Jane Eyre

Jane EyreLast night I completed Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre. As a child, I moved around quite a bit, especially in high school. Going to three different high schools has left some large gaps in my literature education, and many of the books one would ordinarily have read in high school I admit I have never read. No matter — I’m not sure I would have been ready for this one in high school, anyway.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the story, Jane Eyre stars the eponymous heroine Jane Eyre, who when orphaned by her parents at an early age goes to live with her cruel Aunt Reed until she is unceremoniously sent away to a harsh boarding school called Lowood. Jane eventually becomes a teacher at Lowood until a beloved mentor leaves the school to marry, at which time Jane decides to leave as well. She advertises for a position of governess and is hired by Mrs. Fairfax of Thornfield Hall, the housekeeper for one of literature’s great Byronic heroes, Edward Fairfax Rochester. Mr. Rochester falls in love with Jane, but he harbors a dark secret in his attic that nearly proves the undoing of both his and Jane’s chance at love and happiness.

Although I liked the novel, I didn’t find it difficult to put down, and indeed, one reason why it took me so long to finish is that for long stretches, I wasn’t really into reading it. However, overall I enjoyed Brontë’s writing style. I found her characters believable, with the exception of the children in the early part of the novel — who talked like no children I’ve ever heard. I admired Jane for standing fiercely by her convictions and valuing herself even when she thought no one else did. It is easy to see why so many literary admirers have borrowed Jane Eyre for inspiration, and I did enjoy the book in its entirety, if not the slower parts. I was inspired to read it after the characters in Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale (my review here) admired it profusely in one of my favorite passages in the book. My daughter Sarah is reading this book right now, and Iwill be interested to get her take on it.

I am anxious to see how well this novel translated to the screen in one of its many movie adaptations. I am going to start with the 1944 production starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, and I am anxious to read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea if for no other reason than to see a little more of enigmatic Bertha Mason.

As I predicted, I did not finish my R.I.P. Challenge by Halloween, but I am soldiering forth at any rate, and I hope to finish it by Christmas.

[tags]jane eyre, charlotte brontë, book review, literature[/tags]

Moby Dick

This morning DailyLit sent me my last installment of Moby Dick, which I finished reading only a few moments ago.  I don’t know whether it is because I spent about six months reading it or whether Moby Dick is such a notoriously difficult book to get through, but I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment.  At the end of the installment, DailyLit enclosed the following message: “Congratulations!  You have finished Moby Dick.”

I do think Melville was in need of a good editor.  One of the best pieces of advice I was given as a writer was to cut anything that stopped the forward motion of the plot.  I think long passages of description are fine when it’s something the reader needs to know.  On the other hand, the whole section on cetology should be cut, in my opinion.  I can well imagine that many people who are trying to read the novel give up right there in the middle.  On the other hand, when the novel does contain action, it’s high caliber, and the writing is excellent.  My favorite passages:

After Ahab sends the Rachel away, refusing to help her captain look for his lost son, the chapter concludes:

But by her still halting course and winding, woeful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort.  She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not.

I just think that’s beautiful writing.  My absolute favorite part was in the chapter “The Symphony,” and it is easy for me to see now how Sena Jeter Naslund was inspired by this chapter to write Ahab’s Wife:

“God!  God!  God!–crack my heart!–stave my brain!–mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old?  Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God.  By the green land; by the bright hearth-stone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye.  No, no; stay on board, on board!–lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick.  That hazard shall not be thine.  No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!” …

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?  Is Ahab, Ahab?  Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?  But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.  By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.

I think Melville’s use of stage directions was novel and interesting as well, and not something I would have thought of doing.  I am very glad I read the book, but even more so that I did it through DailyLit.  I feel that because I read just a little bit every day, even if it took me six months, I was less frustrated with the parts that dragged than I would have been had I tried to read it in a much shorter space of time.

[tags]moby dick, herman melville, ahab’s wife, sena jeter naslund, dailylit[/tags]


RebeccaI finished Rebecca in a marathon reading session today — I know I read over half the book. I think it’s right about that point in the story when the novel becomes impossible to put down.

Though this novel is just the sort that is right up my alley in a variety of ways, I had not read it before, and I’m not sure why. I know I had plans to read it… eventually. I’m really glad I did because I loved it.

If you are unfamiliar with the basic plot, Rebecca is told from the viewpoint of a young woman who marries the fabulously wealthy and mysterious Maxim de Winter. The narrator is never named, which was a clever device of writer Daphne du Maurier’s — it plays up the omnipresent specter of Rebecca, Maxim’s perfect, deceased first wife.

Du Maurier’s excellent descriptions brought Manderley, the de Winter ancestral mansion, to vivid life, and the story was well constructed. I was pleased to find some of my predictions came true, but many twists and turns made it impossible to see how it would end. In addition, her characters were realistically painted and seemed to walk right out of the pages into the flesh.

The only real criticism I have to offer about the story is that I felt it took a while to get into. Once Maxim and the narrator marry, the plot moves along nicely, but the beginning was somewhat slow; however, it might have been necessary to build slowly in order to give the reader the necessary information, and, I might add, perhaps mislead the reader a bit about the characters in order to retain the ending’s surprise. I should also add that my particular copy, the mass market paperback, was rife with annoying typos. Of course, you pretty much get what you pay for with mass market, so perhaps you would do better to buy the trade paperback or hardcover, both of which might have fewer typos.

I’m really glad I chose to read this novel for the R.I.P. Challenge. It was an excellent story. I am going to run out and rent the Hitchcock movie and hope that it does the book justice, for I’ve not seen the movie either.

[tags]rebecca, daphne du maurier, r.i.p. challenge, literature, review, book[/tags]


TwilightA few short hours after announcing that Twilight would definitely be my first book in the R.I.P. Challenge, I finished it. According to my records, I did indeed start it on September 1, so without realizing, I wasn’t even cheating a little bit on the challenge!

I read Twilight based on a recommendation from my daughter. I have to admit I’m a little surprised it turned out to be her cup of tea. Twilight is the story of Bella, who moves in with her father to Forks, Washington in order to allow her mother to follow her baseball-player husband on away-game trips. She immediately notices good-looking Edward Cullen and his beautiful siblings — they keep to themselves and are considered mysterious by the rest of the students. Edward notices Bella, too. In a relatively short period of time, Bella is sure of three things: “First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him — and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be — that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”

Twilight is aimed at a teen audience, but I believe fans of vampire fiction of all ages would enjoy this suspenseful book. My daughter devoured the book in less than 24 hours, and while I didn’t tear through it that fast, I have to admit that a 498-page book usually takes me a bit longer to read when the beginning of a school year is in full swing. The book is the first in a series including New Moon and Eclipse. The book is fresh, telling some of the familiar parts of the vampire story without being derivative. I think the novel would appeal to fans of vampire fiction as well as those who usually don’t read that sort of book. All of us can relate to Bella’s feelings about being the new girl and crushing on the handsome boy. I really enjoyed the book and plan to read the sequels, too.

[tags]twilight, stephenie meyer, literature, review, fiction, vampire, books, r.i.p. challenge[/tags]

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsI finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last night, and all I will say is… wow.  It was amazing.  I loved it.  It was my favorite of the series, and possibly, I have to say, my favorite book ever.

I won’t post a review here.  I have a Harry Potter blog, and I will be posting whatever thoughts I want to share about the book over there.  I do want to wait until this weekend in order to avoid spoiling it for others, but frankly, after the book has been released, I say it’s fair game for discussion.  Pop on over there if you are interested.

I wish I didn’t have so much summer reading to do!  I want to start over again from the first book to the last.  That’s a project that will have to wait.

Thanks so very much for the wonderful books, Jo.

[tags]harry potter, deathly hallows[/tags]

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan DenisovichAleksandr Solzhenitsyn poignantly captures the hardships of the Soviet Union’s labor camps in Siberia, as well as the arbitrary unfairness of living in that regime in his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich , and I’m glad I read it for that reason.  Solzhenitsyn himself was arrested after criticizing Stalin in a personal letter.  He was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp, and permanent internal exile following his labor camp sentence.  This sentence was, however, apparently commuted after he was treated for cancer.  He was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned in 1990 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Much of Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s experiences in the labor camp must have been modeled after the author’s own.

I found the novel difficult to read.  In order to preserve the narrative thread, which captures one day in an average prisoner’s life in the camp, the book is not divided into chapters.  This lack of division made it difficult to stop reading.  I am generally not a reader who can read an entire book in one sitting.  For one thing, I’m a slow and generally careful reader.  Even if that were not the case, however, as a mother of three I don’t have the luxury of reading in one sitting most of the time.  Therefore, with Ivan, I had to frequently re-read passage so I could pick up the thread of the narrative again.  To be honest, having to re-read so much made the book something of a chore to get through.  I would imagine a few of my more politically-charged students might have found the book interesting, but I would be surprised if the majority liked this book more than Siddhartha or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I didn’t find the book difficult to understand; H. T. Willetts’ translation was accessible.  However, the unfamiliar names did impede my comprehension somewhat.  I’m not sure I did a very good job keeping the characters straight.  For example, I would imagine most American readers would have no problem understanding if a character named Robert were suddenly called Bob.  Likewise, it probably throws off no Russian readers when Ivan is addressed as Vanya, but it didn’t immediately occur to me that Vanya was a nickname, and I was confused.  I started to look up the name, thinking perhaps it was a term I was unfamiliar with and then it hit me as I looked at the name that it was a nickname.  In general, however, the book’s footnotes did an excellent job helping Western readers understand the allusions in the book.

I think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an essential text — a true-to-life account of what life was like in the Soviet Union, and I think people who read this book may come away feeling more thankful for the freedoms they have.  However, I can’t really say that I found it enjoyable.  Perhaps a book about a Soviet labor camp shouldn’t be described as enjoyable?  Let’s say it wasn’t gripping, then — at least not for me.

[tags]aleksandr solzhenitsyn, one day in the life of ivan denisovich, book, review, literature[/tags]

Brave New World

Brave New WorldContinuing my quest to finish all the summer reading my students have to do, I finished Brave New World this morning. I usually like dystopian novels, but I didn’t like this one, which is somewhat ironic considering it is one of the two “gold-standards” of dystopian novels (the other being, of course, 1984). It’s been a long time since I have read anything that gave me bad dreams, but even putting that aside, I didn’t like the novel for other reasons.

First of all, I found it somewhat problematic that Huxley’s society would repress family and childbirth by manufacturing children in “hatcheries,” but at the same time encourage promiscuity. It would make more sense to me that the World State would repress sex altogether and punish people caught having sex. Huxley explains this objection away through the words of his character Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for Western Europe, who says that encouraging promiscuity is necessary because “[y]ou can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”

I also found it hard to believe that the World State would allow dissenters to continue an existence in exile. What if they decided to band together and overthrow the World State? Doesn’t dissent represent too much of a threat to allow it to continue?

Another issue that bothered me was the fact that 70% of the women were sterilized in “utero” (for lack of a better term), and the other 30% were made to use contraception. Where did they get the human ova? Did they require the women who could have children to donate their ova, or did they extract them from fetuses, and if so, why not sterilize all the women after extracting the ova, eliminating the need for contraception drills? I can’t remember that Huxley mentioned where all those eggs came from.

Also, as much as I understood that this society prized consumerism and mass production to the point that they even manufactured people (the description of the hatchery was, to me, the most disturbing part of the novel), I still found the, for lack of a better word, worship of Henry Ford to be hard to buy completely. It does help explain why the society as a whole is uninterested in history, if you take Ford’s assertion that “History is bunk” at face value.

I think the novel explores some important issues, including exactly where we might be headed when we make consumerism and pleasure-seeking the point of our lives and don’t worry about learning. Huxley’s vision of equality isn’t really far from the truth with the exception that the government doesn’t actively introduce toxins to fetuses to subjugate certain groups. We are probably at the stage when we might indeed be able to mass produce people as the novel depicts — I wonder what Huxley would make of in-vitro fertilization and cloning (and please understand I don’t criticize people who use in-vitro to have children; the principles behind the creation of children in the novel and with in-vitro are similar, however).

I can easily see that my students might have trouble with this novel, particularly catching all the references and making connections, and for that reason, I should probably choose this one to study prior to assessment (as I have explained, students are assessed over two novels without benefit of class study). It would certainly provide fodder for discussion, and I already have the beginnings of a good assessment rolling around my head. I don’t think students would have the same difficulties with The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I haven’t read The Return of the Native yet, so I’ll delay making a decision until I’ve read that one.

After having finished Brave New World, I’ll say I’m glad I read it because it is one of those novels that literate folks, especially English teachers, should have read, but if I hadn’t had to read it for school, I’m not sure I’d have finished it.

In case you’re interested, the books I still need to read to prepare for school are The Return of the Native, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the latter two I began last summer, but never finished). If I have time, I will re-read The Bean Trees. If I keep up the pace I have been, even with the release of the new Harry Potter book, I should still finish all right.

[tags]literature, book, review, aldous huxley, brave new world[/tags]


SiddharthaLast year when I was deciding which summer reading book to study with my seniors, I picked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because my particular students were somewhat free-spirited neo-hippies if you will. I really liked that about them, and I thought they’d enjoy Cuckoo’s Nest for the whole counter-culture aspect and association through Ken Kesey with the hippie movement. One student, however, lobbied for a study of Siddhartha. He proclaimed it had been his favorite summer reading book. This from a student who found something to dislike in just about everything we read. It made me think. We couldn’t study it last year, frankly, because I hadn’t read it. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one selection this year, which is why I resolved to make sure I’d read all the summer reading books the students were required to read.

After having read Siddhartha myself, I can say that I’m not sure I’ll select it yet again. One thing my principal and department head have always made clear is that I should select the book that really grabs me the most. I think Siddhartha is intriguing. In many ways, I can see why it might be interesting to study with a class, but I’m not sure if my sort of lukewarm response to the book might be obvious.

If you are not familiar with the novel, it is an allegorical story of the quest of the title character for spiritual enlightenment. It strikes me that Siddhartha is much more receptive to learning from all different kinds of people than most people are. I think in this he is wise. He meets Gotama, whom we most often refer to as Buddha, but decides that he cannot learn from Gotama what he must experience himself. If the truth be told, he reminded me very much of Henry David Thoreau and John Dewey in some of his ideals. In fact, Siddhartha’s best teacher, the ferryman Vasudeva, is the one who realizes that he is a facilitator — Siddhartha must learn for himself. In fact, it might be interesting for teachers to read this book for its commentary on education. If I don’t decide to teach the novel in class, I can at least compose better topics for essays. It was a short book and only took me a couple of days to read, even with all the other interruptions in life *cough* computers and TV *cough*. I’m glad I read it, and I think I’ll be turning it over in my head for some time.

[tags]siddhartha, hermann hesse, literature, book, review[/tags]

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian GrayI studied Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest in my college British literature course.  I thought it was hilarious.  I particularly love Lady Bracknell’s lines.  An especial favorite is “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness,” delivered, of course, to Jack.  No doubt about it, Oscar Wilde had rare wit.  Many of his most quotable witticisms appear in The Picture of Dorian Gray, out of the mouth of Lord Henry Wotton.  I’m sure that when most people read this novel, they feel they see Wilde most clearly in Lord Henry.  He is much given to epigrams, and he has a sharp wit, but Wilde claimed that Lord Henry was only his public image; he said he was actually much more like the artist, Basil Hallward, and that he desired to be more like Dorian Gray.  It might make sense to take Wilde at his word in this case, as, like Basil, he was an artist, and perhaps, also like Basil, he was less secure with himself than he appeared to be.

Upon finishing this novel, my first thought was that Anne Rice owes a debt to Oscar Wilde.  Lestat reminds me very much of Dorian Gray in his desire for beauty, his appreciation for the pleasures of life, and his self-loathing.  To be sure, the homoeroticism of The Picture of Dorian Gray certainly reminded me of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles.  Interestingly enough, in trying to discover if any other readers had made this connection through a quick Google search, I discovered actor Stuart Townsend played both characters — Lestat in Queen of the Damned and Dorian Gray in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I did enjoy the book.  I think it had a clever plot, and I especially loved the device of the painting that reflected the soul of its subject, but I think parts of it might be too talky for my students, which is one reason I’m not sure if it is the one I’ll pick to study in class with them.  Our students read three books over the summer, and the British literature class I’m teaching beginning in August had to read The Picture of Dorian Gray, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy.  Students are assessed over their understanding of two of the books without benefit of classroom discussion.  I haven’t read either of the latter books yet, so I think I’ll wait and see which one has the most fodder for classroom discussion.  Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts if you have read them.

[tags]literature, picture of dorian gray, oscar wilde, review, book[/tags]

A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before DyingOur school changed summer reading selections, and I determined to read at least all the books I hadn’t read before, even though truth be told it’s time to re-read some of those I have.  One of our new 9th grade selections is Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.

Jefferson is a young black man who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Falsely accused of murder, tried by a jury of his white “peers,” and sentenced to death by electrocution by a dismissive judge, Jefferson believes the defense attorney’s closing argument:

Gentlemen of the jury, look at him — look at him — look at this.  Do you see a man sitting here?  Do you see a man sitting here?  I ask you, I implore, look carefully — do you see a man sitting here?  Look at the shape of his skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand — look deeply into those eyes.  Do you see a modicum of intelligence?  Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can play — can plan — can plan anything?  A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa — yes, yes, that he can do — but to plan?  To plan, gentlemen of the jury?  No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command.  A think to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn.  That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder.  He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes.  Ask him to name the months of the year.  Ask him does Christmas come before or after the Fourth of July?  Mention the names of Keats, Byron, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition.  Ask him to describe a rose, to quote one passage from the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.  Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery?  Oh, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying “man” — would you please forgive me for committing such an error?…

He is innocent of all charges brought against him.

But let us say he was not.  Let us for a moment say he was not.  What justice would there be to take this life?  Justice, gentlemen?  Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this. (7-8)

Before Jefferson dies, his godmother wants him see that he is a man, and not a hog.  She enlists the teacher at the black plantation school, Grant Wiggins, to help Jefferson learn this lesson before dying.

If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird, you will appreciate this book.  In some ways, it tells a similar story, but while To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by white children who do not understand the racism that condemned an innocent man, A Lesson Before Dying is narrated by a man who understands, but as a black man himself, feels powerless to change anything about the society in which he lives.

If you are a teacher with some control over novel choices, you might consider bringing this novel into the curriculum.  It is rich material for discussion.  For some students, I think it could be one of those books that changes the way they look at issues such as racism and the death penalty.

[tags]book review, a lesson before dying, ernest j. gaines, literature[/tags]