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.

View all my reviews

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.