Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Peter Pan

Johannah wrote to me from college to tell me I must read Peter Pan. Then she wrote again later to tell me that the first five chapters are genius but after that it gets a bit racist. Still when Johannah calls writing genius, I listen. She’s a great reader, better than I am.

So I followed her link to the online version and began reading today any time I needed a break from SAT/ACT essays (which was often, I confess). Then I had to keep interrupting Jon from his work because I was laughing so hard, I felt guilty unless I involved another party.

Tonight as I closed up shop online, I took another quick peek at the first chapter (couldn’t resist) and read the following. Instantly I thought of you all.

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.

Good night, good mothers.

How does she do it?

Little House
Originally uploaded by juliecinci

Every now and then, a writer I’ve read countless times tricks me into rereading her work. As I selected passages for the September issue of the Arrow from Little House on the Prairie (a book I’ve read so many times, I can practically narrate it chapter by chapter from memory), I meant to simply thumb through my 1960s hardback volume to my favorite quotations and then jot them down…

Instead, my teaspoon poised itself in front of my mouth as my French onion soup went cold while I read the first four chapters without a pause or a breath… I rushed to the part where we find out whether or not Laura’s dog Jack survives being washed downstream in a rising creek after his long journey from Wisconsin to Kansas, running the whole way on foot under the covered wagon.

I know how it turns out. I know it so well, I can almost quote the poignant description. But somehow, any time I start reading the opening lines of this book, I can’t stop until I get to that most exquisite writing which releases me from the prison of narrative tension.

Little House 2
Originally uploaded by juliecinci

Laura Ingalls Wilder is one writer who gets more done with simple language than just about any other children’s writer. She so thoroughly inhabits the mind life of a little girl, you forget that she’s in her sixties at the time of writing.

I first heard the Little House series read to me by my mother. She sat in my bed, back against the headboard, reading the books chapter by chapter in her soothing voice. So special did our readings become that for years afterwards, my mother continued to purchase and give to me Laura paraphernalia and any other books related to her life as they were published. I have the full set of hard back books as well as many other Laura related publications all housed in my bookcase.

Eight years ago, I finally had the joy of visiting South Dakota where Laura spent her long winter. Our kids were with me and I had just finished reading the series aloud to them… for the second time. We marveled at the tiny house whose drawing room Laura considered large and spacious. We admired the trees planted for each of the girls. All those years later, they towered over us. What an astonishing experience to see that all we had read found its roots in a real place, among real people. In an odd way, I felt as though we were visiting family. That is the power of Laura’s wonderful writing.

Laura’s books are a gift to every generation. More than a portrait of a moment in history, of pioneering life, Laura Ingalls Wilder offers us timeless writing. If you haven’t read her books, now’s a great time to start.

Reasons #1672, 1673, 1674, 1675, and 1676

Overheard this summer…

Johannah (17): JK Rowling really is a master storyteller, but she can’t put words together like Charlotte Bronte. I’m obsessed with Jane Eyre suddenly. Every sentence is a masterpiece.

Noah (20): So you won’t believe what I bought in California. Books. I have a whole suitcase of them: Aristophanes’ plays, a set of three E.M. Forster books (A Room with a View is so well-written – I just flip to any page and I can’t stop laughing), James Joyce and this book called Hopscotch (it starts in chapter 73 and then you have to follow the directions to which chapter comes next… very postmodern). And that’s not all of them. I love used book stores.

Caitrin (10): Book two of Harry Potter is much more interesting to read after book seven. It’s amazing what muggle cast (radio show for HP fans) missed that is right there, plain as day, that gives away the whole story! …Well, we all missed it, I guess.

Liam (13): I can’t read books that aren’t good. Jack London is a good writer. There aren’t very many writers I think are very good. Well, Avi is good, too.

Jacob (15): When I get that tired from reading, my eyes glaze over and I have to reread the sentence, like, fifteen times and I still have no idea what it says. But staying up all night? It was worth it. A couple of Cokes and changing positions, and I kept going. It took me only twelve hours to finish book seven. It was the happiest and saddest twelve hours of my life.

I realized the other day… it’s happened. They’ve caught the bug. Our kids are telling me what to read. They’re the ones evaluating which books have good writing and why. Heck, they’re reading books I haven’t even read and didn’t want to… And they’re doing it during the summer, spending their own money and free time on them.

Yep; more reasons I love homeschooling.

Email: What about the classics?

Elaine asked some great questions about the value of reading classic literature last week. My answers are interspersed.

Hi Julie and Jon —

We need to be making some literature decisions with my 16 yr-old dd as she embarks on her sophomore year. She does not find literature readily engaging, preferring Reader’s Digest and Calvin and Hobbes to Pride and Prejudice (she did make it 3/4 of the way, yeah!). She has found she enjoys James Herriott’s writing. And after sticking with To Kill A Mockingbird in the discussion forum with Jon and the other students, she did find that she enjoyed reading the book. I new it would be a stretch for her because it wasn’t particularly relevant to her. I think having the forum made a huge difference. (Thank you again!)

Wonderful! To Kill a Mockingbird is more accessible than a lot of “classic” literature since it is set in a more recent era and written in the 1960s. It is a well crafted novel dealing with profound themes. Literature (versus fiction) is said to be those novels that have layers to be investigated. Fiction is simply any novel that tells a story. TKAM falls into the literature category for that reason.

I was leaning toward signing her up for the Slingshot because of our previously successful experience and then I read the list. Ugh! Hemingway and Steinbeck–two of my personally least-liked authors I was forced to read in high school.

I totally understand! Reading “classics” is one reason I didn’t become an English major in college. I chose history. I didn’t like being made to read anything fictional that I didn’t choose for myself. I did not like American lit in high school and really didn’t develop any affection for American authors until my late thirties. Jon, by contrast, got his Master’s in American lit because these are his favorite writers.

Hemingway was too opaque for me. It wasn’t until I took to reading short stories that I gained any appreciation for his brilliance (I was 37 at the time). I still don’t like his novels. I appreciated Steinbeck because his book The Grapes of Wrath dealt with a historical event and made it come to life (fits more with the history side of me than the lit side). I read that in high school. But his other books were so depressing, I have never returned to Steinbeck myself.

When Jon was picking books for the Slingshot, he chose the ones he likes. Amazingly. And he likes these books a lot. He sees the levels and he enjoys bringing those to life for readers and students. When he talks to me about books like these, I find myself suddenly interested and more willing to “take a second look.” Since he leads the discussions, he gets to pick. 🙂 And of course, these are modern classics because truly Hemingway and Steinbeck are brilliant writers. Whether you enjoy them is an entirely different way to assess them.

Jon has always loved literature and would read anything with print on a page. That’s the difference between us and why he went the lit route and I went the history route in college.

While examining my own gut response to these authors and remembering other “classics” I thought were tedious at best and trash at worst, I could see I was chasing my tail again trying to come up with a sound philosophy for our approach to literature. I am genuinely interested in your thoughts on the reason people should read various fictional authors. I personally enjoy literature. My all-time favorite is Austen, but I have enjoyed Twain, Dickens, Les Mis, Cather, Shakespeare and more. I don’t enjoy Steinbeck, Hemingway, Tess of the D’urbervilles (sp?), Poe (although he could turn a phrase). I think you get the gist.

Right! This is how it is with literature. Not all of it appeals to everyone. It’s important to find out what you enjoy, to taste novels you might not naturally select for yourself to discover how literature speaks to you. But I certainly don’t think there is a list everyone has to work through by a certain age. In fact, I had never read Jane Austen until I was 35. I read more classic literature in my twenties and thirties than at any time prior. Why? Because Jon had a kickin’ library! We lived in Morocco at the time—no TV, tons of time. I slowly worked through the shelves of his bookcase and became a “literate” person. And I discovered all kinds of writers and novels I would not have read otherwise through that process. Wonderful, rich time of reading and discussing with Jon, the Master. 🙂

I also discovered that I love short stories. They’re my favorite. I love the layers. I don’t enjoy summer beach reads or the typical novels on the NYTimes best seller list. But I discovered in my twenties and thirties that I loved a “classic” that had those layers to investigate. That doesn’t mean, however, that I like all classic novels. Some just aren’t my taste. Some of the subject matter isn’t of interest. But I can recognize now what makes a novelist a brilliant writer as opposed to a good story teller.

Jon and I were talking the other day about his college fiction class that he teaches at Xavier. I’ve taught it for him before when he’s been out of town. He was saying that I’ve developed a real knack for seeing the layers in stories, in the writing. I told him that that skill has come mostly through writing (as in mastering the craft) more than through reading (which is the way it came for him). We had a great discussion about it.

So, what’s the purpose as you see it for reading fictional literature? And given Brave Writer’s orientation to student-centered learning, how do you meld the two?

I think it’s perfectly fine to save even classic works of fiction for a time when the student is genuinely interested. One way to support a student who is not inclined to read “the harder stuff” is to start with film versions of the books. If the film version entertains and captures the student’s imagination, then reading the novel can be an easier task than facing it cold. I also think it helps to have someone read those books with you so that you can talk about them, can discover themes and symbolism that you would miss otherwise. That’s what enriches the classic novel reading experience.

If your daughter is not naturally inclined to read “the classics,” then you might want to simply select quality fiction that matches her areas of interest (like for me, it was anything that also had a historical component). Keep her reading to a few well-chosen books rather than slogging through a list that kills any affection she has for reading. And trust that over a lifetime, as she matures, she’ll have ample opportunity to expand her own reading list (and will perhaps have the joy I had of reading a classic for the first time as an adult, and enjoying it because I had life experiences that helped me relate to the stories that would have gone over my head as a teen).

A great example of this principle.
I read The Great Gatsby in high school. I liked it so-so. Then I reread it two years ago. I loved it. It is now in my top two works of fiction I’ve ever read. (My top book is A Room with a View by E.M.Forster). I was mesmerized by Fitzgerald’s mastery of language, the creative use of point of view, the symbolism, the dialog, the descriptions… and the story line. Everything. I can’t say enough good about that book. But in high school? Didn’t even totally get it. I don’t think I had a teacher who did a good job of unfolding it to me either.

In 9th grade, I had a fabulous teacher who helped me to love Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and even James Thurber. So it really can be a matter of having the right teacher to help you dig into meaty, difficult material and then come out better for it.

I know this is a big question, but I am genuinely interested and hope you have time to answer. I trust you both have reasoned this question beyond the standard response of “it’s a classic, so she should know what it says.” I have never personally bought into the notion that just because a number of people were persuaded that something was good, doesn’t in fact make it good or worthy.

Jon would say that there is a benefit to reading classic works of fiction because they enhance your cultural literacy. When someone references Ahab and the whale, for instance, I still don’t really “get” the reference having never read the book. But I do get it if someone says that so-and-so has a “Mr. Darcy-like” air about him. That kind of thing.

Also, reading master writers enhances your vocabulary, enriches your awareness of the complexity of human interactions and relationships, and populates your imagination with “others” – those people different from us, who come from other times and places we would not “travel” to even if we could. Literature expands who you are and your place in the world.

Hope that helps you think more about how to incorporate classic fiction into your particular family.

In preparation for…

In preparation for…
Originally uploaded by juliecinci

book seven, I’m rereading book six.

Not everyone is a fan of Harry Potter. Though today, you’d be hard pressed to find too many who haven’t at least seen a movie or read a book. What makes this moment significant, though, is the scale of HP’s entrance into our popular culture. Like the Beatles did for pop music and Star Wars did for the movies, Harry Potter will go down as the most powerful literary phenomenon in our time.

Friday night will be an international party as the seventh book is released. Fans are already figuring out ways to avoid the Internet, magazines, television news and friends who might spoil the greatly anticipated ending to the series.

In the homeschooling world, much has been written about the dangers of the books versus their delightful and engrossing plot-lines. No matter where you fall in that debate, we all can see that Harry Potter and his magical world have invaded our international consciousness, have created a memorable cast of characters whose names are now synonymous with the character qualities they represent, and have engaged children and teens in their first most delicious and satisfying book discussions many of them have ever known. They have discovered that books are more than stories to be read and finished. They are to be savored, analyzed and enjoyed with fellow readers.

To that end, we will open a discussion forum some time in August (depending on when I finish the book!) for any teen or child (or enthusiastic parent!) who wants to have a place to discuss the series with fellow fans. It will be supervised (by Jon and me) requiring a log in, but for no fee (free of charge).

So if the magical world of Harry Potter has kept you spell-bound for any length of time, I hope you’ll join us when we have the fun of discussing how it all turned out. (I’m personally on pins and needles wondering whether or not Snape really is a bad guy… Can you imagine keeping that question so alive for six, SIX, books? J.K. Rowling – what a good writer!)