Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cather, Bronte, Seyton, Hardy, Ishiguro, Eliot, Proulx, and Defoe

It is time for a year-long update of my classic reading.

After double-checking my 'read' bookshelf on Goodreads, I updated my original Classics Club list from January 2013. I have officially read 18 classics from my list. One might think my list is shrinking, but no... because I did not have immediate access to specific novels on my original list, I have made a number of additions. I went from 66 to 78 books, so I have still have 60 to finish by January 2018.

Death Comes for the Archbishop
The completionist in me can't believe I actually added to the list, but the reader in me has loved every minute of it. For example, I had no idea I would love Willa Cather as much as I did. I first read My Antonia in high school for Mrs. Davis, my senior English teacher. What I remember most about the novel is that the setting features as a central character. This turns out to be true as well in O Pioneers! and Death Comes for the Archbishop. So, after I read Death Comes for the Archbishop, I had no choice but to read O Pioneers! even though it wasn't on my list. Cather creates such a sense of place - a topic I recently discussed with my father - and for once, it is a place I recognize and relate to. I may not live in Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico or Colorado, but they are close enough to Oklahoma that I immediately connect with the setting. Cather makes my heart ache with nostalgia. 

Next I read Cather's Song of the Lark which turned out to be my favorite of her three novels. Song of the Lark is about the role of the artist, Thea Kronborg, and her growth. Believe me, I would prefer to read Song of the Lark any day over Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I'm sure there is some kind of amazing literary paper possibilities in comparing and contrasting the themes/ideas found in these two novels.

After so much American literature, I was jonesing for some British lit.and who better to turn to than one of the Bronte sisters. I'm not as familiar with Anne's work as I am with Emily or Charlotte's, so I dug right into Agnes Grey. I hesitate to say I was disappointed with Agnes Grey. It feels like heresy, but I was just a wee bit let down. Like any other Brit. lit. fan, I love a good governess story, but this one was a tad on the milk toast side. I hope the Tenant of Wildfell Hall is better than Agnes Grey.

I moved to a bit of British historical fiction in Katherine by Anya Seton. Coincidentally, I read this novel at the same time I was teaching Chaucer, so I had an enhanced view of Chaucer's life and secret love and his political and social landscape. Nothing helps render the crazy genealogy of Britain's monarchs like a good love story.

At this time of the school year I gave my students an option to read Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy which made me remember a colleague telling me that students love reading The Mayor of Casterbridge. She told me it is a shorter read than Tess of the d'Urbervilles and more interesting than Jude. Unfortunately, I can't offer my students the option of The Mayor of Casterbridge because I only have copies of Jude in my book closet. So, while a whopping total of two of my students read Jude (others opted for Crime and Punishment, East of Eden, and Invisible Man), I listened to The Mayor of Casterbridge on my work commute. At the close of the novel, I would say I concur with my colleague. There is hardly any downtime in the plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge. It moves swiftly, for Victorian literature, from one conflict to another. It would be a nice primer for Thomas Hardy. Still, Tess is my favorite Hardy.

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At the start of 2014 I was gearing up for the next season of Downton Abbey and saw some mention of Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. A quick google search told me that Remains of the Day would give me the 'Butler-in-the-Big-House' fix I needed. This novel turned out to be a gem with its character development of Mr. Stevens, the head butler at Darlington Hall, and his definition of dignity. I would so love to replace my definition essay assignment from how is a hero defined in Beowulf to how is dignity defined in Remains of the Day. As well, this novel covers some aspects of British history from WWI to WWII that I had no previous knowledge. Needless to say, I had to watch the movie version with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It was lovely - just lovely.

Back to Victorian literature, I decided to tackle the granddaddy chunkster of all Victorian literature, Middlemarch by George Eliot. Middlemarch has been on my to-read shelf for 15 years when I bought it with a giftcard at Barnes and Noble. Finally, I took the plunge, and I am just kicking myself that I didn't read it earlier. Middlemarch has everything I love in a novel -  historical information and social mores, extensive character development, and all the inherent conflicts involved with love and death. This novel covers everything! If I thought my AP students would read it, I would assign it because it addresses almost every ontological question and open AP prompt that exists. Luckily, the BBC did a seven episode mini-series which I scarfed up as soon as I finished the novel.Thank you, Netflix.

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About this time of the year I needed a modern classic - I had been faithful all year to the canonized classics, so out came The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Wow - talk about a massive shift in style from Eliot to Proulx. It was so severe as to cause whiplash. I almost couldn't stand the parsed prose and newspaper clippings. It took me a good five or six chapters to let go of Middlemarch and enjoy The Shipping News. At first, I had zero interest in the protagonist Quoyle, but he grew on me as he experienced his own growth - which could be the author's intent. I haven't read any literary criticism of The Shipping News to know if my reaction is singular or the norm. There is also a bit of mystery to the plot which kept me engaged. I plan on renting the movie version of this novel. I'm not sure how the pacing and the newspaper article headlines will be used. I think those headlines are essential to Quoyle's inner dialogue. We will see.

Finally, I rounded out the end of the 2014 school year with Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. For some reason, I pictured the movie The Swiss Family Robinson when I looked at the title. There is no other movie to make one want a tree house like Swiss Family Robinson, so I figured I would love this novel.The only discernible difference that I see between the movie and the novel is Robinson Crusoe is about one fellow shipwrecked and surviving on an island and The Swiss Family Robinson is about an entire family shipwrecked and surviving on an island. Oh, the lists and details and lists and details I endured to make it to the end of this novel. This wretched novel will only be of use if I am stranded on an island. One element that reminded me of the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks is that Robinson Crusoe talked to his parrot much like Tom Hanks' character Chuck Noland talks to Wilson the volleyball. That is it - that is all I have to say about Robinson Crusoe.

So, I read about 10 classic novels in the past year (not counting the novels I read for my English classes). My favorite novels are Song of the Lark, Middlemarch, and Remains of the Day. I will re-visit these novels at some point and do a bit of research on them. 

Now - on to Shirley.... 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Spin List #2

I really should do a bit of a catch-up post. I've read Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Each novel deserves a solid review, and I will do that. However, since it is the end of the school year for me, I've got to spend more time with what is happening at LHS.

I am currently reading Beloved by Toni Morrison, so I am in shape to decide on my next classic. I participated in the last spin even hosted by the Classics Club with A Streetcar Named Desire.This time around I am going to work on the organization of my spin list a bit more. That way it will be re-usable. The number will be published on Monday. Fingers crossed for 16 - 20!


  1. de Cervantes, Miguel: Don Quixot
  2. Eliot, George: Middlemarch
  3. Thackeray, William Makepeace: Vanity Fair
  4. Gaskell, Elizabeth: North and South
  5. Seton, Anya: Katherine

6. Aeschylus: Oresteia
7. Aristophanes: Lysistrata
8. Euripedes: Four TragediesSophocles: 
9. The Three Theban Plays (Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus)
10. Miller, Arthur: Death of a Salesman

For School
11. Achebe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart
12. Anaya, Rudolfo: Bless Me, Ultima
13. Crane, Stephen: Red Badge of Courage
14. Hamilton, Edith: Mythology
15. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World

Can't Wait
16. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
17. de Laclos, Choderlos: Dangerous Liaisons
18. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia: Love in the Time of Cholera
19. Orczy, Baroness: The Scarlet Pimpernel
20. Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Cold Sassy Tree

I loved Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. I listened to it on my work commute. There were a few days I sat in my car at work waiting for a chapter to end.

The setting for the novel is the early 1900's in Georgia. A teenage boy, Will Tweedy, narrates the novel, so the observations on life are hilarious and unintentionally insightful. Will is the favorite of his grandfather, Enoch Rucker Blakslee. This novel is equally about grandfather and grandson as Will learns from his grandfather's instructions, verbal and actual, on how to live life.

The small town setting here makes the novel. Anyone living in the south or a small town will recognize the truth of how one person's business becomes everyone's business.

Early in the novel Rucker's wife, Mattie Lou, dies. There is no doubt of the love Rucker has for his departed wife in the extravagant way she is buried. However, even though Rucker is the owner of the town general store and some property, he is a bit of a penny pincher, and much is made at the start of the novel about the fact that Rucker would never install a bathroom or running water in his house for Mattie Lou.

The immediate conflict is the question of who is going to take care of Rucker now that Mattie Lou has died. He has two daughters, Mary Willis (Will's mother) and Loma (married to an unfortunate non-starter, henpecked husband). While the bereaved family is trying to sort through their grief, Rucker almost immediately remarries another woman, Miss Love. Miss Love Simpson is much younger than Rucker and has been working at his store as a milliner.

Talk about small town gossip and disapproval. Poor Miss Love, who hails from the north and is an outsider Yankee, has little chance of earning the family's love and the town's acceptance because of her audacity to try to take the place of Mattie Lou. Everyone is up in arms over the marriage except for Will who has his own little crush on Miss Love.

I have to say at this point in the novel, I was actually feeling bad for the daughters. Here they have been loyal and true to their father, and it looks like Rucker might have married someone who will fleece him. This does happen. I'm thinking Anna Nicole Smith here. Who knows what the new wife will do with all of their mother's belongings, with the house, with the store, with the property?

The fun of this novel is finding out exactly why these two decided to get married and how their marriage sets the town and the family on its ear. During this process Will Tweedy does boy things and has boy adventures and experiences his first love with a girl from the poor side of town.

There are times in this novel where I laughed out loud and times when I cried (which is hard to explain when you are walking into work early in the morning). I would recommend reading this novel to anyone who likes a good 'ole fashioned yarn with homespun wisdom.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I read A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams because of the spin list results for The Classics Club. I am lucky that it is a short, easy read of 11 scenes that can be completed in a couple of hours.

I like to mention what I am reading or what I am going to read to my students. I hope it is affirmation to them that reading is a life-long activity. I have a group of students who read the play last year, and they were very excited for me to finish, so we could talk about it. I asked them if I would like the play and almost all of them thought I would have something to say about how the women are treated.

I have the Marlon Brando movie version. I've read a few reviews saying it is difficult to stage this play. I can understand why. Much of the stage direction actually interprets the scene or highlights what is symbolic.

As far as my enjoyment on the play, I was on the fence until the end. It had a whopper of an ending; it was like a gut punch. The entire play I hoped that Blanche would find a way to resolve her situation and that Stanley would lose some of his abusive tendencies and that Stella would wise up to Stanley's and Blanche's problems. But whoa..... in the last couple of scenes things get crazy.

It is almost impossible to say any more about the play without giving away the entire plot.

I did have an interesting conversation with my students about the play. They decided that Blanche is a bit like Rachel from The Poisonwood Bible. As far as AP material, this play does make an allusion to the Elysian fields of King Arthur's time which I can work with on the open question. Also, this play critiques society, and that is always fun to talk about.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Re-read of The Poisonwood Bible 

I first read this novel when it was put on Oprah's Book Club list in 2000. This is a novel that I have mulled over and considered for over 12 years. So, when I had the opportunity to choose a new contemporary novel for my AP Literature class this year, I decided The Poisonwood Bible would be perfect to share with my students, and it would give me an opportunity to re-visit the work. 

The title draws you in because of the juxtaposition of the words poison and bible. Most would identify death, illness, pain, disease with the word poison, but the connotations for the word bible may not be so universal. Because I live on the buckle of the bible belt, the majority of my students identify truth, life, heaven, law/rules, the way, church, goodness, etc with the word bible. Putting two words from opposite ends of the spectrum in the title engenders questions and predictions. Why would the bible be poison? This question is like a splinter in your hand that has broken off and can't be pulled with tweezers, you just have to wait for it to work itself out.

Second, a quick check of the table of contents indicates that, like the bible, this novel is divided into books called Genesis, The Revelation, The Judges, Bel and the Serpent, Exodus, Song of the Three Children, and The Eyes in the Trees. Immediately, the extended allusion to the bible suggested in the title is furthered. In my area of the United States, not many people are familiar with the Apocrypha, so a little research reveals this novel will allude to more than the King James Version of the bible. Additionally, each book of The Poisonwood Bible has a sub-title which alludes to the novel, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brian. 

A further preview of the novel reveals that each book is divided into chapters, and each chapter is narrated by a female member of the Price family. The daughters of Nathan and Orleanna Price, Leah, Ada, Rachel, and Ruth, are allusions to women in the bible as well.

This elaborate, extended allusion sets the stage for the journey the Price family takes as they move from Georgia to the Belgium Congo in the early 1960's to be missionaries. The conflicts the family encounter are used as a microcosm to understand the macrocosm of the conflicts the Congo has encountered in its many, devastating dealings with the 'civilized' world.
Patrice Lumumba

Jospeh Mobutu
 If you aren't already familiar with these topics, I suggest a bit of quick research on the history of the Congo, imperialism, Patrice Lumumba, and Joseph Mobutu before reading this novel.

On this read through of The Poisonwood Bible, I tried to identify why the novel stuck with me for 12 years, and I decided much of my love for this novel is because of the character development. The Price family could be any number of families I grew up with. I have met the father, Nathan Price, and wondered at his extreme devotion and his thoughtless arrogance. I love Ada's character because of her different view of the world. She quotes Emily Dickinson, develops her own palindromic language, and reads backwards. Finally, I identify with Leah's internal conflicts.

The thoroughly developed, dynamic characters are Kingsolver's vehicle to address weightier issues. Looking at my list of ontological questions, The Poisonwood Bible offers enough meat to wrestle with all of them. There are no easy answers to be found here. This novel allows for meta-cognition and, on the flip side, it begs the reader to analyze world politics and issues. It is universal and it is timely.

Ontological Questions:

1.  What is the meaning of life?
2.  How should I live?
3.  How can I accept the idea that someday my life will end?
4.  What does it mean to be a good person?
5.  What is truth?
6.  Am I brave or a coward?  Does courage matter?
7.  Do the rewards of life balance or outweigh its pain?
8.  How should people treat each other?
9.  How can man live in the ugliness of the modern world without despair?
10.  Why do evil and suffering exist?
11.  How can we tell the false from the genuine?
12.  Does my existence matter?  Do I dare to disturb the universe?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

So much depends on frame of mind.

Tackling Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens required me to change my mindset. I typically rush at a novel and devour it, much like eating lunch between 3rd and 4th hour at school. I spend little time lingering over anything. Often I don't even try to predict what will happen next because I know I will get to the end of a novel in just a few hours.

As it turns out, Little Dorrit is not a novel you gobble in one sitting. I checked Wikipedia and found, through serialization, Little Dorrit was published over the course of 19 months. So, I allowed myself a month to read this novel which made a difference in my appreciation of it. 

The novel is divided into two books: Book the First: Poverty and Book the Second: Riches.The first book is almost entirely exposition. We are introduced to about 20 characters and a number of minor conflicts.

Side Rant: Introduced is rather an understatement because Dickens does not merely introduce his reader to a character. He spends chapters on physical description, minutia, mannerisms, phrasing, etc. After his thorough introduction of characters, there is no doubt in my mind I've actually met these people. While I appreciate the details, most of the characters in this novel end up being static. I don't see a dynamic change in their personality with the resolution of the novel. At the beginning of the novel Little Dorrit and her family members can be defined as:

Amy Dorrit is Little Dorrit, the long-suffering, humble, good girl who sacrifices for her ungrateful family. 
Mr. Dorrit is the oblivious, self-important father willing to turn a blind eye to the many sacrifices his daughter, Amy, makes for his comfort and reputation.
Fanny Dorrit takes advantage of her doormat sister, Amy, in typical bi-polar fashion with equal professions of  "I hate you" and "I love you."
Tip Dorrit allows Doormat to bail him out of every bad decision he makes and expects to land on his feet in an even more profitable position.

These characters do not change by the end of the novel which is frustrating to me because I want them to grow or have an epiphany or something.

I found it almost impossible to discern the main conflict of the novel by the end of the first book. There is a bit of mystery surrounding the main protagonist, Arthur Clennam, the death of his father, the letters DNF, his stoic, religious mother, and the life-long servant, Jeremiah. I clearly missed a number of clues which would have informed me that this conflict tied the novel together. If I ever read this novel again (probably not), then perhaps I would catch the details.

Otherwise, I read 90% of the novel before I realized which story lines were the ones that would be resolved.. So, this is a novel where the journey, not the destination, is to be enjoyed. Particularly timely is the description of the Circumlocution Office which so mirrors the gridlock of American politics that I had to smile and shake my head at the same time. I suppose history is replete with examples of the business of accomplishing nothing in government.

I've already mentioned that I doubt I will re-read this novel, so next I wonder if it is worthy of the AP Lit. class. I can't imagine assigning this novel in high school. I'm not sure any student would read every page or even want to finish it. However, it is a gold mine for examples of characterization and tricky syntax. I could see myself pulling paragraphs for practice analysis. 

All told, because I allowed myself to digest Little Dorrit just a bit at a time, I did enjoy it. Next up, A Streetcar Named Desire and Poisonwood Bible

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gossip in the Halls of LHS

Since there is so little to gossip about in the halls of LHS while we are on duty before school, between classes, and at lunch, I thought we might like to create a kind of unofficial classics book club. Yes, I know we have plenty to do (lesson plans, grading, extra-curricular activities, etc.), but it would be nice if we could have conversations about something other than the same 'ole, same 'ole.

This isn't an English teacher thing, it is a reader thing. If you like to read, then every once in a while you might like to read a literary classic. You only need to be involved at the level you want to be, so feel no pressure. You don't have to be all in. Participate as you have time. If you are interested, read on. If not, no prob., but if you know someone who might be interested, then would you pass this message along?

The Details:

I discovered a blog called The Classics Club recently, and it inspired me to make a list of 50 classics I would like to read in the next 5 years. Obviously, you don't have to make a list with 50 items, but maybe there are a few classic novels you have always wanted to read or you have heard about them at some point in your life and though you might want to read them. This is the time to jot down your list, whatever is manageable, and begin. If you are interested in my list, see it here - Keller's Classic List.

Tell a friend/ neighbor here at school what you are reading and maybe you can read the same work. I told my lunch group what I was doing, and that I was starting with Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. Ryker decided to read it. Then I told Vicki, and she is reading along from TN. Initially, it is interesting to just share your list and find out what people have read and what they want to read.

Making Your List:

To help make your list, I have a couple of links you can check out that have lists of classic novels, plays, poetry collections, etc. Also, literary classics can be from any cannon (western, eastern) or any time period (ancient to modern). Don't feel hemmed in by too many rules. You may even want to read Young Adult classics.

  • This site combines many top 100 lists, so it is pretty comprehensive. #1: A List of Books
  • I also used this link from The Classics Club site because it has some eastern classics. The Big Book List
  • This link has the suggested works that Advanced Placement students should read for the AP Literature and Writing exam. This site is interesting because it divides classics by American, British, and World lit.


You may be in a situation where you aren't sure which classic would suite your taste. If you go to the Goodreads site, you get an opportunity to identify and rate books you have read, and then the site makes suggestions for you to read based on your tastes. The process is much like using Netflix to narrow your movie choices.Also, Goodreads is a perfect place to keep track of your list.


Whether or not you want to document your journey is up to you. You may prefer to read a work, talk about it, and move on to the next piece. I decided to write an informal review of each item I read from my list and post it on my blog. Blogging is a different way of sharing your journey. So, no pressure for this part of the process. If you are interested in blogging what you read, I've linked two free blogging sites to get you going. I'm using one of the free options from blogger. If you decide to blog, please send me a link to your site. I would love to follow you. A plus for blogging is that it makes your list accessible to everyone else in school. That way we could look over lists and identify works we have in common.


No need to pay for all of these classics. Our LHS library has most of them. If you have an e-reader, then many classics are free. Also, if you think you don't have time to set aside for reading, consider using your daily commute to participate. I listen to audiobooks on my way to and from work.

The End:

So, that's it. Thank you for your attention and consideration. I hope you decide to read a classic and find someone in the school to read the same work. Like I said before, I'm reading Little Dorrit by Dickens, and I am listening to Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. I know I will read Pride and Prejudice and A Streetcar Named Desire here soon, but I am open to suggestions from my friends and co-workers for upcoming choices. Happy Reading.