Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn WardSing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published by Scribner ISBN: 1501126075
on May 8, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

I think everyone has been recommending this book to me. It’s been on my TBR list for a while. Sing, Unburied, Sing is drawing comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which Ward acknowledges she was “thinking about” when she wrote, in addition to Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Odyssey, though she didn’t re-read any of these books as part of her process. Rather, she turned to histories of Mississippi, particularly of Parchman Farm, now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Jojo and his mother Leonie narrate most of the book. Jojo is easy to empathize with: he’s known such suffering, and he will know more, but he also is capable of great love. It would be easy to reject Leonie entirely, given her abusive parenting and drug addiction, but Ward doesn’t let the reader off the hook so easily. She shows us Leonie’s pain and humanity, too, and even if we can’t forgive her, like we know Jojo will also not be able to do, we can’t dismiss her entirely, either.

The imagery at the end of this book will stay with me for a long time. When Jesmyn Ward places herself as part of a “long line” and says she feels “like all of those writers—from William Faulkner, to Richard Wright, to Eudora Welty, to Margaret Walker,” insisting that these writers have “affected [her] writing,” one can hardly argue (interview excerpts in paperback edition). She evokes the same Mississippi, from the Delta to the clay to the ghosts. Ward centers those stories in our present day, but her novel is also tethered to the past and explores the ways in which we are our histories, our present, and our future all wrapped in one.

In trying to put language to my thoughts, I found myself reading Tracy K. Smith’s review in The New York Times, and she captures my thoughts so well:

Maybe that’s the miracle here: that ordinary people whose lives have become so easy to classify into categories like rural poor, drug-dependent, products of the criminal justice system, possess the weight and the value of the mythic—and not only after death; that 13-year-olds like Jojo might be worthy of our rapt attention while their lives are just beginning.

That’s the magic of this book. Characters that many readers might be tempted to dismiss as unworthy of our attention become mythically important. At the same time, the characters are very real. I feel like I have known them, especially as I lived in the South and have Southern roots. Faulkner famously said once that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nowhere else does that claim feel truer to me than in the South, even though the area of the country where I live now has more “history,” if one measures in the number of years since it’s been colonized. There is a passage from the viewpoint of Richie, the ghost of a boy who died at Parchman Farm, that captures the way history seems to hang onto the land in the South and also captures something of the lyricism of Ward’s writing:

I didn’t understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me into it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?

I was trapped, as trapped as I’d been in the room of the pines where I woke up… Parchman had imprisoned me again. I wandered the new prison night after night. It was a place bound by cinder blocks and cement… I spent so many turns of the earth at the new Parchman… I despaired, burrowed into the dirt, slept, and rose to witness the newborn Parchman. I watched chained men clear the land and lay the first logs for the first barracks for gunmen and trusty shooters. I thought I was in a bad dream. I thought that if I burrowed and slept and woke again, I would be back in the new Parchman, but instead, when I slept and woke, I was in the Delta before the prison, and Native men were ranging over that rich earth, hunting and taking breaks to play stickball and smoke. Bewildered, I burrowed and slept and woke to the new Parchman again, to men who wore their hair long and braided to the scalps, who sat for hours in small windowless rooms, staring at big black boxes that streamed dreams. Their faces in the blue light were stiff as corpses. I burrowed and slept and woke many times before I realized this was the nature of time. (186-187)

If you hover over the Mississippi State Penitentiary, previously known as Parchman Farm, in Google Maps, you can’t help but notice how blighted the landscape looks. I am especially struck by the roundness of the landscape. It definitely looks like it holds history.

Mississippi State Penitentiary
Mississippi State Penitentiary via Google Maps

Here’s a classic song about Parchman Farm, one of my favorite old Delta blues songs, by Bukka White.

five-stars

2017: Reading Year in Review

new year photo

Happy New Year!

Each year on the last day of December, I reflect on my year in reading. Here is a link to my Goodreads 2017 Year in Books. I do wish Goodreads would figure out how to make that infographic embeddable, but I suppose from their point of view, it’s as shareable as it needs to be, considering they’d like people to linger on their site.

Some data from this year:

  • I exceeded my reading goal of 46 books and read a total of 51 books.
  • I read 18,305 pages, according to Goodreads. I think that’s an all-time high, but I’m not sure.
  • I read 51 books, though I didn’t put one of the books I read on Goodreads. Since that book is not counted in this total, so my actual page count is about 200 pages more than the figure above.
  • If I count just the Goodreads total, that’s an average of 366 pages per book, which is higher than last year’s average.
  • It works out to about 50 pages per day. What that means is that I was reading a lot on some days because it’s not possible I read 50 pages per day.
  • My shortest book was The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson at 96 pages, and the longest was an audiobook re-read of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at 870 pages.
  • The most popular book I read this year was 1984. Gee, I wonder why so many folks are reading that one. Yes, I understand the popularity index means that 2,331,238 people total read it, not that 2,331,238 read it this year. Conversely, my least popular book was The Transformative Power of Teacher Teams, which only nine people have rated. Not surprising, as it’s a nonfiction professional book (education). It’s a good book. More teachers should be reading it.

I didn’t do well with reading challenges this year. You can see on my 2017 Reading Challenge Progress page that I only completed two challenges.The challenges I completed are the R.I.P Challenge and the British Books Challenge. Most of the books I read for the latter were re-reads. I wasn’t supposed to finish the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge in only one year—it’s due in April 2018—but I did fall behind. It’s unusual for me not to complete the Historical Fiction Challenge. I hope I will finish it this coming year. I am also a bit surprised I couldn’t figure out a way to read at least five books set in different European countries for the European Reading Challenge. I probably shouldn’t have signed up for two different backlist challenges, but I was hoping I would read a bunch of books on my TBR pile if I did. It worked a little bit, but if I had just selected one of the two challenges, I might have finished. Reading a total of 40 backlist books was too daunting a challenge for me, and I found it limiting when so many new books caught my eye as well. I also didn’t complete the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge. I thought the premise was fun, but I guess I wasn’t able to find books I wanted to read that fit the criteria.

Of the 51 books I read, the stats further break down like so:

  • 30 works of fiction
  • 17 works of nonfiction/memoir
  • no dramas
  • 1 book in verse (poetry)
  • 11 audiobooks
  • 14 re-reads
  • 3 graphic novel/memoir
  • 8 YA/children’s books

My favorites from selected categories with some linked reviews (not counting re-reads):

Fiction

Nonfiction

Graphic Novels/Memoirs

My favorites in the other categories are either already linked above (The Hate U Give, Long Way Down) or are re-reads.

My least favorite reads:

Here is my map, which includes locations for each book I read or author’s hometown (current or applicable to the book):

My reading was much more diverse this year than in previous years, and I can’t help but notice that people of color wrote all of my favorites this year, except for a biography of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

2016: Reading Year in Review

new year times square photo
Photo by Anthony Quintano

As I do each year, I like to reflect on my reading year in a blog post on December 31. For the second year in a row, Goodreads has compiled a handy infographic with reading statistics, but they haven’t yet created a way to embed the infographic on a blog. It’s not exactly a true image file, so it’s not as simple as saving a picture. It’s a whole webpage. While it is possible to embed HTML on a blog, in order to make it look good, it’s a bit of work. Here is a rundown of some of the interesting facts (if you don’t feel like clicking over to Goodreads):

  • I read 11,997 pages, according to Goodreads.
  • I read 38 books. One book is not counted in this total, so I suppose my actual page count is about 200 pages more than the figure above.
  • If I count just the Goodreads total, that’s an average of 324 pages per book.
  • It works out to about 33 pages per day. Not too bad.
  • My shortest book was The Importance of Being Earnest at 54 pages, and the longest was an audio book re-read of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at 734 pages.

Of the 38 books I read, the stats further break down like so:

  • 28 works of fiction
  • 10 works of nonfiction
  • 3 dramas
  • 1 collection of poetry
  • 5 audio books
  • 6 re-reads
  • 1 graphic novel/memoir
  • 11 YA/children’s books

My favorites from some of these categories with linked reviews (re-reads not counted):

YA/Children’s

Fiction

Nonfiction

I’m not going to pick audio book favorites this year because all but one of them were re-reads, and the one that wasn’t was not one of my favorite books. I had a better nonfiction year this year than I typically do, and my fiction year was not as good as usual, though I did read some outstanding fiction.

My least favorite reads of the year:

Reading Challenges

I did not meet my Goodreads goal of reading 55 books. I had every reason to think I could do it, having read 62 books last year, but this year was much more trying. My grandmother passed away, and it made it very hard for me to read. I was already behind at that point. I stopped worrying about trying to make the goal really early on, so I’m not upset about it or anything. It is what it is. I didn’t have the worst reading year, but it wasn’t the best either. I stuck with some books I wasn’t liking for too long.

I didn’t complete any of my other reading challenges either, sadly. I enjoy reading challenges tremendously, but I don’t have the best track record in the world when it comes to completing them, let alone participating any more than simply reading certain books.

Here is my reading map for the year. I did manage to read some more far-flung locales than I typically do. I am hoping to do even better next year.

#ShelfLove Challenge: My Literary Road Trip Bucket List

Shelf Love Challenge 2016Each month, the #ShelfLove Challenge has a different topic. This month’s topic:

So what’s on your literary travel bucket list? What literary hot spots have you already hit and is it worth going back?

I have a couple of literary bucket lists, mainly because I love my adopted home of New England, which is the cradle of American literature, and also because I am an Anglophile who lives British literature and is desperate to visit the UK, where there are many places on my bucket list.

New England Bucket List

  • Feet on WaldenWalden Pond in Concord, MA. I have been there before in the dead of winter in February. The pond was frozen over. I took this obligatory picture of my feet standing on the frozen pond. I want to go back some time this summer. I don’t live far, and it’s sad that I haven’t had a chance to go because of an unreliable vehicle, but I have a new car now, and we are road tripping the hell out of this summer. I can’t wait to go to Walden.
  • Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, MA. The Dickinson home is now a museum, and I have already visited, but I want to go back during some special occasion or event. I just became a member of the museum, so it will even be free. Oh, I was just so happy here. I visited Emily’s grave. If there is one poet I really love, it’s her. Obviously I named my blog after one of my favorite of her poems.
  • The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT. I haven’t ever been here, but Hartford is not very far from where I live, and Twain is a favorite of mine. Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while living here. I teach that novel and absolutely love it (until the end, which Tom Sawyer ruins).
  • Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA. I want to pay my respects to the authors buried there, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. There is something kind of special about visiting the grave of an author you love.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, MA. He wrote most of his work here and hosted meetings of the Transcendental Club here as well. I think it’s open to the public.
  • Robert Frost’s Stone House in Shaftsbury, VT. I wrote a research paper on Frost in high school, and that kind of thing makes you feel ownership over a writer. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was written here.
  • Boston by Foot has an interesting-looking tour of the literary haunts of writers like Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Alcott, James, Dickens, and Longfellow. I want to try that tour for sure.

United Kingdom Bucket List

  • The Brontë Parsonage and Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire. Must see. I want especially to explore anything that may have influenced Wuthering Heights. I think some of the sites are scattered a bit, so it might be more accurate to say I want to visit Brontë Country.
  • Jane Austen’s House and Museum in Chawton, Hampshire. I don’t want to miss a chance to see where Dear Aunt Jane lived and wrote. I don’t think they let you touch anything. It’s probably like Emily Dickinson’s house that way. I would so want to touch her stuff, though.
  • Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, with trips to his birthplace, New Place, the church where he is buried, and perhaps a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The whole town, really. I mean there is Anne Hathaway’s cottage, and the home where Shakespeare’s mother lived, too.
  • Bath, Somerset. Austen wrote about this town and lived there for a time. Many films set in the Georgian era are filmed here because it still looks Georgian. Of course, Austen set Northanger Abbey and Persuasion here as well.
  • The Charles Dickens Museum in London. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist while living here.
  • Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales. William Wordsworth wrote “A Few Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey” here, and I feel pretty positive pictures don’t do it justice.
  • The Lake District. Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both called it home, and there are places all over that I want to see, including Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere.
  • The New Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London. A reconstruction of the original Globe. I must see a Shakespeare play here.
  • The British Library in London. I don’t really even know where I’d start here, but I want to go.
  • The Sherlock Holmes Museum, London. Not exactly located at 221b Baker Street, but close. I do love Sherlock Holmes.
  • John Keats’s home near Hampstead Heath in London. Because Keats.
  • Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. I want to pay my respects to Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Edmund Spenser, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Among others.
  • Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station in London. Because Harry Potter.
  • The Fitzroy Tavern in London. I heard that Dylan Thomas would give out poems written on beer mats to any woman who asked while he was drinking here. A girl can dream.
  • Bloomsbury in London. I want to walk in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. Yeats lived nearby. I really just want to sit on a bench, maybe the same bench Virginia Woolf once sat on, and think.
  • Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire. Byron lived here. His beloved dog Boatswain is buried here. Byron was buried nearby.
  • Field Place in Broadbridge Heath, West Sussex. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was born here. I’m not sure it’s open to the public, but I could at least look at the exterior.

I’m sure if I thought about it, I could come up with quite a few more places to visit.

I haven’t made any progress on the #ShelfLove Challenge since last month because I’m in a reading slump. Just not really excited right now. I am sort of waiting for school to wrap up so I can spend more time reading. I have a bunch of books I “need to read” right now, too, for various reasons, and I am not excited about it. I don’t know why it is that when I “need” to read it, even if I wanted to read it before, I can’t get into it as much.

Review: The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours is an ambitious undertaking: to retell, engage in conversation with, and illuminate Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The novel focuses on three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who unwittingly re-enacts Clarissa Dalloway’s day as she prepares to throw a party for her friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary prize; Virginia Woolf, who is engaged in writing Mrs. Dalloway and puzzling over some of the plot points; and Laura Brown, a woman suffocating under her life in 1950’s suburban Los Angeles. Just as the stories of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith (and their loved ones and friends) coalesce at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, the stories of the three women at the heart of The Hours entwine by the end of the novel.

I first read this novel in 2003 and later watched the movie in 2005. At the time, neither resonated with me much, perhaps because I wasn’t ready for either of them. I struggle with two warring ideas a lot: we enjoy books more when we’re ready for them, but I am also an English teacher, and I teach full-class novels—and I’m fully aware that the students aren’t ready for for some of them yet. I don’t mean that they can’t understand them. I mean that the characters and their stories will not necessarily be relevant—yet. As I grow older, I believe that more stories seem relevant to me than when I was younger because I’ve lived more, and I have developed more empathy. So I am thinking all of these thoughts because I re-read The Hours in preparation for teaching it after spring break is over. My students studied Mrs. Dalloway before the break. My students proved to me much more capable than I would have been at their age of empathizing with an older woman planning a party, but I could tell the person they were really drawn to was Septimus. And why wouldn’t they be drawn to the young, doomed, poet Septimus?

In some ways, the task is so monumental that it shouldn’t work. You almost have to admire Michael Cunningham for even trying, never mind succeeding. I know he is a big fan of Mrs. Dalloway. For this book, he borrowed not only the author and plotline of Mrs. Dalloway (though with his own twist), but also the working title Woolf was considering for Mrs. Dalloway. The book speaks to the ways in which all of literature can really be seen as one big conversation, though books rarely talk to each other as directly as Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. I feel like I understand Mrs. Dalloway better seeing it now through the lens of The Hours as well. I have to wonder what Virginia Woolf would have thought of it.

When I was in college—a freshman, in fact—I was assigned to read Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.” It’s impossible not to see this story’s influence on The Hours as much as Mrs. Dalloway’s influence. The couple in “To Room Nineteen” live in Richmond, a suburb of London, which is where Virginia and Leonard Woolf are living in The Hours. Much like Laura in The Hours, Susan goes to a hotel and stays in room nineteen (here the allusion is at its most assured). Both Laura’s and Virginia’s stories in The Hours can be glimpsed in that of Susan in Lessing’s story. Even when I was myself only 19, I connected to that story. It is one of the few things I read in that year that I still remember and think about. Why I was ready for the story of Lessing’s Susan at 19, but not ready for the women in The Hours at 32, I’m not really certain.

I have a theory that we should try to return to some books later because we will read different books. We will bring the experiences, the other things we have read, the person we are at that later period in life to bear on whatever we read, and the book will not be the same to us. I recall distinctly feeling annoyed by Holden Caulfield’s whining when I read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I had very little empathy for Holden, and I had none at all after he hired Sunny. Years later, I read the book again when I had children, and saw in Holden a lost child who was desperately reaching out for someone, anyone, to listen to him and love him. And there was no one. A completely different book. So, The Hours is a completely different book because I have now read Mrs. Dalloway, and because I’m 44, not 31, and because I felt empathy for the characters closer to my own age now than I did when I was younger. I see myself in the women of The Hours in a way I just couldn’t 13 years ago.

One strange moment I have to mention—Clarissa is in the florist’s shop buying flowers when she hears a loud noise made by a movie production up the street. When she looks out, she think she sees a movie star—maybe Meryl Streep, but maybe Vanessa Redgrave. Meryl Streep would play Clarissa in the film version of The Hours, and Vanessa Redgrave would bring Mrs. Dalloway to life in a film that was released the same year as Michael Cunningham’s book. I’ll bet that creeped him out.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: The Piano Lesson, August Wilson

I am reading my way through the list of texts I will teach in AP in the coming year, and as August Wilson is an important writer who often appears on the test, I found myself reading this play. I’m so glad I did. I have read and taught Fences, which might be his more famous play, but I found this play to be much more exquisite, and I liked the characters a great deal more.

The Piano Lesson is the story of a family piano. An intricately carved work of art, the piano’s legs include family portraits carved by Willie Boy, the family patriarch. Willie Boy, a slave owned by the Sutter family, was asked by Sutter to carve the faces of his wife and child, whom Sutter had sold away, into the piano to please Sutter’s wife. Instead, Sutter carves the faces of his entire family. Willie Boy’s son Boy Charles steals the piano because he believes it more rightfully belongs to his family than it does to the Sutters, The piano entwines the two families even in death. Siblings Boy Willie and Berniece spend most of the play arguing over the piano. Bernice wants to keep it because of its importance to the family, but Boy Willie wants to sell it in order to buy the deceased Sutter’s land.

There are many things going on in this play: the tension between enjoying art for art’s sake instead of more “practical” objects, such as land; the importance of family; what it means to be successful in life. The piano lesson of the title is really the argument that Boy Willie and Berniece are having about the piano: would it be better for the family to keep it or to sell to buy Sutter’s land? It’s an important conversation to have, as the play is set at a time when many African Americans did not have either a family history they knew and could cling to or an opportunity to own land.

Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, and I can see how a production would be quite something to watch. However, Toni Morrison makes a successful argument for simply reading the play in her introduction, and it is indeed a delight to read as well. I would consider this an important work of the Great Migration and of American drama in general. I’m not sure if this would make a good movie—I think it is meant to be on the stage. It does look like it’s been made into a movie at least once.

Rating: ★★★★★

This story is probably set no later than the 1930’s, solidly in the period of the Great Migration, as Berniece and Boy Willie’s grandparents had been slaves, and Sutter would have had to have still been around at the beginning of the play. However, as the play also includes a truck (that is one of the liveliest characters in the story, I will add), vehicles have to be somewhat common. As it was published in 1988, it counts as historical fiction.

 

Review: Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Despite being an English teacher for seventeen years (and English Education major), I have somehow not read Mrs. Dalloway until now. Frankly, I think I was daunted by how difficult I had heard it was. On the other hand, perhaps books come to us when we’re ready for them. Perhaps I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway until now because I didn’t need to. I’m not really even sure what made me suddenly pick it up a few days ago. True, I do plan to teach it in my AP class in the coming year (I have never taught AP before, and this book is often mentioned on the test and shows up as a recommended text for the course). But that is not the only reason. I have more books I need to read for that class, and I have more summer stretching before me to read. In fact, given I just returned from Ohio farm country, you might have thought I would choose something a bit more American to delve into (I’m doing A Thousand Acres in my AP course as well, and I could easily have found myself in the Cook family’s Iowan King Lear). I think I was just ready for this one.

If you’ve not read it and know nothing about it (which was NOT the case with me—I am English teacher/major enough to at least say I knew basically what it was about), Mrs. Dalloway is the story of a day in the life of the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway, who famously begins by deciding to get the flowers for her party herself. The book follows her thoughts as she embarks on this outing, and then flits from her thoughts to those of other characters, including Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Lucrezia, a shell-shocked WWI veteran struggling with mental illness and his homesick Italian wife, whom he married on a whim at the end of the war; Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s former suitor, whom she declined to marry; Clarissa’s husband Richard, the model of British reserve; Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, who feels constrained by her femininity and wants to be a farmer or a doctor; Miss Kilman, a lower-class educated woman who tutors Elizabeth, and who (it is implied) Elizabeth is in love with; and several other characters. It does require some concentration to follow, but it works as a device because of the connections between the characters. Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party—she takes delight in throwing parties and bringing people together, though both her husband and Peter have difficulty understanding why parties are so important to her, and Peter disparages her as a perfect hostess. What is really at the forefront, however, is preoccupation with death. Clarissa Dalloway clearly feels afraid of the prospect of dying, and she worries about the choices she has made in her life, including marrying Richard. Her story is intertwined with Septimus Warren Smith’s, and at the end, her observation about Septimus’s death brings the two storylines together in a satisfying if someone ambiguous ending.

I don’t really know what to say about this book. It’s 90 years old, and given its prominence in literature, it’s been dissected ten ways to Sunday. I don’t really feel the need to dissect it (I will do that with my students!). The first thing I felt as I became immersed in the story is that I was in the presence of greatness. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this book. At the end, when I closed the book on the last page, I was in awe of Woolf’s mastery. She elevated the lives of people many of us would dismiss—namely, Clarissa and Septimus. It’s easy to view Clarissa from afar and see her as shallow, reserved, conservative—someone who squandered her life on silly parties and never felt deeply. But she feels things deeply. She is recovering from a vague illness (the sense that it was a mental illness becomes clear when we learn she was a patient of the evil Dr. Sir William Bradshaw, who announces Septimus’s death at Clarissa’s party). It’s also easy to dismiss Septimus as “crazy.” I found myself particularly drawn to his storyline because of the empathy which Woolf makes the reader feel. Septimus fought for English ideals in the war and came out damaged (he’s one of the first victims of shell shock in literature). The descriptions of the voices he hears and his hallucinations made me truly ache for him, but they were drawn so astutely that it is impossible to forget that Woolf herself suffered from mental illness and also succumbed to suicide.

I love books. I don’t often close books and think, I just finished a masterpiece. Often, I have to think about a book for a while and have a sense of it working on my psyche before I can tell it’s a masterpiece. I didn’t even have to finish this book completely before I already knew it was a masterpiece; I felt all the time I was reading it that Virginia Woolf was a genius. But once I finished it, all I could do is sit and think and be in awe of Virginia Woolf’s command of the English language (this book is really a gorgeous prose poem) and her understanding of the importance of all of our stories—all of us, every person, has a profound story, and there is beauty and mystery in the average day.

Rating: ★★★★★

I’m counting this as my Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I’ve already done a London book for the Reading England Challenge, but it’s a pity because this is a quintessentially London novel. I had thought I’d read it later in the year and count it for my Bloomsbury group novel in the Literary Movement Reading Challenge, but given I’m teaching it in the coming year, I didn’t feel good about waiting until November to read it. (Boy, I’ve gone off the rails with that challenge.)

Review: The End of the Affair, Graham Greene, narrated by Colin Firth

I’ve been listening to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth as I have puttered around the house, washing dishes or making soap, for about a month now.

This production was the Audiobook of the Year at the Audies in 2012. It is, in fact, a beautifully read audio book (which I will get to in a moment).

The End of the Affair is the story of Maurice Bendrix, who is reflecting on an affair he had with Sarah Miles, wife of Henry Miles. During the war, Maurice’s apartment building suffers damage as a result of German bombing, and Maurice is knocked unconscious. He wakes to find Sarah looking over him, and he quickly realizes something is wrong. Sarah abruptly calls off her affair with Maurice. Thinking it must be another man, Maurice hires a private detective to follow Sarah. Rather than losing Sarah to another man, Maurice discovers he’s lost her to something much larger and more complicated than he imagined.

I was surprisingly moved by this story. I think it was perhaps the unlikely friendship of Maurice and Henry, the wronged husband. I don’t want to give away plot points if you want to read the novel, but the two men form a bond, and the strangest thing about the bond is how “not weird” it is. In fact, the way Greene sets it up, it makes perfect sense in the context of the story. Despite glimpses at her personality through her diary and letters, Sarah remains more of an enigma than Maurice and Henry. Greene’s characterization of all the characters, whether major or minor, is rendered realistically. I did feel as if all the people I read about existed somewhere, and that this story might really have happened to them.

The novel is also an interesting study of psychology. Greene is an astute observer of humanity. Those interested in Kübler-Ross’s theories about the acceptance of death (here applied to the end of an affair), will recognize much of Maurice and Sarah’s behavior, even though Kübler-Ross’s model of the stages of grief was not published until 1969. In particular, the book focuses a great deal on bargaining, which I found interesting. Maurice’s arc as he moves through the stages is particularly fascinating psychologically, but to say much more would spoil the plot.

Colin Firth is an expert reader. Of course, you would imagine that he would be. He renders Henry Miles’s parts in a sort of Mark Gatiss tone that is perfect for the character. I think I could honestly have listened to Firth read the phone book and be mildly entertained. He gives the same breadth and nuance to this performance as he does to his acting performances. He’s an excellent narrator.

Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Published in 1951, The End of the Affair is my selection for a 20th Century Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Review: As You Like It, William Shakespeare

I read William Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It as my selection for the Renaissance era in the Literary Movement Reading Challenge. I had been wanting to read it ever since reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.

For those not familiar with the plot, it’s one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies. Rosalind is the daughter of Duke Senior, the rightful duke. Duke Senior’s younger brother, Duke Frederick usurps his older brother’s dukedom. Frederick allows Rosalind to stay when he exiles his brother to the Forest of Arden because his daughter Celia loves Rosalind so much. Frederick arranges a wrestling match that is supposed to end in defeat for Orlando de Boys, but Orlando is victorious. He captures Rosalind’s heart. In a fit of pique, Frederick banishes Rosalind. However, Celia decides to leave with Rosalind as the two are close, and Celia cannot bear to see Rosalind exiled without her company. They decide to disguise themselves, Rosalind as a boy, Ganymede, and Celia as Ganymede’s sister Aliena, and they also decide to take the fool Touchstone with with them to keep them company. They plunge themselves into the forest, where they find Orlando has been carving Rosalind’s name on trees.

While in the forest, they encounter shepherds who help them find shelter. The shepherd Silvius is in love with a woman, Phoebe, who falls in love with Ganymede, not realizing Ganymede is Rosalind in disguise. Meanwhile, Orlando is hiding from his brother Oliver, who wants him dead. Orlando rescues Oliver from a lion in the forest, which leads to Oliver’s decision to change his ways. In typical Shakespearean fashion, everything works out in the end with a bunch of marriages. Oliver is further transformed by love for Celia and no longer desires Orlando’s destruction. Orlando and Rosalind find happiness. Rosalind manages to set Silvius and Phoebe together in a problematic marriage, and even Touchstone marries Audrey. Duke Frederick experiences a religious conversion and sees the error of his ways.

As Shakespeare goes, it’s not my favorite. I much prefer A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comedy. However, I do see maturity in his characterization of Rosalind that had me wondering greatly about the boy actors in his acting company at the time he wrote the play. It would have taken a strong actor to pull off that part. I found her to be a refreshingly smart character, and in control of so much of the action. I liked her very much. As You Like It is perhaps most famous for Jaques’s speech “All the world’s a stage.”

I waited to watch the film version directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind before reviewing the book. She is a wonderful Rosalind. The cast is great: Celia is played by Romola Garai, Touchstone by Alfred Molina, the Dukes by Brian Blessed, Orlando by David Oyelowo, Jacques by Kevin Kline, Audrey by Janet McTeer, and that’s just a start. Set in feudal Japan, the story begins as Duke Frederick and a bunch of ninjas take over Duke Senior’s palace and send the rightful Duke and his men into exile in the forest. The setting change was interesting and still worked despite the importance of the Forest of Arden as setting in the play. The costumes were beautiful. The actors were fine. But I still didn’t like it, and I don’t know why. I liked parts of it, but as a whole, it was just sort of boring. I kept picturing how my students might respond to it if we watched in class, and I kept picturing them nodding off. I wonder if the issue with this play is that in order for this story to remain compelling, the action needs to move a little more quickly? I can’t put my finger on what was wrong with it, as I liked the elements separately. They just didn’t cohere for me. Your mileage may vary if you decide to watch it.

Rating: ★★★★☆
Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

Set in Warwickshire, this book will serve as my entry for that county in the Reading England Challenge and will serve as my Renaissance selection for the Literary Movement Challenge.

 

Review: The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Alex Jennings

The Horse and His Boy CD (The Chronicles of Narnia)I know I read the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, about 20 years ago when I stalled out somewhere in the middle of [amazon_link id=”0064405028″ target=”_blank” ]The Voyage of the Dawn Treader[/amazon_link], but I had no memory of its plot at all. I think I know why. It’s utterly forgettable.

If you are not familiar with the plot, it is the story of a foundling boy named Shasta, who is raised by a fisherman named Arsheesh in Calormen, which seems to be C. S. Lewis’s stand-in for the Arab world. Shasta runs away upon learning that he is to be sold, and he meets talking horse from Narnia named Bree; a feisty fellow runaway named Aravis, who is escaping a marriage she does not want; and Aravis’s horse, Hwin. In their escape, they go to the city of Tashbaan, where Shasta is mistaken for a prince of Archenland named Corin. You see where this is going, right? I figured out most of the rest of the plot at that moment. At any rate, Shasta does meet Queen Susan, Queen Lucy, and King Edmund in his travels, as well as Aslan, who guides him in the night when he is running to tell the king of Archenland of an impending invasion by forces from Calormen.

I thought the plot was predictable. My reaction on finishing the book is really just a resounding “meh.” The characters were fine. I liked them. I just felt the plot was fairly well trodden. I really wonder why the book needed to be included in the series. It feels like filler material. However, Alex Jennings does an excellent narration, and I think I would like to read other books read by him.

Book Rating: ★★½☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★½