books, ReLit

ReLit: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Go West, young man.

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Part of our summer vacation was spent on the banks of the Huzzah (pronounced “HOO-zah”) River in Steelville, Missouri, site of many a Beers family camping expedition back in the day. We waded. We fished. We threw rocks. We caught tadpoles. Erin caught a softshell turtle. If none of this sounds exotic to you, you are not a five-year-old boy.

One hundred fifty miles north of Steelville is Hannibal, Missouri — hometown to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. A much larger river runs past Hannibal: the Mississippi. Twain said of that river that it was like a book with “a new story to tell every day.” His most famous book, set on that very river, is of course Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And as I (Ben) sat on the banks of the Huzzah in June, beholding its presence and witness to its slow, steady glide through time, I remembered a line Huck says about there being “no home like a raft,” because “other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”

No book was harder for me to teach this year than Huck Finn. No book seemed to have changed so much since I last read it twenty years ago. I do not know if I taught it well. If success is measured by how much students “like” a book, then (with one or two exceptions) I did not. But I wondered, as I stumbled through teaching it, how much Huck Finn is a book that — despite its permanent fixture in the American canon (“all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Ernest Hemingway) — really wants to be liked. Like its author, Huck Finn is an ornery, subversive beast, punching up and down. It’s also really funny, although my students seriously questioned the integrity of my sense of humor. Nonetheless, let’s begin.

What You Probably Remember About Huck Finn From High School: A young boy and a black man on a river. And that Tom Sawyer is in it. Tom and Huck’s stories overlap, but it’s important to keep them separate as well. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (written first, nine years earlier) is the one where Tom and Huck discover the treasure in the cave. It’s also the one when Tom whitewashes the fence (or, more accurately, bribes other kids to paint it for him) and appears at his own funeral. He shows up early in Huck Finn to serve as a foil for Huck (Tom is the hopeless romantic; Huck is more pragmatic), then returns late in the novel to hijack the story, both in plot (he gets shot “rescuing” Jim) and theme (though we’d argue that this is intentional on Twain’s part, but no less problematic).

You might remember — especially if you hated English class and thought your teacher was a pedantic bore for insisting there was hidden symbolism (usually involving sex) behind everything — the delightful “Notice” that prefaces the novel, which we will include here in its entirety:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be executed; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

You may have read that and thought, “Mark Twain — my man!”, and assumed because your English teacher went on and on about what a satirical, troublemaking genius Mark Twain was, that said English teacher would, you know, take Twain at his word and not waste everyone’s time dwelling on motives and morals and plots and all that.

What a naive fool you were then.

You might remember, more than the actual plot of Huck Finn, all the controversy. Specifically that the n-word is used two hundred and nineteen times. Censorship has always swirled around Huck Finn; it most recently resurfaced in 2011 when the publisher NewSouth came out with an edition that replaced “nigger” with “slave.” One of the arguments NewSouth made was that this actually helped Huck Finn attain a broader readership, since squeamish school boards could theoretically substitute a version that would be less offensive. (As Toni Morrison said of such efforts, “It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”) Never mind that changing the words also changes the meaning, since meaning derives itself from language; that edition was largely ridiculed, notably by Larry Wilmore, back when he was the “Senior Black Correspondent” on “The Daily Show”:

Mark Twain put that word in for a reason … and [“slave” is] not even accurate. In the book, Jim is no longer a slave. He ran away. Twain’s point is he can’t run away from being a nigger.

Indeed, the word has different meanings — depending on who’s using it, how it’s being used, when it’s being used. Twain knew this; an astute reader knows this. For its boy adventure stylings and comical overtones, Huck Finn is anything but light. It demands an astute reader.

Finally, you might remember your teacher droning on about how Huck Finn is a splendid example of regionalism and dialect, how it captures in its language the time, place, and people of the Antebellum South, and how it turns ordinary speech into an elevated art form. You might also recall writing an essay at one in the morning about the symbolism of the Mississippi River and thinking it was pretty brilliant — how the river was life and change and freedom, man — until your shiftless, forever-making-excuses teacher took three months to grade it, giving it to you the day before school ended, at which point Mark Twain was dead to you and you were big time into the Predator movie franchise and having deep, philosophical arguments with Chuck Brainerd about who would win in an Aliens vs. Predator death match. If so, you were wrong. Aliens would crush Predator any day of the week and thrice on Sunday.
No contest.
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Let’s move on.

What We Got From Huck Finn The Second Time Around: A lot. For one, simple geography. It was lost on me the first time that Huck and Jim were floating down the Mississippi River — i.e., straight into the heart of the deep South. (They are aiming for the Ohio River, but miss the entrance on a foggy night when they get separated.) What they thought was the route to freedom was really a float trip into enemy territory. It was also, ironically, the same route Jim would’ve traveled had he been sold into slavery (in New Orleans).
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I also picked up more of the novel’s abiding skepticism toward formal education. Huck’s caretaker, Widow Douglas, is out to “sivilize” him — clean him up, get him an education, make him a proper boy. Huck wants nothing to do with this:
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The widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.

Huck is perpetually trying to escape: from Widow Douglas, his father, the authorities. Basically, almost every adult in the novel. Huck Finn is a picaresque, a meandering, often implausible story of a roguish hero set against the social order. One of the many disquieting things suggested by the ending, called by some the saddest happiest ending in all of literature (Huck lights out for the territories — i.e., Oklahoma, Indian country — with Tom but without Jim), is that Huck will never escape the corrupt social structures which any group of humans, gathered any place in the world, will inevitably build, riddled as they are with prejudice, violence, selfishness, cruelty, and all sort of conflicted morality. What use, Twain suggests, is being “sivilized” by a culture such as this? And yet, what other alternative is there?
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One of the ways the novel punches up is in its deeply skeptical stance on religion. When Huck meets his new friend Buck Grangerford in chapter 18, Buck takes him to church. Keep in mind that the Shepherdsons, the Grangerford’s bitter rivals, attend the same church:
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Next Sunday we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback. The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching — all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.
A sermon on “brotherly love,” delivered to two families who commend its power and then turn around and kill one another. When Huck finds Buck’s dead body after the feud, he tugs it ashore: “I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.” Such is the fruit of religion for Huck. (Huck also turns his back on religion — indeed, on what he suspects to be his eternal salvation — in the book’s climactic moment when he rips up the note to Miss Watson that would reveal Jim’s whereabouts and reenslave him; “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he says.)
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In college, my professor spent a lot of time stressing how the book laid bare our own racial prejudices. I, and many of my classmates, being enlightened and open-minded twenty-somethings, took umbrage to this. We’re not racists! we all argued. If anyone is, it’s this Twain guy! Isn’t Jim a minstrel stereotype himself? Too bad Twain wasn’t alive now in such a racially enlightened era. We’d teach him a thing or two about race!
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It’s all too easy to pat oneself on the back when reading literature from an earlier, less progressive era. And high school students love to do it. But a good English teacher should force them to deal with the text on its own terms — to read it with 21st century eyes but also ones aware of (and sympathetic to) the time and place from which it originated.
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Re-reading and teaching Huck Finn, I learned that you can fail a text (and your students) when you don’t give it room to breathe. I thought we needed to address the race question, because isn’t that what everyone does with Huck Finn? As a novice teacher, I was afraid of not meeting this issue head on, resulting in what I’m now sure were heavy-handed attempts to inject race into the conversation, such that it quickly became a conversation no one besides myself wanted to have. (This meme probably best captures what my students felt like during this stretch.)
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But during the seminar discussion day, when I was silent and the students talked, it was not race they wanted to discuss; it was Huck. Specifically, that he was just a kid, and that there was something in this novel that touched on childhood in a profound, unsettling way. Andrew Levy articulates this in Huck Finn’s America when he writes,
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There is a shimmer to Twain’s portrait of white childhood in the antebellum era. But there are also murders, suicidal ideation, child abuse, and a profound satire on standardized education, and the ambivalent ways American parents both protect their children from, and provide them uncritical access to, popular culture. Huck Finn is a book about the disconnection between our children’s inner lives and our ways of raising and teaching them — a disconnection so intimidating that, naturally, we placed this tribute to children’s alienation at the center of public school curricula.

Levy argues that race is not, in fact, the central theme of the novel (though he argues it’s still quite integral), but rather that childhood is. Like many modern readers, I read Huck Finn a long time ago and then my memory began to soften all its hard edges. I remembered it as a comical escapade of an unlikely friendship, an ode to a simple, adventurous, but ultimately “happy” childhood. (I suspect I’m not the only one who conflates Huck’s story with Tom’s, as if all childhood stories are alike.)
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I forgot, until rereading Huck Finn, just how unsafe and despairing (in chapter one Huck says bluntly, “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead”) it is. Huck’s racist father Pap, one of literature’s most vile characters, beats him. Huck fakes his own death (by killing a pig and smearing its blood everywhere) to escape. Thirteen people die. One of them, Pap, floats by Huck on the river, though Huck doesn’t know it because Jim, in a gesture of mercy, spares him the truth until the very end. Not exactly Norman Rockwell stuff.
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Why We Think You Should Give Huck Finn A Reread: At its simplest, Huck Finn is the story of a boy who comes to see the worth in a man that the rest of society tells him is worthless. That’s a story that still resonates today.

“The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” Morrison said. This is another way of saying that returning to Huck Finn will both reassure and unsettle, both challenge and reward you. It will also make you laugh. (The Shakespearean word salad in chapter 21 is a highlight, especially if you’re an English teacher.)

Levy argues that “Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness” — and added, in an interview, that “we, as Americans, are too easily convinced that we are moving forward when sometimes we are moving in circles.” Rereading Huck Finn forced me to consider how far we’ve come since 1885 but also, sadly, how much we’re still stuck in the same place.

Finally, if for nothing else, rereading Huck Finn will remind you just how much since owes some debt to it. And it made me appreciate, again, one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:

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For Toni Morrison’s full introduction to “this amazing, troubling book,” see here.

books, ReLit

ReLit: Lord of the Flies

This will not end well.

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We had some friends over for dinner the other night, and at one point the four adults were upstairs in the kitchen and the four kids, ages two through four, were downstairs in the basement. There was screaming, pounding, and possibly the sound of a power saw being turned on. The adults looked at one another, swirling our glasses of wine and posing in the manner of debonair sophisticates, and said, “Sounds like Lord of the Flies down there,” before returning to a spirited conversation about Freud’s theory of the uncanny. (This last part is not true: Someone did say, “Sounds like Lord of the Flies down there,” then we hurried downstairs, praying we would not see a child tied to a spit and rotating above a makeshift fire with Legos as kindling.)

Such is the hold of William Golding’s 1954 novel upon our collective imagination. (Full disclaimer: Three of the four adults were/are English teachers, but we contend that a remark such as the one above could’ve just as easily been made in an entirely English teacher-free group of adults.) What’s startling about Lord of the Flies when you read it as a parent is that you begin to wonder how your children would fare on that island. Would our boys be a Ralph (oh please oh please)? A Simon? (Gulp.) Anything but a Jack. Or Roger, that cruel blunt instrument of a human being. (Roger, not Jack, is the one who pushes the boulder over the hill that kills Piggy and — symbolism alert! — shatters the conch.) Or that poor nameless littlun with the mulberry scar who we meet early in the novel but who mysteriously wanders off and never appears again.

So why reread a book about kids killing kids … especially if you have kids now yourself? Let’s consider this closely.

What You Probably Remember About Lord of the Flies From High School: When we read Golding’s novel in the early 90s, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games were not on the scene yet, and there was still something a bit shocking about children dying at one another’s hands. (Though we’re fans of The Hunger Games — or at least were up until the dismal conclusion — there’s something far more sinister about kids killing one another in the complete absence of adult supervision. Katniss and her ilk killed because they were driven to it by adults; the boys on the island kill for no reason other than power and cruelty, the breakdown of civilization.)

If you remember any of the kids in particular, our guess is that you remember not the leader of the island — “the boy with fair hair” (Ralph), as the first words of the novel tell us — but rather the boy pictured above: Piggy. (The still is taken from Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation, a subtle and disturbing little film.) You might remember that Piggy isn’t even his real name — we never find that out. (He is “the fat boy” in the novel’s first pages.) Piggy was what the boys at school used to call him, in his life before the crash; when Ralph accidentally repeats it at an assembly, the nickname sticks.

The truth is, when you think back on high school, we remember the Piggys of the world long after the Ralphs have faded from our memories. There’s something sad, pitiful, but also noble about young Piggy, who is twelve-going-on-forty. He is whiny, yes — but also logical, intelligent, honest and — we know this from the minute we meet him — doomed. A fat kid with glasses and an asthma problem? (“Sucks to your ass-mar!” the other boys taunt him about his condition; the way they speak to one another rings true of pre-adolescent boys, and no doubt Golding’s experience as a teacher helped fine tune his ear.) Nuh-uh, not going to make it.

You may also recall that the boys learn to hunt, and kill a pig (more on this in a second); that there’s one other boy they kill along the way, the Christ-like Simon; that a dead parachutist lands on the island, and the boys mistake him for a “beast”; and that the boys are rescued by a naval officer, who sees them dressed like savages, done up in war paint, running around with a stick sharpened on both ends, and assumes they’ve been engaged in harmless child’s play … despite the fact the island is going up in flames. “Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island,” he says, at which point Ralph breaks down in front of him and the officer realizes something unimaginable has taken place. The novel ends with him looking away, a bit embarrassed, “to give [the boys] time to pull themselves together.”

You might also remember your teacher droning on about how Ralph and Jack embody competing ideas of civilization — democracy vs. totalitarianism, or order vs. chaos, or good vs. evil — and maybe you recall writing an essay at one in the morning about the symbolism of the conch and thinking it was pretty brilliant, until your vindictive, spiteful teacher gave it back to you with her petty red pen marks like death scribbles on your very soul. If so, our deepest sympathies. We are that soulless teacher now, and we say to you: nothing gives us greater pleasure than marking the world in red pen. Nothing.

What We Got From Lord of the Flies The Second Time Around: This is not the same book when you read it in parenthood. The boys are no longer just characters on the page; they have faces and names and personalities, and you cannot help but see your own kids in them, or imagine your child hovering on the fringes of the island assemblies where the firelight is just faint enough to capture his face. Chances are you also have a greater understanding now than you did as a teenager of your own capacity for cruelty, and of human capacity for evil. It’s on the local news every night at eleven.

We also got a fuller understanding of the darkness of Golding’s vision. When that naval officer alludes to “Coral Island,” he’s referencing an 1858 book by R.M. Ballantyne, a Robinson Crusoe-esque adventure about three boys — whose names, Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin, will strike a bell — on a Pacific island. Golding read The Coral Island as a child — indeed, many Brits did, as it was a juvenile classic and appeared on required reading lists. Whereas Ballantyne’s vision was benign, though, Golding’s turns the other way. Golding is not interested in evil from without; in the wake of World War II (Golding fought in the Royal Navy), he explores the evil within. Two examples will suffice:

  1. When Jack and the boys kill the pig, they don’t simply cut its throat or spear it in the belly. They sodomize it (“Right up her ass!”), a point your English teacher was probably happy not to emphasize in class discussions. The violence on the island is more than just physical; it is sexual, mental, spiritual; it is, in other words, total. We’ll refrain from quoting the specific scene here, but read it again and it’s obvious what Golding is doing: he’s writing a rape scene. The boys aren’t just killing this pig for its meat; they’re killing it because of bloodlust, because they want to assert their power.
  2. The pig was a sow. She was a nursing female. So the boys, orphans on this island, have now orphaned native creatures on the island. Lord of the Flies suggests that it’s not just that evil happens to us (a war is taking place in the world beyond the island, and that’s surely why the boy’s plane crashed); it is also that evil happens because of us.

The other white meat.

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Then there’s Simon, our Christ-like figure. Any time you’ve got a character wandering off into an Edenic jungle spot to be alone, spouting off about the true nature of the beast (“maybe it’s only us”), and then — this is the key part — getting himself killed as a sacrifice, your Christ Parallel Radar should be going nuts. That’s not too hard to figure out. But what’s most intriguing are the ways Simon is not like Christ. His discovery that “the beast” is actually a dead parachutist — a discovery which has the potential to enlighten the boys and dispel their irrational fears — is his alone; he is killed before he can relay this to the others. Furthermore, his death brings about no atonement or sacrifice. Lord of the Flies offers no easy redemption; Simon is not the way, the truth and the life … he is simply a dead boy, washed out to sea.

Why We Think You Should Give Lord of the Flies A Reread: Because it’s better than its dystopian imitators (we’re thinking The Hunger Games, specifically, but that has its own inferior imitators). Because Stephen King called it “the first book with hands – strong ones that reached out of the pages and seized me by the throat. It said to me, ‘This is not just entertainment; it’s life-or-death.’” Because you miss “Lost” but don’t want to go back and watch all 121 episodes again. Because Lord of the Flies is actually a brisk, straightforward read — written sharply, filled with imagery and symbolism that’s not too complicated nor too simplistic. And so that you can continue making witty references to other parents during playdates, but realize, thankfully, that your basement is actually quite unlike Lord of the Flies.

books, ReLit

ReLit: Jane Eyre

Nine out of ten teenage girls find this meme witty and amusing.

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As English teachers, we do something really evil about every month or so during the school year: We assign a book for our students to read. The moment we hand it out, we have effectively destroyed their desire to have anything whatsoever to do with the book. This is especially so when, as with today’s novel, it might have a cover like this:

It is as if the folks at Tor (a fantasy/sci-fi imprint, which should not be allowed within light years of Charlotte Bronte) told their art department, “Get us a cover which will be so unappealing and aesthetically repulsive that students’ eyes will bleed the moment they gaze upon it.” So not only are we requiring students to read these books; and not only are we handing them Jane Eyre during March of their senior year (since Ms. Bronte fits firmly in the Brit Lit canon); we’re also asking them to read a five hundred page novel with THIS as the cover. We are evil. We know this. We collect the tears of our disconsolate students in tiny vials from which we vampirically sip, like champagne, each night, in order to give us the vitality to go forth and engage in black market organ trafficking or assign five page essays and such.

Nonetheless, our job today is to convince you that Jane Eyre is something you might actually enjoy reading now that high school has long faded in your rearview mirror. Let’s begin with the first feature of our “ReLit” review.

What You Probably Remember About Jane Eyre From High School: Besides a terrible cover, that is. The first thing you probably recall about Jane Eyre is that it’s long. And not just Grapes of Wrath-long. Like looooooooooooong. Anthony Davis-wingspan long. You’ll probably recall that Jane is an orphan; that she begins the novel as an outcast in the home of her dreadful aunt, Mrs. Reed, whose dreadful son, John, a real bugger, likes to torment young Jane. (His comeuppance will be suicide later.) Oh, also that they lock her in the Red-Room … which also happens to be where Jane’s uncle died. So the Reeds are those kind of foster parents.

Note: If you read Jane Eyre before, say, 1998, you probably weren’t struck by the similarities with a certain British orphaned child who was mistreated by his cruel foster parents and, before being shipped away to a boarding school for special cases like his own, was also locked in a small room (this one under the stairs).

You might recall that Jane herself is plain; in her own words, she is “poor, obscure, plain and little.” This seems to have given movie studios difficulty whenever they adapt Jane Eyre to the big screen. Mia Wasikowska, an unconventionally attractive (and thus plausibly “plain”) actress, was aptly cast in the 2011 version. Ruth Wilson (of “Luther” and “The Affair”) played Jane in the 2006 mini-series; she better captured the fierceness of Jane’s interior life, something that leaps off every page of the novel.

You might also recall, besides a love story which both does and does not follow the expected relationship trajectory (does: man and woman meet, they fall in love, something tragic happens, it all goes to pot, she runs away, she comes back, marriage!; does not: she’s eighteen, he could be her dad; oh, yes, he’s already married and locked his wife in the attic, and the first Mrs. Rochester tries to set him on fire), the singular character of Bertha Mason. Bertha is Edward Rochester’s wife, and for our money, she’s the most fascinating character (and suggestive symbol) in the book. More on her in a second.

That pretty much covers it. Maybe you remember writing an essay at one in the morning about bird imagery in Jane Eyre and thinking it was pretty brilliant before reading it the next day and wondering, “Did an alpaca of questionable intelligence hijack my computer last night and type this for me?” If so, good for you. But we’re moving on.

What We Got From Jane Eyre The Second Time Around: Let’s be honest: Jane Eyre is not a teenage boy’s book. Just being seen with the edition pictured above is probably social suicide, especially amongst your friends who are not in honors English. Ben didn’t read Jane Eyre until just a few years ago, but had he read it in high school, he probably wouldn’t have cared for it much then. Teaching it this past year, he had to figure out, among other things, how to get guys to even consider cracking this book open. So, in considering the “essential questions” that Jane Eyre poses, he tried this one out: “How do we overcome The Man?”

First, a brief dissertation on The Man, courtesy of School of Rock:

The Man, according to Urban Dictionary, is “the head of ‘the establishment’ put in place to ‘bring us down.'” An alternative definition is apropos of Richard Linklater and Jack Black’s cinematic masterpiece, if not Ms. Bronte’s:

He is everywhere, but you can stick it to him by playing a lil somethin called rock n roll.

“The Man” is something teenagers can relate to — if not the corporate embodiment which adult readers will be well-acquainted with, then at least those figures of authority — parents, teachers, coaches, bosses — whose sole job is to crush the hopes and aspirations of young dreamers such as themselves.

Jane’s story is, in many ways, about how one of the most improbable and winning underdogs in literature overcomes “the Man,” something she does at the four major locales of the novel: Gateshead (Mrs. Reed), Lowood (Brocklehurst), Thornfield (Rochester), and Marsh End (St. John). In three of those four cases “The Man” is a man; Jane Eyre is read by many as a feminist bildungsroman (that fancy German term for a coming of age story), and it’s not difficult to see how a plain, provincial governess of the lower classes would be subject to the demands and prejudices of older, wealthier men — one, in particular, who is both the most oppressive and yet the most, er, romantic (if dressing up like a gypsy turns you on).

But it is Mrs. Reed, a woman, who provides Jane with her first and perhaps harshest lesson that the world is not kind, and Jane’s imprisonment in the Red-Room is a clue for the rest of the novel: Jane may be imprisoned by class, gender, family, marital expectations and religion, but she continually finds a way to escape — partly through sheer will, partly through her ability to read and understand the world around her — and play a lil somethin called rock n roll. Jane is not a lone wolf, though; her education is also in learning who she can trust, be it Bessie, Miss Temple, or Rochester (or not Rochester).

Bertha Mason is the most troubling character in the novel. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar borrow her for the title of their volume of feminist criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic. It is hard, on a first read, to feel much sympathy for this violently deranged woman who ultimately burns Thornfield to the ground. But Jean Rhys read her quite sympathetically in her Jane Eyre-prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the romance of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason (an arranged marriage doomed from the start) from Bertha’s perspective. That novel — set in Jamaica, not Britain — implicates Rochester in making Bertha the “madwoman” she is. (Rhys’ novel also suggests that Bertha’s displacement from her home and family factor largely into her madness. Oh, yeah, also the fact Rochester sleeps around.)

Gilbert and Gubar read Bertha as “Jane’s truest and darkest double.” Bertha, they argue, is a projection of Jane’s “ferocious secret self” which bursts forth early in the novel against Mrs. Reed. (Jane leaves third degree burns on her aunt with the line, “I am not deceitful; if I were, I should say I loved you.”) Bertha could also a symbol of Jane’s subconscious fears of being imprisoned in a Victorian marriage: Jane herself will become the madwoman in the attic. And there is ample evidence that, while Jane clearly loves Rochester, she will be his pet, not his equal, should they marry. This reading humanizes Bertha and explains, if not justifies, her actions: the night before Jane is to marry Rochester, Bertha appears in her room and (we’ll capitalize this to emphasize its symbolic significance) Tears Her Wedding Veil In Two.

Reading Jane Eyre the second time around is still long. But it’s also funny. For example, Rochester befuddles Jane with the remark that he is “paving hell with energy.” Jane asks what he means, to which he replies, “I am laying down good intentions.” He also likes to say things like, “What the deuce is to do now?”, which is especially funny in a high school classroom because teenage boys hear “deuce” and think “poop.” So that’s a good time.

Why We Think You Should Give Jane Eyre A Reread: Let’s start with Rochester. He’s not a bad poster child for the Byronic Hero — we’ll spare you a definition (“anti-hero” isn’t a perfect one, but it’s close) and simply give you modern examples: Batman, Sherlock, Dr. Gregory House, Severus Snape, Han Solo and Captain Jack Sparrow. Also some not-very-modern examples: Mr. Darcy (if Byronic heroes in Victorian literature were the 1990s Chicago Bulls, Darcy is your Jordan and Rochester your Pippen), Captain Ahab, and the Phantom from Phantom of the Opera. Who doesn’t like these guys? That’s how we feel about Rochester too … right up to the point where he starts to get weird on Jane and squelch her individuality as he rushes her to the altar.

One of our students went into detailed analysis of how Fifty Shades of Grey is basically an updated and sexually deviant Jane Eyre. We’ll take a brief pause to enjoy this bit of comedic gold:

One marvels at the fact that a human being, rather than a rhesus monkey, composed the sentence, “And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain — probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells — comes the thought: He’s here to see you.” Charlotte Bronte would have murdered E.L. James with a shiv had their paths ever crossed. (One of our finest contemporary authors, Kazuo Ishiguro, would have met with her approval, we think; he certainly appreciates her, saying, “I owe my career, and a lot else besides, to Jane Eyre and Villette.)

Back to Jane Eyre, with one brief aside: If you, like us, don’t believe that there are any new stories left to tell (or, by extension, that every story is simply part of one great story that we’ve telling for many, many centuries now), then much of popular romantic literature today is tired, flat hackery. We could blame Jane Eyre (and Pride & Prejudice, and Romeo & Juliet, etc., etc.) for this, or we could simply go back and reread Jane Eyre. She’s a surprisingly modern woman, and her way of speaking directly to us — as with the first line of the final chapter, “Reader, I married him” — feels intimate and confessional, right at home in a social media age. Whether, ultimately, you like Jane Eyre, it’s impossible not to find yourself liking Jane Eyre.

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Our “ReLits” are only a reintroduction; there is a great deal more waiting inside this novel than we have laid out here. For more teasers, the Crash Course video on Jane Eyre is witty and wide-ranging ; Thug Notes gives you a gangster-spin on Ms. Bronte; and, on a completely uneducational note, “Saturday Night Live” did a Jane Eyre parody with Rachel Dratch and Jude Law.

books, ReLit

Introducing ReLit

One of the perks of being an English teacher is that you get to reread books. Those of you who are not English teachers and/or avid readers look at that sentence and diagnose us with, at best, lunacy, and at worst, deeply masochistic tendencies.

Hear us out. How many times have you watched your favorite movie? Surely several, if not dozens. Why? You might say it’s for the inherent pleasure that the film provides. Maybe it was to tease out a secret plot you completely missed the first time around (think The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects; for us the most recent film to do this was Moon). Maybe it’s simply to live in that world for two more hours, be it an imaginary one in a galaxy far, far away, or one closer to home if a bit unusual (we will gladly spend two hours in Wes Anderson’s world; every time we rewatch The Royal Tenenbaums, a different character resonates with us as the spiritual center of the movie). Or maybe it’s because, in a way, that film tells you something new about yourself every time you watch it. It serves as a kind of cinematic height chart, if you will — or maybe the better analogy is to a Rorschach test.

This is what rereading books is like to an English teacher. Not all of what we reread is pleasurable. The Scarlet Letter is pretty much as dreadful as you remember it; besides, your students will just want to watch Easy A instead. But Nathaniel Hawthorne is an outlier. What we’ve been struck by, as we return to the classics we last touched twenty odd years ago, is how much we missed when we read, say, Lord of the Flies as a teenager. (The boys killed the mother pig how?) The Great Gatsby is probably the best (and most chronicled) example: Who among us, as a sixteen-year-old, could see past the glitz and pageantry of Gatsby’s parties, or perceive that there was more going on that just a doomed love triangle? To be fair, you may recall discussions about that beckoning green light and the American Dream; about the different social classes embedded in the novel’s geography, from East and West Egg to the forsaken Valley of Ashes; maybe about all that symbolism, whether the mysterious eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg or the vivid color imagery of white dresses, yellow cocktail music and vast blue lawns. Even if you grasp all of those things on an intellectual level, though, there’s only so much a teenager can grasp about regret, or the loss of innocence, or the end of the American Dream, or the meaning behind a passage like the one on the last page when Fitzgerald describes New York — “a fresh, green breast of the new world” — as it first appeared to a Dutch sailor’s eyes, putting him “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Reread Gatsby now, and you’ll likely find a whole new story waiting for you — and not because Fitzgerald’s text has changed, but because you have.

What we’ll do, throughout the summer, is pick one classic a week and reintroduce you to it. We’re calling this little endeavor “ReLit.” You’ve read the books once (or, perhaps, “read” them once … you know what we’re talking about), but now is when you’re actually ready to read and appreciate them. The other thing we’ve learned, as we’ve reread and attempted to do these books justice in our own classrooms, is how different reading a book and teaching a book can be. So Gatsby is about the American Dream. So what? What does the American Dream mean to a teenager in 2015? What is the 21st century equivalent to the scaffold where Hester Prynne is judged and scorned by her Puritan neighbors? (According to our students, the answer is “the Internet.”) What do we make of Mark Twain dropping the n word 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when that word has evolved and taken on so many different connotations since 1885? Or publishers replacing that word with “slave,” on the grounds that it’s not censorship but rather a way to make Twain more accessible and less controversial in an era of classroom trigger warnings? By no means do we have all the answers. But maybe, like us, you’ll find unexpected pleasure in wrestling with some of the questions.

Tomorrow: Jane Eyre!

books, faith

The Dark Path, David Schickler

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Sitting at Easter Mass at the age of ten, David Schickler recalls listening to his “sweet wife cry while I watch the priest.” His wife’s name is Caitlin Brenner, though Schickler notes that she “hasn’t agreed to marry me yet.” “We rarely talk,” he writes, “but soon she’ll realize that we have each four syllables total in our names and both our last names end with -er. David Schickler. Caitlin Brenner. This means that we shall wed and have four children.”

Caitlin is crying because her cockier spaniel, Gus, died the week before. Schickler is caught between watching her (silently “bombarding her with woo”) and paying attention to the service. Leading Mass is Father Jonas — “young, with jet-black hair and a tan.” Schickler is enraptured with Father Jonas, who is “powerful because he’s a priest, but he’s also just cool.” As Father Jonas raises the wafer for the Eucharist, and Caitlin continues sniffling, young David’s ten-year-old mind tries to hold the two seemingly irreconcilable things in balance. He feels a pull toward the priesthood; he also loves women. “I’m caught between them,” he says simply.

Of all the books we’ve read and not blogged about over the past three years, Schickler’s The Dark Path is our favorite. (Fourth of July Creek is right up there though.) We were already predisposed to like it based on a short story of Schickler’s called “The Smoker.” It appeared in the June 19, 2000 edition of The New Yorker; it chronicled the surprising romantic relationship between a high school English teacher and his star pupil. Yes, this sounds tawdry and scandalous. (And, as two high school English teachers, we can never recommend it to our students. Ever.) The story is anything but. It is surprising, moving, and hilarious. (Read it. Right now. We’ll wait.)

Within a week of the story’s publication, Schickler had a six-figure, two-book contract. The story later appeared in a collection entitled Kissing in Manhattan, an uneven but promising group of tales about characters who lived in or passed through a storied apartment building in Manhattan called The Preemption. Schickler then published a novel, Sweet & Vicious, which featured one of the funniest first page-and-a-halves we’ve ever read before taking familiar thematic elements (crime and a cross-country chase; star-crossed lovers) and putting an offbeat spin on them (Grace McClone, the heroine, is “trying for heaven”; she’s an authentic Christian character who appears to have wandered into the wrong book, until you realize it’s a Schickler novel and just go with it).

The Dark Path is a memoir, and it takes the themes swirling around in Kissing in Manhattan and Sweet & Vicious (love, faith, family, sexual desire, hints of violence) and casts them in a personal light. The Schicklers are a devout Christian family (David has three sisters, and there are hints in his childhood — as when his father catches him dancing in the basement to “Summer Nights” from the Grease soundtrack — that his parents are deeply concerned he might be gay), and although Schickler becomes an altar boy, he feels closest to God on “the dark path” — a spot in the woods, full of shadows, close to his house. “My problem is, I like abiding in darkness,” Schickler writes:

I like the dark path, the low, forever shadows among the trees. For me, God is in that darkness. He’s not a devil, or a tree, or a wood sprite. He’s the Lord, He just happens to be in darkness.

Why do we like Schickler (and in particular, The Dark Path) so much? Because we feel like we’ve been on the dark path with him. Our road to faith is not, like the vocabulary of Father Anselm in The Dark Path (who uses words like “nifty” and “dilly”) “scrubbed too clean.” Schickler deploys profanity well; his memoir crackles with curse words, which counterbalance the spiritual themes and make them more approachable, less preachy. Schickler says, “As a writer, I’ll never be a Sunday-morning kind of guy. For whatever reasons, I am good at writing only about Saturday night things, about guns and screwing and liquor and murder and laughter and desperate kissing.” We like Saturday night stories that still locate Sunday morning themes. So Schickler is our guy on that front.

Likewise, Schickler’s ability to write humorously and honestly about matters of faith is what makes The Dark Path so winning. When a choir member wears “an alarmingly yellow dress,” Schickler writes that “she is so yellow, I can’t pray.” The usher, Mr. Bonticello, wears a robin’s-egg-blue suit which disturbs Schickler “because the color is too weak and too lame to have anything to do with God.” When Schickler wins a Religion Award in eighth grade, one of his friends signs his yearbook, Nice Going, Jesus Tard!

On his journey to live a godly life as well as love women, Schickler inevitably stumbles and sins and has his heart broken. (He also does some breaking of his own.) His is the story of a sinner who is unafraid to lay it all out on the table, even to laugh at some of the most excruciating moments. There’s a dance contest toward the end of the memoir which could be straight out of Silver Linings Playbook, and like that film, it manages uplift and sentimentality without being cheesy or cloying. Also like the film, The Dark Path nails a happy ending that feels hard-won — unexpected, but deserved.

books

2011: The Year In Books

I will have written another book by the time you finish this sentence.

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At Ben’s place of employment (a bookstore), we have a running joke that if you missed the latest James Patterson novel, just wait three weeks for the next one. (We also have a running joke that James Patterson and James Caan are in fact the same person. Have you ever seen them together? No? Us either.)

So it seems only fitting that Mr. Patterson, who officially “wrote” eleven books in 2011, introduce our “Year in Books” post with his trademark door-kicking bravado. Brace yourself!

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“Killer” entertainment, get it?

As is usually the case, the majority of our favorite books this year were fiction. One technically came out in 2010: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. The main character of Rachman’s book is an English language newspaper in Rome, with each chapter focussing on a different staff member at the paper. Rachman’s comic, bittersweet tone hints at a prevailing sense of decline; these characters are an endangered species in an era of shrinking profits and online journalism. Rachman instills them with honor even though they are on the verge of becoming extinct. “This room once contained all the world,” Rachman writes of a deserted newsroom. The Imperfectionists does likewise.

Before plunging ahead with the rest of the fiction, we’ll highlight the two non-fiction picks on our best-of-the-year list. And for the record, in case it needs to be stated, we have really in fact read all of these books. We promise.

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LITTLE PRINCES, Conor Grennan. We were surprised how much we liked Grennan’s account of volunteering at a Nepalese orphanage called the Little Princes Children’s Home. Surprised because it was billed as “inspirational,” a word we typically associate with the latest Mitch Albom book and therefore avoid like the plague. But Grennan’s story is genuinely uplifting without being melodramatic or schmaltzy. A three month volunteer stint turns into a full time calling after Grennan realizes that these orphans are anything but and travels into the remote mountain villages of the Himalayas to reunite them with their families. What’s most appealing about Grennan is that while his story is extraordinary he is unremarkable. Little Princes reminds us that virtue possesses no special skill, except sometimes stubbornness.

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THE DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC, Candace Millard. James Garfield probably got scant mention in your high school history class, and the worst thing that can be said about Millard’s The Destiny of the Republic is that it perhaps makes Garfield out to be a slightly more consequential figure than his tragically brief presidency allowed. The best thing that can be said about the book is that it is highly readable, even gripping popular history — the kind of story you read and think, “How did I never know about this moment in American history?” If you read and liked Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, this is better. Larson’s book is fine enough, but whereas Devil was a smattering of historical details that all occurred in the same time and place, Destiny is a masterful narrative where every seemingly disparate thread fits together by the end.

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And now on to the fiction. We’ll start with our favorite young adult book of 2011:

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, Ransom Riggs. Ben may be slightly biased as he attended school with Ransom, but even if we didn’t know Mr. Riggs, Miss Peregrine (soon to be a movie) is the kind of offbeat read that imprints you with its strangeness and peculiar charm. If the creepy picture of the levitating girl on the cover didn’t tip you off, it won’t take long before you realize you’ve entered a world that makes the “Twilight Zone” look mundane. That Riggs can bridge the fantastic with the commonplace and do so in a way that feels completely fresh in the burgeoning field of “Strange YA Novels” bodes well for whatever he does next. (He’s already promised a sequel.)

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THE ILLUMINATION, Kevin Brockmeier. The Illumination starts with a simple premise — what if our pain expressed itself in light? — and spins it into a fantastical but grounded meditation on love and suffering. This conceit could easily devolve into a gimmick in the hands of a lesser writer, or played for easy sentimentality or blunt allegory. Brockmeier is craftier. It helps that he really knows how to write a sentence. The lives of his characters may ripple with pain, but in wrestling with that pain they escape superficiality. Brockmeier, to his great credit, does the same.

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FAITH, Jennifer Haigh. This is a tough one to recommend because of its subject matter — a priest accused of sexually abusing a child. Ben tried numerous times to put it in the hands of customers, but the second he revealed what it was about they thrust it back at him, as if the book itself was stained. So, please, just hear us out: Faith is a beautiful book that handles a delicate subject with grace. Haigh is less concerned with religious belief than the kind of feeling that holds a family together — or tears it apart. In less capable hands the subject matter would be the stuff of tabloid drama. Not with Haigh. She proves you can write a beautiful, redemptive story about an ugly subject.

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STATE OF WONDER, Ann Patchett. State of Wonder is Patchett’s play on Heart of Darkness, with a feminine twist: Her Kurtz is Dr. Anneck Swenson, a tough, compelling, single-minded force of nature  laboring deep in the Amazon jungle on a miracle drug that would extend a woman’s fertility into old age. Dr. Marina Singh is her ex-student who goes to the jungle in search of the remains and affects of a deceased colleague who worked with Swenson. Patchett is a skilled writer, and she does a masterful job painting the Amazon as “the beating heart of nowhere.” There are many surprises in store in State of Wonder, and she dispenses them patiently, all in good time.

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THE ART OF FIELDING, Chad Harbach. The jacket designer for The Art of Fielding was careful to convey baseball without saying baseball, for fear of scaring away potential readers who loathe the sport (a k a, women). However you feel about the sport should not keep you from The Art of Fielding, a college baseball book which may outwardly resemble a Jonathan Franzen novel but is superior in several ways, not least of which is the warmth and humor Harbach demonstrates towards his characters. They all go through miserable stretches, but Harbach’s touch is light and his writing both precise and expansive. He makes it a pleasure to read about people going through unpleasurable circumstances.

(Incidentally, James Patterson himself blurbed this book, saying, “Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is one of those rare novels — like Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh or John Irving’s The World According to Garp — that seems to appear out of nowhere and then dazzles and bewitches and inspires until you nearly lose your breath from the enjoyment and satisfaction, as well as the unexpected news-blast that the novel is very much alive and well.” We can’t say we lost our breath, but maybe Patterson said this right after he kicked that door down.)

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And finally, our favorite book of 2011:

THE TIGER’S WIFE, Tea Obreht. Set in the war-torn Balkans, The Tiger’s Wife moves between multiple storylines and characters, central among them the narrator Natalia and her deceased grandfather, both physicians; a “deathless man” who haunts the narrative with his cheerful inability to pass on; and a tiger and the deaf-mute woman who shares an uncommon bond with it. The novel evokes the rhythms and language of an elaborate folk tale. Everything in the book — not just the people but the animals and the ravaged landscape itself — has a story to tell, and Obreht’s balance between myth and fact, superstition and reason, is consummate, belying her youth. (She is all of twenty-six years old.) The Tiger’s Wife is, above all else, a family saga, the story of those people who came before us and how their stories shape our own. We can’t wait to see what Obreht does next.

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Previous Best of Year in Books: 2008, 2009 and 2010.

books, retail

The Lowest Price And The Best Deal.

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Last Saturday, Amazon invited customers, while browsing brick-and-mortar retailers, to use its new price-check app and earn up to five dollars off any three non-book items. Today, the novelist Richard Russo penned an op-ed for the New York Times gathering the thoughts of some of his author friends, among them Stephen King, Ann Patchett and Scott Turow (president of the Authors Guild), about this kind of promotion. They describe it with phrases like “invasive and unfair,” “a bridge too far,” a “bare-knuckles approach” and “scorched-earth capitalism.” The most eloquent of Russo’s subjects is Patchett, the owner of a new independent bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books. Says Patchett,

I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.

Writing in trademark contrarian fashion over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo, in an article not-so-subtly titled “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” takes issue with Russo, Patchett et al. After acknowledging that “Amazon just did a boneheaded thing, and it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it,” Manjoo counters,

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

Readers of this blog are well-acquainted with our views on independent retailers (particularly bookstores), shopping locally and the virtues (in our minds) of a book you can hold in your hands versus one you can read on a computer screen. Because one of his makes his livelihood working at a bookstore, we obviously have a dog in this fight. It’s no mystery where we come down on Russo vs. Manjoo.

What is Manjoo really asking for, though? Yes, it can be a frustrating experience to go shopping anywhere this time of year, and there’s a certain sedating charm in the ease of ordering online (assuming you know what it is that you want). But what we find lacking in Manjoo’s perfect world is anything resembling human interaction. The joys of browsing a bookstore, beyond comfy chairs, hot coffee and a space to do your best thinking, are running into a friend or former teacher while you’re there; hearing an author speak in person and then meeting him after the reading while he signs and personalizes your book; having a place to go on a cheap date night; taking your child to story time, where you are treated to the sublime pleasures of Pete the Cat; and conversing with a bookseller about an author you just read and loved (or hated) and being told what you should read next (or avoid). Yes, Amazon has wonderful algorithms that tell you what other people who bought the same book as you bought next. But is that really an educated recommendation? Isn’t a person — hopefully a knowledgeable one, who asks what you like to read rather than just foisting something he likes upon you — far better than an algorithm? (Manjoo is a technology columnist, so he probably has poor interpersonal skills.)

Manjoo also takes issue with “the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo” by arguing that there really isn’t much that’s “local” about your local bookstore. “Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house,” he writes, “an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community.” Except, of course, for the investment that any local business has in its schools, nonprofits and the community; for the tax base it provides that community, which Amazon does not; and (not least of all to us) for the jobs it provides.

Today at work, I (Ben) saw one of my favorite customers, someone who hadn’t been in for a while. I asked him how he was doing. His mother was in the hospital. He had just finished moving into a smaller home with his wife, who was newly retired. Neither of them had found their retirement footing yet. He said he needed to come to the store to “relax and get lost in a book.” He asked for two that we had in stock, and I put two more in his hands that he hadn’t heard of yet. He gave me a smile and shook my hand. Both of us had a better day for it.