizzying, and I found myself consistently confused by who was which and what was why. Still, upon further reflection after finishing the novel, I found myself smiling over McBride's attempt to take an often short paragraph in the history books and turn it in something more real, although that effort is thwarted by the foreign culture and context of a barely developing American landscape just a few years before the Civil War. Thus, my initial two stars was bumped up to three....more
I'm sure if I had read this book in a graduate-level seminar with an erudite professor who could walk me through the intricacies of this vast tome, II'm sure if I had read this book in a graduate-level seminar with an erudite professor who could walk me through the intricacies of this vast tome, I would have loved it. Of course, I read this on my own, late at night, and quickly. As a friend suggested to me once, this is essentially how my high school English students must experience books from time to time. I read it because I felt like I had to, and although there are many moments in the book where Atkinson's literary prowess resonates, I too often came across characters and plot devices that left me scratching my head in confusion, and rather than stopping to clarify meaning, I did what most of my students must do: I read on.
The premise is intricately complicated of course, so that led to my continual feeling of stupidity while reading. The story follows protagonist Ursala Todd as she is born one snowy night in February 1910 and proceeds to immediately die, only to be reborn in the following chapter as though nothing had happened. This wouldn't necessarily require Herculean concentration in itself, but of course Atkinson's chronology isn't linear. She bounces back and forth from 1930 to 1910 to 1914 and back again. Particular as Ursala reaches adolescence and beyond, when she reaches her demise at the close of a chapter, the narration typically would shift back to some earlier point in the story to show a divergent storyline if a different choice is made or a different circumstance is introduced. Because of this, I found myself confused by whether or not a particular character had committed a particular action or revealed a particular secret in the portion I was reading. Had I endless time, it would have been great fun to map this all out, and perhaps this is why the novel is at the top of so many "Best of 2013" lists. The people who are paid to read and review these books for a living, who spend their days reading and re-reading books like this, probably had a lot of fun figuring out the complexities of the various storylines. I am a full-time working dad though, so it wasn't so much fun for me.
While I was reading, I kept thinking, "What is the point all of this?" At times Ursala acknowledges her previous lives and deaths, and at other times, she seems ignorant of them. Sometimes it was merely an echo of a memory that steers her clear of someone who had wronged her in an earlier incarnation of her life, and with such inconsistencies I wonder why we're supposed to care about all of this. Ursala's brother at one point asks, "What if we had a chance to do it again and again...unit we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?" (446), and later another character tells her, "I heard someone say once that hindsight was a wonderful thing, that without it there would be no history" (474). These somewhat heavy-handed references to Atkinson's themes don't add up to enough for me, especially when Ursala starts pontificating on the ways in which the world would be different if Hitler had never come to power--and Hitler does become a prominent character during a few of the story's disparate plot lines.
With all that said, this isn't a waste of time. Two of the more lengthy storylines in particular had me quite captivated, so much so that when Ursala died at the end of them and then Atkinson hit the reset button, I was pretty miffed. The focus on the effects of war is poignant and revealing, and I'm sure from a British historical perspective this novel captures an important element of the historical zeitgeist, especially in London. I'm not unhappy that I read it, but it's not something I'll be recommending to many friends....more
Like many, I picked up Solomon Northup's tragic memoir so that I might experience it authentically before seeing the much-heralded Hollywood adaptatioLike many, I picked up Solomon Northup's tragic memoir so that I might experience it authentically before seeing the much-heralded Hollywood adaptation. Perhaps it's the lack of an American Literature Survey course on my varied transcripts, but I have to admit having never heard of Twelve Years a Slave prior to the seeing trailers for the movie. Eclipsed by Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in many a high school classroom I'm sure, this piece is surely just as powerful and provides a varied perspective on the life of a slave as seen through the eyes of an educated free man from New York state. The story is beautifully horrific of course, as told in Northup's eloquent prose, and his story is a terrific contrast to the stereotype of the uneducated African held in captivity waiting for a white savior to release him into freedom. To be sure, a white ally is key to Northup's return home, but it is his own ingenuity, perseverance, and tenacity that truly free him....more
As the fourth installment in The Hangman's Daughter series, this book is probably my second least favorite. I remember enjoying the cinematic suspenseAs the fourth installment in The Hangman's Daughter series, this book is probably my second least favorite. I remember enjoying the cinematic suspense of the first novel, not enjoying the convoluted plot of The Dark Monk, and finding The Beggar King a near return to the excitement of the first. This volume lands smack in between The Beggar King and The Dark Monk for me. I found the early portions of the novel as similarly engaging to the original The Hangman's Daughter, but halfway through I couldn't see how the plot could be sustained for an additional 200 pages--and it couldn't. The twists and turns of the latter half of the book are both overly complicated and trite. I find myself also wondering about the translations of these latter books, as some of the idioms come across as cliched prose that made my eyes roll.
If the Kindle price stays as low, I'll probably continue to see where Pötzsch takes these characters, but he's on a short leash after I've invested time into four of his books!...more
This is the third volume in The Hangman's Daughter series, and it's definitely an improvement over the overly complicated second book The Dark Monk buThis is the third volume in The Hangman's Daughter series, and it's definitely an improvement over the overly complicated second book The Dark Monk but not nearly as good as the initial book. The interesting components of the story, and in fact the entire series, are the historical ones; it's fascinating reading about these fictional accounts of fifteenth century Germanic characters who live the lives of the downtrodden and solve some mysteries now and then. The plot here takes the brilliant, alternative he-man Jakob Kuisl to the thriving metropolis of Regensburg, followed shortly by his daughter Magdalena and her societally mismatched love Simon Fronwieser who are escaping their provincial hometown so they might build a life together. Once they all reach the city however, devious miscreants have other plans for them, plans that at times become a bit too intricate to follow closely but not in such a way that the book suffers over all. These characters are interesting and realistic in spite of the historical context, and now I may just continue to read the series!...more
Toni Morrison's most recent and much abbreviated novel is definitely worth a read (as all of her books are), but this one certainly let me wanting morToni Morrison's most recent and much abbreviated novel is definitely worth a read (as all of her books are), but this one certainly let me wanting more. The story follows an Odyssey of sorts as Korean War veteran Frank Money rushes home to save his ailing sister Cee in rural Georgia. Both are dealing with their own demons growing up in the mid-twentieth century American south, and Morrison's telescopic narrative style--something that reminded me of The Bluest Eye--provided some great insight into these complicated characters. Even still, at only 147 pages, the story and characterization merely whetted my appetite. I wanted more and was disappointed when she didn't give it to me....more
This follow up to The Hangman's Daughter is written in the same cinematic style of its predecessor, but it just didn't catch my interest in the same wThis follow up to The Hangman's Daughter is written in the same cinematic style of its predecessor, but it just didn't catch my interest in the same way. The central characters are the same well-drawn Jacob, Magdalena, and Simon, but the plot centers on the murder of a religious figure that plunges the trio into a complicated political mystery that reminded me far too often of Dan Brown, although admittedly Pötzsch's writing is far superior. This was worth a quick read, but it certainly could have been cut by about a hundred pages, especially with the unnecessary denouement....more
This quiet meditation focuses on Robert Grainer, an orphan of the newly expanded western United States in the late nineteenth century. His life is a sThis quiet meditation focuses on Robert Grainer, an orphan of the newly expanded western United States in the late nineteenth century. His life is a series of tragedies that propel him further towards the western coast, building up the nation's northwestern railroads. It's a fine portrait of what this life must have been like for thousands of men who served as components of expansionism, but my attention certainly wavered often in Johnson's muted narration of this solitary life. The tale of Grainer's short marriage and stint as a father were the most compelling portions of the short novel and salvaged the overall experience for me....more
This is a beautifully devastating tale of a Japanese family relocated from their home in Berkeley, California, to an American concentration camp in thThis is a beautifully devastating tale of a Japanese family relocated from their home in Berkeley, California, to an American concentration camp in the desert of Utah during World War II. Otsuka's crisp episodic structure moves swiftly through the brief 148 pages as she reveals the destructive and long-lasting effects of war in the homeland.
The novel is incredibly literary without becoming esoteric. The central characters, a Japanese-American version of the traditional nuclear family, are never named, and late in the book the narration shifts from third person to distinct first person perspectives. Intricately woven throughout are gorgeous symbols and metaphors of the quiet horrors this family is enduring. As the family is moved to Utah via railway, the daughter is instructed by an officer to pull down the shades as they move through the town to avoid unnecessary agitation for the townspeople. The daughter notes how "a man walking alongside the tracks would just see a train with black windows passing by in the middle of the day. He would think, There goes the train, and then he would not think about the train again. He would think about other things" (28). In crafting this story, Otsuka raises that shade on the history of these experiences.
Upon their arrival at the camp, time stops when the children note later that their mother "had stopped winding [her watch] the day they had stepped off the train" (65). They spend more than three years separated from their father, who is stationed in another camp, and their return home reveals that clearly time has marched on for the rest of the world. While in the camp, the son receives "a tulip bulb, which he had named Gloria and planted inside of an old rusty peach can he had found behind the mess hall" and he wonders "would she be able to make it to spring?" (69), his soft optimism waning thin through his experiences.
This is no tale of war atrocities in the physical sense, but the psychological ones are nearly as disturbing. Forgetting this part of our shared history is all to easy, especially given the comparison to more widely recognized cruelties in our world, but Otsuka's deceptively palatable tale is one that haunts and reminds....more
I just read the superb When the Emperor Was Divine a few months ago, and I was excited about this latest book by Otsuka because of its predecessor andI just read the superb When the Emperor Was Divine a few months ago, and I was excited about this latest book by Otsuka because of its predecessor and the tremendous amount of fabulous press it was getting. With all the build up, my expectations were a bit high; the book on its own certainly is a great read, but it's so different in form and structure from When the Emperor Was Divine that I found it a bit jarring. (That is admittedly simply a problem with my own reading aesthetic!)
There is a lot of pretentious talk in literary circles about prose poetry, but this is poetry prose if ever there was such a thing. The short book loosely follows a group of Japanese mail-order brides traveling to America by boat several years before the World War II and concludes several years after the war. The narrative voice is a rarely used collective first person: the opening lines read, "On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall" (3). This format rarely changes, and while it creates a beautiful, lyrical quality to the book, it also stands as a barrier between the reader and the characters. We never learn these characters names and we never distinguish one from another. Granted, Otsuka uses unnamed characters while quite effectively creates a bond between them and the reader in When the Emperor Was Divine, but there the characters are quite individualized whereas here they are deliberately intermingled with one another.
As expected of Otsuka, there is astute commentary here. Early on in detailing a list of the items the girls have brought with them on the boat, she includes, "silver mirrors given to us by our mothers, whose last words still rang in our ears. You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong" (9). And the first chapter closes with a heart-breaking truth: "This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong" (18). In spite of feeling segregated from the characters myself, I definitely was moved at times.
What works here in isolation is that poetry of the language. Otsuka uses repetition effectively to convey that collective protagonist. In almost every part of the book, she begins each sentence with the same phrasing, only then to allow her characters to contradict themselves in order to show the many facets of life these women faced. For example, at one point when the Japanese interment has begun on American soil, she writes, "Our adult children would be allowed to remain behind to oversee our business and farms. Our business and farms would be confiscated and put up for auction" (94). These juxtaposed oppositions exist throughout the book, and they have their desired shocking effect on the reader. However after dozens of pages using this construction, the effectively is somewhat diluted.
I picked this up after reading a series of articles on The Help in Entertainment Weekly. The articles focused on some of the more socially problematicI picked this up after reading a series of articles on The Help in Entertainment Weekly. The articles focused on some of the more socially problematic elements of the book (and film), essentially because it is another story where a white savior provides freedom for a collection of oppressed black folk (a la Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird). Entertainment Weekly suggested Childress's novel as an authentic voice written by an African American woman within the time period in which it is set. On those fronts, it soars. Through more than sixty monologues, Childress creates a smart and sassy character in Mildred, an unwed African American woman in New York who works as a domestic for the city's upper class white families. While the Mildred's homeland in the South battles desegregation, she combats a much more insidious form of racism, like the employer who carries her pocketbook around with her whenever Mildred cleans her home which prompts Mildred to claim, "'I understand. 'Cause if I paid anybody as little as you pay me, I'd hold my pocketbook too.'"
The comedic responses like this are often coupled with some down-home learnin' doled out by good ole' Mildred herself, and the elitist whites all too often come down off their pedestals to see eye to eye with the narrator, like when one woman asks Mildred for her health card and Mildred turns right around to ask for health cards of the woman, her husband, and her children. Yet in moments like this the story devolves a bit into the realm of unbelievable. I found myself wondering how often Mildred loses a job because of her sass (a plot line explored thoroughly in The Help actually), and how often their political and social views are changed by her self-assurance. Due to the dramatic monologue structure, some of these character and plot elements are never fully realized, and much of those pieces are what makes The Help so engaging as an overall narrative.
This is unfortunately where the book falls short though. In focusing solely on Mildred's voice as she sits and chats with her neighbor and friend Marge every night, there is really no thorough narrative; this is really just a lengthy character sketch. The introduction to the novel suggests that the chapters were originally serialized in various periodicals, and in isolation I'm sure they come across far less preachy than they do in totality. The true merit here is in Childress disproving the myth of the passive and accommodating black woman of the 1950s: when Mildred tells Marge, "I don't want anybody toleratin' me because the word tolerate is tied up with so many unpleasant things," for example, she channels a twenty-first racial sensibility five decades early. This makes the book readable, but the lack of a through plot here left me wanting more....more
I first encountered Henry James a few months ago when reading Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw in preparation for teaching them to my high schooI first encountered Henry James a few months ago when reading Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw in preparation for teaching them to my high school sophomores. I loved both, and when a friend mentioned that Colm Toibin had written a novel featuring James as its protagonist, I knew I had to read it. What little I've read about James biographical information is fascinating: his early introduction to the expatriate life, his contradictory American-European identity, his struggles with his sexuality. Through his quietly brilliant narrative, Toibin explores the possible lifestyle of this "master" of a novelist.
While elements of the book are reminiscent of Michael Cunningham's own masterpiece The Hours, the structure of The Master is actually less intricate than Cunningham's postmodern fragmentation of Virginia Woolf's life and the women she inspires throughout the last century. That's not to say that The Master is any less complicated in its structure, focusing on James's later years living in the quiet British town of Rye beyond the reaches of metropolitan London while peppering the story with flashbacks throughout to ruminate on the protagonist's inspiration and characterization. The style itself contributes to the complexities of the text, Toibin admitting himself in the acknowledgements that close the book that he has "peppered the text with phrases and sentences from the writing of Henry James and his family."
And that style is what whispers its way into your heart. While there isn't much to propel the plot forward here other than a careful character development, the silent suffering that is evidenced in the subtle narratives depicting imagined elements of James's life. This comes out most poignantly in a scene after the suicide of a friend and fellow writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. Toibin imagines James disposing of Woolson's clothing in a particular spot in the Venetian Lagoon where she would escape the city. James and a fellow mourner watch as at first each dress sinks, only to float "to the surface again like black balloons, evidence of the strange sea burial they had just enacted, their arms and bellies bloated with water." The scenario is a result of Woolson's grieving family leaving James with the responsibility of disposing of her worldly possessions, something he must do virtually alone. This solitary existence and the way in which he is forced to face his loss with the return of the clothing to the surface of the water becomes a metaphor for James's very life. His companions are fleeting, many speaking with a raised brow about his bachelorhood, utilizing innuendo and euphemism to make him feel all the less comfortable with himself. This reflected in the few potential relationships he encounters in the narrative, one unspoken evening of physical passion with a Civil War hero in America and another prolonged yet unconsummated relationship with the sculptor Hendrik Andersen.
Toibin himself is openly gay, so it makes sense that he would focus on this historic figure and imagine the ways in which his struggles would influence his work. The end result is certainly touching and sad, but well worth the read....more
This intensely sad piece of historical fiction centers on the bloody 1930s genocide of Haitian workers in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican RepubThis intensely sad piece of historical fiction centers on the bloody 1930s genocide of Haitian workers in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic. While much of the story lacks a central unifying focus and Danticat's lyrical prose is at times soporific, the final sixty pages provide a swiftly paced resolution for what precedes them. This final portion of the novel isn't enough to provide the heart and soul that fill Breath, Eyes, Memory, but Danticat's voice is still an important one in the contemporary American canon, one that deserves to be heard....more
Here's my super succinct summary of this book: conversion, conversion, conversion, greed, conversion, conversion, somewhat witty joke, conversion, greHere's my super succinct summary of this book: conversion, conversion, conversion, greed, conversion, conversion, somewhat witty joke, conversion, greed, conversion, conversion, white oppression, conversion, capitalism wins.
I have to admit that I prefer my nonfiction to read like fiction; I like characters that are fully developed and storylines that appear carefully crafted to reach some important thematic understanding. Unfamiliar Fishes though reads like a research paper, the type I once painstakingly taught to teenagers that often ended in a mammoth grading session that made me want to throw myself off a cliff for want of some excitement. I'm familiar with Vowell's work on This American Life, and perhaps that set me up for something different than this comprehensive historical analysis of the tragic history of Hawaii. Some of her characteristic wit surfaced at times, but I could probably count the number of times I smiled on one hand--and this absolutely horrible history of American imperialism is certainly rife for Vowell's sardonic mockery. However, comments like, "In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of 'I don't give a damn what you think'" (28) and "Sure, all missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That's what a mission is--a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere uninvited to inform the locals they are wrong" (43) are far too infrequent to salvage the dry recitation of dates and names that pervades the text.
In the end, I feel much better educated for having learned about the ways in which Christian missionaries and capitalist pigs have rolled their juggernaut over the people of the Hawaiian islands over the past two centuries--in one of the few passages I highlighted, Vowell humorously suggests that "expecting capitalists to refrain from gobbling up the earth is like blaming Pac-Man for gulping down pac-dot--to them, that's what land is for" (159). However, I can't say that the experience was any more pleasant than reading a text book on the subject....more
This is a seriously horrible book, just utterly boring and distracting. The pretentious central conceit, providing "a short history of women" throughThis is a seriously horrible book, just utterly boring and distracting. The pretentious central conceit, providing "a short history of women" through the fragmented stories of four generations of women all descended from the same woman, fails miserably in connecting with the audience in any significant or moving way. The narration jumps through a disjointed chronology spanning more than one hundred years and through the points of view of multiple characters with extremely similar names. The disorienting jumps in setting and perspective keep the reader from feeling any true empathy for any of these characters, least of which the matriarch who dies from her own hunger strike in support of women's suffrage. The loose ends that Walbert creates in the first chapters of the book may very well have been tied up by the end, but I was so lost and uninterested that I surely didn't notice. What I did notice however was her utterly contrived attempts to show the trials and tribulations of women over the past century, including a 1970s group therapy party in which women sit around and complain about the difficulties of their lives, most of them ignoring the irony of ordering around a hired female servant for the event.
Clearly, I want the week back that I spent reading this book....more
I'm not quite sure why this book is called The Hangman's Daughter; the title character plays a supporting at best and is more often relegated to the mI'm not quite sure why this book is called The Hangman's Daughter; the title character plays a supporting at best and is more often relegated to the margins of the story. (Perhaps this is a translation decision?) In any event, the real focus here, the domineering yet fair-minded hangman Jacob Kuisl and a diminutive and pragmatic physician Simon Fronwieser, create a tremendously engaging duo who race against the clock to solve a murder mystery with far-reaching ramifications for their Bavarian town in the seventeenth century.
The distant setting for this text could have created a formidable barrier for the narrative, but Lee Chadeayne's translation employs contemporary English colloquialisms that when coupled with Pötzsch cinematic third person narration creates a fast-paced and enjoyable read. There isn't much that's literary here beyond the pure joy of solving the mystery, but from time to time, that's what we all need in a book isn't it?...more
I think I may have to take a break from my Pulitzer Prize novel endeavor. This is the fifth ever winner of the fiction price (doled out for a "novel"I think I may have to take a break from my Pulitzer Prize novel endeavor. This is the fifth ever winner of the fiction price (doled out for a "novel" in those days). I've read the first five in order of their win, beginning with Earnest Poole's terrific His Family, but each subsequent read I've liked less and less. However, a curious thing happens: as I'm reading a particular book, I find myself nostalgically reminiscing about the previous one and liking it so much better in hindsight. Perhaps my quick succession of readings hasn't allowed me much time for depth of thought. In fact, while reading this book, I went back and raised my score on Alice Adams! (Isn't that a Goodreads no no?!) So while my gut says to rate One of Ours two stars, I'm going to rate it three. Perhaps when I finish writing this review I'll feel better about that.
Claude Wheeler is the titular character, a young noble farmer in the heartland of America living amidst the dubious intentions of the townsfolk around him, including his siblings who seem not to be as earnest as he is about living a life full of goodness and character. His early years are difficult as his goodness of character separates him unnecessarily from his peers and his female counterparts. A farming accident brings romance to his life, yet the romance is devoid of passion, something he is not yet mature enough to realize. When this all develops into a loveless marriage because his new bride agrees to marry him in the hopes of saving his soul and converting him to her ultra-Christian views, his life becomes sad and pointless. His wife feels this too, and she all to quickly jumps at the chance to join her sister on a Christian mission in China. Abandoned so early in marriage, Claude chooses to enlist in the fight against the Germans in World War I and is shipped off to Europe for the latter half of the book. (view spoiler)[There he fights the good fight and dies a noble death amidst men he finds far more honorable than any he met at home. (hide spoiler)]
On the heels of the previous four Pulitzer winners, this all comes across as somewhat tired. Wharton explores the loveless marriage in The Age of Innocence, as does Earnest Poole in His Family, while Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams pursue themes of feigned morality in middle America. I'm ready for an early Pulitzer winner that does something other than call into question the moral fiber of the American landscape, or at least one that does so in far more engaging terms (The Great Gatsby comes to mind). I appreciate Cather's concepts here, but I think I'm ready for a change of pace for a bit!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...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'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
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
A gorgeously illustrated version of the traditional African folktale. I use this in class with sophomores when I teach Toni Morrison's Song of SolomonA gorgeously illustrated version of the traditional African folktale. I use this in class with sophomores when I teach Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, but it's a great read for kids to teach them about some of the more difficult history of this country. ...more
Wow. This book is a fantastic read. A good friend recommended it following our discussions about the difficulties of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird beWow. This book is a fantastic read. A good friend recommended it following our discussions about the difficulties of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird because I feel that text so often reinforces ideas of white supremacy and alleviates the guilt surrounding white privilege. My friend thought this would be a great companion to Mockingbird since that's required reading in her district.
This novel follows a young white woman nicknamed Skeeter in Jackson, Mississippi, at the dawn of the civil rights era (early 1960s). Skeeter begins writing a book based on interviews with the African American maids that work in the upper class white women's homes, raising their children, cooking for their families, and cleaning their houses. What is unique about this book from other texts that focus on this overpopulated genre is that focuses almost solely on the female perspective. The focus is on the subtle ways in which white women's racism can be so much more incendiary that the physical brutality of white men's racism (although the latter certainly makes its appearance in the story at various points).
This type of racism is so much more representative of the type that exists today. Skeeter's narration (with the exception of one chapter, the book is narrated in chapters by Skeeter and two black maids) and the dynamic nature of her character arc show the truly difficult struggles that come with truly analyzing one's unearned privilege. She is far more ambiguous in her convictions of equality that Atticus Finch, a character with whom many today too easily (and probably unrealistically) identify.
The book is not without its flaws. The ending seems a bit too fortuitous for the main characters (as well as the deserved fate of the central antagonist), but Stockett's plot and character development made it difficult to put this book down....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
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'm sorry to Morrison and all her fans (and I am one), but I did not like this book! Admittedly, it had one strike against it in my view because of thI'm sorry to Morrison and all her fans (and I am one), but I did not like this book! Admittedly, it had one strike against it in my view because of the setting; I hate anything set in excessively dirty times. I know that is totally something to explore in therapy, but it's the reason I don't like westerns and it's the reason I started out not liking this book, which is set in the seventeenth century. But beyond that, it just all seemed so heavy handed in it's attempts to be "literary." The characters were interesting enough (even though they were a little Cold Mountain-esque, another book I hated), but the shifts in narration and the unnecessary piecing together of the "mystery" here were completely superfluous. And now I must brace myself for Song of Solomon, which I'm teaching next month. Let's hope it's more in line with The Bluest Eye, which I loved!...more
So I just finished rereading this and am teaching it to my sophomores. I hadn't read it since college. It's still a great piece, even twenty-five yearSo I just finished rereading this and am teaching it to my sophomores. I hadn't read it since college. It's still a great piece, even twenty-five years after its premiere. My classes have had some great discussions about the realities of the American Dream as well as the reality that some people step up to bat "with two strikes" as Troy says in the play. I have to admit to not being quite as impressed with the dramatic structure as when first I read the play and some of the literary elements are a tad heavy handed, but it's still worth the time to read!...more