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.

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#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.

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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: ★★★★★

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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.

 

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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.)

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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.

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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.

 

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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

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How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

[amazon_image id=”0061340405″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form[/amazon_image] Thomas C. Foster’s excellent book  [amazon_link id=”006000942X” target=”_blank” ]How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines[/amazon_link] elucidates literary analysis like no other text I have read. It clarifies the sometimes difficult task of interpretation and making meaning. It has an excellent recommended reading list, and it is indispensable for English teachers. I absolutely loved it. I didn’t enjoy its “sequel,” [amazon_link id=”0061340405″ target=”_blank” ]How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form[/amazon_link] nearly as much.

Let’s start with what I liked:

  • The motif, which runs throughout the book, of the reader as creator. Reading is a creative act. Books demand that we have an imagination. It reminds me very much of something I heard Jasper Fforde say about reading when I went to a book signing. Foster says, “readers are the ultimate arbiters of meaning in a work” (126). I agree with him, and it’s one of the things that can be difficult about teaching English. English teachers are often experienced readers who understand the ways in which texts talk to one another and speak the language of symbolism and metaphor. Students, who are less experienced, often become infuriated when a teacher makes a connection or interpretation that the student didn’t make, and English teachers are often wrongly accused of inventing intentions the author never had. The author’s intentions do not matter once the reader reads the books. We readers bring so much experience, prior reading, belief, opinion, and knowledge to everything we read, that no two readers read the same book, and no reader reads the same book the author wrote. I really like it that Foster explained the importance of the reader so clearly because it is a real issue whenever two readers disagree about a book.
  • I like Foster’s breakdown of 18 things we can tell about a book on the first page. It is a great guide for students who struggle with annotation. If you can point students to look for style, tone, mood, diction, point of view, narrative presence, narrative attitude, time frame, time management, place, motif, theme, irony, rhythm, pace, expectations, character, and instructions on how to read the novel (whew!), then you will have paved the way for them to better understand the novel and help them figure out what to look for when they read. Eighteen is a bit much, but I found as I scanned the list that I agreed that most, if not all, of these elements can be determined to some degree on the first page of the novel.
  • I am fond of telling students that literature is the mirror that we hold up to examine our world and to ourselves. It tells us who we are and what we want. Foster expresses a similar sentiment: “So almost any novel can teach us, and the novel has one big lesson that lies at its very root: we matter. A human life has value not because it belongs to an owner, a ruler, a collective, or a political party, but because it exists as itself” (115). As such, characters in novels matter because they are us. We see ourselves in them. We see our humanity in their humanity.

Now to what I didn’t like:

  • The book is repetitive. Foster discusses the same books, pretty much over and over, and if, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with one of his pet texts or if you didn’t like it for some reason, it’s hard to connect to what Foster is saying—or it was for me. Your mileage may vary. I don’t much like Joyce. There, I said it. I did give him a try. I guess I prefer my novels to be more like the great Victorian novels Foster describes. I am not opposed to Postmodernism here or there, and I don’t have to travel with the characters in a straight line. But Joyce doesn’t do it for me. I like it that Foster acknowledges we have different reactions to novels. Towards the end of the book, he describes a discussion with a high school English class in which one lone dissenter admitted he didn’t like [amazon_link id=”0486415864″ target=”_blank” ]Great Expectations[/amazon_link]. Of this student, Foster says, “It takes courage, to say you’re in AP English and aren’t wild about one of the established classics. For one thing, there’s the weight of more than a century of received opinion going against you” (292-293). Yes. True. I do not like [amazon_link id=”1840226358″ target=”_blank” ]Ulysses[/amazon_link]. I tried to read it. I was grossed out on page one. I gave it up. And that is OK, though the “weight of [nearly] a century of received opinion” is going against me. But he’s a favorite of Foster’s (not surprising, as he seems to be a favorite of many college profs), and he is used as an example over and over and over. And since I didn’t grok Ulysses, I didn’t find myself connecting to those examples very well.
  • I think Foster’s definition of theme is off, and I wouldn’t recommend sharing it verbatim with students. Foster defines it as “the idea content of the novel” (30). When I teach it, I tend to take it further than that. What message did you get from the novel? Deeper than what it is about—why did the author write it? We can’t know that, of course, but we can extrapolate. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald write [amazon_link id=”0743273567″ target=”_blank” ]The Great Gatsby[/amazon_link] because he wanted to comment on how the American Dream is not achievable by all, and maybe that it is even dead or never existed in the first place? I don’t know, but that is a message I receive from it when I read it. Certainly different readers will see different themes. But I don’t find the definition “idea content” to be all that helpful.
  • Likewise, Foster describes different kinds of narration on pp. 46-47. I teach students first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited. I mention second person as a type of narration they will rarely encounter. That’s it. And I discovered that there are these other types called third person objective, first person central, and first person secondary, which, as Foster describes them, seem like splitting hairs unnecessarily. He also puts stream of consciousness in there, which is not a type of narration, but a narrative technique. And he even says it’s not a kind of narrator, so I find it confusing that he puts it in this list at all. It doesn’t belong there.
  • The book has no index. How to Read Literature Like a Professor has a great index. It made finding information so much easier.
  • The book doesn’t have a recommended reading list. There is a list of other literary criticism to read, but in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster shared a list of great literary works to read. I liked it. I suppose he figured the list of all the novels he mentioned in the book should do, but I liked the list in the other book.
  • Foster’s appeal lies to a great degree in his entertaining style. He cracks jokes. He’s snarky. For some reason, it was fun in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In How to Read Novels like a Professor, I found it less appealing, and occasionally off-putting.

This book is worth it for the discussion of reading as a creative act and intertextuality, but aside from that, it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t captured better in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I highly recommend that book, and I would recommend it far above How to Read Novels Like a Professor.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Kenneth Branagh

Heart of DarknessKenneth Branagh should read all the audio books.

Well, maybe not all.

He is probably the best narrator I’ve ever listened to, however. Of course, I’m also about to listen to Ian McKellen do Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey, so I may stand corrected shortly.

If you haven’t read Heart of Darkness before, I can’t think of a better way to do it than listening to Audible’s version. After all, Marlow tells the entire story to a crew of sailors on the Thames River, and Branagh perfectly embodies not just Marlow, but all the characters, from the Russian protege to Kurtz to the native man who says, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead” to Kurtz’s “intended.” In fact, I dare you not to get a chill when he reads Kurtz. He almost makes you understand why Kurtz has so captivated everyone in the novel. Almost.

I think the reason this novel is still relevant is that it speaks to our infinite capacity for evil. All of us have it inside us, and “the horror” is realizing that fact. I think Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the novel is valid. It is racist. (It’s sexist, too, but that fact often goes uncommented upon.) The African characters are only so much scenery, and their culture is dehumanized. They are depicted like animals, slavish in their devotion to and fear of Kurtz. There is no getting around it. At the same time, you can look at Marlow as narrator. Who is he but a perfect product of his times? Of course he believes Africans to be subhuman. Conrad probably thought so, too, but it is Marlow who tells the story, so who can say? There probably is no such thing as a completely reliable narrator.

You might like this Book Drum profile of the novel. I found the section on the history of the Congo very interesting (and very tragic, as is the case in so many places colonized by Europe).

Many years ago, I went to an English teachers’ conference, and one session I attended discussed how you can engage students in the reading of literature and help them make thematic connections by asking them to choose modern songs that have a story, theme, or message similar to a work of literature they have studied. One of the presenter’s students connected Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Nine Inch Nails’ song “Head Like a Hole.”

After listening to it with that connection in mind, I had to agree that the song and the novel shared such a close connection that I have wondered for years if Trent Reznor was thinking of Heart of Darkness when he wrote it. Connect Reznor’s last line “You know who you are” with Kurtz’s last words “The horror, the horror,” and it’s just plain spooky. And I know I make that connection every time I talk about the novel now. I did it in my previous review of Heart of Darkness. This is the third time I’ve read the novel—once in college, once a few years ago.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this mashup of “Head Like a Hole” and “Call Me, Maybe.”

You can’t unhear it. Sorry. Not really.

Rating: ★★★★★

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