Friday, August 26, 2011

Light Reading, Heavy Issues

With my summer at its official end and school starting back up, I'm determined not to cut back too much on my pleasure reading. Sure, I'm already reading along with my students the literature assignments--Beowulf, "Story of an Hour," "Rose for Emily," and more--but my own
reading with no agenda, no lecture notes, no test keeps me sane. The last couple of books I've picked up have not been purely literary, but they both dealt with some serious issues.

Anyone familiar with Jodi Picoult knows that her formula is to take some big issue and add several more, then end with an unexpected twist. Sing Me Home takes on in vitro fertilization, gay marriage, alcoholism, and the Christian right. The book certainly gives book clubs plenty of opportunity for discussion, but somehow, the twists and turns didn't ring true, and some of the stereotypes gave me pause.

Joshilyn Jackson is an old Alabama girl. In fact, the first of her books I read was Gods in Alabama. This newest book Backseat Saints was a slow start when I first began reading, but for some reason, I picked it back up and enjoyed it so much more. Even though most of the story takes place in Texas or California, not Alabama, the main character's Dixie tone was pitch perfect. Even though Jackson's novels can deal with serious issues, she manages humor to balance. Roe Grandy (Rose May Lolly) the protagonist is an abused wife warned by a gypsy at the airport "It's him or you" and realizes she should kill her husband. In her first attempt, she shoots the leg off her dog Fat Gretel. No funny, of course, but certainly unexpected. Never having lived with abuse, I find it hard to imagine what causes people to stay in such a threatening situation, denying the truth, always going to the ER after "falling down the stairs." The difficulty of getting away is more evident--and the cost of leaving.

Jackson's literary references in the book caught my attention--books I have read and loved, familiar lines, beloved characters. This young woman's reading life perhaps gave her the imagination to reinvent herself, to become someone else in search of a new life.

I don't even have the heart to look back to see what I planned to read at the beginning of the summer. I never work my way down that list without veering off. I'm glad to know that any I missed are still waiting on my shelf, ready for me to curl up on the couch and escape temporarily into another world.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Caleb's Crossing

I've read four of Geraldine Brooks' novels --A Year of Wonder, People of the Book, March, and now Caleb's Crossing--and I can say that she doesn't just rework the same formula. She's taken me all over the world at all times from present times back through history. This book tells the story of a young girl Bethea, the daughter of a minister in the seventeenth century committed to educating and evangelizing the natives in the area. The title, I learned, by the end of the book, refers to many crossings, literal and figurative.

Brooks illustrates the range of attitudes toward religion, ethnic diversity, and especially women's roles in the time period. Caleb--an English name Bethea gives to the Indian boy who calls her "Storm Eyes" is the nephew of a wise man of his tribe and is destined to follow in the same path before converted to Christianity and educated by Bethea's father. The two first meet in the wild and become friends, learning each other's language, despite societal sanctions such a relationship.

The novel takes many tragic turns, not particularly unexpected in this time period--death in childbirth, shipwrecks, drowning, consumption. Bethea ends up serving an indenture at a school adjacent to the new Harvard College in order to pay for the education of her less-than-motivated or capable brother Makepeace. Despite her conditions, she seeks every opportunity to learn--Greek, Latin, Hebrew.

Although much of the attention in the book focuses on breaking down the walls of prejudice between the European settlers and the native Indians, I came away thinking of the effect on girls who are deprived of a full education. Ironically, here in the U. S., where education is readily available, it's easy to take it for granted (or to waste the opportunity). While the jury's still out on Greg Mortenson, he has certainly brought to the world's attention the importance of educating girls, which he says changes not just an individual but a family, a tribe, a community.

Note: I listened to the audio recording of the book, read by actress Jennifer Ehle. I found her enunciation of every article a a little off-putting. Maybe it's just my problem.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Revisiting Flannery

It's no secret that I'm a Flannery O'Connor fan. I gained my genuine appreciation several years ago when the literature anthology I used for AP English (Bedford Intro to Lit) included four or five of her stories. I'd read one or two before, but when I read--and taught--several together and had the advantage of some accompanying essays by and about her, I became a real fan.

One of my favorite culminating activities was to host a talk show (Think Sally Jesse Raphael or Maury Povich) during which my students came in character. I let them decide on themes related to the recurring ideas we saw in the book. They were easy to locate--Misfits, Bad Kids, Dysfunctional Families. Television producers today would find a gold mine in June Star or Joy/Hulga or Manley Pointer.

Ann Napolitano's new novel A Good Hard Look is set in Milledgeville, Georgia, O'Connor's home town in the sixties, the years leading up to her death from lupus, the disease that also claimed her father at an early age. In this book, though, Flannery and her mother Regina are just two of the characters whose lives intersect, sometimes in the same violent way that her characters' did.

Cookie, a hometown girl, returns from New York to marry Melvin, a wealthy young man she met there and convinced to move to Georgia for her. Lona, the bored wife of a policeman aspiring to be chief, becomes too close to Joe, the high school boy she takes on as an assistant as a favor to her mother, who looks after Lona's daughter Gigi during the day.

While Cookie is working in the local women's clubs to ban Flannery O'Connor's books, which she believes make the town look "just awful," her new husband is giving Flannery driving lessons and building a strong and unusual friendship, a secret he keeps from his wife.

Napolitano has done her homework, including details from O'Connor's life--her trip to Lourdes at her mother's insistence, her writing, and in particular her legendary peacocks, which play a prominent role throughout the story. The author keeps the research light--enough to sate O'Connor fans, to be convincing, without letting someone else's stories take the place of her own. Rather than throw up too many plot details, she instead shows the author's anxiety, her need to get it right, knowing that her writing is all she'll leave behind.

Napolitano's writing is good, her eye for detail, for mind-searing images. She also handles the subject of religion, faith, and grace, important themes in O'Connor's works, with credibility and sensitivity. Readers may find an urge not only to read more by and about Flannery O'Connor, but also to take a look at Napolitano's earlier writing as well.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Eli the Good

Every semester, the English department is faced with the challenge of selecting a book to be used in all our developmental reading and writing classes, and in any other courses at the teachers' discretion. Sometimes the choice is influenced by our plans for our Writers Symposium. We've hosted Ron Rash when we taught Serena and Clyde Edgerton in connection with The Bible Salesman. Last spring, we really stepped out on a limb and invited poets from North Carolina--Cathy Smith Bower, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Scott Owens, Tim Peeler, Ted Pope, and Joseph Bathanti.

This fall, since we are introducing a new course, Vietnam History, a class that will follow the same interdisciplinary plan we use in our Holocaust class. Literature about the Vietnam war is plentiful. In one of my favorite courses in grad school, War Literature, I read many of them--Dispatches, The Short-Timers, and The Things They Carried, among others. This year, we took a different direction, selecting Silas House's novel Eli the Good.

With a ten-year-old protagonist, the book is sometimes labeled Young Adult Fiction. (I can't help wondering how To Kill a Mockingbird or Diary of a Young Girl would have been shelved today.) Set in 1976, the novel examines a family whose father is beginning to experience flashbacks (before PTSD was acknowledged as real). Meanwhile, his estranged sister, newly diagnosed with cancer, comes home. During her brother's overseas duty, she participated in war protests and was captured in an iconic photo that has made its way into history textbooks.

House weaves in stories of generational conflicts and the effects of parental actions on children. He allows the gray area to remain. The book provides no easy answers about the war; consequently, I expect it to produce some ripe discussions in our classes. Since our students' ages range from teens to sixty and over, the varied perspectives should produce some powerful conversations and good opportunities for related research.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Funny in Farsi

Back in November when I attended the NCTE convention in Atlanta, one delight was hearing Firoozeh Dumas speak. Her book Funny in Farsi tells the story of her family that moved to California when she was in elementary school, long before the Shah's departure and the hostage crisis. She wrote the book, her memoirs, in part to show that we are all more alike than we are different.

In fact, when she first tried to pitch the book, she was told it didn't have enough oppression. Let me say up front, if you want heavy politics and oppression, this is not a book for you. On the other hand, if you want to enjoy a bookful of genuine laughs about quirky families, this may be your cup of tea. She covers the time from second grade until adulthood, including her marriage to a Frenchman whose family never did accept her. In her epilogue, she admits that the story became more about her father than she expected.

I was surprised to learn my younger son had read the book as a college assignment--and then gave the book to a friend. While this book might not give a complete, rounded picture of the Iranian immigrant experience, it gives a view that's been overlooked. Most of all, it's a great family story.

Disney-Free Kipling

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I keep finding myself drawn to read Kipling's The Jungle Book, maybe for the first time. I was first challenged to do so by Carol Jago at the NCTE conference a couple of years ago, when the focus was on new and old classics. I realized that while I had read parts, most of my images came from the Disney cartoon, which I remember seeing in the theater in the eighth or ninth grade.

Further inspiration came from my reading of The Jungle Law, the story of Kipling and a young boy who was his neighbor, when he lived in America with his new bride while writing this classic. Neil Gaimann's The Graveyard Book, further enticed me to read it. When I found the book as a recurring motif in The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht, I figured three's a charm.

The stories are simple, but with layers of meaning. They could easily be read aloud to children at bedtime, or they could be used metaphorically to represent events throughout history and politics. I somehow hadn't realized that Mowgli's story is just one of those collected in The Jungle Book. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, that brave snake-killing mongoose, is another of Kipling's heroes. I hadn't read his stories of the white seal looking for a home safe from humans or elephants herding other elephants. One human's account of conversations between animals, whose language he had managed to pick up without their knowledge, put me in mind of Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing, in which the protagonist learns the language of the local natives by immersion.

Reading The Jungle Book compels me to return to other classics for the first time. The debate continues in education for the teaching of the classics. Some advise assigning these wonderful works during school lest they never be encountered voluntarily. Others suggest that if we assign then too early, young readers will believe they have really read them and not turn back later.

My own re-reading of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth hit home this point. I had read--and loved--the book in ninth or tenth grade. The paperback I re-read in my thirties still had my maiden name penciled in the inside cover. But as an adult, I read the book as such a parable. I brought more to it the second time. I believe the same is true of The Jungle Book.