Thursday, December 15, 2016

End of Semester/Winter Break Hiatus

We currently are in the throes of the end of the semester here at Pomona High School, which includes final assignments, essays by the truck load, final exams, and whining students. So, mrbarbaricyawp is going on hiatus again. We will be back with more literature analysis in 2017. See you then.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What is Literature? And an update

The Update
I first started this literature blog to run in parallel with my AP students. I had assigned them to blog twice a week and I also posted twice a week to prove to them that it was possible. I then realized that posting twice a week was unsustainable for these students, both in terms of their schedules and the quality of their writing. AP students were failing my class because they were either not blogging or their blog posts were so lackluster that they were losing massive points. This year, I decided to take a step back with my AP students and only have them blog once a week. I have found that a greater percentage of students actually complete each assignment and the quality of these blog posts is much better. I feel like I have found a happy balance with them, but I am still blogging twice a week. Often I don't have anything important to blog about so I find the latest Linebreak poem and compose some contrived, short analysis of it to fill in a slot. So, I am pulling back on my own schedule as well. I will only be blogging once a week. It will either come out on Tuesday or Thursday and I am hoping that they will be of more substance.

What is Literature?
This week we return to this question. If Bob Dylan can be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature than what is literature? I read the article entitled What is Literature by Terry Eagleton, which was cited in the PBS Idea Channel video. It acts as the Introduction to his book Literary Theory. He writes in a very round-about way, and it takes a long time before Eagleton actually comes to any sort of conclusion. But this rhetorical method is necessary because it makes his final point that much more powerful. He takes us on a journey through all of the possible answers to, in the end, strengthens his final answer.

He begins by stating that some define it as "'imaginative' writing in the sense of fiction--writing which is not literally true." But as he goes on to assert, and as I do as well, there are plenty of pieces of writing that are considered "literature" which are not fiction. I doubt that anyone would argue that Martin Luther King Jr. I have a Dream or Letter from Birmingham Jail must be kept out of the literary canon because they are non-fiction rather than fiction. So, "literature" cannot be defined by the genre of writing.

He then goes into a different direction entirely. Eagleton continues, "Perhaps literature is definable not according to whether it is fictional or 'imaginative', but because it uses language in peculiar ways." And he quotes from Russian critic Roman Jakobson, which is a marvelous turn of phrase, "[writing that represents] an organized violence committed on ordinary speech." I absolutely love that idea and in my case, this is probably where I would tend to lean in this whole what is literature question. When I think of "literature" I think of those authors that can spin a sentence in a way so that it become drop dead gorgeous. I'm talking about your Joyce and Fitzgerald and Faulkner and McCarthy and Morrison and the list could go on. These are writers that are such masters of their craft that they can astound us with their writing acrobatics. But you notice that I didn't include Shakespeare in that list and I probably should have. This is the problem in thinking this way; it is totally subjective. I might totally love Faulkner ability to "commit violence on ordinary speech" and another person might not think Faulkner is very good at that--he is simply breaking rules for no reason. Later in the essay he calls this idea "linguistic violence," which I think is a marvelous phrase as well. But, like I said, not solid ground for our definition of "literature."

Eagleton also suggests that maybe "literature" is more about what it demands of the reader, "what people do to [the] writing as of what writing does to them." I have often found that books that I would consider "literary" require more of me as a reader. Shakespeare certainly does. I read Shakespeare differently than I would a George R. R. Martin novel--pen and highlighter at the reader, notes in the margins, looking up words and ideas. To some extent, I agree with this idea too. "Literature" demands more of us. If we are going to get the most out of a difficult text we need to really dig deep and study it. Often these books, the ones that we put the most effort into, become our favorite. But, on the flip side, some people might argue that they could, or have, done the same thing with a Harry Potter novel; something that I would not consider "literature." And thus, we must move on. 

In the end, Eagleton, finally comes to the idea "that literature cannot in fact be 'objectively' defined. It leaves the definition of literature up to how somebody decides to read, not the nature of what is written. [...] It is true that many of the works studied as literature in academicinstitutionss were 'constructed' to be read as literature, but it is also true that many of them were not." I can think of many books that were not originally written to be studied in classrooms. John Green's novels come to mind. They have achieved commercial success and now are being thrust into the hands of high schoolers and studied. As Eagleton states, "Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them." I would like to add to this, though, just for my own personal definition of "literature." I agree that literature cannot be defined, but I also believe that you know literature when you read it. Now, of course, that means that personal preference must come into play, and I'm okay with that. At the end of the essay Eagleton states, "Anything can be literature." That's right folks, here we are. ANYTHING. And I guess that includes Bob Dylan lyrics. As much as I want to balk at that statement and stick my nose in the air, Bob Dylan can be "literature." 


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Coming Soon...sigh


Okay. I'm going to try this beast of a book. It has never really sparked my interest in the past, but it comes up on the AP Literature exam all the time. So, I probably should read it. I'm crossing my fingers. Here's to hoping it is good.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Book Review: The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #1)The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was disappointed with this title. I was hoping that this would be a better introduction to the character of Geralt, but in the end felt that he came off as more of a caricature rather than a fully developed round character.

I had difficulty following the plots of the short stories as well. I'm sure it would read better if you read each short story in one sitting, but I am rarely able to sit and read for that long these days. I especially found the Voice of Reason story very difficult to follow because it was split up throughout the book. At the end, I couldn't tell you what happened at the beginning of the Voice of Reason story, why Geralt was in conflict with those men. It was a poor choice in my opinion.

My favorite story was The Last Wish. I thought that plotline was the most interesting.

I doubt I will ever read a Witcher book again, unfortunately. He is a cool video game character, but not that great as a character in a book. And I don't really have much else to say about this book. It was extremely underwhelming.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thanksgiving Break Hiatus

Fellow lovers of literature! In a surprising turn of events, we have come upon the holidays. Thanksgiving is upon us.

Mr. Barbaric Yawp will be taking a week-long break. Enjoy your turkey and potatoes and cranberry sauce and pie. But most importantly, enjoy the extra time with family and friends.

See you on the other side.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Different Direction: Defining Literature

Quite a bit of my media consumption of late has been about Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Initially, I had missed this announcement. I usually am uninterested in things like this, but here we are several months later and I am blogging about this unusual choice.

When I think of literature I think of Shakespeare, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Joyce. I don't normally think of Bob Dylan. Up until recently, I didn't even listen to Bob Dylan. I knew several of his songs through other artists, but I found his voice to be grating. Literature is poetry and plays and novels. Things that a reader can really dig into. I do not consider The Hunger Games literature. Nor do I consider The Martian by Andy Weir, although I absolutely loved that book. There is a lot that is not literature and up until recently, I would have had song lyrics on that list as well. But now everything is up in the air. 

So, I want to explore this topic in further detail. I have several things that I am going to be reading, watching, studying and I will post them here so you can follow along with my journey.

Here is the video that started me on this quest, check it out if you would like.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Dysthymia: Stagnant Traffic

I read this poem when it hit my inbox in Sept. but I needed to save it till now. I am writing this post on 11/1/2016; Halloween was yesterday and we have just launched into the Holiday Season. Fourteen school days till Thanksgiving Break and then just a short three weeks until Winter Break. We have at least four major holidays in our future before we get a break. So, with that in mind, now on to the poem.

Dysthymia: Stagnant Traffic

by Cate Lycurgus

the exit’s not marked    Post-
partum  Seasonal  Psychotic  or the often

merrier  Manic    not half the frolic     
of a holiday party   whole nights

drowning in punch lines   strong 
orchestra of laughter     to keep us from

crying      over the on-ramp’s
stubborn curl    ribbon a red loop 

nuisance to tug     un-loose back 
at home  with the heat left on   

and your scarf like a noose   no one
diagnoses          generic danger

strangling us     on a normal
basis       unwrapping a new numb

not so formal    it won’t         come 
buckle       the small       of your back

a caress     snuck up and     un-
seat belting   out a welcome so     

concrete who      would not soften 
who could not      resist
I love the message of this poem. I don't mean to be harsh, but the holiday season sucks. We try to cram so many things into a short amount of time with the intention of having fun. We want to make memories and enjoy time with our friends and family, but too often we just stress ourselves out and make ourselves miserable in the process. The holidays then become a disappointment rather than the most magical time of the year. Lycurgus uses images and diction to help cement this idea into the reader's mind. Words like psychotic, manic, drowning, crying, stubborn, nuisance, noose, generic, strangling, and numb help in this respect. The merry-makers are drowning in their punch lines, scarves around their necks like nooses. I also really like the formatting in this poem. The extra spaces almost act as line breaks which adds more ways to interpret the poem. Often you can read the word in isolation, but you can also read it in the greater context of the line, or sentence.

Lycurgus doesn't provide the reader with a solution either. The poem brings this problem to our attention, but does nothing to help us overcome it. We are stuck, as we are so often in life, with the problems and asked to solve them for ourselves.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Too Many Book Clubs? Coming Soon

I have been joining, starting, or suggestion book clubs all over the place these last few weeks/months. Cards of Grief was for a book club with my colleagues in the department, as was Silence. That book club has moved on to something that I have no interest in reading, so here we are reading a new fantasy novel. This time, I am reading with my two brothers. We were all able to purchase this book on the cheap as a Kindle sale option. We all like fantasy and we've all enjoyed The Witcher video games, so we decided to dive in and try the book which inspired the development of the video games. The Sword and Laser book club would be proud of us, having just finished this selection themselves. I think it will be an interesting experiment reading a book and discussing it with my brothers.


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Review: Spontaneous

Spontaneous Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a wonderful palate cleanser. I needed something less serious, something just for fun and this book absolutely fit that bill. After reading Their Eyes were Watching God, Cards of Grief, and Silence I really needed that break.

I thought that Spontaneous was a hoot. It is such an interesting premise and the author handles it just perfectly. It isn't morose or too serious, he discusses high school students blowing up in a mass of blood and guts with enough levity to keep the book moving and not depress the reader. Not too much levity though, it wasn't irreverent towards life and the importance of life, but really helped to highlight the theme that life is so so important and that we should continue to just live day by day because you never know...

When I started I thought that Spontaneous would be another teen drama. I've read a couple and haven't been impressed with these author's ability. They usually are just story with lots of emphasis on the romance and the main character's feelings. While this did have romance and "feels" Aaron Starmer has some writing chops. There were sections where I was genuinely impressed with this teen drama author and his abilities. He is no Faulkner or Fitzgerald, but the man knows his stuff. Nice metaphors and wonderful use of anaphora to name a few.

The book moved at a good clip. I certainly wasn't bored while reading it. But I was disappointed with the ending of this novel. Throughout the whole of the book both the characters and the reader are trying to figure out what is causing these high school Seniors to blow up. There are a lot of theories, and I didn't like the way the novel handled the ending with all the theories. I won't go into much more detail than that because I don't want to spoil the end, but this could easily have been rated a 9 if not for that one thing right at the end that soured my experience.

Still, I really enjoyed Spontaneous and would probably read a sequel if Starmer wrote one. A fun, brainless read. And sometimes you just need something fun and brainless.

View all my reviews

P6: Dickinson Nature Poems CCCR

P5: Dickinson Nature Poems CCCR

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Anaphora in Spontaneous

I picked up Spontaneous as a fun read after all the serious books I have been reading lately and it hasn't disappointed. I have been pleasantly surprised with this one. I also have been impressed with Starmer's writing. There are two notable sections where he uses anaphor to wonderful effect. One I will not quote on my blog because of the content of that passage, but the effect makes that moment for the two main characters very special. This other passage is more appropriate for the blog but has less of an impact than the first one. You'll just have to read the novel now to understand what I am talking about.
"Yes, this is what happens when your boyfriend spontaneously combusts in front of you. You fall to your knees. You press your face into the pavement as the blood drips, thick and languorous, off you, as if it were ice cream in the sunlight. You howl like you've never howled before, and the howl confirms that there are things deep inside you. Things darker than the darkest things you've ever imagined. And you believe in those things. Entirely, without question."
The repetition of the "you" does have the effect of placing the reader in the shoes of the main character. The author wants us to feel this moment, which you have to say is an earth shattering one. The metaphor in the second line is all at once beautiful and grotesque. But the repetition and switch to second person point of view is really what makes this paragraph for me. 

Like I said, the other passage was much better in its execution, but there is a lot to like in Spontaneous, by Aaron Starmer.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Charles Dickens in Spontaneous

I've begun reading Spontaneous. It is fun and humorous and interesting and fast paced and the perfect palate cleanser of a book. I really needed to read something like this after the last few books I've read. Especially since Silence was such a disappointment. 

I was interested to find a quote from Dickens' Bleak House at the beginning of the novel:
"Call the death by any name Your Highness will,attribute it to whom you will,or say it might have been prevented how you will.It is the same death eternally--inborn, inbred,engendered in the corrupted humours of the viciousbody itself,and that only--Spontaneous Combustion,and none other of all the deaths that can be died."
I don't know if Stramer is saying that he pulled the title for his novel from Dickens, or if he is just making a connection to more classical literature, but I thought it really set up the novel well when I started.

It is also interesting that Stramer has presented this Dickens quote in a poetic form, even though these lines are prose in chapter 32 of Bleak House. He separates out the words "body itself" so they appear on their own line, thus giving them more emphasis. The repetition of the word "will" on the end of the first three lines is also interesting.

I don't know how much this quote from Bleak House will factor into the novel, but it was nice to see Stramer using this classical lit quote.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Next Book

I will be reading Spontaneous, by Aaron Stamer next. I needed something a little lighter after than slog through Silence. Feel free to join me in reading this.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: Silence

Silence Silence by Shūsaku Endō
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was very excited to read this book. This was the second selection of our Department Book Club and I pushed hard to get this one picked. Unfortunately, I didn't like it. I felt obligated to finish the darn thing because we will be discussing it in a week or so, but I really struggled to read this.

First, the story wasn't original. I kept seeing Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and Heart of Darkness in this novel. As well as a ton of overt biblical allusions. I get it, Kichijiro is Judas! You don't need to keep harping on that through the last half of the novel. Now, I have read books that are similar to other books, but the problem in this instance is that it wasn't done particularly well. I felt like there were winks and nods through the whole novel as if the author was saying, "See what I did there, see? I'm clever." No, not really.

The first half of the novel just dragged. Lots of sitting in shacks and waiting and hiding. And then the second half of the novel should have picked up because some action actually started happening, but it didn't. I was very disappointed in the entirety of the plot.

Silence wouldn't have been all that bad if it had had some interesting or beautiful sentences/images, but it was very blah writing. Maybe it was the translation and maybe this book is much more beautiful in the Japanese, but I was dying for a beautiful Faulkner-like sentence. Unfortunately, I never got one. Nothing noteworthy in this novel.

The thing that kills me is that the reviews for this book are glowing in many respects. I just don't know why it has 4.5 out of 5 on Amazon and 4.09 here on Goodreads. Maybe I just didn't get it. A major disappointment for me.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Silence & Heart of Darkness

In Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, Marlow travels through Africa to meet Kurtz--this mysterious figure at the end of his journey. Once he finds Kurtz, the man is a shadow of his former self, twisted and destroyed by the jungle that surrounds him. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz loses his humanity in the jungle and eventually dies. Marlow is luckier and is able to return to civilization with his sanity, humanity, and the realization of how quickly a man can lose himself if we aren't careful.

In Silence, by Shusaku Endo, Rodrigues travels through Japan looking for Ferreira--a mysterious figure at the end of his journey. Once he finds Ferreira, the man is a shadow of his former self, changed and destroyed by the Japanese that surround him. In Silence, Ferreira loses his faith in Japan and eventually apostatizes. Rodrigues is luckier and is able to retain his faith, although he does "apostatize" by trampling on the fumie. Rodrigues realizes how quickly a man can lose his faith when placed under severe trials. 

I see a lot of similarities. Dang you, Endo! Not cool!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Biblical Allusions in Silence

The most obvious one is Kichijiro as Judas Iscariot. There is even a passage in the novel where the author spells this allusion out for those who might not be so well versed in their New Testament. 
"From childhood the priest had memorized every detail of that decisive morning of April 7th. This emaciated man was his perfect ideal. His eyes, like those of every victim, were filled with sorrowful resignation as he looked reproachfully at the crowd that ridiculed and spat at him. And in this crowd stood Judas. Why had Judas followed after? Was he incited by lust for revenge--to watch the final destruction of the man he had sold? Anyhow, whatever about that, this case was just like his own. He had been sold by Kichijiro as Christ has been sold as Judas; and like Christ he was now being judged by the powerful ones of this world. Yes, his fate and that of Christ were quite alike; and at this thought on that rainy night a tingling sensation of joy welled up within his breast. This was the joy of the Christian who relishes the truth that he is united to the Son of God."
The amount Kichijiro sells Rodrigues for is comparable to the thirty pieces of silver that Judas sold Christ for. 

But, I don't really feel that Rodrigues is our Christ of this story. When presented with the opportunity, Rodrigues shies away from suffering for the good of his people. Now, Christ pleaded for an easier way in the Garden but didn't run away from his duty. Rodrigues simply gives up.

At the end of the novel--POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD--Rodrigues tramples on the face of Christ (the Fumie as they call it). And after he places his foot on the image of Christ the cock crows. This is an allusion to Simon Peter denying Christ three times and then the cock crowed. The question would then be, were there two other times where Rodrigues denied Christ in the novel? I can't think of other times when Rodrigues denied Christ, but then again, I didn't pay super close attention to this novel. I do like the Rodrigues = Simon Peter interpretation better than the Rodrigues = Christ interpretation personally.

The problem then becomes who Ferreira represents in all of this. As I was reading I was thinking that Ferreira would be Simon Peter, but the last line of chapter nine refutes that idea. 

This is one of the frustrating things about this book. Endo uses these biblical allusions, but I want every character to have a symbolic counterpart and they don't. I feel that it detracts from the power that this novel could have. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Symphony No. 3, "Silence"

As I get further in this novel, I am finding all sorts of interesting things that were created. The cover of my book states that there will be a major motion picture produced, directed by Martin Scorsese. But I also found out that there was already a film made for this book in the seventies, and that James MacMillan wrote a symphony that connects to the novel. I don't normally discuss music on this blog, but I figured why not. Have a listen.



Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Silence of God

No surprise that a book about a Portuguese priest in Japan would have many things to say about religion and God. I've noticed that one of the biggest issues that the characters try to deal with is the seeming silence of God.

"No, Kichijiro was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent. This was the problem that lay behind the plaintive question of Kichijiro."

This idea also comes up again when Rodrigues is captured and then interrogated by the samurai. In the case of this novel, I have to go with what I can see from the words on the page. Yes, there is some historical context that is guiding this story, but this world may not be exactly as our own. This Japan is dark without much hope to be had. Rodrigues comes face-to-face with so many conflicts and problems that one begins to wonder if Kichijiro is right in his thinking that maybe God doesn't exist, or remains silent for some nefarious reason. These problems happen, obviously, to move the plot along and keep the story interesting, but I can see where these characters get this question from. God, the one whom all this is for, isn't helping, isn't comforting, isn't saving his servants. This may be why Kichijiro ultimately decides to apostatize and betray Rodrigues. 

We can even see this in the greetings of Rodrigues' letters in the novel. In the first few chapters he opens his missives with "Praised be Christ" and "The peace of God. Glory to Christ." But by chapter three those exaltations have been left out. Is it possible that this is because Rodrigues feels the hopelessness of his situation? He subconsciously stops praising Christ and God, because he feels like there is nothing to praise? Possibly.  

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Read-Along-Blog: Prologue, Silence by Shusaku Endo

Time to dive into this book. 


First, the cover. I absolutely love the cover. Well, at least the cover on the copy I got from my local library. My buddy across the hallway also checked it out and his cover is not as good. But the image is so beautiful, so evocative. I love the contrast between the dark grey/black of the sky and the red of the moon and the "moon drips". The sea is tinted pinkish/red because the blood of the moon is dripping down. And then this image of the priest praying on a cliff--very symbolic.

Now, let's dive in.

  • "News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of 'the pit' at Nagasaki had apostatized." Very interesting way to start the book. It clues us into what Christovao is going to do in the future of the story, but I am assuming we are going to then go back and watch how he got to the point where he apostatized--what made him do it. Also, several prepositional phrases in this sentence.
  • "And this same Ferreira was now somewhere in Japan. Had that face with its clear blue eyes and soft radiant light--hat it been changed by the hands of the Japanese torturers?" I love how the question in this second sentence is phrased. It starts out a question and then loses itself in description, but then picks up the question later after a dash. 
  • On the whole, Shusaku Endo is impressing me with his prose. I mean the prologue reads like a historical text book, only with more details on individuals. But the diction and syntax is very well done. Especially since this is a translation. We may be missing some of the poetic turns of phrase that I am sure are present in the original, but overall, not too shabby.
So, not a ton to discuss, but a good set up chapter. Hopefully this book will hold my attention. I really like the idea and Endo is a good writer and that cover!

P6: Dubliners Socratic Seminar

P5: Dubliners Socratic Seminar


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Photosynthesis, by William Michaelian

I just have to. It is too good to not share.

Take a moment and hop on down to William Michaelian's blog and check out his poem Photosynthesis.

http://recently-banned-literature.blogspot.com/2016/09/photosynthesis.html

I love the poetic turn in this one. Absolutely fantastic.

Check it out.

DO IT!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: Cards of Grief

Cards of Grief Cards of Grief by Jane Yolen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have had this book on my Kindle for years. I bought it because it was on sale a long time ago and it sounded really good, but then other books caught my attention more than this one. The only reason I picked up this book at this point was because a colleague in my department suggested we participate in a informal book club. The idea behind the book club is the read things that we wouldn't normally read--trying to stretch ourselves in our reading habits. So, I got to choose the first book, and my colleague asked for something science fiction. I figured that this book would be a good first choice.

Cards of Grief is a very interesting novel. Yolen, at the end of the book, states that this is the only science fiction novel she's ever written, but it isn't even really science fiction. This is more of a fantasy novel with some sci-fi elements. Cards of Grief is about an alien civilization that is under observation by humans. The humans live in a space station or ship that circles the planet and they travel down to the surface on occasion. But that part of the plot is muted and the least interesting part of this novel. The alien civilization, their culture and practices, are what keeps you reading Cards of Grief. It is interesting because while these aliens appear human in many respects, they are very different from our own culture. The main difference is how their entire civilization revolves around the emotion of grief. We might say that our culture focuses on love or anger, but their's focuses on grief. They spend much of their lives grieving their dead loved ones, preparing to grieve for dying loved ones, and hoping that people will grieve when they die. It is interesting how this has shaped their entire civilization.

The writing style is probably the most interesting part of Cards of Grief. It is not presented in chronological order, we don't see the action through the eyes of one or two characters, nor do we have traditional dialogue throughout the story. This novel is told through the notes of the humans that orbit the planet--through the transcripts of their interactions with the denizens of this planet. There are recorded stories, monologues, and transcribed interviews; these are what flesh out the world and this story. It certainly is a very interesting structure. I wouldn't say that I was ever lost while reading Cards of Grief, but it made for a very slow burn of a read. Plot points are unwrapped slowly rather than the break-neck pacing that most modern stories adopt. Everything is told in past tense too. The action of what characters are talking about happened in the past and they are recounting it to another. In the beginning it made me question whether these characters were reliable as narrators, but in the end, I don't think I ever came across something that didn't jive with what another character said. I don't think this story would have been as effective if it were presented in another manner. Yolen understands what she is doing and creates a style that really flavors the book as a whole. The style makes this novel and is what makes the plot and characters interesting.

Yolen is a fine writer; perhaps not the poetic, imagery heavy prose I usually gravitate towards, but Yolen does a good job. I enjoyed this novel for what it was. I am happy that it wasn't longer--I don't think she could have sustained much more in this plot. It was slightly higher than average book for me. I rated it a 7/10 on my own scale, but here I would rate it a 3.5.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My Son's an All-Star Speller

My Son’s an All-Star Speller

WRITTEN BY MACEO J. WHITAKER
My son’s the baddest lad in Sunnyside, Queens.
My son roughed up not only honors kids but also

the honors teacher. My son still pulled an A.
My son hopped the turnstile to surf on the E-

train to Rego Park to Kew Gardens to Jamaica +
back. My son does not spit sunflower seeds.

My son spits sunflowers. My son spits suns.
My son has a firm secret handshake

named EARTHQUAKE that takes Flushing Creek
waves down the Atlantic to Neptune,

New Jersey. Turning spumes on fumes, my son
hawks fake gold spoons from womb to tomb

then schools his foes on who vs. whom.
At the spelling bee, his adversary Jimmy Roe

(all pomp) nailed psoriasis + sarcophagus
but fumbled a gimme: “sacrilege.” My son

stepped to the mic + spelled vivisepulture.
Vivisepulture (n.): the act of burying alive.

My son put Jimmy Roe in a viselike headlock,
then mock-vivisepulture position before releasing

the runner-up from his clutches. My son won
the spelling bee; he won bullying; he won empathy.

My son can spell awry, rhythm, + ukulele, + —
oh, most definitely — he can spell trouble.
--------------------------------------------------------------------
I know that sometimes I can go a little overboard with praising Linebreak and featuring poetry from that website--it is just so easy because the poems are delivered in my email in-box. If you haven't signed up for Linebreak yet, you really should. My posts about the novels I am reading usually have some substance too. I have more to say.

But I just could not help myself with this poem today.

I wish that more poems were fun like this one. This is a fun poem. It doesn't pretend to be something super serious or deep, it is just a story and I love that. I mean, we could spend quite a bit of time talking about the poem and its structures. Or maybe an hour or two on its theme, but sometimes I like a poem to just be a poem. A fun read and nothing more.

This is a fun read. 

Enjoy.



Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Wolf in the Trailer

The Wolf in the Trailer

WRITTEN BY SAARA MYRENE RAAPPANA

The wolf in the trailer,
tired of drinking every meal, licked the last bowl
’til it was dry and fled into the darkened woods
because she couldn’t stand it here
(lamplight like snakes biting her eyes)
but soon returned because forest at daybreak fills
itself with such undimmability.
Panting with the kind of pain that makes
people forget which lie they told themselves,
she moves from chair to chair as if a ray
were chasing her (her feet crack scattered dishes like
they’re chipmunk bones). The paramedics, when
they force the door, will find her curled as if
in sideways prayer, head resting in a spot
of dawn so clear that they’ll mistake her fur
for hair. One man will crouch and touch two fingertips

below her ear to prove no sun beats there.

----------------------------------------------------------------------
I think the obvious thing to start with, in this poem, is the extended metaphor. There isn't a literal wolf in this trailer: "head resting in a spot / of dawn so clear that they'll mistake her fur / for hair." They will mistake her "fur for hair" because it is hair. But really isn't hair and fur the same thing? Anyway...the "wolf" is a woman, one that is hardened by alcohol, abuse, pain, and the darkness of her situation. She keeps returning, coming back to the trailer night after night because...well because she does. That is what is expected of her. In the turn of this poem, the paramedics arrive, but at that point it is too late. I believe that when Raappana states that "One man will crouch and touch two fingertips / below her ear to prove no sun beats there." that the wolf/woman is dead. She should have escaped and run free, but in the end the abuse of this trailer did her in. It is a sad ending. Often we think that these poor people will rise and get out of their current situations, but sometimes people just aren't strong enough to fight against the status quo. 

My absolute favorite line is "lamplight like snakes biting her eyes." The imagery in this line is strange and beautiful, which you know I enjoy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Elegy: An Email


Elegy: An Email

WRITTEN BY BRIAN SPEARS


Fw: sad news

My son,
A man you knew twenty years ago
has died. His wife has cancer
and cannot travel home
for the funeral. You may remember
he took you camping once, water-skiing
on the Pearl River, far enough
from home to drink beer,
far enough to think I didn’t know.
This is the third time I’ve forwarded
an email like this to you
and I know each time you see
the subject line, you think
“Oh God” (the only time you still pray)
“it’s Dad or Grandma.” I know this.
I do it anyway.
                         Not out of meanness.
What would I change it to? All the news
I get of people you knew when you
were one of us is of their deaths,
or that they’ve left the church,
lost faith after so many years.
Like you. Like the grandson
of the man in this email
who sinned at an inconvenient time,
and will watch this funeral alone
amid the congregation.
Like you will, when you come home.

--------------------------------------------------------------

I love the conversational tone of this poem. It reads like an email and I feel like we don't have enough email poetry. It is strange since email is such a huge thing in our world now. But I have gotten off track. And my absolute favorite line is "I do it anyway / Not out of meanness." I love the line break here, which adds significant levels of meaning to the poem. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Next Book

I just heard about this book the other day. It sounds marvelous and I haven't read very much Japanese literature. I think this will be a very good read.



Thursday, September 8, 2016

One final passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God

With this post I just want to provide a beautiful quote that we can just revel in. Some marvelous poetic lines that we can root around in and just enjoy because they sound wonderful.

"So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way out West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now. She was sad and afraid too. Poor Jody!"

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in preparation for teaching the novel to my AP Literature and Composition students. I had heard of the book for years, but never expressed much interest. Maybe it was the time period, or the characters, or the subject matter that didn't appeal, but I never took the initiative to pick this book up.

But...I'm glad that I did. This is a marvelous work of fiction and deserving of its place on the same list with other literary greats.

Hurston's style is interesting. At times I struggled with the southern speech. I often needed an adjustment period when I would begin reading, but after a few pages of dialogue I would find myself reading these lines of dialect without any trouble. As a general rule I don't much care for writer's use of dialect, and here I felt it was just okay. I don't think it added as much as say Twain's use of dialect in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also noticed that Hurston has a tremendous ability to provide the reader with beautiful and interesting images. She does include her fair share of lyrical language, which you know that I love.

I won't go into too much detail on the plot as others have done that to excess and you can read their reviews if you really want to know what the novel is about. What I found interesting is the fact that this story is really three stories that are all interconnected through one character: Janie. Her three marriages are the three different tales that this book weaves and it is interesting that this is what Hurston focused on. Janie grows as she experiences being married to these three very different men, and I would say that each marriage improves upon the last. But because of the way these stories are approached, it is almost as if we have three completely different characters named Janie. Three versions of the same person. I think there is a lot to be said about this aspect of the novel. How people change throughout their lives and could you really say that I am now the same person that I was when I was 16. We want and care about wildly different things. We act, speak, and live very differently. So, is the sixteen-year-old me really me? This is the wonderful depth that Hurston evokes with her main character.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Janie's Face

Just polished up my glasses and now it is time to blog. It is amazing how dirty glasses get throughout the day. I try not to touch them and still...

Several times throughout the novel, Hurston refers to her main character as "Janie's Face," or spends time describing Janie's face. Here is one notable passage after Jody passes away.

"Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Never-more. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm. She sent her face to Joe's funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world."
And here is another one from earlier in the novel:
"The years took all the fight out of Janie's face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods--come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn't value."
As I was reading Their Eyes were Watching God I noticed these phrases peppered throughout the novel and wondered about their importance. It wasn't until I got to the the end of the novel that I figured it out. Well, I think I figured it out. The story of Janie is a story of a woman who is forced to follow societies norms for women at the time. Janie doesn't want to marry, she doesn't want to keep house. But the worst part is that Janie doesn't know initially that she doesn't want these things. She is just going along with the flow. She marries her first husband because her grandmother expects it and society expects it. She marries Jody because it seems like a good choice based off of societies expectations. in these first two marriages that phrase "Janie's face" crops up. She isn't a whole person. She puts on an act for the people around her: playing the part of the dutiful wife. Society expects her to be dumb, and submissive, and not play checkers and so she puts her face on, just like any woman would put on makeup in the morning. It's a mask. 

But after Jody's death, Janie is finally able to take that mask off when she hooks up with Tea Cake. No more expectations because Janie just doesn't care anymore. And that is where the phrase "Janie's face" disappears because she isn't "Janie's face" anymore, she is just Janie.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Pronoun Usage in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston is a very interesting author. She seems to fall into and out of lyrical language throughout her novel. There are moments where she needs to write beautifully, and then there are moments where she pulls back and just presents the action at hand. Something that I have noticed while reading, is that during these moments of beautiful, lyrical language Hurston plays with nouns and pronouns. The emphasis is mine in the following quotes.

"The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgement."

This first quote come right at the beginning of the novel and Hurston describes these people, these "sitters" as less than human. She doesn't use words with positive connotations--"mules," "brutes," "sitters," "conveniences," even "people." There is no familiarity, nor is there any love. As these "skins" are passing judgment on Janie, Hurston wants us to be passing judgement on them as well.

This next quote is right at the end of the novel...

"The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. Commenced to sing, commenced to sob and sigh, singing and sobbing. Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn't dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see."

The first line is so interesting to me because there are three distinct days in the list and they are coming to life in these lines and singing and sobbing and sighing. The events of Janie's life are so powerful to her that she visualizes them before her and then wraps herself in these experiences. Very symbolic.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Red Rising

Red Rising Red Rising by Pierce Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pierce Brown has taken something that should be familiar to any reader of the distopian genre and made it different at the same time. I can see what people are saying when they compare Red Rising to The Hunger Games. These two books are about young people entering an arena to compete in a winner take all contest. And while I enjoyed Suzanne Collins' romp, I feel that Brown did it better. His idea and world is far more original than Collins' is, the plot isn't as plodding as The Hunger Games, and Brown's prose is far more polished.

Brown excels in his world building. I was very interested in this world where man has expanded far beyond the horizons of earth and conquered the solar system. I was interested in this caste system of colors: golds at the top, reds at the bottom. I was interested in the technology, the ships, and the weapons. Unfortunately, Brown doesn't spend a ton of time exposing the reader to these interesting things. He has a story to tell and needs to get Darrow into that arena. I am hoping that Brown spends more time revealing his world to the reader in the subsequent novel. Because of this novel's ending I think that is likely.

He did take less time to establish the character of Darrow and so, I didn't care as much about his main character as I did about Katniss Everdeen. Collins spent half of her novel allowing the reader to get to know Katniss and that was preferable to the few chapters we were able to spend with Darrow before he was sent on his mission. It was difficult to connect with Darrow because of this. By the end of the novel I felt conflicted though because the Darrow at the end of the novel is so different than the Darrow of the beginning.

Overall, this was a fun read. I can't fault the book for having similarities to other books in the same genre. After all, genre simply is a way we categorize books or movies that have similarities...right? I am interested in the second and third books, but I might not get to them right away. Too many books on my TO READ list as it is.

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Summer Break 2016

Anyone who regularly reads this blog probably understands that I teach high school English. Well, that time of year is upon us once again. In a few short days, I will be going on summer vacation. My reading and enjoyment of literature will not stop, and I will try to post a few thoughts along the way. But the schedule will, once again, be disrupted. I will not be posting twice a week during the summer, but once we are back into the swing of things come end of August, Mr. Barbaric Yawp will be back at full force.

Enjoy your summer!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

No Means No: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Collins, who annoys the dickens out of me pretty much every time he opens his mouth, has come to Hertfordshire to gain a wife. He wants to marry one of the Bennet daughters as he will one day inherit their family home and that would keep everything tidy and still within the Bennet family. In chapter 19, he has just proposed to Elizabeth:

"'You are too hasty, sir!" she cried. 'You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.' 
'I am not now to learn,' replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, 'that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.'"


She continues to reject Mr. Collins' proposals, eventually having to go to her parents to intervene. 

This exchange reminds me to Rochester's proposal to Jane in Jane Eyre, except that Jane does indeed want to marry Rochester, she just continues to say no because she worries about what society expects of her. 

This is a little different though. Mr. Collins is dense. He doesn't understand what is happening, he doesn't understand women, and most of all, he doesn't understand Elizabeth. His reply is rife with misogynistic phrases and ideals. First he calls Elizabeth "young" which can be attributed to a difference in age, but I believe that "young" here also connotes inexperienced and perhaps a bit of the backwardness of  country living. Collins doesn't expect Elizabeth to understand things because she hasn't "seen" the world as he has. She doesn't live in a large city, she hasn't traveled, and she certainly doesn't have the ear of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as Mr. Collins has. He talks as if this is all a game and he has figured out the trick to winning: "it is usual with young ladies to reject and addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept." So, you're saying that women say no to men who they really want to marry because it is some sort of game? And then, in the end, he states that he will "lead" Elizabeth to the altar soon. "Lead"! He is going to "lead" her, like some domesticated animal? Like a horse, or a donkey? Can't she choose whom she wants to marry and the proper time to get married? Can't Elizabeth choose to reject your advances? Are men the only ones that can make decisions? I chuckled a couple times while reading this and the subsequent chapter because Elizabeth is so smart and quick witted, and Collins just doesn't understand. He is so sexist that it is comical. 

But it doesn't end there. Every year, we hear about college-aged men, in trouble with the law, because of things they do (or say) within their fraternities. Not all fraternities are populated with sexist, beer-guzzling jerks, but some are, and they are the ones that appear in the news. Every year we see these news-stories about women who said no, but these men didn't care. It's not that they misinterpreted, it's not that they didn't hear; these men want something and they will go to all lengths to get it. I don't see Mr. Collins playing beer-pong and wearing a visor sideways on his head, but his behavior in these chapters is a sign and type of things to come. Collins is the literary equivalent. He doesn't want to hear no, so he chooses not to. He will have Elizabeth and no other option is viable.

I feel like Collins would wear a visor like this if he were living in our era.
I haven't finished the novel, so I don't know if Collins redeems himself later on, but at this point, it is not looking good.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Review: Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know why I was worried to read Toni Morrison, but I've always been hesitant to pick up any of her books. Perhaps the worry stemmed from an idea, deep rooted, that I wouldn't like it. That happens often when I pick up something deemed as "classical fiction." They are so much work, often, that I end up not enjoying the book and not even finishing the book.

But now, I am a Morrison convert. Song of Solomon is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. I won't go into a long detailed summary of the plot, you can find that elsewhere. I will just discuss what I loved about this piece of literature.

This book was not work, it was joy. Even though there isn't much to the plot, I was entirely engrossed in the characters and their plight. These are well-fleshed out people that live and breath on a plane not entirely unlike our own. There weren't any of the fantastical trappings that are often required to hold my interest, or a break-neck-speed plot. This book burned slow and bright. The characters are entirely normal and completely foreign all at the same time. I loved Milkman, Ruth, First Corinthians, Pilate, Hagar, Guitar; they are real people and I've lived among them.

Morrison strums the symbolic harp within this work. She understands how powerful symbols and names can be and utilizes that to its utmost benefit. I am looking forward to discussing the novel with my AP Literature students next year, when a group chooses this as their Individual Choice Winter Reading Assignment. I am excited to try some ideas out on other people.

The novel is a bildungsroman, although it doesn't feel like a traditional coming-of-age novel. Milkman does indeed go on a journey, in which he learns about himself and his family, but he is tricked into going. He isn't departing on this journey to better himself internally: to open his mind and heart. Instead, Milkman is going to purely greedy and physical reasons: he wants money. But on this journey, he learns so much and becomes a man. That is why is is so devastating at the end. He just came to understand himself and his place in the world and...

Morrison's style is reminiscent of Faulkner or McCarthy. Long, descriptive sentences paint this novel with their image heavy splatter. Her diction is strange and lyrical. Beautiful descriptions abound. But, I wasn't the biggest fan of he times when Morrison would step into consciousness. At times it made the reading difficult to follow and there were times when I felt that I had missed some crucial details. That one little nit-pick is not enough to lose a star for this book though. It is indeed that good.

I will most certainly be visiting the worlds of Morrison again in the future. She has trampoline'd into my favorite author list. And to think that I at one time was afraid of her work. How naive and foolish I was.

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Next Book Selection

Don't know if I will like it, but I'm going to give it a go.


And...a book sculpture for your enjoyment.


Theme in Song of Solomon

Philip Weinstein in the article I mentioned in the last post--Faulkner 101: Toni Morrison and William Faulkner--states:
"Song of Solomon (1977) pits Macon Dead (a propertied man, with middle-class aspirations, full of disgust for his own race) against Pilate Dead (Macon's repudiated blood sister, yet a compelling figure radiating tribal values) and asks a question Faulkner's work never poses: Where are the missing black parents whose courage and character might guide us today? Song of Solomon (appearing at the same time as Alex Haley's Roots) is a song in search of Solomon, a lament for absent ancestors, and an attempt to imagine them nevertheless."
This perfectly encapsulates the main idea of the novel for me, an idea which I hadn't yet gotten to. Pilate does indeed represent that tribal culture, that culture that her brother Macon has forgotten and/or rejected. She doesn't worry about personal possessions, money, food. She figures that all of these things will be provided for her; that the world will figure it out. She lives simply without the trappings of society. On the other hand, Macon wants to be white. He sees how the other side of society lives and has embraced it. He talks about how important it is to own things--harking back to the era of slavery when his people were considered possessions. Macon owns property, but one could also go so far to say that he also owns people. He treats his wife and children as property. He beats his wife, Ruth, and there is a nice passage, one that I quoted in another blog post, that describes how Macon treats his children. 

And I agree with Weinstein that Song of Solomon is a search for ancestors. Milkman seems to be the primary character engaged in this search. But their fore-fathers are absent, even the one thing that their ancestors would have passed down--their last name--is gone, changed during the Civil War. There is no wisdom being passed down from previous generations. Milkman struggles to understand his place in the world and has no one to guide him.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Reminds me of As I Lay Dying

Not exactly similar, but Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, reminds me of As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner. There are certainly the similarities of writing styles, but today I wanted to focus on a different aspect. Side-note: I found a wonderful article about Morrison and Faulkner on Oprah's website. You can access it here. I want to focus on the story today, and how each novel features a family that is completely messed-up. Here is a passage from Song of Solomon--
"The good-night kiss was itself a masterpiece of slow-wittedness on her part and discomfort on his. At sixteen, she still insisted on having him come to her at night, sit on her bed, exchange a few pleasantries, and plant a kiss on her lips. Perhaps it was the loud silence of his dead wife, perhaps it was Ruth's disturbing resemblance to her mother. More probably it was the ecstasy that always seemed to be shining in Ruth's face when he bent to kiss her--an ecstasy he felt inappropriate to the occasion."
And this doesn't even scratch the surface of all the messed up stuff that is happening in the novel. It reminds me of A Rose for Emily too, also by Faulkner. But we have a mother, who seems to have some major daddy issues, that is demanding that her father kiss her good-night every night well into her teen years. That same woman then goes on to breast-feed her boy far longer than a woman should. You have cousins having sex with each other. A father that beats his wife and is very demanding of his children. All of this reminds me of As I Lay Dying where you have another family with a bunch of inter-personal, social, and sexual problems. So, why all of the darkness? Why do we have two authors that are both writing about these abnormal families.

I believe that it is because this is actually very close to the norm. People are stranger than we think and sometimes I feel that we put on these rose-colored glasses and think the world is great. It is not. There are a lot of weirdos and sickos out there. It is unfortunate, but true. And they existed in Faulkner's time and certainly existed in Morrison's time. These authors are showing us the world; holding up a mirror so we can truly see what is happening on our planet. 

Many times my students ask me, why classical literature is so dark and depressing. I usually try to pass the questions off and get them focused back on some feature of the text--"Let's do a close reading from chapter three!" I do this because the real reason is far more depressing than the actual literature is. Classical literature is dark and depressing because the world is darker and more depressing. Human beings are awful and they treat each other horribly. Author's just express in their books what they see in the world.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Character Names in Song of Solomon

After reading chapter one, it was apparent to me that the names in Morrison's Song of Solomon are important. I will even go so far as to say that I believe that they will be symbolic. 

This family, the Dead family, has some interesting naming conventions for their children. The male children are named Macon Dead, hence we would have Macon Dead the first, Macon Dead Jr., Macon Dead the third...so on and so forth. Their last name is interesting, supposedly a mistake during the Civil War. But it becomes even more intriguing when girls are born into the family. The father then takes a pin and pierces a page in the bible, then finds the name that is closest to the pin, and names their daughter that. This system has lead to some very interesting names. All of the women in the novel, thus far, have had biblical names--including Ruth, Macon's wife.

Because I think these names are going to become a huge factor in the novel, I will spend some time analyzing each.



Pilate Dead: Macon's sister's name alludes to Pontius Pilate in the Bible. Pilate was the Roman leader of Jerusalem and interrogated Christ when the Savior was brought before him. Pilate washed his hands of the matter of Christ and allowed the Jews to crucify him. Even Dante, in The Inferno, is ambivalent as to Pilate. He wasn't necessarily evil or wicked, but he certainly didn't do any favors for Christ.

Reba/Rebecca: Pilate's daughter. This name comes from Genesis. Rebecca was Isaac's wife. She helped her son Jacob to gain the birthright blessing from Isaac.

Hagar: Hagar is Reba's daughter in the novel. In the bible, Hagar was Sarah's handmade. Sarah had her husband, Abraham sleep with Hagar and she gave birth to Ishmael--the progenitor to the Arabic nations.

Ruth Dead: Ruth is Milkman's mother. I never really cared for the story of Ruth very much. Never saw much symbolism or importance in it. But I guess it could be important to note that Ruth gave birth to the grandfather of King David in the bible.

Magdalena Dead: In the novel they always address her as Magdalena called Lena. This is Ruth's eldest daughter and alludes to Mary Magdalene the woman who was the first to witness Christ's resurrection.

First Corinthians Dead: Now this name is the oddest. This child isn't named after a figure in the bible, but a book in the bible. First Corinthians is Ruth's second daughter, and her name alludes to the book written by Paul.

I did some research to help with this information. I knew that these names would have significance, and I understood some of them, but then I looked up the others. This resource was a great help:

http://norfolklibrarybookgroup.squarespace.com/the-reading-blog/2011/7/5/biblical-names-in-song-of-solomon.html

At the end of the article, they mention that the men in the novel have more "physical names." I might go as far as to say that the men in the novel have more mundane names.