9.28.2007

Shakespeare a Day Keeps Dementia Away!

An essay/query for a change sparked by this:

The discussion about a person’s reading choices versus whether or not they read at all is one that I used to have often when I was an English teacher. So many of my fellow teachers, who, curiously, were not readers themselves, believed that it was important for kids to just read; the subject, genre did not matter. One teacher resorted to bringing in car magazines for her kids to read in lieu of stories. "They just won't read anything else,” she would say. I groaned. My instinct was always to find out what the kids were interested in and find stories that linked with those interests. For example, horror films are frequented primarily by teenagers, so why not teach Edgar Allan Poe? Or read “The Birds” and then compare it with the Hitchcock movie? It’s easier to buy the car magazine, but the message is sent that anything that you read is as good as anything else. Ultimately, this is limiting, and we end up with a bestseller list that looks like a who’s who in romance and self-help.

I am not advocating that romance novels or self-help books be banished; every book has it place and mood, but I do believe that as we focus more on TV and less on stretching our brains to interpret tough literature, the less likely will our brains be to handle this type of difficult reading in the future. The mind is a muscle, the overused saying goes, and Shakespeare perks your brain, while Danielle Steele lulls it asleep. Educators, though, want to keep the peace. Students sleep or yell and moan when you ask them to read something difficult, so either read it to them, or get a car magazine, the battle-worn teacher says.

In an effort to make learning more fun, which always makes me cringe, teachers and curriculum specialists are ‘dumbing’ down the lessons. If you don’t want to read Shakespeare, get the No Fear Shakespeare and read comfortably in front of the TV! Don’t read The Scarlet Letter, read The Crucible instead! It’s the same thing, just easier to understand! Unfortunately, we are creating a populace that literally can’t comprehend difficult literature. Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid argues that because our brains are not born learning how to read, they must be taught. If you are not taught how to read difficult prose, you will not have the brain capability to process it. This has far reaching implications. If you are unable to comprehend the irony in Austen, how will you be able to discern nuanced political arguments? How will you be able to read the newspaper or ‘read’ a TV show, public speech, or a chat with a friend for underlying, important meaning? Easy: you will not be able to.

In my opinion, the future is grim. I taught English in Georgia, which is last on the totem pole in terms of education, so I realize my reality may not be the norm, let’s hope so, but I see the majority of our high school students moving into the world choosing romance novels, car magazines, and self-help books (if they choose anything at all) not because they want a break, but because other, more difficult fare is inaccessible to them. Obviously, anyone can beef up their reading ability by getting a library card, buying a good dictionary, and going slowly through a tough book, but I do not know of that many adults who would choose that route. Most of them were taught easily digestible stuff in high school and that’s their bread and butter.

It’s a tough question with no easy solution, though I would start with getting some smart teachers in the classroom and sending the 20 year old trouble-makers to alternative school, but short of that, I am pledged to keeping this blog full of (among the occasional candy) good, hard books, so that perhaps people will be prompted to pick one up for spin.

Bookish Questionnaire courtesy of So Many Books

  1. Hardcover or paperback, and why?
    Matters not a whit; I’ll take any I can get.J
  2. If I were to own a book shop, I would call it…
    Hmmm…The Red Room Library of course!!!
  3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is…
    Gatsby – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
  4. The author (alive or dead) I would love to have lunch with would be…
    Oscar Wilde. He was reputed to be the most brilliant conversationalist of his age, and the art of conversation is dead these days. Second runner up is Winston Churchill for the similar reason.
  5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except for the SAS survival guide, it would be…
    Um, leaving me on a deserted island with just one book is absolute cruelty, but if I were forced, I would say the collected works for Shakespeare.
  6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that…
    would help me read while in the car. I actually do read at stoplights, but I really need to stop doing that.
  7. The smell of an old book reminds me of…
    Ideas, history, all the people who read this book with tea/coffee slouched at a café or curled up on a couch.
  8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be…
    Obviously, Elizabeth Bennett.
  9. The most overestimated book of all time is…
    Not to sound like a goody-two shoes, but I can’t think of a book that I completely detest. I can usually find something good about it. The ones that I dislike are usually the ones everyone else hates, too. Danielle Steele, anyone?
  10. I hate when a book… starts off brilliantly, the characters are vivid, the setting is clearly drawn, but then ends with the let down of the century; The Crimson Petal and the White comes to mind.

A question my own:

  1. Which two characters from which two different works of literature do you think should meet? Why? Anna Karenina and Hester Prynne (Scarlet Letter). They have the same plight at root, don’t they? Loving someone outside their marriage who ultimately rejects them? I think they would find a few things to talk about, and I think Hester Prynne would dig Russia, and Anna would buy her handiwork.

David Fulmer's Chasing the Devil's Tail

David Fulmer’s Chasing the Devil’s Tail takes place in turn of the 20th century New Orleans, in the small, vibrant red light district of Storyville. It is the start of jazz, or jass, from the French word ‘jasser’, meaning to chatter, and the city is alive with dissipated characters, rivers of alcohol, loose women, and high/low notes of jassing horns, finding their voices. When a number of ‘sporting gals’ turn up murdered, the area rises to alarm. Valentine St. Cyr, a pale skin black man, who often passes as Sicilian, is a private detective for Tom Anderson, the historical self-appointed King of Storyville. Valentine St. Cyr takes the case, but soon discovers that his childhood friend, Buddy, the King, Bolden, the historical father of jazz, is the prime suspect. Along the way, we walk the streets of New Orleans with St. Cyr, meet characters from history, and happen upon a few scenes that would make the church ladies squirm. The end is surprising, but not entirely unexpected.

Fulmer’s strength lies in his ability to create a scene. A few deft strokes of his pen, and we are sitting in Lulu White’s front room on Basin Street, smelling the stench from the road and watching the crystal chandelier sway and gleam between the fans. For readers who are anxious to live in another world for a while, this is a great place to go.

The scenes are vibrant, but the characters are only mostly vivid. I want to know as much as I can about these characters, and I am left asking questions about their pasts and motivations. Fulmer does a better job developing his lesser characters, particularly the historically based characters. I wonder at St. Cyr’s motivations at some points, though he is nicely developed on the whole, but the antagonist, Picot, is not as fleshed out as I would like. He hates St. Cyr, this much is clear, but the reasons are unclear. I want the connection between Picot and St. Cyr to get more page time, but I just may have to read the next few books to get the background I want. Fulmer weaves historical characters in with made up ones, and the result is believable and seamless. The characters from history, Lulu White, Buddy Bolden, E. J. Bellocq, to name a few, bound off the page.

This is a compelling, clear, and carefully composed story. It is heavy on setting and character development, and if you are inclined to pass this one up because it’s billeted as a mystery, don’t. This story is worth an afternoon or two. Plus, you’ll really want to visit New Orleans afterwards, which is always a good thing these days.


9.21.2007

Bibliography Challenge 1: Sutherland's How to Read a Novel

How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland is more aptly named How to Choose a Novel, as this non-fiction exploration is more about selecting novels than reading them. This is a very quick read and well worth it if you are interested in fast facts about publishing and tips about selecting novels from the overwhelming thousands that get published every week.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Sutherland’s success in putting today’s reading experience in the context of past and future reading experiences. For a nice counterpoint to today’s readers, Sutherland presents Samuel Johnson, the great critic who was able to say, albeit with a justified but very puffed up chest, that he had ‘read all the books that have been written.’ In the 1700s, that was absolutely possible. There were perhaps 2,000 books in the published canon. Today, that number of books comes out every month. The amount of books available is staggering and very daunting. I often become overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy when I realize the number of books there are to read. I have done myself a favor and have (mostly) cut out ‘trash’ to make room for books that are actually interesting and not merely eye candy, but even with this boundary, there are myriads of titles that I pass up every time I select books; and there is no end in sight. There will be thousands more books on the shelves by next year and thousands more the year after that.

The form of books are unlikely to change, too, as Sutherland, gratifyingly, explains. (I worry about books going digital. I’m afraid I would have to take up a new hobby. My eyes can barely stand this.) Companies have tried to sell readers on reading from a computer, but they have been unable to do so. Readers like taking a book from a shelf, flipping the pages, writing some marginalia, and sticking it in a bag or pocket. Computers just aren’t this versatile.

Sutherland’s history of the novel and information about publishing is the most successful aspect of his book. The rest, the explanation of Bret Easton Ellis’ autofiction, maybe, Lunar Park, for example, is a low point; this might be, though, because I don’t know why ANYONE would read Bret Easton Ellis. I had a very traumatizing run-in with American Psycho in college and learned a valuable lesson. The bitterness over On Beauty losing the 2005 Man Booker to The Sea is heavy-handed and distracting. Though, the insights into how certain prizes, Pulitzer, Man Booker, Orange and Whitbread Prizes, move books but other prizes don’t was very interesting. I, for one, am a total sucker for the Man Booker.

As Sutherland makes clear, and with which I agree, reading is a tremendously expanding, fulfilling, and thought provoking exercise. There are many great books out there, regardless of which types of books you prefer, and it is useful to think a little about how best to sort through the paper piles to find them. If you are really at a loss, Sutherland says, do the page 69 test: if you like what you read on page 69, then you will probably like the entire book. Sounds easy enough to me.

9.20.2007

Book Choices for Bibliography Challenge

It took some thinking, but here are my choices. This is a great challenge.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Sixpence House by Paul Collins
How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland

Come back for Reviews!

9.19.2007

A New Challenge!

Historia from Bibliohistoria says:
So I've decided to host a small challenge - Read 3 books about books from October 1st to December 31st. Fiction or Non fiction, I dont mind.
My choices to be announced. I love these challenges. Once I get my readership up, I think I will have a challenge of my own.

9.18.2007

Brown's The Diana Chronicles

The Diana Chronicles received mixed reviews. On the one hand, Tina Brown presented Diana in a fair, balanced light, rarely resorting to gimmicky, gossipy information. Her effort to present Diana as a humanitarian was considered valiant and correct. After ten years, we are ready to put aside our view of Diana as silly and desperate for attention. On the other hand, critics argue that Brown presents Diana as just that. Plus, she provides no new information about Diana’s life According to Sarah Bradford, a Diana biographer and Royal insider, Brown did not gain access to Diana’s inner circle, so speculations about Diana’s behavior is immediately suspect.

As usual, I fall softly onto the middle ground. I think Brown’s book is a detailed and well-researched account of Diana’s life. Few other books spend as much time analyzing Diana’s childhood as this one does. Clearly, Diana was deeply traumatized by her mother’s abandonment. She fell in love with Charles far before he was ever a possible suitor because, according to her, “he is the only one that will never leave me.” Interestingly, Diana was slated for Charles younger brother, Andrew. Her 19-year old self saw security and matrimonial bliss in the heir to the throne. A more experienced woman would have left him when he famously said, after being asked if he loved her, “whatever that [love] means,” but Diana was smitten and the route to tragedy was paved.

Brown does a nice job of creating a clear picture of Diana as a modern woman caught in the ancient practices of monarchy. Charles, like nearly every other Prince of Wales before him, had a mistress. From the perspective of history this is not surprising or out of the ordinary, but Diana was a modern woman; she saw what happened in her family when love was not present and she was desperate to correct her parents’ wrongs. The true tragedy is that she was never told at the beginning what the situation was between Charles and Camilla, that no one ever pulled her aside and enlightened her about marriage practices in the British royal world. Some say that she should have known, but she was too in love with Charles to believe that she could not woo him. Brown believes that she was in love with Charles her entire life, which, if true, is sad.

Diana, however, was not completely innocent. She knew how to play dirty, and she did so to get back at Charles. Though every launch of ugliness (Andrew Morton, BBC interview) was ultimately designed to get Charles’ attention, one cannot forget how mean these attacks were. She was justified in her anger and pain, but she made the situation worse by choosing the tactics that she did. Diana understood her public, knew they loved her more than Charles, and used them to play hardball with her husband. By the time they are divorced, Charles is with Camilla, and safe behind royal protection, and Diana is alone. Her boys are at school, her HRH is gone, she has declined the royal security detail, because she believes they are spying on her, and she is a fox for the foxhunting photogs, a true Diana the Hunted from Greek myth. She turns to Dodi Fayed, not for marriage or love, but for protection.

It is unjust that Diana is treated so poorly at the end. After all, she was the honest one in the relationship. She was immature and chose to fight, though harshly, for love and recognition in a situation where most women historically go about their business, but I don’t think any woman in this day and age can fault her. The real villain of the story is Camilla. Many, both for and against Diana, both in and out of Charles camp, believe that Charles and Diana would have had a fighting shot at a happy marriage if Camilla had left well enough alone. From her perspective, I suppose, she’s glad she played ingénue. She’s the one that is HRH the Duchess of Cornwall, destined to be Consort to the King. Diana, for all her efforts, will not get the privilege.

Brown could have included more information about Diana’s relationship with her boys. This part of her life is conspicuously absent. Also, there are no insert pictures. All of the pictures of Diana and company are printed on the inside of the hard cover. The biggest and blondest picture in the book is of Tina Brown herself, which prompts the question of who Brown thinks is the real looker of the story.


9.17.2007

Binchy's Whitethorn Woods

Maeve Binchy’s Whitethorn Woods slips between novel and short story, but the effect is charming. Binchy’s books are a perfect complement to a quiet afternoon with shortbread and tea. Reading her work feels like having a good chat with your best friend over the kitchen table. This is a different experience from her earlier work, and is not as all-consuming as some of her wonderfully long and involved novels, like Tara Road or Scarlett Feather, but this is a great set of interwoven stories about interesting characters.

The stories in Whitethorn Woods revolve around the upcoming destruction of a sacred well in a beautiful section of woods near the town of Rossmore. Rossmore is growing, and the town needs a road, but the new road will go through the woods, destroying their beauty and the well of St. Anne. Binchy chats with you through her pages about all of the different sorts of people who need St. Anne’s or who even know about St. Anne’s. Some of the characters visit the well; some of the characters disparage the well, but it provides a nice center circle for the wheel spokes of her story. Father Brian Flynn is a young priest struggling with extinction as people move away from the Church. Frustratingly, though, they will miss Church on Sunday, but will not miss a chat with St. Anne at her well. Neddy Nolan is called “Simple Neddy”, but he’s not as simple as he appears. His land will be paved over for the new road. Lilly Ryan lost her baby twenty years ago. She was stolen from her pram when Lilly was inside the grocery. All of these characters leap off the page, and, as I always do after I finish one of her books, I wonder what they go on to do.

Binchy clearly believes that character drives plot, and her characters are given the lead to speak for themselves. Unlike some of her earlier works, Whitethorn Woods takes place in modern Ireland, and the situation of the plodding Irish village faced with the prospect of modernization is something that Ireland, itself, has dealt with, very successfully, over the past years. Binchy includes hints about modern Ireland that are not present in her earlier work. Rather than merely crafting tales about characters dealing with the Church or horrible family members, love and the pursuit of careers, which fill much of her other work, this collection talks about the tension of England versus Ireland, though subtly, the new prosperity in Ireland and how that affects community, and women who choose to behave in ways formerly condemned by the Church. It is a snapshot of Ireland as it is now, carefully sifting through its tradition and moving slowly toward a modern, prosperous nation that may become the envy of Europe.

9.13.2007

Armchair Traveler Reading Challenge

Challenge sponsored by A Life in Books

If you’re interested in joining, here are the guidelines:

  • The challenge runs from July 1 through December 31 during which time you must read six books that fall under the ‘armchair traveling’ theme.
  • Fiction or non-fiction works are fine, and do not need to be specifically travel related, as long as the location is integral to the book - I’ll leave that to your discretion. Locations must be actual places that you could visit, so no Middle Earths or galaxies far, far away.
  • Books may be cross-posted to other challenges, but you cannot count any books read prior to July 1st.
  • To join, make a post outlining your six choices and link to that post below. Because I like to have a little wiggle room, you can opt to switch out books throughout the challenge.
  • And yes, there will be prizes!
My choices:

1. The Poet of Loch Ness: Brian Jay Corrigann (Scotland)
See Review.

2. A Tale of Two Cities: Charles Dickens (England/France)
Needs no introduction.

3. The Saffron Kitchen - Yasmine Crowther (Iran)
Haunted Maryam returns to Iran to determine whether she can recapture her past.


4. The Marquise of O - Heinrich Von Kleist (Germany)
The story of the Marquise of O begins with a plea: she has become pregnant,
but does not how or by whom, but will marry him for her family's
reputation, and he must come forward soon.

5. A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaleed Hosseini (Afghanistan)
See Review.

6.
Snow Country - Yasunari Kawabata (Japan)
A heart-wrenching love story between a lost man a Geisha. Kawabata won
the Nobel Prize for this novel in 1968.


I will be reviewing these books here, so if you are reading these too, be sure to come back and have a chat with me in the Red Room Library!

9.12.2007

Brian Jay Corrigan's The Poet of Loch Ness

I have re-discovered the library. I went to the library frequently as a child, but when I graduated from college, it became important for me to create one of my own, which meant I had to spend more time in bookstores. Buying books, though, is incredibly expensive and sometimes disappointing. Usually, I am very good about choosing a book off the shelf, but sometimes there’s a really huge miss, and I end up paying $14.00 for the most boring, poorly written book in the world. I decided to try the books out at the library, a fairly low-risk financial option, and if I liked the book, I would purchase it for my Red Room Library.

The Poet of Loch Ness by Brian Jay Corrigan is on my list to purchase from Barnes and Noble. I found this book at the Woodruff Library at Emory. It’s not PerkinsJ, but it will have to do for my university library fix because Durham is just too far away.

A socially awkward, tone-deaf biology professor and his beautiful young wife travel to Loch Ness to search for the Loch Ness monster. Professor Perry Miggs says that he is working for the Royal Geographical Society, and Perdita Miggs (I really detest this name choice) comes along. She meets Andrew Macgruer, a poet, whom she knew when she was a student at St. Andrews. They have a past. Perry’s pursuit of the monster becomes a metaphor for the pursuit of other lost or hidden things. The story investigates the search for and realities of real, everyday love versus dreams of love. The heartbreaking beauty of wild Scotland creates a poignant backdrop to these musings.

Corrigan’s story starts off slowly. The language is beautiful in fits and starts. He seems to be finding his stride. He has a great story that’s coming, I can tell, but he’s too focused on what’s coming later and not on what comes first. Some of the imagery is awkward and jarring. For example, the Miggs pack up their house “like nuts.” The reference being to squirrels not crazy people, but I was caught up here.

By the end though, Corrigan has found his voice and his stride, and the last one hundred pages are beautiful and packed with insight. The ending is shocking, but the three main characters all realize what love is, and the result is satisfying for me. Nessie makes an appearance in the final chapter, too, which, considering the conclusion, is poetic justice.


9.10.2007

Lerner's The Forest for the Trees

It doesn’t take long for readers to want to become writers. Why wouldn’t a person who loves books want to create one of their own? I found books early, on my mother’s lap, and writing stories soon followed. I remember telling stories into my dad’s Dictaphone. This was, of course, before I knew how to type. As I’ve gotten older, though, writing has become more difficult. There’s more happening in an adult’s mind when writing tries to happen: fear, rejection, humiliation. I think the process of writing as an adult is really the process of trying to peel off the layers to return to the excitement of writing that you felt as a child, when other people didn’t matter, you didn’t know what publishing was, and perfection just happened.

For those of us who write, Lerner’s book, The Forest for the Trees, is incredibly instructive. She is a former editor, a current agent, and writes poetry. She understands writing from all sides.

Her book opens with explanations of the different types of writers, moves to the writing process (but she is careful to say that she this is not a writing help book), continues to getting published, and finishes with life after being published. The kernel of the book is this: WRITE. Getting published has more to do with frequency and devotion than anything else, but it’s not always guaranteed even if you bleed and sweat into a notebook for years. When you send your manuscript off to the publishers, you are sending it to one person whom you haven’t met, probably isn’t as smart as you are, and may not have your taste level. That one person is St. Peter at the Gate.

One story is particularly illustrative in this vein. She tells of a first experience as an associate editor. She is given a book to read and review for the higher-ups. She spends all weekend, which happens to also be a Jewish holiday, reading a book and writing a detailed report. This book doesn’t really appeal to her, but she persists because she has respect for the amount of time that must have gone into it. A full-length report is the result, and it lands on her boss’s desk Monday morning. He asks her if she liked it, as he stares at the report without making the move to pick it up, let alone read it. She responds, “It’s in my report.” He says, “Did you like it.” She says, “Honestly, no, but…” “No buts, you didn’t like it. Write a rejection letter and let’s move on.” There goes a few years, multiple heartbreaks, and no doubt a few bottles of wine for the author in that short and unemotional conversation. Hopefully, the author wasn’t pinning her worldview and/or self-worth on whether or not this publishing house took on her project.

This is a great book for someone who is interested in the publishing process, or wants to procrastinate writing their own stories. I was actually in the latter category, but after reading this book, it made me go to my computer and start something great. It also helped me get some perspective on the publishing process, which really is more like looking for a needle in a hay stack than anything else.

9.09.2007

Christopher Andersen's After Diana

I picked up this book after reading Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, which I will review shortly, and I was disappointed. Usually, a writer who has written as many books as he/she has birthdays means the quality of the writing suffers. After Diana is such a book. I’m not sure Andersen spent as long writing this, as it took to get printed. If you read People, US Weekly, Sponkit, or something else of that nature, you are familiar with this book. I think Christopher Andersen merely complied a few years of pop culture articles about the Windsors and put them in book form.

But to review it, as I did spend a minute reading it. The style is lazy and unspecific. The information is unsubstantiated and reeks of gossip. Harry and William are presented as partying idiots, which I don’t think is true, but as I don’t know them personally, I can’t say. According to Andersen, Kate and William met when Kate was modeling lingerie (Queen Victoria: “Oh Heavens! We are not amused!”), and the picture is included…eesh. Andersen includes the gossip that Harry is not Charles’ child, sighting such convincing arguments as Harry has red hair and so did one of Diana’s boyfriends, James Hewitt…ergo!!! I suppose the fact that Diana’s blonde hair was actually a rarity in the long line of Spencer redheads, failed to pass in front of Andersen’s discriminating eye.

Few points are mentioned about William and Harry’s philanthropy or their commitment to their mother’s memory. Charles gets an easy pass, but Camilla does not, which is ok.

I am not a part of the group that says the monarchy is famous for being famous and that they are merely celebrities. Tradition and history mean a great deal to me, and I think that the fact that this monarchical institution has lasted longer than any other in Europe is something to be awed by. I do not think it’s appropriate to pull these people through the mud. Angelina Jolie and Queen Elizabeth should not be treated in the same manner, or, which is often the case with people who do know history, Jolie should not be treated better than Queen Elizabeth. Please. Andersen, I’m sure, disagrees.

Do you?



9.06.2007

Malcolm's The Silent Woman

Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman seeks to understand how the mythological figure of “Sylvia Plath” was created in the years since her death. Part biography, part literary criticism, part rumination on the role of biography itself, The Silent Woman unpacks the different views of Plath and argues for moderation. Essentially, as the title suggests, Plath is a woman who will be forever silent. The persistent efforts by scholars and critics to know her are futile. She will never be known; she is dead. What we do know about her has been changed, edited, revised, or erased depending on the person responsible. Her journals, published by Hughes years after her death, were edited to display a depressed mind. One incident Malcolm explains was particularly relevant to me, as I remembered reading this scene in the journals. Plath goes to Paris to follow a boy, not Hughes. She relates the details, and I am put off by the desperation in her words. The boy rejects her, as boys often do to desperate girls, and she goes to a coffee shop to order a cappuccino and write in her journal. She indulges herself for a moment, despairs of yet another boy gone, and comments on her loneliness, and the journal entry stops. Malcolm posits that the entry, in reality, did not end with this pity party, but rather continued to happier more optimistic topics. The upbeat part was edited out to give readers a more consistent view of Plath’s character. This type of posthumous editing happens time and again to Plath. Plath did commit suicide, so it is difficult to argue that she was emotionally stable, but to say that she was depressed all the time and hated every moment of her life, or to argue, as the movie Sylvia does, that she was posed to kill herself from the beginning is definitely a truncated view of her character.

Malcolm argues that Plath’s life has become a canvas for whomever is writing the current Plath biography. Those who want to see her as a depressive suicide-obsessive whiner will edit stories that prove otherwise, and they will use her poetry to under gird these ideas. Rarely do accounts deal with Plath as she probably was, a woman who was depressed at various points in her life, in a straining marriage, and capable of a full range of emotions at any one time. We will never know what happened to her the morning she stuck the towels under the doors, turned on the oven, and sat down in front of it. What we will know, however, is that this low moment may not be the reigning emotion of her life. Her poetry is expansive enough to allow for different emotions and scenes, just as her life presumably was. Malcolm’s efforts to expand our view of Plath’s life also helps to expand our view of her poetry.

When I taught Plath to my students, I would experiment. I would tell one class that she killed herself as part of the opening lecture to the unit. To another class, I would leave that information out. The class that knew about the suicide would “find” references to depression and loathing throughout the selected texts; they would not see her work as separate from this final, violent act. The other class was predictably more expansive in their findings. They would sense a low note of sadness, because it is there, but they would also find other things. They would see the beauty of her images and language; they would see the carefully wrought scenes. The class that didn’t know about her suicide would always, in my opinion, actually read Plath.

Because she can no longer speak to us, we are left as readers with a tremendous burden. Her poetry is confessional, so we believe that she must be confessing her suicide act through her words. We want to know why she did it, and we attempt to answer our questions in her poetry. As Malcolm suggests, and with this I agree, we lose her poetical brilliance and beauty when we choose to read her poetry as merely coming from a woman who killed herself.


9.03.2007

Martel's Life of Pi (plot spoiler)

I resisted reading Life of Pi when it first came out. I often do this with books that ‘everyone’ reads. I resist the herd mentality when it comes to reading, though I was completely unsuccessful in this regard when it came to Harry Potter. I suspect many people were. Anyway, when Life of Pi won the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2002, and it was recommended for my book club at work, I trotted down to the bookstore and bought myself a copy. Though I am sensitive to the herd, I am a complete fool for the Man Booker; if the MBP chooses a book for its long list, it is already on its way to becoming to a favorite of mine.

The book opens with Pi, a young Indian boy, reveling in the smörgåsbord of religious options in his town. He becomes Catholic, he becomes Muslim, but he’s already Hindu. His parents are aghast at his activities and encourage him to choose. He refuses. He can’t make a choice: they all tell the same message to him.

His family owns a zoo, which they decide to transport to America. Pi and his family board a ship with all of the animals (Noah anyone?) and proceeds to sail to their new home. Along the way, they are met with a violent storm and the boat wrecks. Pi ultimately finds himself alone on a raft with an orangutan, a hyena, and an attitudinal tiger, Richard Parker. (I liked Richard Parker immediately, and renamed my rotten cat, Heathcliff, Richard Parker while I read this book. This, too, failed to get Heathcliff to return to good graces.) The other members of Pi's family presumably die. Aboard Pi's small raft, the orangutan and the hyena fight for supremacy. The hyena wins. Richard Parker ultimately wins over the hyena, and it is just Pi alone with Richard Parker, who is as depressed as ever. Pi and Richard Parker survive their long sea voyage across the Pacific and find themselves shipwrecked on the shore of Mexico. Pi watches Parker as the raft rolls ashore over the waves. He hopes to have some closure with the tiger, but nothing happens, and Richard Parker stalks into the woods, never to be seen from again. (Hmmm, a Bengal tiger in Mexico…)

Now comes the interesting part: Pi is found and taken to a hospital, where he is interviewed about his journey. The interviewers do not believe his story. They question first how an orangutan could float on a ton of bananas when bananas don’t float. When it is proved to them that bananas do float, they merely move onto another point in the story they find questionable. Finally, they ask for “a story without animals that will explain the sinking of the Tsitsum.” Pi pauses and proceeds with a tale not dissimilar from the first one.

The second story has four characters with the same personality traits as the first story, but this one includes Pi’s mother as the orangutan character and a French sailor as the hyena. When he finishes, he says “was this better, are there points you’d like me to change?” (311). The interviewers accept this version, saying that it is a “horrible” story; the insertion of humans for the animal characters now makes this story believable. The novel finishes with a letter from one of the interviewers to the narrator. The letter admits that it is very rare that a castaway could have survived so long at sea, especially in the “company of an adult Bengal tiger.” It would seem that this interviewer has decided, upon reflection, that Pi’s first story is the true one.

This telling and re-telling of this “unbelievable” story in Life of Pi provides a unique insight into the telling and retelling of religious stories. Pi is uniquely posed to understand foundational and similar themes couched in seemingly opposing contexts because he is an adherent of not one, but three, separate faiths. It makes sense to him that he could tell the same story, with the same action, same characters, and same points, but with different names, and connect with different people. He believes that all religious stories are the same. He does not get lost in details like names and places. We are the ones who get lost in details like this and make them the most important elements of our religions.

Martel’s point, which he roundabout suggests in Chapters 21 and 22, is to create a situation where the reader is required to understand the root of a story. It is not important who the characters are on the boat – they may be animals or people or be a figment of Pi’s imagination. It is the action that occurs on the boat that is incredibly relevant. Richard Parker, whether he be man, beast, Jesus, Pi, or Mohammed, saves Pi. What these characters do, not who they are, is what is important. Focusing on who/why religion is rather than its foundational message renders you as incapable of comprehending the real nature of religion, as the interviewers are incapable of understanding Pi’s first story. As Martel says:“lack imagination and miss the better story” (64).

Who do you think helps Pi cross the sea?