Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

My first book of 2017 was Jon Krakauer’s harrowing account of his ascent of Mt. Everest in May 1996. There are several accounts of the disaster surrounding the May 10, 1996 Everest expeditions, but Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is arguably the most famous.

Krakauer climbed Everest at the behest of Outside magazine, mainly to cover the guided expeditions that were gaining popularity at that time. These expeditions were controversial because many in the climbing community felt that inexperienced and possibly unfit people were attempting the dangerous climb and putting their lives (and those of their guides and sherpas) in jeopardy. In addition, concerns had been raised about the commercialization of Everest. For instance, the mountain became littered with the debris of climbers, from discarded oxygen canisters to other belongings, and frankly, even the bodies of those who did not make it back. It’s an absolutely riveting book about the dangers of hubris in the face of what is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. Krakauer describes the events leading up to a storm that approached as the expedition teams led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall summited the mountain, and before all the members of the expeditions were able to descend, they were embroiled in a dangerous blizzard and a fight for their lives.

Krakauer has been criticized for parts of his account, and he has included a postscript to address some of this criticism. I found he was remarkably fair, though I freely admit this is the only account I’ve read. The reason I think he is fair is that he admits he feels partly responsible for the deaths of two the members of his team, Adventure Consultants, which was led by Rob Hall. He is fairly open and critical of his own lapses in judgment. He might even be hard on himself, given he was suffering from the effects of the altitude and the storm. He states he wishes he had never climbed Everest, but he admits in his introduction that “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument” (xvii). He wrote the book in part to attempt to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that resulted from his experience on the mountain. Whatever culpability he ultimately has (which is debatable), it’s clear he has examined the events from as many angles as he could, including interviewing other survivors about their memories. He has done as good a job as it is probably possible to do, given the way the altitude, which made clear thinking virtually impossible, as well as the trauma of the event. Establishing the truth was difficult.

If I had the slightest notion I ever wanted to try anything like climb Mount Everest (and I assure you I didn’t—I am nowhere near fit enough to try climbing any mountain, let alone that one), this book would have cured me of the desire. Once the mountain had been conquered in the 1950’s, perhaps it was easy to forget the dangers it still held. Over 280 people have died trying to climb the mountain. In fact, 1996 was not even the deadliest year. English Mountaineer George Mallory has famously been quoted as saying, after being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” He perished in his attempt in 1924. His remains were found about three years after Jon Krakauer’s ill-fated summit of Everest.

This book has been on TBR list for a while. I actually accidentally bought two copies of it in my zeal to make sure I read it. I thought it was even better than Into the Wild, perhaps because of the personal nature of the story and very real anguish that Krakauer clearly feels. This book is personal. Krakauer is an excellent writer of narrative nonfiction.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This book is my first selection for the Backlist Reader Challenge 2017. I can’t recall how long I’ve wanted to read it, but I put it on my Goodreads to-read list on December 14; I’m pretty sure I bought both copies I own before then (I am sending one back!). I know I had plans to read it sometime last year after a conversation with a fellow teacher who had read it, but I was being lazy about adding more books to Goodreads for a while. It was originally published in 1997.

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2017 Reading Goals

I always like to write up my reading goals in my first blog post of the year.

2017 Reading Challenge

Dana has
read 0 books toward
her goal of
46 books.
hide

I have decided to try to read 46 books this year, since I’ll be turning 46 in September. My sister also set the same goal, but she had the idea first. She is NOT turning 46, however.

I have created my 2017 Reading Challenges page. I will not be joining any more challenges until the R. I. P. Challenge this fall. All of the reading challenges I have chosen have some freedom and flexibility, so I’m not too worried about getting bogged down trying to meet challenge goals.

One general reading goal I have is to read more books written by African and Asian authors and/or set in African or Asian countries. In particular, I want to read books by Salman Rushdie and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. I also want to read more classics of African-American literature, including Jean Toomer’s Cane, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. I also want to try to get to some classics I haven’t read, namely Middlemarch by George Eliot. I don’t know if this is my year to try the Russians again or not. I have been told by a wise authority that the best translators are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I know a good translator is very important, and it could be why I have not had luck before.

Another reading goal I have is to try to be more active in the reading challenges in which I participate. Typically, all I do is keep track of the books that meet the challenges, but often challenge hosts have special linkup posts and other activities on their own blogs, and I rarely participate. I want to do better this year. I am terrible in general at keeping up with other blogs. I would like to do better.

Another related goal: I need to cull books I don’t want to keep from my stacks and do something with them. I have a lot of books. I am never going to say too many (no such thing). There are a lot of books I don’t think I will ever re-read and don’t need to consult again, either. I just need to get rid of them. I suppose I could be more active on PaperBackSwap, but I’m disappointed they are charging money for the service now—beyond the price of postage. I suppose they have to sustain themselves, but it soured me on them a bit.

A final goal: stop messing around with books that are not grabbing me. I bought some books this year, and they didn’t grab me, so I felt like I should read them since I bought them. That’s silly. I should just get rid of them if they aren’t grabbing me, and I shouldn’t be giving them more than 50 pages. I need to remember there are a lot of books out there I want to read—good ones—and I need to be better about wasting time on books that are not working for me, even if I spent money on them. I know I should go to the library, but I always think I might need the books longer than they allow, and what if I want to keep them (yes, I know I could always buy them after the fact if that’s the case). I should probably make it a goal to use my library more, actually. They do have Overdrive, and I enjoyed reading books that way in the past.

What are your reading goals for the year?

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2016: Reading Year in Review

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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Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie

I read Sherman Alexie’s YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to read more of his work, but going to an English teacher’s conference and seeing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven used in a session presented by one of my friends reminded me I needed to read this book. I finished it this afternoon, so it will be my final book of 2016.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of connected short stories set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Alexie admits the collection is semi-autobiographical. Several characters make appearances in multiple stories. The main protagonist, Victor Joseph, appears in several of the stories I enjoyed the most, including “What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” in which Victor travels with Thomas Builds-the-Fire to Phoenix to retrieve his father’s ashes and reconnects with Thomas, who had formerly been Victor’s friend. My favorite story in the collection, in fact, centered around Thomas Builds-the-Fire: “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” is a magical realist take on the absurd trial in which Thomas is convicted for a 200-year-old “crime.” One exchange in the trial caught my breath, and I had to read it out loud to Steve:

“My name was Qualchan and I had been fighting for our people, for our land. It was horrendous, hiding in the dirt at the very mouth of the Spokane River where my fellow warrior, Moses, found me after he escaped from Colonel’s Wright’s camp. Qualchan, he said to me. You must stay away from Wright’s camp. He means to hang you. But Wright had taken my father hostage and threatened to hang him if I did not come in. Wright promised he would treat me fairly. I believed him and went to the colonel’s camp and was immediately placed in chains. It was then I saw the hangman’s noose and made the fight to escape. My wife also fought beside me with a knife and wounded many soldiers before she was subdued. After I was beaten down, they dragged me to the noose and I was hanged with six other Indians, including Epseal, who had never raised a hand in anger to any white or Indian.”

“Mr. Builds-the Fire,” the judge asked and brought Thomas back to attention. “What point are you trying to make with this story?”

“Well,” Thomas said, “The City of Spokane is now building a golf course named after me, Qualchan, located in the valley where I was hanged.” (98-99)

Norma Many Horses also appears in several stories as a wise-beyond-her-years woman who is a skilled dancer, fry bread-maker, and compassionate friend. Junior Polatkin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Arnold “Junior” Spirit of Absolutely True Diary is also the protagonist of several stories and a minor character in others. In fact, Junior’s story “Indian Education” includes many elements that Alexie also incorporated in to Absolutely True Diary.

My favorite stories in the collection, in addition to “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” were “Indian Education,” “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” and “What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” but there wasn’t a story in the collection I didn’t like. I am a little confused about the names and in some cases, I can’t tell if characters are recurring or not. For instance, it’s not clear to me if James is the same person as Jimmy Many Horses (Frank Many Horses claimed to be James’s father). The stories are woven together and move back and forth in time and even between reality an alternate reality. They are well-written and work on their own, but in this case, the collection taken as a whole is more than the sum of its individual parts, almost like a series of vignettes, similar to The House on Mango Street. Alexie has been criticized for the motif of alcohol and alcohol abuse that threads through the stories, but he say in his introduction that he was not stereotyping so much as writing what he saw growing up on the reservation. It’s a very sad picture, and it makes me angry all over again at how America has treated (and continues to treat) Native Americans. It’s shameful. Alexie’s voice is so important, and I’m glad he has shared his stories. This is an excellent collection—one of the best short story collections I have read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Faithful, Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s novel Faithful was released last month and arrived on my doorstep as part of my November Cozy Reader subscription box. I was reminded today that I had decided about seven years ago not to read Hoffman again, and I might not have picked up this book had it not been sent to me, but the reviews were good, and I decided to give it a shot.

Faithful is the story of Shelby Richmond, who survives an accident that puts her best friend into a coma. The novel explores Shelby’s feelings of guilt as the survivor and her subsequent search for meaning in her life as she recovers. Spanning about ten years in Shelby’s story, Faithful in particular explores Shelby’s relationships with family and friends who try to help her see that she is worthy of love and also discover her purpose in the world—”to save a small part of the world.”

I found Shelby to be a bit of a cipher. She pushed everyone away to such a degree that I found it difficult to like her myself—not that I have to like characters to enjoy a book. I do however, need to be interested in them, and it took me a while to become interested in what happened to Shelby, but by a few chapters in, I was. The present-tense storytelling didn’t work for me as a reader, though I think I understand the point in using it. It did make the story feel more immediate in some ways, but it also made it hard for me to place in time.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I read the first chapter, and I thought it was going to the did-not-finish pile in short order, but I gave it another chance. I liked it way more than 3 stars, but I’m not sure it’s a full 4 stars for me either, even though I basically read almost all of it in a day. There were moments that were a bit wrenching for me as I lost my grandmother last month, and this book confronts the pain of loss in multiple ways, but it didn’t quite get inside me in a deep way. Perhaps it was that I never fully warmed to Shelby. I certainly felt bad for her, and I wanted her to forgive herself, but even her descriptions of what she was like before the accident made it hard for me to feel like I knew her. I felt like even as a reader, she didn’t want to let me in. Still, it looks like lots of readers are loving it, and it’s a pretty good read, though the NY Times review by Helene Wecker captures my feelings about the book well.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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A Few More 2017 Reading Challenges

I have found a few more 2017 reading challenges I want to participate in since my recent post about next year’s reading challenges. I have to thank Tanya Patrice at the GirlXOXO for maintaining such a comprehensive list of reading challenges. I have been checking in periodically to see what’s been added to her list.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017The Backlist Reader Challenge will give me a reason to read some of the older books that have been on my shelf for a while. I tend to do that anyway, and to review them, even if they are not new and have been out in some cases for years and years. What I like about this challenge is any books that are older than 2016 and have been on my TBR pile can count, whether I own them already or not. I can think of plenty of books that meet both qualifications. Anyway, my goal is to read 20 books for this challenge, but I think I’ll play it by ear and see how the year goes. It will be a good opportunity to chip away at my backlist.

Beat the BacklistTo that end, I’m also participating in the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge mainly because there is a House Cup competition. Ravenclaw, represent! Just to make it interesting and to challenge myself to chip away at more of my backlist, I am not going to count books toward both challenges. I will count them for one or the other, trading back and forth as I chip away. This challenge allows books published in 2016, so I may put in some books I published this year that I haven’t read yet for this one. I will also try to read 20 books for this challenge, but I’m not sure which ones I will target yet.

British Books ChallengeI love British literature, and I was pleased to find the British Books Challenge, which is similar to one I’ve done in the past, but hadn’t been able to locate again. I’m supposed to declare which authors I plan to read, but I’m honestly not sure. I have a ton of authors in my backlist as well as some I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Definitely some Zadie Smith, I think. I have been wanting to read her for a while, and this challenge will give me a good excuse. I might try to tackle George Eliot finally. I need to read Middlemarch. I was also thinking about Elizabeth Gaskell because I really want to watch the miniseries of North and South, and I was thinking of reading it first. Perhaps I can return to some favorites: the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen? I’ve also wanted to read “The Goblin Market,” so perhaps a collection of Christina Rossetti poems? It might also be time to re-read Possession by A. S. Byatt. When is the third Cromwell book by Hilary Mantel coming out, anyway? I promise, if it’s 2017, I’ll put everything aside when it comes out to finish that series. I never did finish her book on the French Revolution, either. I am sure I’ll think of others. I will probably count books I read for either backlist challenge toward this challenge as well, if they fit the parameters. I’m setting a goal of ten books for this one.

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI am really tempted by this Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, particularly in light of new Sherlock episodes. I think I’ll sign up and see if I can make it work. I haven’t read all the stories in over 20 years. I did fly through all of Sherlock Holmes one summer when my oldest was a baby, and she’s 23 now. I reckon I could give it another go. I remember that being quite an enjoyable reading summer, too. The idea of this challenge is to read all four novels and all 56 short stories. I actually have the complete collection around this house somewhere. The challenge runs for 16 months, too, which seems completely reasonable.

Well, I think that’s enough to be getting on with for now. Still, I’m excited about all four of these challenges. I don’t think I’ll sign up for any more, however, unless the Historical Fiction Challenge runs again (haven’t seen a sign-up post for it yet), and, of course, the R. I. P. Challenge. One further goal: to actually post linkups to my reviews on the challenge websites and participate in the challenges beyond crossing books off my list.

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Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

 

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2017 Reading Challenge Sign Up Time!

I love reading challenges. After not having the best reading year this year, I’m hoping that I can jump start things with a few challenges that looked interesting to me. Here are some of the reading challenges I’m trying in 2017.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017The Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017 is “designed to be fun, frivolous and filled with feathers.” In other words, it challenges participants to pick a range of books from an eclectic list of seven categories: 1) a book with a word or phrase relating to wildness in the title, 2) a book with a species of bird (or the word “bird”) in the title, 3) a book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title, 4) a book with an object you might hunt for in the title, 5) a book with a synonym for chase in the title, 6) a book with a means of transport in the title, and 7) a book with an object you might take on a search or hunt in the title. It looks like fun to me. I’m not sure right now which books I might select, but I like the idea of going on a “wild goose chase” to find fun titles that fit the criteria.

European Reading Challenge 2017I love to read books set in Europe, but if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit most are set in the UK with a sprinkling in France. Perhaps the European Reading Challenge 2017 will help me try some different settings. The idea is to read books set in one of “50 sovereign states that fall (at least partially) within the geographic territory of the continent of Europe and/or enjoy membership in international European organizations such as the Council of Europe.” I am going to go for the FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE) level and “read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.”

If some of my other favorite challenges run again next year, I’ll do them as well. I always love doing the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the Reading England Challenge. The R. I. P. Challenge is my absolute favorite, but it’s not usually announced until August. I’ll keep my eyes open for other interesting challenges as well.

I have two other challenge-related goals for 2017:

  1. Link up my reviews on challenge sites and participate more. I usually do the reading, but I forget to follow up with linkups, and I almost never read others’ reviews. I’d like to try being more involved with the challenges next year.
  2. Read books set in Asia and Africa. I want to broaden my book settings a bit, and I admit these two continents are the ones I have visited most rarely in my reading (and if I am fair, South America, too, but I’d really like to make this more doable by focusing on two continents). I already have a list and some ideas. I don’t want to make it an official challenge—more of a personal one.

Once the year ends, I will change my Reading Challenges page to reflect 2017 challenges.

If you know of any good challenges that might interest us readers, clue us in the comments.

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Review: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Jerome Charyn

I believe I first saw Jerome Charyn’s book A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century at the Emily Dickinson House and Museum in Amherst. I put it on my wishlist, thinking I would get it some time, and my husband bought it for me for my birthday.

Jerome Charyn recently gave a lecture at the Frost Library at Amherst College, which I attended and wrote about on this blog. I wanted to start reading the book right after the talk, but I believe I was in the middle of The Club Dumas, which took me forever to finish (because I didn’t like it and should have given up on it). I wanted to finish The Club Dumas before reading A Loaded Gun. After a while, I sort of used A Loaded Gun as a carrot to encourage myself to finish The Club Dumas.

A Loaded Gun is not a straight biography of Emily Dickinson. If you are looking for a chronological narrative of Dickinson’s life, this biography will likely not satisfy you. However, if you are interested in looking at Emily Dickinson with fresh eyes, casting away the stories you heard about her reclusive nature and her white dress, then this book is definitely the book for you. A Loaded Gun is really more the story of Dickinson’s genius. She is compared to and contrasted with other artists that we have struggled to understand—memorably, Joseph Cornell, who made shadow box art. This is his piece based on the work of Emily Dickinson, entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula:

Toward the Blue Peninsula

Toward the Blue Peninsula © Joseph Cornell, used according to Fair Use guidelines

The piece is inspired by the following poem (Fr. 535, Dickinson’s exact language and punctuation):

It might be lonelier

Without the Loneliness—

I’m so accustomed to my Fate—

Perhaps the Other—Peace—

 

Would interrupt the Dark—

And crowd the little Room—

Too scant—by Cubits—to contain

The Sacrament—of Him—

 

I am not used to Hope—

It might intrude opon—

It’s sweet parade—blaspheme the place

Ordained to Suffering—

 

It might be easier

To fail—with Land in Sight—

Than gain—my Blue Peninsula—

To perish—of Delight—

Charyn spends the bulk of one of his chapters discussing Cornell’s art and connecting it to Dickinson’s. Ultimately, however, Charyn finds Dickinson elusive. As he says in his introduction, “I know less and less the more I learned about her” (8). I snapped a photo of the following page, with discussion of one of the most “well-known” facets of Dickinson’s life:

One thing that is clear to me after reading this book is that we may never really know Emily Dickinson at all. Who was this genius who played with language in a way no other American poet has matched?

If you haven’t seen the way Emily Dickinson thought about variant word choices, you should definitely take a look at some of her poems. The Dickinson museum has one such poem posted as a display, and visitors can try out Dickinson’s different word choice ideas by moving levers (they don’t allow photography, so I can’t share a picture of it, but it’s really interesting). Dickinson marked her variant word choices with a + and wrote the variations in the margins and on the bottom of the page. Because Dickinson didn’t publish her work, it’s hard to say which variations she would ultimately have preferred, and in some ways, I absolutely love the freedom I have as a reader, if I see Dickinson’s original work, to construct my own favorite version of her poems. Ultimately, her editors have had to make the decisions that Dickinson did not make, and I’m not always sure I agree with their choices.

As he did in his lecture, Charyn discussed the possibly new daguerreotype discovered by “Sam Carlo” in a Great Barrington, MA junk shop. I had a chance to talk a little bit with Sam Carlo at Charyn’s talk, and he also let me take a picture of his replica of the daguerreotype. Charyn, like Sam Carlo, believes the other woman in the daguerreotype was Kate Scott, and Charyn advances the theory that Dickinson was in love with Scott, and also that she was in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (this theory is not new—Charyn said at his lecture that if you read Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law, there really isn’t another way to interpret them except as love letters; I plan to read them and see what I think). Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Bisexual? Charyn argues that partly, our picture of Emily Dickinson has been the virginal spinster in white who never left the house, and the image of her in the known daguerreotype supports this vision of Dickinson. She remains forever fifteen in our imaginations rather than the grown woman who wrote fierce poetry.

I enjoyed Charyn’s book very much. One aspect I particularly liked is that he didn’t remove himself from the subject matter. He is a part of the story he is telling as well. He describes visiting Vincent van Gogh’s room in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.

And for the price of a few euros, collected by a ticket taker at a little kiosk in the rear yard, I climbed upstairs and visited van Gogh’s room. It was barren, with a tiny skylight and a cane-back chair; the walls were full of crust, the floor was made of barren boards, and I couldn’t stop crying. I imagined him alone in that room, his mind whirling with colors, his psychic space as primitive and forlorn as a lunatic’s world… he was always alone. (211)

Charyn doesn’t explicitly connect Dickinson’s room to van Gogh’s. Perhaps he wants the reader to make that connection if he/she so chooses. I don’t know if I will ever forget ascending the stairs the first time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house and seeing the sunlight illuminating the replica of Emily’s white dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. The docent told us a story about Dickinson pretending to lock her door and telling her niece, “Matty, here’s freedom.” What freedom did Dickinson find in that small room?

Even her poetry on the subject is elusive:

Sweet hours have perished here,

This is a timid room—

Within its precincts hopes have played

Now fallow in the tomb. (Fr. 1785)

R. W. Franklin’s edition of her poems differs from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb. (1767)

Which was it? If I had my way, it would go like this:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now fallow in the tomb.

I suppose part of the beauty of Emily Dickinson in the 21st century is that now we know more about what she actually wrote, including all her variant word choices. All the layers of changes made by editors over the years have been stripped bare. We can look at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and examine her poems in Franklin’s Variorum Edition. As a result, the poet we thought we knew and understood is more elusive than before. Still, she remains as intriguing a subject of study as she ever was—perhaps even more than she was when we assumed she was a waifish, homebound spinster in white.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the story of Haroun Khalifa, the son of storyteller Rashid. Rashid has lost his “gift of gab” after his wife, Haroun’s mother, leaves him for the boring, clerkish Mr. Sengupta, their neighbor. The Khalifas live in the country of Alifbay in a sad city that has forgotten its name. When Rashid attempts and fails to tell a story at a political rally (he makes something of a career telling stories at such rallies), he is quite literally run out of town and must go to the Valley of K and redeem himself at a rally for Mr. Snooty Buttoo. Or else. Mr. Snooty Buttoo takes Rashid and Haroun out on the Dull Lake in a ship, and Haroun wakes in the night to find a Water Genie disconnecting his father’s invisible tap, from which all his stories spring. Haroun is whisked away by the genie to speak to the Walrus, leader of the Eggheads who control the Processes to Complicated to Explain on the moon of Kahani, or Story, where the societies of Gup and Chup are about to go to war over the pollution of the Sea of Stories and the kidnapping of Guppee princess Batcheat.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is ostensibly a children’s or young adult book, but the philosophical underpinnings and questions it raises are definitely meant for people of all ages to ponder. It was the first book Rushdie wrote after the fatwa dictated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put Rushdie’s life in danger in an attempt to silence Rushdie’s own stories. It’s a fantastic novel that explores the complexities of where stories come from and what happens when they are “polluted” by those who would attempt to use them for their own ends or to silence them altogether. Motifs such as freedom of speech, the truth or reality of stories, creating meaning from stories in a modern world, and the purpose of stories and storytelling are at the center of what looks, at first blush, like a fantasy children’s tale. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the importance of stories. Rushdie apparently began telling the story orally to his son at bathtime, and it later evolved into this book.

I will start teaching it tomorrow to students in my ninth grade World Literature course. I should have finished the novel a long time ago, but it’s not been an easy year for me in a lot of ways, and perhaps it’s for the best that I waited to read it so that it is quite fresh for me. It means I wasn’t able to help as much as I wanted to with the initial planning of the novel, but I am blessed to have wonderful colleagues who stepped in when I wasn’t ready, and I feel I can contribute now. I’m so glad we picked this book, not just because it has a hero’s journey motif, which is one focus for the year, and not just because we were able to introduce an Indian author where previously we had a white British author, but also because it’s an excellent book that speaks to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories?

Rating: ★★★★★

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