Category Archives: Reading

Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!

The best part of my job teaching high school English is that I am forced to reread a handful of classic books every year. Without this incentive, I would rarely re-read the old favorites–with so many new books on the must-read list, who has the time? Fortunately, it’s part of my job to make the time for revisiting a few. Recently, my 9th graders finished Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. 

I first read this play in Mrs. Bye’s 8th grade English class. I still have my copy of the text from that unit, complete with mundane annotations in bright purple ink, but I’m afraid that the only instruction I can remember is an embarrassing conversation about how we mustn’t think that Romeo was up to no good when he wakes up in Juliet’s chamber in Act III scene v, because he did marry Juliet properly, even though that part happened off-stage. Overall, though, my first impression of this tragedy was dominated by a profound sense of doom. Those two kids had so much working against them: they didn’t stand a chance!

I encountered the play a second time just after the end of my sophomore year of high school. Taking the advice of a beloved history teacher, who swore by the mystical power of “Shakespeare Dates” to revive the magic in romantic relationships, my boyfriend and I went to a production of R&J performed in St. Louis’ Forest Park. The plan backfired, though. When faced with Juliet’s heart-rending display of devotion, I admitted to myself that I would NOT  commit suicide out of despair if my boyfriend died. Acknowledging that my feelings for him would never measure up to that tragic standard convinced me that the relationship was going nowhere. I dumped him after the show. (It would be some time before I understood that killing oneself is not, in fact, the ultimate display of affection.)

That was over ten years ago–(which means that my 10th high school reunion will be NEXT YEAR! So stressful!)–and I managed to avoid a serious rereading of the play until this recent unit. What a difference 10 years can make! My perspective on these characters has altered dramatically, as well as my understanding of Shakespeare’s overall message. Romeo and Juliet aren’t doomed:  they are agents of their own fates just as much as the rest of us. And the point isn’t that this tragedy was unavoidable and necessary for reconciliation between the Capulets and the Montagues; No, the point is that it COULD have and SHOULD have been prevented, and only a series of consciously wrong choices allowed it to happen.

Both Romeo and Juliet experience moments of foreboding and voice their concerns that “Gee, I get the feeling that if I crash this party/drink this sleeping potion, something really bad is going to happen.”  But they do it anyway! And did I mention that these star-crossed lovers spend a grand total of 20 minutes together before vowing eternal devotion and sneaking off to marry each other? An impulsive, rebellious  marriage smacking of a rebound (remember Rosaline, Romeo??) carefully orchestrated by the well-intentioned Friar who excuses multiple deceptions because he just wants everyone to get along: Can this be true love?

As an eighth grader, I found their declarations beautiful and inspiring. Ten years later, I find myself shaking my head and sighing “Oh, children…” as they cavalierly offer to strip themselves of their very names if only they can be together. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, all right, but for completely different reasons than I originally thought. I’d love to juxtapose this unit with The Crucible and assign a comparative essay on the significance of names.

How have your re-reading experiences altered your thinking about a certain novel or play?

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by | 01/31/2012 · 9:38 am

Recent Reads

‘Tis the season for listing books, or so my friends at Ignatius and CeilingFlickers would have us believe. Books we’ve read, books we want to read, the best books ever—all excellent lists. And since I’m a bit behind on reviewing the books I’ve been reading (instead of blogging) over the past few months, here’s a list of my own. In no particular order, I present:

Some Books I’ve Read Somewhat Recently

1) Helmet for My Pillow, by Robert Leckie: This memoir, written by a surprisingly articulate and engaging reporter-turned-marine-turned reporter, recounts the story of the 1st Marines in the Pacific theater in WWII. I picked it up at the library after Zach and I watched Tom Hank’s mini-series The Pacific. Leckie’s style is thoroughly enjoyable–his sense of decency, of what is “fit to print” in the 1950s, leads him to compose more…delicate versions of the stories than HBO delivered, but he communicates the heart of the matter powerfully despite this restraint. I’m looking forward to reading With the Old Breed, by Eugene Sledge (the other primary source text for the miniseries) sometime soon. Having spent so much time with my nose in a novel lately, this brief foray into non-fiction was especially refreshing!

2) Cautionary Tales for Children by Hillaire Belloc, illustrated by Edward Gorey: Sam and I spend a lot of time “reading” Sandra Boyton’s books and enjoying the tactile sensations in each of Marley’s adventures, but this little gem is destined to become a favorite in the Good Children’s Library. A gift from Sam’s lovely godmother, Amy, these tales seek to frighten children into obedience (in the most amusing manner, of course). Instead of a description, a single chapter title will suffice: “Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned To Death”.  Oh, okay, ONE more: there’s also the tale of “Algernon, Who Played With a Loaded Gun, and, On Missing His Sister, Was Reprimanded By His Father.”

3) Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott: I first encountered this instruction manual for writers when I was in high school. I read the first few chapters, realized it was primarily for fiction writers, and never looked at it again. Until this Christmas, that is, when my dear friend Allison (over at RhetoricalExpressions) placed it back into my hands. Lamott’s advice is so encouraging. Beyond any bit of technical wisdom she offers (and there are many such bits), she frees her students to write by admitting that EVERYone writes crappy first drafts, and most people who write for fun or a living are mildly insane, and should embrace that fact. You can thank (or blame) her and Allison for my attempt to revive this blog.

4) Beowulf, by Anon, translated by Seamus Heany: This was my second year teaching Beowulf, and it is proving to be one of my favorite units. The story is so simple, so raw, and yet provokes such nuanced questions about justice and heroes and the monsters inside of us all. Nineth graders respond well to the combination of mythical creatures, family feuds, and gory battles. I hope Sam is a fan of this one someday. It’s a quick read: return to it through Heany’s masterful translation.

5) Almost All of The Books That Michael O’Brien Has Written: I’m presently about 50 pages from the end of A Cry of Stone, which is the last in his “Children of the Last Days” series. I’ve also read Theophilos and The Father’s Tale is beckoning me from under the Christmas tree. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, you simply MUST. I cannot recommend them highly enough. However, I will attempt to do so in greater detail in a future post.

But enough about me. What have YOU been reading? And what should I add to my list?

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Filed under Poetry, Reading, Teaching

A Penitent Post

The next time I post anything akin to yesterday’s despairing drivel, you have full permission to deliver my well-deserved slap. As penance for my pettiness, I’ve collected a variety of inspirational/illuminating quotations about the vice of whining.
These are for me, not you.
 
“He never complained. He seemed to have no instinct for the making much of oneself that complaining requires.”
― Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
“Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”
― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

“When any fit of gloominess, or perversion of mind, lays hold upon you, make it a rule not to publish it by complaints.” 
— Samuel Johnson
“Learn to accept in silence the minor aggravations, cultivate the gift of taciturnity, and consume your own smoke with an extra draft of hard work, so that those about you may not be annoyed with the dust and soot of your complaints.”
—William Osler
 
“The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign symptom of little souls and inferior intellects.” 
—Lord Jeffrey“Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.”

– Henry Ford
 
“You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”
 – Shirley Hufstedler
“When a person finds themselves predisposed to complaining about how little they are regarded by others, let them reflect how little they have contributed to the happiness of others.”
– Samuel Johnson
“The usual fortune of complaint is to excite contempt more than pity.”
– Samuel Johnson
 
Ouch.  Dr. Johnson has such an honest, scathing way with words.
 
Please accept my apologies. Let us go, and whine no more.

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Filed under Courage, Domesticity, Reading

Bibliophile Break Up

I can see it out of the corner of my eye–cumbersome, yet stately–resting silently on the coffee table. The flimsy front cover curls up at the corner, evidence of my ungentle treatment. The spine, not yet broken, shows a worrisome crease around the fifty-page mark. Its gargantuan mass dwarfs all other volumes in the vicinity. And so it sits, inanimate and imposing, mocking me.

Oh, Boswell’s Life of  Samuel Johnson, why won’t you let me be??

I never should have started it: this whole thing is my fault. Why didn’t I just leave you to spend your days in obscurity on the dusty shelf of eighteenth century British Literature. Sure, Whalen considered excerpts of you important for Victorian Literature, but why wasn’t I content with those tidbits? Why did I think I could tackle you? Your rambling, endless pages?

Samuel Johnson Reading My Dear John Letter

Now I can never escape you. Every other book I read will make sly allusions to your content, bits of wit hidden within your thousand pages of tiny print. Dickens will never shut up about your wisdom. Chesterton will never get over your jokes. All of my favorite British authors love you: why can’t I love you, too? Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, why can’t we ever be together THAT way?

Now you must join the ranks of other prestigious volumes and authors that I have failed  in my career as a reader, teacher, and lover of great literature. Fortunately for you, the very names that make me cringe ought to provide you with good company. You’ll have the entire works of D.H. Lawrence by your side, I’m afraid. And while you may find Rudyard Kipling quite enjoyable companionship, Joyce’s Ulysses might prove a little too radical for your tastes. Virginia Wolfe will not leave one of your traditional sentiments unchallenged, but you might find a kindred spirit in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (except the Scarlet Letter, which alone is exempt from this list of rejected geniuses).

Yes, Boswell’s Johnson, (may I call you that?) my failures are impressive and varied, especially considering the four years of undergraduate work wherein I paid thousands of dollars to be told what to read. A fortunate few have escaped the legions of important, yet neglected classics. Moby Dick used to lead the line-up, but he has broken rank: my husband persuaded me of Melville’s merits, over time, and last year I found the will to get through it. (The experience was not unlike Jonah’s three days of symbolic death, but I was a fool in love! Now I’m just in love.) Anna Karenina broke free during my first trimester reading binge lat fall (though, honestly, War and Peace could have easily taken her place). I also avoided Steinbeck’s East of Eden for years, only to discover its brilliance in my mid-twenties.

What I’m trying to tell you, Boswell’s Johnson, is that you should never give up hope. Just because I’m not ready to be with you right now, doesn’t mean that this is forever. Yes, the sight of your poorly designed Oxford World Classic edition makes me shudder today, but I won’t always feel that way. Someday, I’ll read you. But, today is not that day, Boswell’s Johnson.

Today is not….that….day.

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Filed under Faith, Reading, Witticism, Writing

He Only Asked Him Not to Leave His Cell

A practical experience of acedia is described by the desert hermit Heraclides, who received a brother troubled by restlessness in his new cell. Heraclides advised him not to follow an extreme regimen of self-discipline but to eat, drink, and sleep as needed. He only asked that the brother not leave his cell…

Simply stay where you are: A small thing to ask, right? But the young brother couldn’t do it. His cabin fever got so bad that he saw demons lurking in ever corner, even under the covers of his bed. Terrified by the vision, he disobeyed the sagely advice of his elder and ran to Heraclides’ door. Though the hermit was displeased and made him sit outside all night, he finally had pity on the weaker brother and showed him the path to spiritual maturity.

In January, I resolved to fight against acedia. Knowing my tendency towards slothfulness, especially when alone for many hours of the day, I’ve been intentional about using my time well in work and leisure.  For the most part, this experiment has gone fairly well. My daily task lists diminished as my belly grew, and now that Sam is here, I am grateful to do two or three things a day in addition to feeding, changing, and holding him.

Yet acedia may loom over the most orderly of days. Restlessness persists, despite the most intentional use of time and resources. Answering a vocation to stay put when you’re itching to move on is just as hard as following a call to some far off mission.  Lately, I’ve felt a certain solidarity with that poor acedia-ridden monk: even though he wasn’t requiring a hard life of himself in his cell, remaining in one place was just too much for him.

I’m accustomed to four-year stints: four years in high school, four years in college, and now I’m wrapping up my fourth year in Colorado Springs. I struggled through my freshman initiation to the working world, got more comfortable during my sophomore year, enjoyed the settled satisfaction of a junior and now….well…I’m ready to graduate, to move on to the next thing.  Is this an acedian habit of mind?

Springtime in Colorado hardly inspires hope for new life: a few bold crocuses peek out of the gravel here and there; early daffodils droop after a cold snap; some tint of color returns to the patches of brown grass. There’s no burst of color, no refreshing rains, no encouraging warmth. A robin might have the temerity to whistle a tune once or twice, but the dry air soon leaves him parched.  (April is the cruelest month, indeed.)

But lilacs blossom eventually, even in these dead lands. We just have to wait until late May or early June for spring to settle in around here. Maybe I need to settle in a little, too.


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Filed under Catholicism, Courage, Domesticity, Faith, Reading

How Green Was My Valley

Last night I cried myself to sleep after finishing Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley. As the title suggests, the story is an elegy, a bittersweet hymn to a time that has ended and people who have passed. It’s the sort of story that resonates with all who have seen loved ones go and childhood end.

Llewellyn writes in English, but imitating the style of the Welsh language with unfamiliar colloquial constructions of the rural coal miners. Though it takes a bit of getting used to, the flow of their speech grows on you because of its simplicity and sincerity. For example, the narrator Huw Morgan once says, “O, there is lovely to feel a book, a good book, firm in the hand, for its fatness holds rich promise, and you are hot inside to think of good hours to come.”  Always “There is” and never “it is”, and usually another verbal in the same sentence that may or may not keep with the same tense. The meaning is clear enough, though.

I grew attached to Huw during this read–the first time in a long while that I’ve been truly fond of a protagonist. As a young boy, his innocence naturally makes him an endearing figure. As he matures, other aspects of his personality (an unexpectedly fierce temper, a weakness for flirtatious young women, and an unwavering loyalty to his dear mother and sister-in-law) emerge and render him imperfect enough to stay a believable character, but never so flawed that he loses the charm of his youthful sincerity.

How Green Was My Valley is Huw’s version of his family’s story: his father struggling to make a living as the local mines are given over to conglomerates; his brothers fighting to form a union and reverse the inevitable decay of working conditions; his sisters learning to listen to their hearts; and his mother, always feeding her boys, always loving well and always suffering for the pain of her children.

Llewellyn’s depiction of their home life is an enviable one. They always take supper together, even when the older boys are grown and independent. They sit around the fire reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson together, laughing out loud at the good Doctor’s wit. And whenever someone is in low spirits, another member of the family comes with a cup of tea and a listening ear. The brothers dole out black eyes to any young men who dare speak to the sisters without permission from the father. The sisters value and protect their own modesty. Even little Huw will get into a fist fight to protect his family’s good name. They just look after one another so well. And they sing! On the way to church, coming home from the mine, before a wedding, after a funeral, always singing together.

The story is thick with subplots and overflowing with universal themes, all of which you can easily enjoy if you choose to read it for yourself. But the most touching part of the story, in my experience, is Huw’s vision of himself as connected to the race of Man though the heritage of his family.

I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who are to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front, to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond. And their eyes were my eyes.

As I felt, so they had felt, and were to feel, as then, so now, as tomorrow and forever. Then I was not afraid, for I was in a long line that had no beginning, and no end, and the hand of his father grasped my father’s hand, and his hand was in mine, and my unborn son took my right hand, and all, up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was, to Time That Is, and Is Not Yet, raised their hands to show the link, and we found that we were one . . .

A beautiful image of the communion of saints. The story ends with a reminder that the dead live on in the memories and traditions of the living.

So though the last pages left me in tears, it cannot be considered a tragedy in any respect. Huw’s heart is loving to the end, and therein lies his hope, and all of ours.

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Filed under Courage, Reading

Favorites from Orthodoxy

In between nesting and working and frequent trips to the bathroom, I’ve been enjoying a leisurely re-read of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. His chapter on “The Ethics of Elfland” is probably one of the most true and most beautiful essays ever written. Here are a few of my favorite passages, so you can enjoy his thoughtful prose without having to dig up your own copy.

Surly-looking old fellow, isn't he?

“In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dullness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure forever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he his normal. But in the modern psychological novel, the hero is abnormal: the center is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately and the book is monotonous.”

“Progress itself cannot progress. It is worth remark, in passing, that when Tennyson, in a wild and rather weak manner, welcomed the idea of infinite alteration in society, he instinctively took a metaphor which suggests an imprisoned tedium. He wrote–Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change. He thought of change itself as an unchangeable groove; and so it is.”

“It cannot be a coincidence that glass is so common a substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror, they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment toward the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane.”

“A woman loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death.”

Ah, Chesterton…do you ever tire of having just the right turn of phrase? Good reading. Just so you know, it looks the doc’s official due-date has come and gone without so much as a Braxton-Hicks.  I’ve been eating pineapple. Earlier today, the baby had the hiccups. Two more days of work. Pray for patience!

 

 

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Filed under Faith, Reading, Witticism