Saturday, September 14, 2013

33: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra

"Why do they even care? What could they possibly want with a child?" "No one is off limits because there are no limits. The why and the what aren't for us to consider. Those are questions for philosophers and imams and not for people like us, whoever we are."

If you haven't heard of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it's only a matter of time as the book just came out in May. It's being hailed by everyone as brilliant and wonderful and Foer-esque; I am completely in agreement with everything good said about this book. My only complaint is that I read it while camping and without any internet access, which made it a little difficult because if I don't know something, I want to know it. A book about Chechnya when you have never even heard of Chechnya is not a book to be tackled without the google machine.

The book has interconnected stories that span space and time which is always a quick way to my heart. It focuses on an eight-year old, Havaa, who manages to escape the Russian raid that takes her father to a torture camp. The neighbor, Akhmed, takes it upon himself to keep her safe. They journey to a hospital where Akhmed offers his medical skills (he is the worst doctor in Chechnya, but a brilliant portrait artist) in exchange for the Head Surgeon (and only doctor) Sonja to keep her safe. 

The book is a long one, and I also didn't have a pen with me to keep track of people's relationships to one another which I could have used. It's been compared to Everything Is Illuminated and the comparison is apt - we get people's back stories, it's a war torn country, incredibly terrible things happen to very good people, and everyone is just trying to get by. The writing is beautiful, the story is beautiful, and I cried several times while reading it. 

One of my Facebook book groups recently posed the question: how do you feel when an author is telling a story about a group of people that they're not a part of? (It was in reference to Lisa See who has one Chinese great-grandparent and writes novels mostly centering around China). This book is an example of me being so utterly impressed that an author is able to capture something so outside of his own personal experiences. Much of the book is written from the perspective of women - from the child, to the doctor who defies gender roles, to a woman who is forced into sexual slavery. He is not Chechan or Russian, but this area of the world is obviously his passion. Not knowing anything about Chechnya, I can't speak to his ability to capture that. He does a wonderful job capturing the female experience, so I can only hope that he does the same for this small part of the world that has not received a lot of literary treatment. 

32: Eden Close - Anita Shreve

"Jim is dead," said his father. "Eden's been shot, but she's still alive....It looks like...a man broke in while she and Jim were out...a man broke in...He was...assaulting Eden, and the man had a gun - we heard the shots...Eden somehow got in the way..."

Eden: Your father was a brave but foolish man. 

Anita Shreve is one of my guilty pleasures that I indulge in frequently because Las Vegas women love to read her and donate her to Goodwill, so I pick these up sometimes.

This one is a mysteryish returning-to-homeish romanceish type of a book. It opens on a moment back in time when our main character, Andrew, is lying awake in bed as a teenager and hears a scream, a shot, and a wail from the neighbor's house. His good friend from childhood, Eden, has been sexually assaulted, her dad, Jim, attempted to stop the assault and was shot. Eden gets caught in the scuffle and is also shot in the face, blinding her for life. Andrew hasn't seen her since she was taken out of her house in the ambulance. As an adult returning home to take care of his mother's affairs after her death he's curious about Eden, who still lives next door with her mom.

There's not much more to say without giving everything away. Is it worth reading? Meh. If you're into fluffy reading that's really heavy and depressing, sure!

31: To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

"Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

"Scout," said Atticus, "nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don't mean anything - like snot-nose. It's hard to explain - ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody's favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It's slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody." 
"You aren't really a nigger-lover, then, are you?"
"I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody."

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand."

"He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad."

I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird since I was in middle school, and I was either an unevolved middle schooler or middle schoolers as a whole are just too unevolved to appreciate the book. I didn't have any particularly fond memories of the book and thus it was the last that I read on my list of books for my upcoming classes. 

I don't know what else to say besides: every moment of this book was pure magic. Scout made me laugh, the town made me cry, and Atticus Finch made me a better person. This is the kind of book that makes you a better person after you read it.

It has definitely become one of my favorite books of all time which doesn't happen very often these days. I am very much looking forward to teaching it. I'm actually looking forward to reading it again, but I know how teaching a book over and over can ruin the magic a little bit, so I am refraining as I have four freshmen classes to teach it to this year.

If you haven't read it, or haven't read it in a while, you absolutely must. It is that good. I promise. 

30: Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare


"One of the oldest adages about Romeo and Juliet, one which every director and every actor in the part of either lover has to tackle, is that once actors are old enough to understand the play's rhetoric they are usually too old to play the lovers' parts."

"Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight, / For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night"

It has been so long since I last posted that I have forgotten how to even put my text in line with the foto of the book cover. I have read a few books, but between teaching summer school, getting ready for the school year, and trying to enjoy the last bits of summer, I have just not felt like writing. However, last night I met Billy from fiftybooks and remembered that I had this whole plan to read and blog and y'know, it's time to get back to that. 

Romeo and Juliet is another read for the adventure of teaching freshmen. Although I've seen many stage and movie productions and studied it before, I don't think that I've ever done the whole text in its entirety. I'm still in love with the Ardens, so that was my version of choice. The introduction tells you everything you never know you needed to know about the play, from all the source material to all the variations to information about Shakespeare's boy actors ("In 'How old were Shakespeare's boy actors?', David Kathman remarks that '..all between twelve and twenty-two years old, with the normal range being roughfly thirteen to twenty-one'. Kathman notes that Richard Sharpe was between seventeen and twenty-one when he played the Duchess of Malfi and that 'The very youngest boys seem to have played only minor parts, but boys across the entire rest of the age range can be found playing demanding lead female roles" (54). <- I have always been under the apparently mistaken impression that Shakespeare's boy actors were pre-pubescent and very young). 

I don't think that there's anything to say about the plot, but what struck me most is how actually romantic it is and how gorgeous the writing is. Unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet is SUCH a worn out cliche that all of the best parts get lost. I would have loved to be able to see a really great production of it without having any ideas in my head about it - then I would probably feel all moony eyed and sighed and wonderful. As it is, it was a pleasant surprise to find all those bits. I made the unfortunate mistake of taking a few days off very near the end lost all the momentum of the play which made it a very slow and unexciting ending which tells me that I am going to have to push my students to get through it before they lose the momentum too.

Since I am now teaching at an arts school where the kids are much more familiar with plays and Shakespeare than my previous school, I'm very curious to see how it goes. I feel like I'm learning to teach all over again.