The Country of the Pointed Firs - Sarah Orne Jewett

To become Fascinated.  A beautiful goal, don't you think?  Nothing like Frances' goal, of course, but beautiful all the same.  3 novellas is all that were required.  Only three and only novellas.  Phew.  I have accomplished this not-so-lofty goal and will consider my August and this Challenge a success.

The Country of the Pointed Firs was one I've been wanting to read for some time.  Who was it that first brought it to my attention?  Booksnob, perhaps?  Anyhow, of all the Art of the Novella choices, this one was the only title I had previously put on a Want-To-Read list, so it was a natural fit.

It's also a good fit because everything has been pointing me towards Maine lately.  Remember when I had that Montana spree earlier this summer?  Well, it has been all Maine, all the time around here in the last few weeks.  We have friends who are there now, and I am green with envy at their photos.  Thomas has had us all insane with jealousy over his vacation there.  I even looked into grant opportunities and researched VRBO places in Maine just because I wanted to go.  And now, we have Sarah Orne Jewett and her unabashed love for this quiet Maine village where her narrator summers.

There's not much plot at all, so if a quiet book is not your thing, skip this one.  There is a fair amount of physical description but more character development than anything else, and it's well done.  I can't say I was overwhelmed with appreciation for the book, but there were several lovely moments.

In particular, I loved (LOVED) that the narrator rents a schoolhouse on a hill as her "studio" for writing during the day.  Is that not a dream come true?  And the character of Joanna who (rather like Bartleby, actually) withdrew from society to the point of living alone on an island was one that made me both curious and sympathetic all at once.  In reflecting on Joanna, Jewett provides this stunning passage on solitude:

...there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over, - the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance.  ...There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun.  In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day...
Knowing my tendency to isolation, I can feel this passage resonate fully with me.  And perhaps one day, I will retire to a Maine island with a schoolhouse on the hill.  The windows will be open, the room will be bare, the wood floor will sound dully beneath my feet.  Don't wake me up, please.

So, it is official.  I am Fascinated.

I'm also wondering: why is the MH title missing the "The" before "Pointed Firs?"  Is there some mystery?


Bartleby the Scrivener - Herman Melville

"Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none."

I am reading this one on a borrowed Kindle (thinking of making the leap with some job-related monies - what do you think?  Kindle, Nook, or Ipad?  Or MacBook Air which has me oh-so-tempted?), so I can't provide a page number for the above, but it's about half-way through this speedy read, which feels at times like little more than a light page-turner and at others, insists upon something interesting and true. This is my second contribution to the Art of the Novella Challenge sponsored by Melville House.  After the unmitigated joy of yesterday's The Magician's Nephew, I sure did pick a dark but hilarious novella to bring me down from the clouds.  And though this book tickled at the edge of terror for me, it also made me laugh regularly and made me appreciate Melville a bit more as well.

Bartleby is not the narrator, but he is the obsession of a most-interesting narrative voice.  The narrator is the lawyer who hired Bartleby as a Scrivener - one who makes handwritten copies of others' documents.  There are some who read Bartleby with a sympathetic bent, claiming his decline is merely an outward manifestation of an inward life that has no worth.  As though he withdraws because he has no life worth remaining for.  I disagree.  I think Melville had something less humanizing in mind, and I think Frances (and others) are right that this book is more about the unnamed narrator than it is about Bartleby.  What we should be focusing on is not Bartleby's internal motivation; instead, we should be trying to figure out why the narrator is so immobilized by Bartleby's polite unwillingness to participate in regular life. 

As mentioned above, Bartleby scared me.  His dispassionate refusals, his cold gaze out the window somehow shook me, and I could see (some of the time) why it would be so difficult to compel him differently.  Often, we view defiance or rebellion as the stereotypical loud, angry, tantrum-driven toddler.  Bartleby reminds me, instead, of the teenager who knows he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to and quietly demurs.  And because I did not share the narrator's insistent belief that Bartleby's soul was pure, I did not understand the narrator's unwillingness to simply call the police to have him removed from the premises.

In the end, though, I began to see something of the quiet despair of Bartleby, and I almost sympathized.  Almost. 


The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis.  Friend of Tolkien.  Biblical scholar.  Spiritual philosopher.  Author of perhaps the best series of books for young people.  Ever.

That's right.  I'm throwing down the gauntlet.  And I've only read 2 of the 7 in the series (apparently).  And I am a diehard Harry Potter fan.  And I have just recently been gushing over the Little House books.  And I absolutely adore Anne of Green Gables and the rest.  Nevertheless, I am coming out with that bold proclamation based solely on how good The Magician's Nephew is.  As I mentioned earlier, I have long-loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so it should not surprise me that this one is as good.  But somehow it did.  And perhaps it is because I read it for the first time as an adult.  Perhaps I'm able to see the breadth and depth of it more than I would have been able to as a child.  It is a gorgeous, entertaining, funny, and provocative beginning to the world of Narnia and to the series of books that will allow us to spend more time there.

I do take issue with the current trend to place the book first in the series.  Though it is the chronological beginning, it was written later and published sixth, I believe.  Apparently, Lewis never intended to write any more books beyond The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but someone asked him how the lamppost came to be in Narnia, and he began work on The Magician's Nephew as a means of solving that puzzle.  I can see how it makes a better narrative to read it after reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  It just feels like it should come second or later.  Now that I know all that, I'm going to have to decide how to read them with the children.

I presume it is not a spoiler to note the heavy biblical allusions employed throughout the series?  If that doesn't sound familiar to you, you might want to stop reading.  It was completely familiar to me, and as a believer, it is one of the reasons this book was so tremendously powerful.  But even knowing Lewis' intentions beforehand did not prepare me for Aslan's genesis of Narnia.  Honestly, the Biblical creation story doesn't do much for me from a literary standpoint (although I do like the version in The Message), but this telling of Creation moved me beyond words.  It is just so fully alive and joyful and artful.  Here's an example:
Then two wonders happened at the same moment.  One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count.  They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices.  The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars.  They didn't come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening.   One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out. (107)
Another thing that makes this book so amazing is Aslan.  In a mere 2-3 pages, the reader gets an immediate understanding of who and what Aslan is and cannot help but be inspired by him.  When Digory asks Aslan to heal his mother, Aslan's tender response bears witness to God's enduring love for us.  I love this exchange as well:
"Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals," said Digory.
"I'm sure Aslan would have, if you'd asked him," said Fledge.
"Wouldn't he know without being asked?" said Polly.
"I've no doubt he would," said the Horse (still with his mouth full).  "But I've a sort of idea he likes to be asked." (163)
Such a quiet reminder, an answer to anyone who has ever wondered why we pray.

Though I loved this book's connections to my faith, it would still be magical and wonderful if you didn't make any of those connections.  And that is why I think I can say it is the best: because it can so successfully be so much to so many.

PS: A quick Google search told me that this book might be the next in the film series.  I haven't seen any of them, but they look great.  Anybody read and seen them and have an opinion on the adaptation?

The Founding of Narnia

There is little I can do to contain my delight.  And to think that I will have to leave this work unfinished to sit in an unbearably dull meeting for three hours is downright unfair.  But while I listen to someone drone on about things I already know and do, my mind will be back in Narnia.  The Magician's Nephew is the first in C. S. Lewis' magical Chronicles of Narnia series, and though I thought I might have read them all as a younger person, I am proving that thought wrong with this book.  I have loved and loved again The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe without ceasing, and now I can see that the entire series will hold for me the same sense of awe and wonder that infuses The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I'll post a more complete commentary once I finally get to finish it, but for this morning, I will simply record these important thoughts:
"Watchin' and listenin's the thing at present; not talking." (114)
"Hail, Aslan.  We hear and obey.  We are awake.  We love.  We think.  We speak.  We know." (127)
For what you see and hear depends a great deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are. (136)
Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. (137)
And now that I've put those down, I can see that even my disdain for the meeting I must attend can be tempered by these lessons.  What I see and hear today will depend a great deal on the person I choose to be when I walk in the room.  Thank you, C. S. Lewis.


Back to School Reading

One week from tomorrow, all the students and educators in our home (that's all of us except the dog who stopped going to school with me several years ago) will return to the classroom.  But tomorrow is actually the beginning of the school year for the adult-types in the house as we have meetings, retreats, training sessions, and the like in the week prior to school starting.  I thought it appropriate, therefore, to read two books that I picked up this spring, both with startlingly similar titles: Sam Pickering's Letters to a Teacher (2004) and Jonathan Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher (2007).  I have known of Pickering for several years because of his participation in the AEC Conference on Southern Literature held biennially in Chattanooga.  His hilarious, off-beat, and often astute ramblings take a bit of getting used to, but the appeal he would bring in a classroom is undeniable.  For you Dead Poets Society fans out there, Pickering is the real-life teacher that inspired screenwriter Tommy Schulman to create the character of Mr. Keating.  Kozol, on the other hand, is uber-focused.  His Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace are among the most meaningful works I have read.  Period.  He has spent his entire career working for those who have less power, smaller voices, and fewer opportunities, and he has done so with a grace and lack of condescension that should and must be remarked on.  To say that I admire this man is an understatement. 

With those accolades preceding them, how could these little books fail to win me over completely?  I should have been underlining and laughing and treasuring every word on every page, right?  Not exactly.  There are some great elements in each book, but the format didn't sit well with me.  Pickering's "letters" are just rambling essays really, and he makes no pretense to actually be writing to any one teacher.  In fact, his book bothered me somewhat in that it seemed to be written with an Education class in mind.  Though his experience is primarily in university teaching (his stint at Montgomery Bell Academy was brief), he seems to be writing primarily to a new or incoming secondary school teacher.  His essays are a mix of personal anecdote and thoughtful advice, but they do not weigh in on larger political issues surrounding education and offer little in the way of practical information.  The book is mostly an entertaining and somewhat inspiring read but nothing that I would say has changed me or my teaching.  Here a few you could put on a poster:

When you and I enable children to grow beyond us and shape thoughts different from our own, we have done well. (17)

Children grow by comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar. (46)

You are teaching children, however, and your responsibility is social.  Awaken thought and attempt to make students see the beauty of decency. (222)

By contrast, the Kozol is supposedly a compilation of actual letters he wrote to a young teacher named Francesca during her first year in the classroom.  I do not doubt that he maintained thoughtful correspondence with this woman, but I could not believe that he wrote these essays as letters originally.  The ideas might have been represented in the letters, but the length and breadth and focus he offers seem unlikely to have first occurred in personal correspondence.  But Kozol is a uniquely focused writer, so perhaps my doubt is unfounded.  Either way, these letters are weighty.  They, too, incorporate anecdote, either from Kozol's years as a teacher or from his observation of Francesca's classroom.  The stories serve as rest from the intensely social and political debates that must swirl around Kozol's head even more insistently than they do mine.  The letters on "The Uses of Diversity" and "Beware the Jargon Factory" were especially relevant to me, and there were other excellent points throughout.  Perhaps because I'm already a bit saturated with these issues, I didn't feel inspired by the book.  It just fell flat somehow.  I'm not disappointed exactly, but neither am I enlightened and encouraged.

So, I must begin again to behave like a teacher.  And perhaps a bit of Pickering and Kozol will invade my classrooms this year.  The truth, though, (and I think both these authors would agree) is that I will likely be encouraged and challenged more by my students than by these little books.  What about you?  If you are an educator, what do you do to get yourself inspired for another year? 

PS: I just found out that our annual lecture series will be bringing both Michelle Rhee and Michael Pollan to town this year.  I am beside myself with excitement!


Art of the Novella Challenge #1 - The Death of Ivan Ilych

So, after a fairly unsuccessful July, I am hoping my August will prove much more fruitful, and I'm kicking off my participation in the Art of the Novella Challenge today with Tolstoy.  An old favorite, Tolstoy has yet to disappoint.  His short stories are jewels.  I especially love "The Three Questions," and Jon J. Muth's adaptation of it for children is superior. 

The Melville House selection is The Death of Ivan Ilych, and it is an intriguing look at some familiar themes in Tolstoy's work: life, death, mortality, repentance, and salvation.  It opens with Ivan Ilych's acquaintances reflecting rather blithely upon their friend's death before moving to focus on one friend, Peter Ivanovich, who had studied law with Ivan Ilych and is considered a boyhood friend.  Peter Ivanovich goes to visit the widow, and from there we again shift rather quickly and quietly to the perspective of Ivan Ilych himself in the months and weeks leading up to his death.  Peter Ivanovich is all but forgotten by the time the novella concludes by relating the actual moment of Ivan Ilych's death.  The bulk of the story is spent in Ivan Ilych's mind as he attempts to work through the reality of impending death as well as the truth and worth of his life up to that point.

The novella was a quick and perhaps disturbingly entertaining read.  Especially at the first, I was laughing out loud at Tolstoy's little jabs and quips.  (Pay attention, Pamuk!  This is how you render difficult situations funny.)  I love this image of the official figure of the Church at Ivan Ilych's wake:
A vigorous, resolute Church Reader, in a frock-coat, was reading something in a loud voice with an expression that precluded any contradiction.
I also like the detail of Ivan Ilych's struggle, which is mostly un-funny but terribly appropriate to the human experience.  The reader easily alternates between sympathy for Ivan Ilych's plight and annoyance at his self-absorbed psychosis.  You are never sure if the pain he is experiencing is real or just a product of the mind.  Certainly, the doctors never conclude if it is indeed his kidney or his appendix, and we are left feeling at times like his wife, Praskovya Fedorovna: "...that it was his own fault and was another of the annoyances he caused her."  Near the end, though, we can't deny the difficulty of this truth:
Again minute followed minute and hour followed hour.  Everything remained the same and there was no cessation.  And the inevitable end of it all became more and more terrible.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of the novella is not his struggle with life and death but Tolstoy's use of furniture and decorating as a tangential preoccupation of both Ivan Ilych and the story.  On his visit to their home, Peter Ivanovich recalls "how Ivan Ilych had arranged the room and had consulted him regarding this pink cretonne with green leaves."  The ensuing comedy of the Pouffe is hilarious, and Ilych's ongoing relationship with his furniture is a smart and interesting ploy.  As he declines, he grows more concerned with the status of his furniture, he sees it as a reflection of himself and his standing in society.  As he becomes irrelevant, so, too, does his furniture get mishandled and damaged due to lack of care.  Furniture as life becomes clear in this parenthetical passage:
Every spot on the tablecloth or the upholstery, and every broken window-blind string, irritated him.  He had devoted so much trouble to arranging it all that every disturbance of it distressed him.
The Death of Ivan Ilych is a thoughtful reflection on humanity, and I'm glad Melville House has included it in their beautiful collection.  1 down, how many more might I accomplish before August goes the way of Ivan Ilych himself, I wonder?  By the way, Frances at Nonsuch Book is quietly churning away in her quest to read all 42 of the novellas in August.  Go, Frances, Go!  I am thoroughly impressed.


TPR Challenge #13 - Orhan Pamuk's Snow

Unbelievable.  For approximately a year, I've been singing the praises of this Paris Review interviews project (dubbed the TPR Challenge) - it has introduced me to new authors (hello, Paul Auster!) and reunited me with old favorites (God bless you, Elizabeth Bishop) and generally advanced my reading in a beautiful way.

Then, along came Orhan Pamuk and Snow. Snow was July's pick for The Wolves online reading group.  See This Book and I Could Be Friends and Evening All Afternoon for some additional thoughts.  My first post on the book acknowledged my slow progress and general lack of enthusiasm but held out some morsel of hope for the end.  Then, when the end failed to add much to the experience, I clung to the shred of hope that the TPR interview would enlighten me and make me see the book and its author through new eyes.  Unfortunately, it did not.  The interview was actually more boring than the book.  The book at least had the new external information to process - the religious and political conflicts, the uncertainty and drama of the "coup", the tenuous relationship with reality that both Ka and the narrator, Orhan, maintain.  The interview was unabashed navel-gazing on the part of the author and left a decidedly sour taste in my mouth. 

Because I am almost always unable to set aside these underwhelming books, I look for the few tidbits that I can say make the experience worth having, and there are a few.  I was surprised to find this astute statement almost three hundred pages in:
"Mankind's greatest error," continued the young Kurd, "the biggest deception of the past thousand years is this: to confound poverty with stupidity. ... People might feel sorry for a man who's fallen on hard times, but when an entire nation is poor, the rest of the world assumes that all its people must be brainless, lazy, dirty, clumsy fools." (275-276)
What a gorgeous assessment and indictment of so many of our attitudes.  Substitute "an entire nation" with any of the minority racial or ethnic groups in America, and it works just as well as a domestic observation.

The interview offered this bit about the discipline of writing:
When I'm traveling, and not alone at my desk, after a while I get depressed.  I'm happy when I'm alone in a room and inventing.  More than a commitment to the art or to the craft, which I am devoted to, it is a commitment to being alone in a room.  ... I need solitary hours at a desk with good paper and a fountain pen like some people need a pill for their health.  I am committed to these rituals. (395-396)
Disturbingly, the interview also revealed that Pamuk thought Snow was funny.
When people say it's bleak, I ask them Isn't it funny?  I think there is a lot of humor in it.  At least that was my intention. (395)
I don't recall the humor, Pamuk.  Sorry 'bout that.  Reader error, I'm sure.  And I'm sure this relative failure of a TPR read is only because it was unlucky #13.  Let's hope 14 puts us back on track.