Category Archives: classic lit

Reading Year in Review and Top Ten Books of 2011.

My blog is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary next month.  I wrote my first post on January 6th, 2007, partly to slow down and think about what I was reading again and partly in an effort to get more comfortable with sharing my writing in a “public” space (I would like to thank my 4 loyal readers at this time: Mom, Dad, Alison Covey, Kendra Bloom).  Every year when I’m home for Christmas I read every post I wrote over the year and choose the top ten best books I’ve read.

Usually, it takes me many hours to reread my blog posts for the year. As I read, I take notes and end up with a list at least 20 contenders for the coveted top ten.  I have to do some serious thinking and rereading of posts to decide which books had the biggest impact on my thought life–and then spend some serious time laughing about the nerdy ways I spend my time.  This year was not so difficult.  Sadly, I don’t think I can attribute that to any increased coolness to my life, but I do think I have a few answers/self justifications for the reasons why this year I had only 23 posts (2008 holds the all-time high of 97):

  • The spring was filled with YA books that enriched my teaching life and a side project I’m working on, but weren’t necessarily significant enough for me to subject my loyal readers (see above) to. 
  •  The summer, normally the two months that I read the highest number of books, was filled with Infinite Jest, a book that I felt I needed to finish before I posted anything about it.  (Then, the fall happened and I still have 5 additional posts about Infinite Jest sitting in my drafts.) 
  • This fall, I got caught up reading books for and with my students. Many of my Saturday mornings, normally my drink-a-hot-beverage-and-write-about-my-reading time, were filled with training for my half marathon.  Also, my book club choice was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, which is not a read-before-you-fall-asleep kind of book: I would make it literally 3 pages and fall asleep. I’m finally about to finish it, which I owe to traveling 3 out of the last 5 weekends on U.S. Airways, who does not offer in-flight television.  

All that to say, it is interesting to look back on a year through the lens of reading. I am nerdily excited for what 2012 will bring in my reading life…and the reflections that accompany good books.  As for the Top Ten, I have to credit Margaret, who is the sole other member of my book club, because six of our choices made the top ten list this year. So, in no particular order:

The Hours by Michael Cunningham/Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (rereads)
These books have to be paired together and were two of the most thought provoking reads of the year.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
This book received an insane amount of press when it was published last year.  Overall, especially because my book club read read The Corrections first, I throughly enjoyed getting inside the mind of Franzen.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteygart
Not especially well written, but it definitely was the instigator of many great conversations and some science-fiction/technology induced nightmares.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
I think this was the most historically significant, jarring book that I read this year, and combined with its lyrical prose, it left me speechless.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Short. Beautiful. Inspiring.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
The most enjoyable book of the year.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Harder than my book club’s run with the Russians a few years ago and encompassing almost all of my summer, this book was well worth it.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years  by Donald Miller (reread)
This book was a non-fiction, good reminder of all things I love about story and life.

The Summer Book by Tove Janssen(reread)
This book has become one of my yearly rereads and I’ve written about it a few times.  I spend the quiet, early summer mornings I have at my parents’ house on their screened in porch reading just a chapter or two a day so that I can savor and soak in it during my entire visit.  This year it was my respite from Infinite Jest, to make sure that reading was not only speaking into the my academically-minded side of my brain, but also my soul.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I read the first book of this series as soon as it came out, on recommendation of our Teachers College professional developer.  I never finished the series because I felt like I knew enough to talk about it with kids and had so many other books to read.  However, after the Epic-Literary-Reread book club on Harry Potter with my students last year, I thought that it would be cool to do the same thing with The Hunger Games this year.  I read these books in about a week and was amazed to see all of the entry points for young readers to have uber literary conversations. I have also been amazed at how many of my adult friends have been reading the series and are eager to discuss. A post-movie discussion party is in the works.

Cheers to reading and a 2012 filled with more writing about it!

The Pain of Beloved.

“Anything dead coming back to life hurts,” (42).

“Can’t nothing heal without pain, you know,” (92).
These quotes stayed with me throughout reading Beloved by Toni Morrison because at its core, it is a book about existential hurt, impossible choices and living with their ghosts and yet, it is about moving forward–and the story itself feels like a way to let the hauntings go.

I finished the book weeks ago and am still  thinking about what a powerful, important, disturbing read it was.  The plot centers around a former slave named Sethe who escapes to Cincinnati where her children are already living, giving birth to her fourth child along the way.  Less than a year after her and her childrens’ escape , she is in the backyard of the house she shares with her mother in law and sees a man from the plantation where she spent her life ready to call upon the Fugitive Slave Act.  Sethe chooses to gather her four children and attempts to kill them, rather than allowing them to be brought back into slavery.  Three of the four are spared.  The bulk of the story is set over a decade later when her house is haunted by the child’s ghost.  Two people arrive: Paul D, a man who was also a slave on the plantation with Sethe, with whom she begins a relationship.  For a time, he is able to scare the ghost away, but then a girl arrives who Sethe and her daughter Denver believe to be the incarnated ghost, which completely rocks and changes Sethe, forcing her to face her past decisions. The book is about the spiral of Sethe wrestling with her demons and the definition of love, of finding and losing herself.

As a reader, I couldn’t discern if the ghost-girl was literal or figurative–and at different moments I think could be either.  So I’ve been thinking about the questions Beloved poses in terms of healing: on both a personal and corporate level.  It is much too heavy of a story to simply say that it ends with hope–it is a beautiful mess of a narrative that left me a wreck while reading it.

Sethe’s turmoil through Morrison’s writing feels weighty enough to be corporate.  It is not just her story, it is the story of the psychological effects of slavery.  On this level, I felt as though I had no place to judge Sethe for her choices–and how she chose to define the love she had for her children.  Sethe writhes with her choice and it is impossible as a reader not to do so right along with her.  It feels an impossible situation, where I can’t decide if the healing of an entire nation after such an abomination on humanity or the healing of a single heart engulfed it it feels more difficult.

This is when I come back to the quotes I cited at the beginning, that came in the first third of the story and were spoken to Paul D, but shaped what I began to see as the purpose of the whole book: that Sethe had to wrestle with the pain and had to feel it deeply.  There was no way to move forward without it.  Paul D says to Sethe toward at the end, when Sethe is still is the ashes of her life: “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody.  We need some kind of tomorrow.”  This seems so simple and almost trite, but only out of context.  The poetry and pain of this story–individual pain of the characters and the pain of looking at our history of a nation– echo for anyone who has felt the complicated brokenness of tragedy and the reluctance to even try to heal. What Morrison leaves the reader with is the idea that there is still life.  There is still life.

"There is a gulf between people that one must respect."

My book club recently read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925 paired with The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which is based on both Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Both of these were rereads for me–I read Mrs. Dalloway for a British Literature class and later took a class on Virginia Woolf in college where we read 8 of her books in 8 weeks.  That being said, sometimes reading old notes in the margins can be painful.  My naive,  21 year old English-major self seems amateurish.  Rereading Mrs. Dalloway was a lesson in how reading experiences change with life experience–and how amazing rereading can be.

This time around, what stood out to me the most was the idea that misunderstanding often comes from drawing conclusions about someone without knowing their true inner life. The reader finds that each of the characters is unsatisfied with life and filled with a sense of both guilt for feeling that way and longing to create a different kind of life.

I read this book as a story of what we see in others and what they see in us–and the fact that most of the time–when we are living in our own heads and not honestly communicating, we get it all wrong.  Whether people become ideas as we either project onto them what we want to see or we fall into the danger of considering what other people want to see in us, thus presenting a false self to the world.  Obviously, relational chaos ensues.

For example, Peter, who depite all efforts, is still in love with Clarissa thinks: “And, after all, she had married Dalloway, and lived with him in perfect happiness all these years” (155) and yet she is haunted for much of the book that she made the wrong choice in marrying her husband.  Her presentation of self is confusing because she flirts with Peter because she doesn’t know how not to, but spends her time remembering her mostly chaste relationship with her friend Sally and finds herself imagining what her life might have been if she chose differently.

Peter thinks he has it for a moment when of Clarissa he says: “So transparent in some ways, so inscrutable in others…” (77).  His idea is correct, but he completely misinterprets what he sees as transparent. Clarissa says of Peter: “He made her see herself; exaggerate. It was idiotic,” (168).  Clarissa is aware of this dance of self presentation and yet cannot step away.  She says–and I think understands–that “there is a gulf between people that one must respect,” (120)–that one can never truly understand another.   Peter understands it, too: “It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels…but he could not bring himself to say he loved her, not in so many words,” (116, 118).

The bottom line is that this book made me think so much about relationships and honesty–no one in this story really knew what the other was actually thinking–and no one wanted to tell anyone what they were truly thinking about, which creates an atmosphere of superficial conversation and relationships.  Perhaps there is a certain safety in keeping such thoughts to oneself? I think the regret that the characters show reveal to the reader that it is better to live honestly in the present with themselves and others, but with exposure comes vulnerability. This is a trade off the characters weren’t willing to accept.  It was more comfortable to live with the gulf than attempt to close it.  I’m left thinking about the kinds of gulfs that exist, what causes them and which ones are worth crossing.

My ideas don’t fit into a single blog post.

All of this can lead to an existential downward spiral to a life in the what-might-have-been and filled with permanent discontent.  Each of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway told themselves stories to cope with the lives they chose not to live–which is interestingly exactly what Cunningham picked up on and addressed in The Hours, thoughts forthcoming.

"I was half in love with her by the time we sat down."

{image from Books Rule}

One of the books I most recommend to my male students is King Dork by Frank Portman.  The main character creates a new band weekly, less for the music, more for the opportunity to pick a new name and design new cover art.  He mockingly points out that his English teachers are all in love with The Catcher in the Rye, ironically calling out phonies just as Holden would.  It’s been fun to see kids who have read Catcher go on to read King Dork catch those idiosyncracies and then to have King Dork readers realize they are missing out and walk over to the “classics” basket in my classroom library.

All that to say, here is a round up of some thoughts on Salinger.  I’m sure he would despise all that has been written up (hence, see the Onion link), but.  I’m not going to lie, it only took a second for me to be half in love with Salinger when my sophomore honors English teacher told us he was going to risk it and read a book with us that is banned in schools across the country.  If you know me, it’s no surprise that I was not quite apt to subversion in high school, so this small act seemed pretty exciting to me.   Of course, when I reread Catcher a few years ago, reading the notes my sixteen year old self left was hilariously amazing. If you know me now, you’re probably saying, “Kristen, of course your dangerous living would involve books.” I know, I know.

Anyway, my recommendation (if you don’t have 30 papers to grade…curses) is to read your freezing day away at The New Yorker, which has compiled a list of many of Salinger’s stories from back issues. Or, check out some of these links, which were the most relevant/amusing/best to me (in that order).  And, you’re welcome, here is a link list of my past thoughts on Salinger

Holden Caulfield and YA Literature

The Onion

Dave Eggers on Salinger


Halfway through The Age of Innocence, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edith Wharton that chronicles the life of Newland Archer and New York’s upper class in the 1870s, I had categorized it solely with the other texts I have read and watched recently that revolve in one way or another around infidelity, which I have no patience for. It does, but among other things, like the shallow social society of old New York. But no matter. Inconsequential of the ending (which was a huge surprise to me), it addresses two of my biggest frustrations.

One, believing that the beauty and adventure is meant for someone else in a different place or time or circumstances:

“…we could sail at the end of April. I know I could arrange it at the office.”
She smiled dreamily upon the possibility; but he perceived that to dream of it sufficed her. It was like hearing him read aloud out of his poetry books the beautiful things that could not possibly happen in real life.
“Oh, do go on, Newland; I do love your descriptions.”
“But why should they be only descriptions? Why shouldn’t we make them real?”

The beginning of winter weather is the best time, for me, to remember that a stagnant life is not really life at all. Admittedly, it is ridiculously easy for me to declare the weather as the number one justification for reading a book by my window and not venturing out. Ever. Well, until April, at least. The tea kettle is 30 yards away; what more could I need? But. I read passages like those and everything in me wants to scream at May to jump in the boat before it’s too late.

Two, living in the safety of a life prescribed. Newland’s society is filled with hypocrisy and nonsensical tradition. He senses this and understands its ridiculousness, yet very much struggles to live outside of it–of course, at a certain point in the book comes the complex moral struggle of duty and passion (a common theme is this year’s texts, as I’ve noted) becomes the forefront of the plot:

“You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It’s beyond human enduring–that’s all.”

I don’t understand why people–and these stupid fictional characters (!)–don’t choose the poetry and adventure *before* they have made commitments. Apparently, that is not the kind of drama that readers/viewers are looking for–not in 1920 when this book was published, and clearly not now. Curses. Anyway. Wharton describes what happens when one ultimately chooses the safe and the prescribed over all else:

“Outside it, in the scenes of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent minded man goes on bumping into furniture in his own room. Absent–that was what he was.”

Without the search for truth and beauty, poetry and adventure, one’s reality fades into the imaginary–and the life one is living becomes increasingly incapable of sustaining life that is truly Life–for it is now only a shadow.

Absentia is a heartbreaking existence.