A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Off the Beaten Path

Off the Beaten Path: Excursions into the lesser known works of classical authors

By Margaret McMillan

The pathway into the oeuvre of a famous author begins differently for every reader. Our unique experiences or timing shape what we take and what we leave. The first work that we read by an author is really a first handshake. Like any initial impression, certain features of an author’s work may stand out, only to be confirmed by future encounters. Other features startle at first, only to gradually fade away. Is the handshake firm? Supple? Do they look you in the eye when they speak?

Unlike a personal introduction, first impressions of authors depend much upon the individuality of the reader. We aren’t confronted face-to-face, but rather we follow along behind – picking up the bread-trail of a writer’s life. We also get to choose what work we read, and this choice in turn often defines how we think about an author’s legacy. What is it that Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference?” Although we can continue deeper into an author’s thicket of works, when we read that first novel, or poem, or play, we have taken a certain path from which there is no going back. Fortunately, there are twists and turns that allow us, if we’re diligent readers, to revise our preconceptions. Yet, that first work, that first handshake, remains as a powerful impression nevertheless.

It’s a great misfortune that most pathways to classical authors begin in the driest of settings; the high school classroom. Reading a heavily annotated edition of a classic work under the duress of assessment is like trying on prom gowns in an ill lit dressing-room stall. As an English teacher, I realize the challenges of cultivating a good first impression, and try my best to choose works with the realization that this might be my student’s first encounter with an author. I cross my fingers that it won’t be their last. Paving the way for a good first impression is a tall order. Do you choose works that are emotionally accessible or formulaically recognizable? Or do you prioritize the daring or progressive work of an author’s oeuvre? Do you take a risk on the wacky or eclectic, with the hope that students will want more? What exactly makes a work important?

But I find myself rambling away from my intended path for this essay – what happens when we dive deeper into the works of one author? Fortunately for avid readers, first impressions often don’t deter us from returning for more. Part of the joy of reading emerges within the protracted encounter with a single author. When we read multiple works by the same author, we begin to form a relationship that allows us to explore what is really singular and spectacular about their work. Reading the span of an author’s lifetime allows us to understand writing as a process that requires diligence and practice. What a shock to discover a masterpiece that post-dates the accepted zenith of a writer’s career! How humanizing and comforting to stumble upon an earlier novel that’s underwhelming. Discovering the lesser-known works of an author allows us the opportunity to revise and deepen first impressions. I find this particularly true for classical authors whose popular reputation rests upon one well-read book (there’s that prom dress again). I wanted to take the opportunity to share some gems that I discovered by classical authors that are off the beaten path. You probably won’t find them on a high school syllabus, or on your shelf at the local box bookstore. Some of these texts are a footnote in an author’s legacy. Each one offered a new insight for me on an otherwise widely-known author. But, who am to say? For me, these were the paths not taken. For you, they might have been your entry-point.

piazza-talesHerman MelvilleThe Piazza Tales. I’ll begin with Melville because I had the misfortune of a very bad first impression. My experience with Melville began as an undergraduate, reading his bizarre, critical flop, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. As a late teen, the labyrinthine plot, with its Freudian undertones, defeated me. I didn’t return to Melville until graduate school, when a nagging feeling that as a scholar of American studies I probably should give Moby Dick a chance finally prompted me to pick up a copy at an airport kiosk. From there, our relationship was rekindled.

If anyone has the misfortune of being labeled a one-hit wonder, poor Herman Melville certainly would take the literary prize. His masterpiece, Moby Dick, tends to eclipse the rest of his contemporary legacy like a super moon. Ironically, at the time that he published his heavily philosophical story about the white whale, Melville actually experienced a decline in popularity from a readership more interested in his earlier – decidedly lighter – adventure novels and travelogues. This all changed after the 1920s, when literary scholars began to salvage Melville’s legacy, and along with it, the wreck of the Pequod. Now you can pick up a copy anywhere (as proof, see my anecdote above).

For a man whom some scholars designate the first American novelist, it’s no surprise that his lengthiest masterpiece is also his most read. But Melville was a much more versatile writer than Barnes & Noble gives him credit for – he tried his hand at travelogues, short stories, and poetry, including an 18,000 line epic poem in iambic tetrameter. For a taste of Melville that displays his talents in a different light, take a look at his short story collection, The Piazza Tales. The story of Bartleby, the Scrivener puts Melville’s unique humor on display, while Benito Cereno sends chills down your spine and proves that although Ishmael can talk your ear off, Melville doesn’t necessarily require page length to impress.

dred.jpgHarriet Beecher Stowe. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Stowe clearly suffers from a similar tragedy as her contemporary, Melville. Characterized by her most famous (or infamous?) work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe has been pigeonholed into an important but over-simplified role in relationship to American slavery. Despite Stowe’s pro-emancipation sympathies, her sentimentalized portrayal of race in Uncle Tom’s Cabin has since received castigation by numerous scholars, including the African American novelist James Baldwin. However, to view Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Stowe’s one thesis on race is to do a tremendous disservice to her legacy as the most prominent abolitionist of her time.

The tucked up edges of Uncle Tom’s Cabin unravel under the pressure of the political and social complexities explored in Dred. Naïve racial characterization is abandoned for a more sophisticated understanding of African American identity. And at the center of the novel, the problematically submissive figure of Uncle Tom has been replaced by the powerful, prophetic voice of an escaped revolutionary.

captainsRudyard Kipling. Captains Courageous. A book by this title, written by a British Victorian, immediately summons comparisons to Treasure Island. But, Captains Courageous was not written by Robert Louis Stevenson but a more unlikely novelist. Best known for his short stories about India, Rudyard Kipling remains most beloved as the author of The Jungle Book. Luckily for his English-speaking cousins on the far-side of the sea, Kipling also wrote a children’s classic about Americans that resembles the coming-of-age novels of Mark Twain.

As the son of an American millionaire, Harvey Cheyne Jr’s posh lifestyle is interrupted by a storm that washes him overboard during a transatlantic voyage. He is subsequently rescued by a fishing vessel but when he fails to convince the captain of his status, he must spend the rest of the summer catching cod and learning the meaning of real work. The tale’s moral conclusion comes across as authentic rather than heavy-handed, and Kipling’s use of dialect to capture the fishermen’s unique speech patterns adds color to his portrayal of maritime life.

cape cod.jpgHenry David Thoreau. Cape Cod. Usually readers first encounter Thoreau in one of two places; on the banks of Walden Pond or in jail. But, as Thoreau himself admits in his numerous essays, he enjoyed a good long walk, and he sometimes would travel great distances by other means in order to take one. Cape Cod describes several such walking excursions to what Thoreau describes as the “bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.”

For even aficionados of Thoreau, Cape Cod might still be off the beaten path, simply because this work was published posthumously and has received limited critical attention until recently. During his lifetime, Thoreau lectured on a wide variety of topics, including this trip. According to newspaper accounts, his description of Cape Cod kept his audience in stitches. Despite Thoreau’s admiration of the Romantic poets, Cape Cod might be considered a satire of picturesque nature writing. Thoreau’s sardonic observations about the harshness of coastal life provide a more complex picture of the hostility of nature than Walden. Despite the irony, Cape Cod contains some of Thoreau’s most poetic descriptions – in particular, his account of a lighthouse. Reading Cape Cod further clarifies Thoreau’s perception of the natural world, and man’s place in it.

curlicue1

Margaret McMillan just finished an MA in American Literature, where she spent some quality time with our good pal Ishmael. Now, she’s enjoying staying home with her toddler and reading lots of Llama Llama Red Pajama

curlicue1

Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing (2).jpgThere are some powerful books out there about slavery and civil rights in America, and there are some incredible works of African post-colonial literature, but this book provided something new –- a juxtaposition between the two.

The story begins with two sisters in West Africa, one of whom is sold into slavery while the other stays on the Gold Coast. But the book is not primarily about these two women -– it’s even more about their descendants. In a series of chapters that read a bit like short stories, we hear the stories of these two women’s descendants, generation by generation, switching back and forth between the two sides of the family. The many threads of stories create a tapestry of history, spanning two continents and nearly three centuries.

The sweep of history seemed at times like its own character, moving forward and affecting everyone in its path. Previous books I’d read about the history of slavery had only focused on one or the other side of the Atlantic. But this juxtaposition of the history of West Africa with the history of enslaved West Africans in the United States provided new and fascinating perspective. This book juxtaposes the conflict between the Asante, the Fante, and the British in West Africa (and its effect on the slave trade) with the ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Act on free black families in the American north. It juxtaposes the changing relationships between people groups in Africa as the white missionaries moved in with the way black identity as an African-American contrasts with black identity as a Ghanaian. It juxtaposes the growth of independence movements in West Africa with the heroin epidemic in Harlem. This book interacts with the sweep of history on both sides of the Atlantic in a complex and compelling way, and in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character development for the scope of historical overview.

The characterization in this book is exquisite. We only have the space of a short story to get to know each character, and the chronology switches back and forth between the two sides of the family, so the narrative could have easily ended up jumbled and confusing. For me, it was the characterization that prevented this and held the book together. Each character seemed so real and alive. There was true depth and roundness to the characters as well. With such brief snapshots into each moment in history, and such an ambitious scope to the book, it would have been easy for the book to compress each character’s life into the-black-experience-during-such-and-such-a-time-period. But this wasn’t the case at all. Certainly, the black experience over the course of history was a main theme, but characters also interacted with family conflict, work challenges, friendships, marriages, the conflict between desire and duty, mental health difficulties, societal challenges, and many other aspects of life. Their lives came across as vivid and multi-faceted.

I’m always particularly curious about the portrayal of characters with scars and physical disabilities in books, and so I found the chapter about a man with a large burn on his face to be particularly intriguing. The interaction with his scarring carried on into his daughter’s story, and the following description of her response to his scars was very moving to me:

“Whenever her father or grandmother asked her about pain, Marjorie would say she had never known it. As a young child, someone had told her that the scars her father wore on his face and grandmother on her hands and feet were born of great pain. And because Marjorie had no scars that resembled those, she could never bring herself to complain of pain. Once, when she was just a little girl, she had watched a ringworm on her knee grow and grow and grow. She’d hidden it from her parents for nearly two weeks, until the worm overtook the curve where thigh met calf, making it difficult for her to bend. When she’d finally shown her parents, her mother had vomited, and her father had snatched her in his arms and rushed her to the emergency room. The orderly who came to call them back had been startled, not by the worm, but by her father’s scar. She’d asked if he was the one who needed help.” 

As you can see from this section, the writing in this book is vivid and compelling. I was struck with how a lifetime of emotions about the character’s own response to her father’s scars and the responses of strangers can be wrapped up and tangled into a single powerful scene. Throughout the book, the author uses striking anecdotes like this one to express a chaotic variety of emotions. The immediacy and compactness of the writing carries throughout the book.

All in all, I found this to be a vivid and intriguing book. While there were times when it the content was graphic and difficult, the characters were so beautifully drawn that it kept me engaged and invested in finding out what would happen. The interaction between the history of West Africa and the history of enslaved Africans in the US was a fascinating juxtaposition that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The writing was arresting and vivid, and I look forward to seeing what Yaa Gyasi writes next.

Bookish Links

And now, some bookish links for the week:

1. Exceptional Translated Fiction

A list of literature translated from other languages. I’m excited to read a number of titles on this list, and it could be a good resource for anyone participating in the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 Reading Challenge.

2. The Stranger’s Tongue

Speaking of literature in translation, this is a wonderful essay on the process of translation, the empathy it can engender, and the fascination that comes with what is untranslatable.

3. How Rereading Brings Comfort

I resonated with this essay on the comfort of re-reading books. Since my recent ankle surgery, I’ve re-read Robin McKinley’s Beauty, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Sometimes you just need a date with an old favorite.

4. Poems of Anxiety and Uncertainty

This is a beautifully curated collection of poems that explore the theme of anxiety and uncertainty. In our current unsettled political climate, we could probably all do with some more poetry in our lives.

5. Dear Fellow Traveler

A reflective essay, meditating on an unusual guest book.

Newbery Award Winners 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

the-girl-who-drank-the-moon

Even before the announcement about this year’s Newbery winners, I’d already fallen in love with this amazing book. I highlighted it in my posts on the  10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 and the Best Books of 2016. It’s a delightful fantasy book, both funny and compelling, about a cranky and forgetful witch, a young girl who drinks moonlight, a village being forced to sacrifice its children, and a madwoman in a prison cell who can make paper cranes fly.

Wolf Hollow – by Lauren Wolk

wolf-hollow

This poignant (though sometimes brutal and harrowing) book centers on a young girl in rural Pennsylvania, the cruel and conniving bully who moves to town, and a reclusive WWI veteran. It’s a story of both cruelty and compassion, and of the bravery it takes to stand up for someone who can’t stand up for himself.

The Inquisitor’s Tale – by Adam Gidwitz

inquisitor's tale.jpg

This quirky and thought-provoking tale is set in medieval Europe. It includes an interesting cast of characters: a young girl whose character is loosely based on Joan of Arc, an impossibly strong former oblate with Saracen heritage, and a Jewish boy who recently escaped an ethnically motivated attack on his village. Religion is a main theme of this book, yet the tone remains respectful and subtle in its interaction with many religions. In among the fun antics and exciting story line, a number of thought-provoking questions are raised, and I think it would be a fascinating book to read aloud and discuss.

The book is thoroughly researched, and that research comes through most clearly in the book’s style and tone. The quirky and unexpected aesthetic of the book is often a result of actual medieval tales woven into the story line, and I was often reminded of the unusual tone that comes through in works like The Lais of Marie de France or The Canterbury Tales. The illustrations add a great deal to this aesthetic as well, imitating the curious marginalia of medieval scholars.

Freedom Over Me – by Ashley Bryan

FreedomOverMe.jpg

In this compelling picture book, we hear initially from a white woman named Mrs. Fairchilds as she prepares to auction off her late husband’s estate, and then from each of the eleven enslaved people who are considered part of that estate. Their words come in the form of a series of narrative poems, sharing with us their sorrows, hopes, and dreams.

While the historic documentation of this slave sale (which is included in the book) gives only the name and price for each person sold, the poems imagine their true interior selves, full of memories of the past, dreams for the future, and a hope for freedom. I was particularly struck by the sections in which people shared their memories from their lives in Africa, and the meanings behind their African names. The contrast between the piece of paper that reduces these people’s lives to a monetary price and the poems that express their humanity and dignity is quite powerful and striking.

Bookish Links

And now, for some of the best bookish links from around the internet this week…

 

1. A Brief Survey of the Great American Novels(s)

What constitutes the Great American Novel? Does it change over time? This fascinating article includes a collection of quotations from various authors and journalists about books as varied as Moby-Dick to The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 

 

2. Further Reading: North Korea

“Beyond the finger-pointing, threats, and not-so-funny humor are the hidden people of a devastated country whose stories are agonizingly, slowly coming to light. The regime will fall one day. Until then, insightful books provide our best opportunities for encouraging education and understanding.”

 

3. Realizations on Writing and Reading by Allan Wolf

“Writing nearly killed me. Reading saved my life.”

 

4. 21 Award-Winning Children’s Books for Black History Month

A well curated collection of books for Black History Month, subdivided by age group for elementary, middle school, and high school.

 

5. 100 Must-Read Graphic Memoirs

A listing of 100 memoirs told in the format of a graphic novel — a format made famous by books like Maus and Persepolis. I’d read a number of these, but by no means all, and I spent quite a while combing through looking for new picks to get my hands on soon.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} The Two Rs

The Two Rs

By LE Orison 

I remember being unable to read. I remember the boxes of words lined up neatly at the bottom of the page, and the letters within shifting: unknown, tantalizing, a puzzle just beyond my comprehension. That book happened to be a mystery, adding to the wonder when my older brother finally sounded out the text, revealing the story’s secret to my ears, if not my eyes.

Once I knew how, I read gluttonously. I read until my eyes stopped focusing and my head pounded, and our doctor confirmed that I must be separated from the printed word to recover. (I am stubborn; this happened several times before I learned moderation.) I spent many afternoons walking to our library, through the cool shadows and deadly blind curves and hills of our neighborhood to the heat, dust, and exhaust of downtown sidewalks; on these trips, I tried to choose only those books I wished to carry the miles home. I always chose more than was comfortable.

As the motto for his coat of arms in high school, my brother chose an oft-repeated phrase in our house: “When in doubt, look it up.” For mine, I chose Sir Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man.”

College—an amazing wealth of unfamiliar titles, fresh libraries, new thoughts, bound by never-enough time. Basic military training, when only religious works and the official soldier’s guide were tolerated—drought, starvation. Every snatch of news or fiction, secreted to me in letters by friends, burst in my mind with the intensity of the sugar we were also forbidden and in the heady joy of graduation, I went to the bookstore with my family and bought five or six books at full price, only to have them confiscated at the start of my next training.

Access to books, and time to read, have come in waves through my life, not often synchronized. Limitation of choices has pushed me to devour work I might not otherwise have bypassed—fumbling through a pile of battered paperbacks in a plywood library the size of a bathroom—or to wait weeks in anticipation of a book I ordered from overseas, hoping it contains the information I craved.

Even now, my wallet contains three library cards. My shelves are perpetually in flux. There is never any question in my husband’s mind about what I might like for Christmas or my birthday, and the list of books I want to read never grows any shorter.

 

But beside the pure pleasure of vicarious experience, the quest for understanding, there is the conjoined twin of reading in my life: writing.

I cannot be sure when I began, only that the first story I recall fit within a half sheet of lined paper, abandoned from the frustration of scribing it rather than a dearth of ideas. I wrote about stories. I wrote down my dreams. I wrote page after page of stereotypical or preachy fantasy, and the older I grew, the more I wrote. Siblings and friends received questionable gifts of short stories, teen crushes inspired poetry, and through college and military service, a series of blogs chronicled the deep thoughts of my life and experience. (Despite my tongue-in-cheek cynicism, then, as now, the occasional flash of truth comes through. Void? Do you hear it?)

I never finished a novel draft until the waiting days following that first deployment—hours spent alone in my new apartment, without school or work to distract me. My husband remained with his unit, still overseas for another four months. In his absence, I found a book: No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. I read it. I believed. And within a month and a half, I completed my first full draft.

 

I write because I want to read. I write because the visions in my head are unclear without structure, because I wake up from a dream and want to know what happens next. I write because I am a reader.

The last eleven years have seen fourteen novels begun, seven fully drafted. In no small part this is due to National Novel Writing Month, but the truth is that I write year-round. At present, I have four novels in my head. Three follow the same story; the first I am editing, the second I began drafting in November but did not complete, and the third exists as a disjointed collection of scenes, clamoring for a clear plot. The fourth novel is entirely different—dystopian science fiction rather than fantasy, multiple viewpoints instead of one; it is my experiment, my sabbatical, my quandary.

 

I read, because I want to write.

My shelves are stocked with books on plot, punctuation, conflict and suspense, revision, characterization, and thesauri of setting, trait, emotion. But they also contain a book on violence. A manual for body guards. Books on strategy, history, politics, war, religions. I have definitive works on both Japanese and European sword fighting. Overviews of monarchy throughout the world. Dictionaries in Welsh, Russian, Slovak, Icelandic, and Italian. Most recently, I am reading The Art of Intrusion. The Art of Deception. Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. 100 Deadly Skills, Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, How Do It Know?, C++ in 10 Minutes, and Beginner’s Programming—All-in-One Desk Reference.

I begin reading these things because the story in my mind requires greater understanding of my subject. As I read, the story grew; as the story grows, more knowledge is needed. Over and over, the edges of my world flex and twist, revealing new lands beyond. One book leads me to another, chasing rabbit trails of fact, but always to this central point: to improve my own writing, the reigning story, in turn. I still love reading fiction, old favorites and new finds, yet the story in my head takes precedence over them all until it is complete.

The best reading has become when I forget the words I have written, when the story captures me past criticism and moves me. When the book lives on its own. When I am audience, not scribe.

 

Yet after three decades, history repeats.

For the language base in The Queens’ Defense series, I picked Korean because I liked how it sounded. I stole words and romanized names without care when I began. Now, nearly two years later, that language has stolen my heart. As I study it, words march across the page in tidy squares and rectangles, imbued with mystery, black on the white page. I cannot look away. Already I long to answer.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. . . . Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” –Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

Someday, when I have learned to think in 한국어,  writing will follow. For what else are books but a slow conversation through time?

curlicue1

To read more of LE Orison’s work, check out her blog at https://writerintransience.wordpress.com/.

curlicue1

Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

 

Caldecott Award Winners 2017

Each year, the Caldecott Award honors the year’s distinguished American picture books. I’m always excited to see which books are chosen, and it’s become a tradition to read the year’s books aloud with my son. He enjoys making it into his own competition, and each of us decides on our favorites from the year’s Caldecott winners.

Radiant Child – by Javaka Steptoe

radiant child.jpg

This picture book biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat focuses on the artist’s childhood: the encouragement and inspiration he gained from his mother, the expressiveness and non-conformity of his art (even as a child), the way that a childhood car accident prompted an interest in human anatomy that continued throughout his later work. The theme of art being expressive and “outside-the-lines” pervades the book, and the messages about what constitutes art could prove a helpful preparation for children getting ready to visit an art museum or exhibition.

Leave Me Alone! – by Vera Brosgol

(my favorite)

leave-me-alone

This hilariously funny book follows an exasperated old woman who needs some peace and quiet to finish her knitting. She moves from place to place, searching for a quiet place to knit and constantly being interrupted by a series of increasingly unexpected visitors. The story explores both the need for a break from people and the way that searched-for aloneness can become lonely after a while. As an introvert and a knitter myself, I found this book to be particularly funny, and it was my personal favorite from among this year’s Caldecott winners.

Freedom in Congo Square – by Carole Boston Weatherford

freedom in congo square.jpg

With vibrant illustrations and a strong rhyming text, this book explores daily life for enslaved people in New Orleans. Congo Square  was the only place in New Orleans where enslaved people were allowed to congregate during their time off, and it became an important place of community, music, and dance. This book shows both the horrors and drudgery of daily activities under slavery, as well as the hope and anticipation of the weekly gatherings in Congo Square. The text was very accessible for my 6-year-old, and the poetry was powerful in its subtlety.

Du Iz Tak? – by Carson Ellis

du iz tak.jpg

This quirky tale about insects building a tree fort had my son laughing out loud. It’s written in a made-up language, so kids have to infer from context what the words mean. As a French teacher, this made me happy in a special teacherly place in my heart. Getting kids to let go of having to know what every single word means and just understand the gist of something in a foreign language is an important part of being able to absorb the new language. Rounded out with charming illustrations, this book was most enjoyable.

They All Saw the Cat – by Brendan Wenzel

(my son’s favorite)

thye all saw the cat.jpg

This charming book is a fascinating exploration of perspective and point of view. It shows a cat from the perspective of lots of different people and animals that it interacts with — from the child’s perspective, the cat is a loving big-eyed kitty; from the mouse’s perspective, it’s a horrifying monster. The creative illustrations truly make this book, and it’s not at all heavy-handed in its approach. My 6-year-old son loved the constantly changing perspectives on this cat, and this book was his favorite among this year’s Caldecotts.