Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Illusion? A mess? The American Pastoral?

I had a bit of a packing quandary when I was leaving New York for two months.  Determined only to have a carry on, I did not realize the impact this would have on my reading life.  I only had room for three books, which I hoped would last me through my trip to Colorado, 5 weeks later. Fail. This is the only time I found myself wishing I had a Sony Reader (take a look how Sony has been supporting education here, thanks to Kenneth Byers), as the idea of reading books electronically skeeves me out a little bit, but would have been so practical for the summer.  Anyway, I spotted American Pastoral by Philip Roth on a San Diego neighbor's bookshelf and borrowed it.  I justify buying books all of the time, so this is a pretty big step for me. It is also my first jump off my summer reading list.  Sometimes I type the way I talk and give a lot of background information.  Anyway.

American Pastoral is a book that beyond its intricate narration and literary value, covers a lot of material between its cover: ethnic relations, industrial history, politics, war and family, but most of all it is a book about illusion and coming to grips with reality.  Reading this as I've been rewatching Mad Men episodes and watching the premiere, the question that I can't stop thinking about is how do we cultivate lives filled with meaning? The number of movies and television shows and books dedicated to the emptiness that people feel (Catcher in the Rye, Revolutionary Road, etc.) can make the world feel bleak.

The illusions. 
The book is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a writer who shows up in a number of Roth's books.  Through a series of events, including his a 45 year high school reunion, he learns the adult story of Seymour "The Swede" Levov, his (and his town's) adolescent idol, whose athletic victories helped ease the weariness of World War Two.  Zuckerman, well into adulthood, was under the impression that the Swede's life maintained its childhood perfection.  He learns facts that prove otherwise and begins to ponder about the nature of human relationships: "The pictures we have of one another. Layers and layers of misunderstanding. Completely cocked up.  Only we go ahead and we live by these pictures. "

I started to think about the pictures that our culture has of one another: advertisements that allow us to misunderstand what will add value to life.  Photoshopped pictures in magazines that allow us to misunderstand what beauty is.  Even facebook photos allow us to think that everyone else's life is anything but lonely.   I can picture these misunderstandings snowballing in our minds--layers and layers--and as we live by them we are only more disillusioned and further from what is actually true.

The messes.
The structure of the book speaks volumes in and of itself.  The first section, "Paradise Remembered" is about the youth of the narrator and the main character, a time when following the local high school sports team is an umbrella from reality, where despite the larger fears that have swallowed the adult population, the narrator remembers the safety of childhood.  Aptly named, the second part is "The Fall," when the main character, Seymour "Swede" Levov's daughter commits an act of political terrorism and all of the Swede's visions of his American pastoral are shattered.  The final section, "Paradise Lost" follows how his life essentially falls apart in the aftermath:

"Initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking...The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its anthithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral--into the indigenous American berserk."

Is the American berserk a better description for what happens to us? It was jarring for me that the book ends in the midst of the berserk--or, rather, that the world continued to be out of control and the characters are left to choose how to respond.  I watched the characters become paralyzed at the realization that life had not come to what they always thought it would.

This post has remained in draft form for a few days because I have no idea how to wrap it up.  The shattering of illusion and the inability to deal with the mess that is life hits the reader over the head as the story weaves in and out of countless moments in the past that lead up to the disastrous state we find the characters in at the end.  I could think and talk about this book for a long time. But here are a few conclusions.  We cannot control anything.  It is easy to create illusions. It is easy to believe illusions.  We cannot prevent messes.

I think that the book critiques obviously the absurdities of the American culture of privilege and entitlement.  And though I really believe that hope can change our lives, if we are hoping in what is purely material or the idea that it's possible to cultivate a life on earth insulated from pain and suffering, we will surely find ourselves wandering in the American berserk.  So, I guess rather than going on about ideas on how to cultivate a life of real meaning, I will leave you to think about it.  Or call me to get some coffee.  I will absolutely be thinking about this for some time to come.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #7: Utopias and Dystopias in Young Adult Lit, or trusting young readers with deep material

Another overlapping idea that I have found in my re-reading of childhood favorites is the concept of forming "utopias" in books with science fiction slants, The Giver by Lois Lowry and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.  Readers learn that the places that were designed to be easy and safe are actually disastrous.

In the world of The Giver, the community was designed to be "extraordinarily safe" and "meticulously ordered."  Emotions are seen as dangerous, so at the onset of puberty, every citizen is given pills to keep the "stirrings" away.  Anything that wasn't practical was done done away with: "the weather made transportation almost impossible at times. It wasn't a practical thing, so it became obsolete when we went to Sameness." The community operates out of the fear of mistakes, out of the fear of bearing pain, sorrow or inconvenience, and in turn sacrifices all of the good as well.  One person in the community, The Receiver, is chosen to hold all of the memories prior to Sameness: pain, color, love, choice.  The Receiver bears all of the knowledge and pain so that the rest of the community doesn't have to.

In A Wrinkle in Time, the kids land on a planet called Camazotz to rescue their father.  They feel completely creeped out when everyone seems exactly the same.  Finally they meet IT, who explains:
"For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.  I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come in to me is the last difficult decision you need ever make."  Charles Wallace attempts to fight IT, but loses and falls under the Camazotz spell as well: "Why do you think we have wars at home? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live in their own, separate, individual lives. I've been trying to explain to you in the simplest possible way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with.  Camazotz is ONE mind. And that's why everybody's so happy and efficient. "  Creepy!

I think that these books have content that is not only interesting for a reader of any age (most of my students read these titles in elementary school and loved them for separate reasons then), but that invites adolescent readers into some serious questions about the nature of life and the decisions that they have to make as 12-13 year olds. For example, despite the initial allure, relinquishing responsibility isn't all it's cracked up to be, and not worth the cost of what you lose.  Middle school is the time when you learn what it means to be more independent and responsible and it is a scary time. Also, these utopian/dystopian books celebrate individuality and I'll be the first to say that in middle school all I wanted to do was to be like everyone else. These characters and conflicts can arm kids with courage.

Readers watch characters they love struggle with figuring life out and growing up right before their eyes.  Meg realizes:  "Maybe if you aren't unhappy sometimes you don't know how to be happy." This is a really deep thought for an adolescent (or even pre-adolescent) reader, that I imagine can create amazing book club conversations and even intellectual arguments.  Books like The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time are ones that kids, if they are able to pick up on these threads, will walk away with not only an incredible read, but feeling smarter and feeling changed as a thinker.  Do you remember the first moments when you  realized the world is a lot bigger/deeper/more interesting than you ever thought possible? These books trust kids with intense issues...and I think that kids want to be entrusted; they want the adults in their lives to recognize the capability they have. Of course, different realizations will come at different times for different kids.  That is why I am so excited to hear what my 8th graders have to say about these books in the fall as they reread them.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

bound together as humans?


"Dolce," the second novella of Suite Francaise, set in the provincial countryside of France, was what captured me and got me thinking the most.  The characters seemed more complex and conflicted, more endearing than those of "Storm in June." The question I walked away considering was:

What is it that makes us human, and why are those things not enough to bind us together?

By nature I am a micro-thinker.  I am interested in the larger systems: how they function, why we need them, how to change them, but ultimately my life works on the tiny level within a system: as a teacher, as a canvas bag carrier to the grocery, as a user of public transportation.  I tend to see the smaller, personal level before putting it into a larger, more complex system, which was why one of the main conflicts of the novella was so heartbreaking for me.

Lucille is a provincial French woman, whose husband had a mistress and a child across town but is now a prisoner of war, whose mother in law cannot stand her, who feels miserable in how stuck she is in her own life.  When she and her mother in law are asked to house a German officer, the initial revulsion to housing an enemy weighs heavily in the house, until Lucille begins to see some of the underlying similarities between herself and this foreign enemy, namely through music: "Anything was better than music, for music alone can abolish differences of language or culture between two people and evoke something indestructible within them," (334).

Lucille and the officer find that they have a connection joins the ranks of history's star-crossed: "But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another.  We tell ourselves, 'They're just like us, after all,' but they're not at all the same.  We're two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever," (333).  She almost couldn't bear the things that brought them together because all it raised in her was guilt in having feelings toward the enemy and the confusion when their connection seemed to be above their respective countries' political stances.

It seems that the all of the residents of this occupied town are grappling with the idea of the collective "good" for their countries versus what would make them as individuals feel whole: The German officer lost his autonomy in the name of the war: "Madame, I am a soldier.  Soldiers don't think. I'm told to go somewhere and I go.  Told to fight, I fight. Told to get myself killed, I die. Thinking would make fighting more difficult and death more terrible," (273).  The two, each in their minds, attempt to reconcile their hearts with their national duty, and it just becomes more complex and heart breaking.

I do my best to stay on top of the world news and understand the deep rooted conflicts, but each time I never fail to become broken hearted over our inability to see each other as humans...with families and passions and sorrow.  I hate that those connections are so often not enough to bind us: whether in small, inner circle conflicts or those of a worldwide nature. 

The mother in law's response seems simultaneously out of touch as well as chillingly brilliant.
She faded into play-acting in her room, barely leaving: "It was neither delirium nor the first signs of madness; never had she been more totally lucid and aware of herself. It was deliberate play-acting, the only thing that brought her some solace, in the same way as morphine or wine. In the darkness and the silence, she could relive the past...she [also] anticipated the future. Though she lied and deceived herself, the lies were her own creation and she cherished them," (305).

This I think, though, is the danger: the pretending that everything is fine that in turns just paralyzes a person.  I think that it is better to live in the complexity of human nature than to just pretend that everything is all right, even if being a part of humanity leads to heartbreak.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Suite Francaise and Suffering.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky requires some background information, as its journey to publication is quite extraordinary.  Nemirovsky was a well known writer in France throughout the thirties and at the beginning of World War Two.  She made a plan for a five novellas with overlapping characters about the war, as it was occurring, but only had time to write two of them, as she was arrested by the French Police during the German occupation and sent to Auschwitz, where she died.  Her daughter found the manuscript in a journal fifty years later, which is what now comprises Suite Francaise. I typically read appendices and any kind of editor or translator's notes after I read the novel, so some of the issues I had initially while reading the book vanished once I saw the notes she had for the plot and character arcs and understood that the novel I held in my hands was only 2 of the 5 planned novellas.

"Storm in June" is the first novella, which is centered around its portrayals of how different classes of people experienced and processed the war.  I wanted to punch some of the characters in the face; I'm not sure if they were overly flawed intentionally or just drove me insane, namely the ones who could think only of their beautiful material goods or of how vulgar the lower classes were.  This blatant self centeredness almost seemed unrealistic to me; that  suffering would arouse disgust and disdain rather than empathy.

The inner conflict that seemed so realistic was when a well-to-do mother smugly passed out treats to lower class children, feeling as though she were upholding her Christian duty.  My gut reaction to her was disgust.  But, she became more human as I read about the panic she felt when she realized that there wasn't food to go around, even for the wealthy.   Watching her hubris shrink and her maternal instinct of survival and protection rise made her more real in my mind.

I think that watching suffering, more often than not, brings out complex emotions that are difficult to wade through as an individual and even as a reader: when I am faced with homelessness everytime I get on a subway, it weighs on my heart.  Walking by feels so wrong and after living in the city for seven years I still don't know how to discern when and how to help.  But, I prefer living in a place where I am forced to wrestle with it, rather than forget that it exists...but does thinking make a difference? What I found while reading was that wartime only heightens the complexity of what to do with the suffering one sees.

And, just like the characters in the book, suffering will in time turn from voyeuristic to personal for all of us, and remind us of our own fragility, and, I think, help us to stand in solidarity with humankind.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #6: A Spiritual Journey with A Wrinkle in Time

"She keeps thinking she can say things in words," (page 70).  This was one of the first quotations in A Wrinkle in Time that made connect in more than just a literary sense with what Madeleine L'Engle was up to while writing this book. There are a lot of different lenses that I try to teach my students to read literature through, and one of them is by making personal connections.  Mrs. Who's quote I just shared reminded me of the "mystery" that is a part of my personal faith...the fact that there are some things that I cannot physically give name to, either for their beauty, glory, brokenness or depth.  Not long after this quote came many others that echoed my Christian faith and many verses from the old and new testament. That in turn led me to do research on L'Engle.  This is partly a record for me of some of the examples, and an attempt try to pull some of the threads together to think about author's purpose. I'm looking forward to discussing this book as soon as someone would like to volunteer to read it!

One of the planets that the children land on is filled with creatures singing: "Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the eath, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift their voice; let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord!" (Isaiah 42:10, page 77).

The universe is fighting the Black Thing and it hovers over the earth, that echoes biblical themes of spiritual warfare and the sense that something is amiss in our world. Mrs. Who and Charles Wallace discuss some of the strategy involved in fighting it:
"All through the universe it's being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it's a grand and exciting battle." 
"Who have our fighters been?" 
"Oh, you must know them, dear. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehend it not." "Jesus!" Charles Wallave said. 
"Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been light for us to see by." 
"Leonardo da Vinci? And Michaelangelo? And Shakespeare, and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein! And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and Saint Francis!" (page 100-101). What I love here is that credit is given to artists and musicians and scientists that deepen the richness of the human experience and amplify the good and the beautiful, and are a microcosm of truth in themselves, much of what C.S. Lewis discusses in his essay The Weight of Glory.

"We were sent here for something. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose,"  (page 190, Romans 8:28).

"Are you fighting the Black Thing?" Meg asked.  
"Oh, yes," Aunt Beast replied. "In doing that we can never relax. We are called according to His purpose, and whom He calls, them He also justifies. Of course we have help, and without help it would be much more difficult." 
"Who helps you?" Meg asked. 
"...Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us."  I think that L'Engle's theology here is incredibly refreshing.  In my own life I have enormous frustrations when Christians aren't able to see glimpses of universal goodness and truth in all aspects of the world, and how all people who are doing good are moving the earth toward a better place.

"We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not see. For the things which are seen are temporal.  But the things which are not seen are eternal," (2 Corinthians 4:18, page 205) To read this in the context of the story, you would see that L'Engle uses her science-fiction imagination to give a name and space to that which we don't know or understand.  Some of Christian theology's biggest mysteries are revealed through that imagination in a way that enables the reader to grasp it in a more tangible way.

"Listen, Meg. Listen well. The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men...but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty..." (page 222, 1 Cor 1:25).

So, here's the bottom line for me as a public school English teacher who read this book and also happens to be a Christian: I love that anyone can read this and get lost in the adventure, be captured by the settings and relate to the inner struggles the characters face.  At the same time, my personal reading experience was enhanced by the way that L'Engle used adventure, story, art and science to amplify many of the truths of my faith and pushed me to think about them more deeply. I think it could also be an interesting angle for an adult reader of a different faith. Either way, reading A Wrinkle in Time was a win-win for me.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #5: On Growing Up


Sometimes I call it oldest child syndrome.  Sometimes it's Type-A.  Sometimes it's overly organized. Whatever name I give it, and despite the creative side of my brain, I have a tendency to want everything to be orderly and as it should be, whether it is my unit binders on my desk at school, my belongings in my apartment, or my personal life.

It has been a long, slow, frustrating journey to realize that I don't have the ability to get everything right, no matter how hard I try.  What used to feel like personal failure, I am finally learning at 29 is an unavoidable part of human life.  One of the basic tenets of my faith is that we are all fallible, and when I remember this, it makes it so much easier for me to breathe. It is amazing to me to read books intended for children in elementary school and find so much of myself in them. I can't help but wonder if everyone else got this down at age 10? Ha.

In Freak the the Mighty, Kevin made a dictionary for Max for Christmas, filled with all sorts of clever and poignant definitions, based on the way he saw the world. The one that stood out to me the most was his entry for human: "an improbable, imperfect creature."

In my crazy rush to finish all of my childhood favorites before leaving New York for the summer, I began to see all kinds of crazy connections between them all.  Through the character of Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, I watched her grapple with the humanity's imperfection as she realizes that her father (who is lost in time and she goes to rescue) cannot solve everything that goes wrong, and in turn, she begins to grow up.

"Her father had been found but he had not made everything all right  Instead, everything was worse than ever, and her adored father was bearded and thin and white and not omnipotent after all. Not matter what happened next, things could be no more terrible or frightening than they already were."

"Disappointment was as dark and corrosive in her as the Black Thing.  The ugly words tumbled from her cold lips even as she herself could not believe that it was to her father, her beloved, longed-for father, that she was talking to in this way...She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn't able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end.  There was nothing left to hope for.  She teetered on the seesaw of love and hate."

I love that Madeleine L'Engle lets Meg dwell in this feeling for a while, as these realizations and feelings are the epitome of coming of age.  I wonder if this goes over the heads of first time readers of the book.  I am anxious to talk with my students in the fall about the re-reading experience and how they connect with the emotional changes that Meg experiences.

I appreciate the way that L'Engle characterizes the father as well.  He is fully aware of his own limitations and I imagine that as a parent it must be difficult (and yet exciting) to watch his daughter realize this as well: "My daughter, I am a human being, and a very fallible one."

Meg captures it all when she says: "I wanted you to do it all for me. I wanted everything to be easy and simple...So I tried to pretend that it was all your fault...because I was scared, and I didn't want to have to do anything myself."  As I read this I smiled at this enormous revelation of hers and the fact that I myself fall into the trap of wanting everything to be easy and simple, and forgetting the great beauty--and the essence of humanity--that can emerge from the struggles.

Though, that is not to say that I don't hurt with nostalgia from time to time about the safety of my childhood. Sigh.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #4: Remembering with Freak the Mighty

"Remembering is a great invention of the mind," so says Kevin in the young adult novel Freak the Mighty. The whole concept of memory is fascinating to me, and I tend to write about it every time that it comes up in a book.

Freak the Mighty is a story of friendship, of hardship, of transcendence.  The characters in this book go through so much, that it is hard to believe that most of my students read it in elementary school. Max lives with his grandparents because his father is in jail for killing his mother.  He considers himself stupid and is in learning disabled classes at school.  People are frightened of him because of his father, how much he looks at him and how large of a person he is.  Kevin has just moved in to his block with his mom. He has a disease that has left him crippled and sick, but is absolutely brilliant.  The two form an unlikely friendship and dub themselves "Freak the Mighty."

"You don't need a time machine if you know how to remember," says Kevin in a theoretical conversation between the boys about recalling what he has learned about the ice age in reference to an imaginary game they are playing.  What he doesn't realize is how weighty this will become for Max. Kevin is wise beyond his years and knows how sick he is.  As much as his friendship with Max has changed him, he is aware that Max will have to move forward without him in the future.  The greatest gift that Kevin offered Max in their friendship was the use of imagination and the reminder of how memories can give strength.  What is so smart about Philbrick's writing, is that he writes in Max's voice throughout the book--Max who hated school, Max who had no confidence in his intellectual ability--and only at the end do you realize that Kevin asked him to write down their story.  At the end of the book it is incredible to "witness" how Max rose above all of his challenges to accomplish this and to see how the memory of his friendship with Kevin empowered him to do so.

And so, yes, remembering is a great invention of the mind.  And even though we all have things we wish we could forget, we also have the store of memories that remind us of who we really are and the things we really love...and those are the memories that give us the strength to move forward as changed people.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reconciling the past and present.

This summer marks the seventh year that I've lived in New York City.  When people ask me where I'm from, I've found that I have a variety of answers.  When I was abroad last summer, I said I was from New York.  While in the city, I typically say I'm originally, originally from Long Island, partly because it's so close and partly because it's where I was born, where all my extended family roots and my parents' pasts lie.  I follow that up with the fact that I'm really midwestern, having spent every year of school in southwest Ohio.  Basically, there is never a straight answer and I don't feel fully like myself without mentioning all these aspects of my past. There is a part of me that will always be from Long Island, from Centerville, Ohio and from New York, and I've realized that I feel most like myself when I account for all of these parts.

Reconciling the past and present and learning how to sift through the layers is one of the biggest conflicts of In the Woods by Tana French. One of the settings of the book is the woods of Knocknaree, a tiny suburb outside of Dubin, Ireland.  In the beginning of the story, a 12 year old girl is found murdered in the woods and the main character Detective Rob Ryan is called in for the investigation. The twist is that Ryan, unbeknownst to anyone but his partner, grew up in Knocknaree and was the sole survivor of a crime that left his 2 best friends missing. He was found covered in blood and without a single memory of what happened.  He has spent the rest of his life essentially forgetting until this case began.  The novel is not only the mystery of the girl who was killed, but also of Ryan's past and his psychological state as he is forced to face all he has left behind. 

Beyond being the site of two horrific crimes, the Knocknaree woods is also in the middle of another conflict: it is the site of an archaeological dig, which is forced to rush because construction for a highway is slated to begin.  French does an impressive job making this story about more than just solving a crime.  The woods becomes symbolic in its vastness, it's darkness and its   The reader, like Detective Ryan, is left wondering should one dig through the past, carefully trying to make sense of it and put the pieces together in a meaningful way or pave over it, moving into the future leaving it all locked underneath cement?

The ending, unlike most episodes of The Closer, Law and Order and CSI: NY, is not quite as neat as I have grown accustomed to in my television dabbling or in the pulpy mystery reads I consumed in middle school.  I think French's literary merit in this book is the psychological depth of Detective Ryan and her skill at depicting it within the genre.  He is complex and heartbreakingly human in the decisions that he makes throughout the case as simultaneously faces the past and tries to hide it from others and hide from it himself. I walked away from this book wondering about how he will choose to move forward with all the layers of his past, rather than the satisfaction of figuring out the puzzle.