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....