Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In a little while, it ain't gonna be so bad. In a little while.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Grapes of Wrath is about family, love, sacrifice, struggle, and redemption. It chronicles the life of the Joad family as they move from Oklahoma to California after they're run off their land. Ma is the matriarch with a will of iron. Pa is strong and well-meaning, but secondary to Ma where family power is concerned. Noah, the oldest son, is a little batty and keeps to himself. Tom, another son, rejoins the family early in the novel, and acts as the functional protagonist. Al is a typical teenage boy who just wants to work on cars and get himself a lady. Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn) is their daughter in her late teens who's carrying a child. Connie is her husband (who has a few too many high-minded ideas). Ruthie and Winfield are the youngest children. Uncle John is their relative who lost his wife (and blames himself for her death because he thought she had a stomachache and she ended up dying). Grandma and Granpa are sweet and funny characters, and the preacher (Casy) who isn't a preacher any more tags along with the family on the journey out west. The whole pack of 13 starts off, and by the end there are only 6. Grandma and Granpa both die before the family finds work in California. Noah strolls off by a river and decides to stay and fish there for the rest of his life. Connie runs out on Rosasharn. The preacher goes to jail to save Tom (they got in a fight with a mean deputy) and then he is later killed for leading a strike at a peach farm. Al ends up splitting from the family to stay with a woman (Aggie) and Tom is forced to leave his family for their safety and his after he attacks a few men after watching them kill Casy. The family has a really rough time of it when they get to California. They live in a Hooverville, a government camp, on a peach farm, and on a cotton farm, but they rarely have enough to eat and the outlook is always very grim. At the end of the novel, there's a huge flood, and the family escapes to an abandoned barn (after Rosasharn gives birth to a stillborn child). The Joads find a boy and his father, and the father is dying of starvation. The boy begs the Joads to help, and Rosasharn closes the novel by offering her breast to the dying man.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

In terms of impressions, I really enjoyed this book. The ending depressed hell out of me (as Holden Caulfield would say) but I understood its necessity and appreciated its poignancy.

- When Tom comes looking for his family after he's been released from jail (oops! forgot to mention that in the plot summary, didn't I? Well, he went to jail because he got in a fight with a guy (before the novel starts) and after he gets stabbed, he smacks the guy's head in with a shovel. He gets paroled early for good behavior, and we first meet him when he's hitching a ride to get home to his family.) he brings a turtle for Ruthie and Winfield. He ends up letting it go, but asserts that every kid has a turtle at some point in life, but no kid can keep a turtle, because they have a way of running off. REMEMBER PALOMA, lexie and dinah? (For my other readers, we used to have a lovely turtle named Paloma. She ran away. I understand the irony of this statement.)

- There's a part in the book where truck drivers are contrasted with the migrants moving west. The truck drivers leave great tips at truck stops, whereas the migrants beg for food or for lower prices, which makes the truck stop workers angry. I wonder if there's a similar feeling today about truck drivers vs. the average traveler.

- I wanted to throttle Connie for running off on Rosasharn. Granted, Rosasharn is a little whiny and needy, but it was so sad that Connie claimed he would go to night classes, and save up money, and put Rosasharn up in a lovely beautiful home, and then he just up and left.

- We made Hoovervilles in social studies class in high school. They don't seem as fun or funny now that I've read this book. Maybe it should be assigned reading to go along with that activity.

- When Tom had to leave the family, I was so sad! And I was really angry at Ruthie (she blabs about Tom having gotten in a fight, and so he has to go. She's just a little girl, but still - how stupid can you be?) He tells Ma that he thinks maybe his soul is just a piece of a bigger one, (like Casy told him) and therefore, he'll be around all the time. Any time children "laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready" or when "folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build" he'll be there. I like this sentiment, but I would have liked it just as much if we could have had any idea what happened to Tom in the end. Alas, we are not to know!

- This book alternates between the narrative of the Joad family's journey and stream of consciousness chapters. I still don't know if I quite understand the purpose or the effect of those passages, but I think I liked them in the end. I guess they're to give us perspective from outside the protagonist family.

- Ma tells the family to "redd up the camp." I always thought "redding up the rooms" was a Pennsylvania Dutch saying. Maybe not!

- Ma is the true heroine of this novel. She holds the family together through thick and thin. She sacrifices her life and her memories without complaint. She lays beside Grandma in the back of the truck after Grandma has already died, and she doesn't tell anyone until they're safely across the border into California. She threatens her husband with a jack-handle when he makes decisions that threaten to break up the family. (Ha! I was just talking to Dennis about the way Steinbeck reuses words in the same sentence, with no fear of the redundancy of repetition. Guess it's catching on!) She is totally selfless, loving, and giving, and everything a good mother should be and is forced to be when her family is at stake. I must say, it was awfully refreshing to see such a strong female character at last.

- The nipple thing at the end of the book is a little bizarre, but I guess it speaks to the idea of common humanity and new beginnings. From tragedy (the loss of Rosasharn's baby) comes a continuation of life (feeding the dying man her milk) and a reference to a return to the start, to the beginning of life. What poetry there is in this.

- This book is about working with what you've got, not complaining about it, and always, always, always, helping others along beside you. It's a moral we can all stand to keep in mind, particularly at the end of this year of hard times. Don't forget - when you're down and out, reach out your hand. Someone is always there beside you.

On to Anna Karenina and Maine. Happy Holidays to all!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I'm frightened. Of us.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Lord of the Flies is a story of adolescence. It tells the story of a group of British boys who are stranded on an island. There are no grownups, so one boy, Ralph, takes charge. He is elected chief of the group, despite the fact that another boy, Jack, wants to be in charge. Jack is the ringleader of a group of boys who are all in a choir together. Ralph is voted the leader, and he declares that two things are essential: smoke (for a signal) and shelter. Jack wants to hunt the pigs on the island, so he takes his crew out to hunt. After a while, a few boys announce that a beast is living on the island. This is debated for some time, and this 'beast' eventually forces the boys off the top of the mountain where they had been keeping up their fire. Eventually, competition rears its ugly head, and Jack forces a schism in the group. Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and a pair of twins (Samneric) are left with the 'littluns' and Jack and his crew turn savage, painting their bodies and hunting wildly. There's a moment of almost reconciliation between the two groups, but a frenzied dance and the bizarre approach of something that is assumed to be the 'beast' leads to a brutal murder. It turns out the unknown creature that frightened the group was Simon, and he was trying to tell them that the beast is simply an old corpse stuck in a parachute and pilot's clothes. After this, the group splits gain. The savages come in the night and steal Piggy's glasses (which are the only way to start a fire). Piggy, the twins, and Ralph go to the home of the savages (Castle Rock) to get Piggy's glasses back, but things don't go as planned. Ralph is attacked by Jack, the twins are captured and tortured into joining Jack's tribe, and Piggy is forced off a cliff to his death. The savages then focus all of their attention on hunting Ralph. They throw boulders at him, chase him, and eventually light the whole island on fire in an attempt to catch (and/or kill) Ralph. Just when we think Ralph is done for, he is saved by a navy officer, who has just arrived in a ship. The officer says he saw their smoke signal, and the boys are rescued.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was excellent, in my opinion. My opinion of the book was only enhanced by the fact that I work with middle school boys, all of whom could easily have slipped into the characters in this book. I especially see the connection between Piggy and Ralph with a pair of boys in my after school program, and it made me want to watch those boys very carefully from now on.

- I think it's interesting that the whole premise of the book is that there are no grownups. What would the story have been like if there had been one grownup? Two? Just a thought.

- Jack has a fascinating character development in the novel. He goes from saying things like, "I ought to be chief. I can sing C-sharp." to leading chants of "kill the pig, cut her throat, spill her blood", to suggesting that they use a "littlun" next time they need to re-enact the play of hunting a pig, to making his followers chant, "the chief has spoken", to ruling the island in a chaotic, despotic rule of violence. It's evident from the beginning of the novel that he seeks control, and that he is fiercely interested in killing animals, so it's not really that big of a jump to the end result, but he is just a teenage choir boy who ends up leading a guerilla gang. I guess that happens fairly often in other countries, actually. And though my students are all really good boys and girls, it's hard to know what would happen if they were stranded for such a long time and leadership and communication broke down.

- When Jack and his boys kill a pig, Golding writes that they landed "heavy and fulfilled upon her". This felt pretty intensely sexual, and was in fact the only reference to any kind of desire other than violent hunting desire, which is interesting considering we are dealing with a pack of adolescent boys.

- The "Lord of the Flies" turns out to be the head of the pig, which Jack and his boys leave on a stick as a gift for "the beast". It's ironic that the beast turns out to be nothing more than a deceased human. I suppose it speaks to the idea that the beast is within us, not some massive creature with claws and wings. The fact that Simon is killed when he runs up to the group in the dark trying to announce the news that there is no beast at all is upsetting and horridly ironic.

- The title of this post is a comment Ralph makes after what happens to Simon. Based on the way the book ends, Ralph should be scared of the boys.

- Piggy (who isn't really done justice in the synopsis, which I apologize for) is a pudgy boy who serves as the brains behind Ralph. He is really very sweet, but gets picked on for the majority of the novel for his size, his glasses, and his ass-mar (think asthma with a British accent). Piggy tries to reason with Jack and his gang when he goes to demand the return of his glasses, saying, "Which is better - to have rules and agree? Or to hunt and kill?" After which, a large rock sends Piggy off a cliff to his gruesome death. So, I guess they answered that question for him.

- Ralph is an extremely intriguing character, in that he's pushed to be chief by Piggy, and several times seems to want rather to follow than to lead, but he ends up being the hero of the book (along with Piggy and Simon, of course). He describes several times a "curtain in his brain" that keeps him from focusing on the idea at hand. I know exactly what he means! Sometimes, (and I find it happens quite often when I'm speaking with a student about having done something wrong) I feel a curtain slide across my brain, and I can't clearly elucidate what's wrong with the behavior I'm seeing. Don't worry! I don't think the students notice, as the curtain moment is never more than a split-second, but it feels just the way Ralph describes it.

- Ralph cries at the end when he's saved, and Golding says, "he wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart". Such a difficult lesson, truly learned "the hard way."

Again, I really loved this book. Dark, intriguing, extremely thought-provoking, and, I think, really insightful study of adolescent (particularly male adolescent) dynamics and behavior.

I will end with a quote from Ralph, Simon, and Jack, during their first hike up the mountain and after their first view of the island:


On to The Peaches of Vengeance. Oh, you know what I mean.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the story of a bunch of animals. (Or is it the story of the RUSSIAN REVOLUTION? WHO KNOWS?) Okay, but seriously, folks. We've got some animals living at a place called Manor Farm, which is owned by Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones is an evil evil man (or so we're told) who doesn't feed the animals enough, works them to the bone, and then murders them. As the book begins, Old Major, a very old prize boar, has a dream where the animals take over and run their own world as comrades. He comes up with a few rules, e.g., in fighting Man, we cannot come to resemble him, no animals shall live in a house, sleep in a bed, wear clothes, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, touch money, or engage in trade. Old Major promptly dies (at the ripe old age of 12) and Snowball and Napoleon, two young pigs, set about making Old Major's dream a reality. The animals revolt against Mr. Jones and successfully run him off the farm. They create their own society, make Old Major's rules into commandments, and set about running the farm by themselves. Mr. Jones eventually returns with a few men, attempting to regain control of Manor Farm (which has now been renamed Animal Farm) but the animals fight back, and only one animal dies in their victory. Snowball and Napoleon are competing for the animals' loyalty, and Snowball hatches a plan to build a windmill and streamline work on the farm. Napoleon systematically attacks Snowball's ideas and eventually has him run off the farm. Snowball does not return to the farm, but is blamed for everything that goes wrong for the rest of the novel. Napoleon tells the animals the windmill was his idea, and the animals build it, but it is ruined once by a huge storm and then again by men who blow it up. Napoleon proceeds to break all the commandments set forth in the beginning of Animal Farm, moving into Manor House with some of the other pigs, supervising instead of working, making and drinking beer, sleeping in the beds, wearing ribbons, and eventually, even walking on two legs and trading with men. In the end, Napoleon makes a deal with the local men, and shows them that on his farm, the animals are actually treated worse than anywhere else, but they're happy because they think their "society of equals" is working perfectly.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

First, I wanted to mention that I think everyone in the Google group ended up receiving a series of emails exchanged between me and Gina. Sorry about that, guys! Next time, I'll make sure I email Gina back directly. :)

I wasn't wild about this book, but I can still dig it. I appreciate its relevance (as a metaphor for many things, not just the Russian Revolution, which I didn't actually experience, nor did most of its readers nowadays) but found it to be somehow less frightening or upsetting than 1984.

Favorite animals:

Mollie - she's a horse, and she likes the humans because they give her sugar and tie ribbons in her pretty pretty mane. She has to be convinced that humans are bad, and is told that "liberty is worth more than ribbons". She eventually disappears, and some of the animals catch her living with humans who feed her sugar and tie ribbons in her mane. Good work, Mollie.

Boxer - Boxer is a horse, and he works tirelessly on both windmills. His mottos are "I will work harder" and "Napoleon is always right", which don't really serve him that well in life. He ends up with a collapsed lung, and instead of retiring and living out his "pension" in the pasture, he gets sent off to a horse slaughterer. Napoleon claims he died in hospital, but I know he's really glue. Sad. Oh, and the title is a line from Boxer. In the first battle, he thinks he's killed a man by accident, and he says "Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?" It's such a tender moment in this otherwise callous tale.

Snowball - He's kind of a badass! And the windmill was probably a good idea in the beginning. He also gets a medal in the first battle against the humans.

The cat - The cat tries to eat rats in the beginning of the book, which prompts Old Major to ask for a vote on whether rats are counted in the "all animals are comrades" rule. The animals agree that "rats are comrades", but it comes out that the cat voted on both sides.

--I think the slippery slope with the pigs started with the fact that they only supervise while the other animals work. Clearly that is a problem. Although, what was that, Mom Mom? Supervision's half the job? Half the job. Cancellation's the name of the game.

--All the commandments are broken in this story, which I suppose smacks of blatant irony. Can you imagine breaking all of the ten commandments? Or any set of religious rules, for that matter? I mean, I'd have to kill, steal, worship idols, lie, mistreat my parents, and it just goes on and on and on! I guess they figure if you break 'em all, you're not really making the cut. It certainly made me think the animals were REALLY stupid when they didn't quite notice that Napoleon was breaking all the rules. I mean, a lot of the animals couldn't read, and the animals that could only read the modified commandments (Squealer, Napoleon's numero uno, added choice phrases to the end of the commandments to make sure that Napoleon was still up to code). But still! I guess I'm supposed to feel angry at the stupidity and the "let's just go along with things" attitude. I think that's the point.

--Rewriting history is brought up again, which reminded me of 1984. Not sure which book was published first, so don't know which one used the idea first. But still a very thought-provoking and distressing thought. What if we are all written out of history someday? How many people already have been?

--It's mentioned several times that some of the animals "would have protested if they could think of the right arguments". This hardly seemed realistic to me. I recognize that awful things have happened before where people get steamrolled into being on board with an idea, but is it really because people can't think of the right arguments, or is it because they're cowards? Or is this more irony? Shouldn't it be easier for me to tell if it is irony? But then I think someone said Orwell wrote this in code. Gosh, maybe I missed the whole point. Ah well. Worse things have happened. I'll read up when I finish this post.

--The moment when the pigs start walking on two legs is both comical and horrifying. I especially liked the sheep being taught to sing "4 legs good, two legs better!" to replace their old song of "4 legs good, two legs bad". It made me wonder if there were songs (or other musical propaganda) used in the Russian Revolution to stifle dissent.

Well, I'm going to end this blog, as it's only made me feel very stupid and very uninformed. But I don't like to read about the books before I blog! It changes my whole opinion of them!

Okay. I've already started The Lord of the Flies. Oddly enough, they're both on the reading list for my students this summer. Funny that they're back to back on the list.

Maybe the 8th graders will understand this book better than I did. ARE YOU SMARTER THAN AN 8TH GRADER? I'm not, apparently.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Daylight began to forsake the red-room.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Jane Eyre, our heroine and the namesake for this novel, is a child when our story begins. Her parents are dead, and she has been taken in by a wealthy aunt, Mrs. Reed, to be brought up with her cousins Georgiana, John, and Eliza. Mrs. Reed is a very unpleasant sort of woman, and she treats Jane very ill. John abuses Jane, both emotionally and physically, and Jane is exceedingly unhappy (and unloved by all but one servant, Bessie) at this house. After 10 years here, Jane is removed to a religious school for orphans called Lowood, run by a man named Mr. Brocklehurst. Jane is tolerably happy there, though the conditions are exceedingly poor. Mr. Brocklehurst tries to ruin Jane's good reputation at the school by informing all her classmates and teachers that she is a bad seed (more specifically, a LIAR) which he was told by Mrs. Reed, but the students and teachers all hate Mr. Brocklehurst, so Jane's reputation remains unsullied. Jane makes friends, and particularly enjoys the company of one teacher, a Miss Temple, and one student, Helen. Helen, however, dies of consumption, and Miss Temple eventually marries and moves away. Jane stays at Lowood until she is 16 as a student, then stays on for 2 years as a teacher. The conditions are vastly improved after Mr. Brocklehurst's treatment of the girls and attention the school is revealed to be less than perfect. Jane is sad with the loss of her teacher, however, and advertises herself as a potential governess. She is accepted by Mr. Edward Rochester, and becomes the governess for his ward, Adele. Adele is not actually his child, but we learn later on that his French mistress became pregnant with Adele soon after she betrayed Mr. Rochester with another man, and she tries to convince Mr. Rochester that Adele is his daughter. He doesn't believe that Adele is his daughter, but takes pity on the child and helps raise her. Jane falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and he falls in love with her. There is an ongoing mystery involving a woman who lives in the attic of the house, Thornfield (she lights Mr. Rochester's bed on fire, cackles in the night, and even comes close to attacking Jane) and Jane believes that this woman is a lunatic servant, Grace Poole. Jane and Mr. Rochester become engaged in a spontaneous moment (after Jane has completely convinced herself that he will marry another woman who has been staying at the house, Blanche Ingram) and they go to the church to get married. A man intervenes, however, (a Mr. Mason) saying that Mr. Rochester is already married, and to his sister, Bertha Mason. It becomes clear that the lunatic in the attic is Mr. Rochester's wife, a woman he married in the West Indies. After the wedding, however, she soon lost control of her sanity, and Mr. Rochester was forced to bring her back to England and hide her away. He was hoping that he could marry Jane and then tell her about his other wife, but alas, the marriage to Jane is now impossible, and Jane departs, horrified and full of despair. Jane wanders about, starved and depraved, not a penny to her name, until she stumbles upon a family (two sisters and a brother) who take her in and revive her. She stays with them for a time, then obtains a position (through the help of the brother, Mr. St. John) as a school mistress in the village school. She is moderately happy, but frequently falls into depressions about Mr. Rochester. Through an odd twist of fate, it turns out Jane's uncle, Mr. John Eyre, has died, leaving her 20,000 pounds. Not only that, but it also turns out that he left his other nieces and nephews penniless, who just happen to be Mr. St. John and his sisters, Diana and Mary. So Jane splits the money with them (her cousins!) and happily settles in the town. Mr. St. John tries to convince her to become his "missionary wife" and go to India with him, but she doesn't love him, and she eventually decides that she might go to India (just as his adopted sister, not as his wife) but she realizes she must go to Thornfield first and find out what has become of Mr. Rochester. It turns out the crazy wife lit Thornfield on fire, and Mr. Rochester, in his attempts to save everyone, became blind and lost the use of one of his arms. Bertha (the crazy wife) jumped off the roof. Mr. Rochester moved to a small country house and shunned the company of all but 2 of his servants. Jane goes immediately to him after finding out about the disaster, and they are happily reconciled. They have children together, and she stays in close contact with her cousins. Mr. Rochester also regains a small bit of sight in one eye, and they all live happily ever after.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Whew! Congrats if you made it through that plot summary! It turned out to be more challenging than summarizing the Brothers Karamazov! Also, my apologies for the lateness of this post. I will be reading Animal Farm this weekend to make up for the lost week (ah, Thanksgiving) and then will move right on to Lord of the Flies.

I have to say I loved this book as much as I hated Brothers Karamazov. Charlotte Brontë has an absolutely exquisite vocabulary, and her asides to the reader are amusing and familiar without being trite and silly. I truly think she had an incredible sense of the English language, and I'm so glad this book is considered a classic.

Just read a bit about Charlotte, and am extremely saddened to find that she died at age 39, and she was pregnant at the time. She also outlived all of her sisters, several of whom died from tuberculosis at the orphan school they attended (the inspiration for Lowood, apparently). So sad.

Unlike my previous posts, I'm inclined to write a free-form blog for this one. I absolutely loved the way Jane and Mr. Rochester's affair is depicted. It's full of this torrid undercurrent of suppressed passion and desire, and Jane repeatedly doubts the possibility of her happiness with him. The book's mystery on the side (Bertha Mason) and the slight soap opera twang (oh my gosh, you mean we're cousins? and I'm rich?) were, I think, more enriching than bizarre, and Bronte somehow makes them work. The book kind of felt like a Frankenstein romance novel (which is only reinforced by the supposed ugliness of Mr. Rochester). Jane's fortitude of mind and spirit is truly inspiring, and her faults and weaknesses feel equally real and poignant.

I wasn't wild about the Mr. St. John wanting Jane to go to India storyline, because I felt that Jane lost some of her strength as a woman and as a particularly aggressive self-advocate. I do know what it feels like to go along with someone without really knowing why, though, and I suppose that even iron Jane has her moments of obedience with disregard for her own feelings.

For some reason, though I read this book fairly recently (within the last few years) I forgot most of it, and my roommates just about gave away large chunks of it. (Ragina: So, where are you? Did the crazy wife attack Jane yet? Me: Um, no. Crazy wife? Do you mean Grace Poole?) Clearly I don't have the best memory for some things.

The title of the post comes from the beginning of the novel, when Jane is locked in the "red-room" because she strikes back at John Reed after he throws a book at her. (Answer me, John Rosse! That's NOT my name!) Jane's terror at being locked in the room where her uncle died forms the delightfully creepy framework for the novel. The title of the post was one of my favorite lines from the book.

Well, so much time, so little to do. (Wait. Strike that. Reverse it.) Kudos if you've picked up on the movie references in this post.

Love to all, happy December (it's snowing here in Philly), and on to the farm of animals.