Sunday, November 27, 2011


In her new novel, Hillary Jordan has managed to channel Nathanael Hawthorne, along with George Orwell or Margaret Atwood, as she sets her tale in the not-too-distant future, when Hannah Payne, a girl raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in Texas wakes up in a cell after having been chromed, the punishment for an abortion. Instead of wearing Hester Prynne's embroidered A on her bosom, she has had her skin turned bright red through an injection process known as "melachroming." After her release, she becomes a pariah, rejected by former friends and family. Of course, her minister, now in a key government position, comes to her defense--but not quite in the way he should.

In the story, Hannah is forced to question everything she believes, everything she's been taught. While some of Jordan's take on God and religion, censorship, sexuality, right and wrong, government is controversial, she doesn't draw any lines, leaving the book as a good catalyst for further discussion about what we believe and why.

While the allusions to The Scarlet Letter are unmistakable and certainly not coincidental, Jordan doesn't let Hawthorne's tale hijack her own. Instead, she ties in enough connections to make a perfect pairing. The story also serves as a cautionary tale about political and philosophical extremism. Looking under the futuristic surface, though, this is a love story, a coming of age story, a family story.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An Embarrassment of Riches

If my life leans toward excess in any area, it's books. If there is some tapeworm analogy that would apply, feel free to supply it. I just never feel as if I have enough. I could probably stop right now, never buy another, and still be able to read new material for years. But I won't.

I'm self-disclosing here for a reason: Once again I attended the fall convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, held this year in Chicago. As a teacher of English, I have been blessed to be able to go to this conference quite often during my career, starting as a first-year teacher. The timing is perfect--close enough to the end of the semester that I need a boost, fresh material, contact with comrades serving in the same trenches. Every year, I get to see some friends that I know only through NCTE, teachers and writers from all over the world.

I will confess, though, that one lovely benefit of attendance is found in the mammoth exhibit hall (this time, actually three halls) where booksellers and other literary and educational vendors not only display and sell their wares, but often provide generous giveaways and deep discounts. The title of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust provides the perfect diagnosis. Other teachers, administrators, media specialists are doing just what I am--loading up! I ended up shipping home a couple of boxes before I left, then met three young preservice teachers on the plane who had opted to ship home their clothes and travel with their new books. Why didn't I think of that?

Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for the packages, along with the booklist I always get via email a few days after the conference, a list of dozens of book recommendations from one of my favorite sessions "Readers Among Us." Before my Christmas shopping is in full swing, I'll have more stacks, more lists, more notes beckoning me more strongly than that bag of research papers I'll be wagging home for the Thanksgiving holidays.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Isn't It Ironic?

I missed Franzen's first novel Corrections, the one that caused such a brouhaha when he declined to have Oprah's seal of approval on his book cover. At least, I haven't read it yet. I feel sure it's sitting somewhere on my bookshelf. I may have started the first few pages then abandoned it for the time. This new novel Freedom is just as weighty a volume, and it kept me interested throughout, but I just didn't like the characters very much. Since the point-of-view moves between third person perspectives with focus on the wife Patty Berglund in her autobiography (written in a distancing third person) to accounts of her husband Walter, his college roommate and on-again-off-again best friend rocker Richard Katz, and their son Joey, who moves in with the neighbors during high school, sharing a room with their teenage daughter Connie.

The novel is unquestionably political, but I find that all political views are skewered and satirized. Walter dirties his hands with political money to build a bird preserve in order to promote his pet cause, population explosion. Their son makes and forfeits a fortune, while still in college, obtaining shoddy parts for war vehicles. Patty teeters on the brink of sanity at times, making damaging decisions then opening herself up for attack.

Even as I found myself disliking the characters, I couldn't look away. I suspect they and their story will stick with me longer than other narratives that I found less abrasive. I may find myself skimming the shelves, looking for Corrections aftera ll.