I do not like to get political here on my blog, though the argument can be made, as Orwell did, that all writing is political. Yet, a news alert about the Supreme Court’s leaning to strike down Roe vs. Wade impels me to recommend a couple of novels set in a United States, or subsection thereof, where that same has happened.
This 2011 novel by Hillary Jordan follows the story of Hannah, a woman convicted of murder for having had an abortion, who is not incarcerated, but rather “chromed,” that is her skin is genetically dyed red to announce her crime to all around while she tries to survive both the stigma and the emotional and mental strain her world, her actions, and her beliefs put on her. Well written and engrossing, this novel, to paraphrase This is Spinal Tap, goes to 11. I read it when it first came out, and I’m still thinking about it. If I had a class set, I’d teach it alongside The Scarlet Letter.
If you haven’t heard about The Handmaid’s Tale, well, then you’re probably not reading this blog either. I’ll admit that I haven’t watched the series, but I read the book a few years ago after hearing rave upon rave from several English teacher friends. Several claim it to be their favorite book. I’ll admit that I didn’t “LOVE” it as I’ve heard so many others speak of it, but that is because it horrified me. Which it is what it should do. The ease with which the people of Gilead accepted the total subjugation of women is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. Yet Atwood, like Jordan, is not didactic; they both tell stories that tell us something about ourselves, and these are things we don’t want to know, but hopefully, if we can confront the ugly in fiction, we can avoid or at least ameliorate it in real life. (For a bonus, check out my 2019 review of The Testaments, Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.)
While many of my friends made great headway through their TBR stacks during our COVID-19 stay-at-home time, I found it difficult to read for pleasure. My usual reading time is on my commute. Except on rare occasions, I would not do work on the train; rather, I would read a book for pleasure, usually something that I was not even teaching at the time. Staying at home took that time away from me; so, while there is a definite benefit of not traveling an hour to an hour and a half each way to work every day, there is also the loss of that time to sit (or stand) on the train and be transported to another world. A transportation I found refreshing and rejuvenating even in a crowded subway car.
Additionally, there was the transition to working from home. I teach high school English, and my school lost almost no time in the transition from traditional to home-based learning. We dismissed the students after a half-day of classes on Friday, March 13th (so ominous, yet we really had no idea how much so) and proceeded to a faculty meeting to learn how to use Google Meet and other online learning apps. Then we packed up our things expecting to be out of the building for a week or two and headed home. The subway was eerily empty for a Friday at 5pm. Again, we had no idea…
Monday, March 16th dawned a new day in my educational career, and I took it on. I met with each of my classes for an hour and a half once a week (except for AP English Lit which met twice a week), and during those live Meets, I conducted class almost as if we were in the Classroom together. We read stories together, students either volunteering to read a paragraph or two or being called upon when I hadn’t heard from them in a while, and I asked close reading questions both aloud and in writing on the Google Classroom. I tried to keep it as much like our days in the school building as I could. Our daily warm up activities became Classroom assignments during our off days and our Meets were times of close reading and discussion. And it worked.
But. There’s always a “but.” But, most of my students live in busy households with many people trying to work and go to school from home, so most of the time their responses were on the chat or on the Classroom. And, quick, multiple-choice comprehension quiz before discussion became less valid, so more and more of the assignments were writing based. I mean, this is an English class, so many of our assignments were writing based anyway, but now the discussion was too. And class participation became more and more important because I could no longer see who was drifting away from lesson, both figuratively and literally. Most of my students also kept their cameras off, so I was teaching to their avatars. I found that instead of gaining that commuting time to myself, instead it was folded right into my teaching time. I was working longer hours than ever reading their discussion responses and creating lessons for the next day. When two weeks turned into three, into a month, I was recreating the wheel in some cases as I hadn’t brought all my files home with me in March. No one expected then that we would finish out the school year online. It didn’t help matters any that our school servers had been attacked by ransomware earlier in the year. Only now was I realizing what hadn’t been uploaded to Google Drive before that happened.
After a week or two of online teaching, my husband’s job at a local private golf course was suspended. I sequestered myself in the second bedroom of our two-bedroom apartment which had become my classroom and office while he languished in the living room. When I’d emerge, he was more than ready for human interaction. As was I. I love my students, but it was difficult not seeing them nor hearing from them. And some days, I might have only one or no classes, the rest of my time devoted to reading their work and creating new lessons and researching new ways to keep them engaged online. I was more than ready to turn off the computer and spend time with him rather than open a book–or worse because it is another screen, my Kindle. We’d talk, make dinner together, play cards–one very competitive game of Uno went into the wee hours of the morning. And this was good.
Until it wasn’t. I’m not talking about the time with my husband–that was still great, but I was spending too much of my day on schoolwork and not enough on taking care of myself. I was so worried about how my kids were doing that I didn’t stop to think how I was doing. (See my guest post on Norton’s K-12Talk blog about my solution.) So when a friend recommended a book to me, A Discovery of Witches, I decided to download it from the library and give it a go. It seemed right up my alley: witches, vampires, and the Bodleian library in Oxford. Right away I was drawn into the story. I still didn’t take as much time as I should have to just read, almost forgetting how rejuvenating it is to the mind, but I was starting.
Then, the loan ran out and I had to wait for the renewal, but I did. And I renewed again and again till I finished. And I’m glad I did. It is an excellent adventure of witches, vampires, and daemons, and academia, and love, and loving the “right” kind of person. It’s well worth the time. I’m looking forward (with some trepidation thanks to a hint near the end of the book) to volume two. But what I’ve learned through all this is something I’ve innately known, but, having never vocalized it, perhaps didn’t realize soon enough.
Reading is an important part of one’s mental health. I tend to favor fiction, but it doesn’t have to be, though I think perhaps we’ll leave out current events here. Reading allows your mind to take you somewhere else, to set you on experiences you may never have, and to experience dangerous things safely. It is not something to do half-heartedly; to read something, you need to give it your focus and–here’s the mental health angle–let go of your concerns for the time being. Your subconscious mind can keep picking at that knot, but you give your conscious mind a break, and as a result, your anxiety is lifted, maybe before you even knew you had some. And while you may never be a witch or a vampire, your mind still absorbs the way the characters–in this case, for example, different species in an uneasy, deeply suspicious, and ill-informed detente–interact and eventually learn from and about each other, and adds that to your experience of human interaction. The wider our reading, the more open our minds are to the experiences of others. Think about that in this time of racial unrest.
Many people look on reading as frivolous or selfish, but it’s not. It’s as necessary to a healthy mind as exercise is to the body. And to those who say they “don’t like to read,” I say, you just haven’t found the right book yet. Drop your guard, open your mind, and read. You won’t regret it.
Honestly, I think I like this book better in retrospect than I did while reading it. And that fact is both a positive and negative. There were times I just wasn’t that interested in picking up the book again, but I did and was glad I did.
On the positive side, Mirza does such a good job of making her characters real. I was often cringing at what Amar might do next. It feels obvious that he has a good heart and he wants to do the right thing, but he is lost; he doesn’t know how to fit in–in his community, in his family, in his own mind. And his mother, his sisters, even Amira don’t know how to help him either because despite the love they feel for one another, they do not know how to share their feelings–everyone assuming that everyone else had everything figured out–and Amar is the most lost of all of them, not being able to find footing in the shifting sands between old world and new. Yes, this is a positive. Mirza’s skill at characterization brings them all to life. We feel for them; we want to laugh, cry, and yell with/at them.
Nonetheless, I was not always engaged in the reading because of the way Mirza shifts perspective and time throughout the first three parts of the novel. This stylistic choice does not necessarily have to be a negative. I enjoy seeing a story from multiple perspectives. Maggie Estep’s Hex, Gargantuan, and Alice Fantastic or George R.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice make use of the technique quite successfully. However, Mirza fails to signal the shifts adequately. Too often I had to reread a section, or part of it, to figure out WHEN we are in the narrative. (See spoiler alert below for an example.)
The fourth part which culminates the novel is my favorite. It is all from one perspective, Rafiq’s, full of his experiences as an old man and his reflections on his own life and his interactions with his children, particularly Amar. He even speaks directly to an absent Amar, trying to explain himself, to say all those things he didn’t know how to say earlier. No, this part wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier parts from the others’ perspectives, particularly Amar’s and Layla’s, but here is where Mirza’s prose shines. Her nostalgic tone draws us in and draws her tale to a successful conclusion (leaving me with that retrospective appreciation for the novel).
Ultimately, A Place for Us is a heartbreaking/heartwarming novel of family life and the clash when old world meets new. I recommend it for your book club–there’s lots to discuss.
***SPOILER ALERT: You can skip this part if you haven’t read the book.
One example of a particularly confusing shift occurs when Layla goes to Seema about Amar and Amira’s relationship. I read most of that section thinking, “But what does this matter now? Amira has already broken things off with Amar.” Of course, she hadn’t. We’d seen that scene from Amar’s point of view. Now we are learning the motivation for it. It’s actually a clever tactic that is so poorly signaled that we lose our connection to the story. Our narrative engagement is broken trying to figure out the shift. ***SPOILER ENDS
I saw this posted on FB today by #KevinSmith. Yes, I thought. Yes. Let us create in the face of destruction. Write a poem, a letter to the editor, a short story–it can be about the tragedy our nation faces or it can be about puppies; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we continue to create, we continue to make this world new, we continue to affirm our community with others, all others. So, knit a scarf; paint a painting; make some jewelry; hook a rug; sing a song; play an instrument. Do what you do to create some beauty in world that looks pretty ugly when we turn on the news.
Add in Educated by Tara Westover, which is on my Kindle…
This may be a bit ambitious for summer reading, but three of them are rereads, and I’m already halfway through the Deep Magic Anthology… and who knows, I may change my mind as the summer goes along. I’m already thinking that I may need to add in a Muirwood book too (but once I start those, I usually can’t stop!) Or a Clifton Chronicles. And some poetry, of course!
That handwriting is impossible to read–
The pencil has smudged the words
Out of existence–
Sometimes their pens blot and words
Become blobs, obscuring
And then, there are the crossouts, the write-overs,
The spots never
The lights are dim in here, aren’t they?
My eyes burn and water, blurring
The page, drowning the cries of Frankenstein who
Has suddenly stabbed Laertes in Elsinore, or of
Hamlet, chasing the creature
Across the frozen tundra to
It is cold in here, isn’t it? I’ll go get
A sweater, and a cup of tea. Then,
I’ll be ready. Except,
Where did I leave my glasses? And
There’s one. –Ah, but it’s red, and
Too upsetting to their
Delicate hearts that i carry with me
As they ponder who is the mad lady hidden
In Pemberly’s attic.
I’d better switch to green, or better yet
Purple for Celie and her sister, Little Nell.
Dear hearts, they’re trying, but when
Offred travels to the Savage Reservation
And meets the Eloi in 1984, my head
Spins and my throat is as dry as
The Sahara where the Little Prince
Cries about his Beloved Country, and it seems like
These papers may never get finished.
Whether you are in the last days, last weeks, or last months of the school year, if you are an English teacher, I am sure you have stacks of papers to grade. Today’s Creative Writing Club prompt was to write an “impossible poem” (See Writer’s Digest prompt for May 1st.) Of course my first thought was finishing all the grading I have to do! As I wrote, the characters started to story hop. I hope you enjoy! Now, back to grading!
I have read a few of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen as detective series and enjoyed them. This book is in a similar vein. Set at the time of Prince Consort Albert’s death, the atmosphere and prejudices of Victorian London are well depicted. Patrick Fitzgerald and Miss/Dr. Georgiana Armistead run for their lives as they try to unravel why someone is trying to kill them. The two main characters are interesting enough to keep the reader invested in the story and a few of the side characters are delightful. Prince Leopold, for example, is charming! I’m tempted to read a biography of him now. The “bad guy” is a bit too stereotypical for my taste, though he fits the time and the genre, and his power was not sufficiently explained. Queen Victoria was a bit too simpering and whiny too, though more on that later. What really keeps the book from a four star rating, however, is the subtlety of the motives for the murders. The reasons are actually a big deal, but I never felt an “aha! that’s it!” moment. I kept expecting something more. While I could follow it, I’m not sure everyone will “get it,” my students in particular who are always looking for mysteries to read, and I’m always on the lookout for appropriate choices But the twist at the end was well-played which helped change one’s perspective on this representation of Queen Victoria. Overall, it is an enjoyable read, a good escape.
Let me preface my review by saying I love Arthurian legend stories, both traditional, contemporary, and influenced by, and I was excited by the title and premise of this one. I really wanted to like it. However, I found this book annoying after the first chapter or two. The premise of a contemporary underground Knights of the Round Table protecting the world from the Fey is good. I love the idea of this high school for pages, squires, and knights underneath Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. However, the characterizations fall far short. Morgan is ostensibly a smart girl, but she never seems to learn anything about herself or her surroundings. Time and again, she expects different reactions from people than what they’ve ever given her before. And she never asks the the right questions. Most of her questions are one form or another of “why me?” When she goes to the secret school for knights, she refuses to believe anything anyone tells her about knights, fairies, and powers despite her classes and first hand knowledge. As she sees more, she seems to learn less. She continues to react as if none of it is real, and then is astonished by the results. She continues to flout the rules and regulations and takes them as a personal affront, and then is angry beyond thought when she is discovered. Had this happened once or twice and then had she learned to modify her behavior even just a little bit, her character would have been more believable and sympathetic.
I had almost forgotten about Morgan’s “guardian angel,” the voice she hears inside her head. He comes and goes with no regularity, so it is easy to forget about him. And he disappears from the story for chapters on end, especially at the end (like everyone else). Is he good or evil? Is he Catholic or Fey? Why does he abandon her for long stretches of time, particularly when she needs help most? What is the point of this character? Perhaps more will be revealed about him in future books in the series. I’ll never know
In addition, the way her friends and enemies seem to know all about her but share nothing with her is unrealistic. For example, her nemesis Daniel would surely throw her Fey connection in her face if indeed everyone knows as Irene contends. Her good friends Jack and Bri tell her almost nothing and cannot believe she doesn’t know anything about their world. I can believe that when she first arrives, but soon after, that line falls flat. They too should learn a little and realize that Morgan doesn’t know their rites and rituals. As for her roommate Keva, I still don’t understand why she would hang out with them at all after the first few moments when everyone would have to have realized that Morgan and Arthur do not have the best relationship. But, at least she is fairly true to her character of wanting to be near the “royalty” of the school throughout. And then all her friends pretty much disappear from the narrative.
Another inconsistency is that Morgan, who is not supposed to be on her own at all, goes off alone again and again. She fights person after creature after creature, breaking school rules all the while. This holds true for the genre, which I’d put as young adult fantasy than fantasy, but she learns nothing from each successive encounter. And her worst punishment for her flouting the rules is essentially “go to your room.” Then she faces the worst demons on her own–including one she, who believes nothing she is told about the school and has not even been in the school for a year, foretells returning yet the learned professors and knights cannot see the signs of.
Finally, the “twist” that is held back until the very end is no surprise at all, especially given the title. Morgan should gradually figure out her ancestry instead of continually whining that people don’t like her and life is unfair. The knights, professors, and other students should grow and learn from each other and from her as well.
Ultimately, the book was unsatisfying. There are too many gaps, inconsistencies, or unbelievable instances (and I do not mean fairies, power, or magic). I will not continue with the series which saddens me. I do love a good fantasy series, especially Arthurian.
First of all, there are many wonderful options of leading men in literature. Mr. Darcy is not our only option. Clare Church, the blogger, argues for Professor Bhaer from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and also argues that Mr. Darcy, while changed by Lizzy, is a wealthy control freak. (Okay, those aren’t her words, but that’s the gist.)
Oh I think think that’s a bit ridiculous and biased. I do think Jo and Bhaer are a great couple, but comparing them to Lizzy and Darcy is apples to oranges.
Professor Bhaer is kind and comforting, like a teddy bear. (Sound out his name; that’s not a coincidence.) He is hard-working and loves children. What’s not to love about that? He supports Jo and her work fully. That’s lovable too. There is no argument that a man like Professor Bhaer would make a wonderful spouse. But as Church herself admits, he’s not “swoon-worthy.” Then again, many (most?) real-life, good men aren’t as well. We could do a lot worse than end up with a Professor Bhaer. I agree with Church that he is a worthy candidate for a significant-other model.
However, the characterization in Church’s post of both Lizzy and Darcy is too one-sided and misses the point of the novel, IMHO. Darcy changes because someone (Lizzy) finally has the gumption to tell him to his face that his manners are rude. He is forced to reconsider himself. As he begins his change, he has no hopes of gaining Lizzy’s hand; rather, he sees a disconnect between his own conception of his manners and how others view him. He aims to repair that. First, he sets the record straight with his letter, but he does not only defend himself, he also acknowledges that his assumptions about Jane must have been wrong because Lizzy knows her better than he. He later puts those assumptions to the test by visiting the Bennetts with Bingley to observe Jane’s interaction with him. He hears, acts, and learns. His attitude changes not only in respect to Lizzy, in fact at this point he does not think Lizzy will have him, but also in respect to Bingley, the Gardiners, and even Wickham. Darcy admits his faults and acts in a different manner than before in order to not repeat them.
In her post, Church quotes Chiara Atik saying “that it’s only the women in Darcy’s life ‘who are able to bring out this more personable and caring side.’” However, this is not really true. It is only the women who are their real selves around him who “‘bring out this more personable and caring side'” of him. Miss Bingley certainly does not, nor Mrs. Hurst, and they are of his circle. Elizabeth does because she does not kowtow; she speaks her mind. Georgiana does because of her innate simplicity and sweetness. Miss Bingley speaks to him as she imagines he wishes to be spoken to rather than with any real interest or understanding, and he does not respond to her artifice.
Furthermore, Church argues that Lizzy merely needs Darcy while Jo wants Bhaer. I challenge this assertion also. Yes, Darcy is the one with the money in the relationship, and Lizzy does not have her own career as Jo does, but Lizzy does want Darcy. In fact, she turns down an offer of marriage which would offer her stability, respectability, and the family home because she does not love Mr. Collins (who could?). Her need and her family’s need does not outweigh her desire to love and respect the man she marries. Lizzy lives in a time women’s dependence on men, but she manages to find a man not only wealthy, but who is worthy of her love and respect. Her father warns her not to marry a man she cannot respect, but the warning is unneeded. Had she merely been in need of a husband, Collins would do; rather, she desires a relationship which is why he does not suit.
Is Darcy intolerable at the beginning of the novel? Yes. Does he let his pride get the better of him? Yes. But we all have moments like that, don’t we? But if we learn from them and make amends when we can, are we not worthy of a second chance? Darcy hears Elizabeth and turns to introspection, concluding, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle…By you I was properly humbled…you showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.” (Austen) And if truth be told, it is not the bad-boy-to-good-boy change that I find swoon-worthy, but the Darcy he becomes. I romanticize the Darcy at the end of the novel and find no need to look for someone to change into him.
A quick post-script here about the brief references to Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff in Church’s post. If Bhaer and Darcy are apples and oranges, Rochester and Heathcliff are figs and kumquats. Perhaps I will explore their just desserts in the panoply of romantic heroes in literature in future posts. Just know that they do not hold a candle to Darcy or Bhaer.