Living · Reading · Teaching

Summer Reading During a Pandemic

So this has been a weird summer. And spring. You know; you’ve lived it too.

My campus went online after March 13, so we have been teaching, advising, and meeting from home for months. I have some thoughts. I have had some thoughts before now, but honestly I’ve had more feelings than thoughts. I couldn’t bring myself to write this summer, so I feel like I’ve got some catching up to do, but in keeping with what I’ve been telling my family, my students, my friends, and my colleagues, I’m going to be gentle with myself and just pick up the keyboard and start, not fret about what I didn’t do this summer.

I often post a blog or two about my summer reading, in part because it’s such a big deal for someone who teaches literature to be able to read something not for class, and in part because many of you wonderful folks who read this little blog are also big readers. This summer was something else. Here’s what went down:

  1. Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. I took a seminar on Dickens in grad school, and this was my favorite. I haven’t, however, revisited it in the twenty years since then. It’s still lovely, but I have to tell you, I started in March, and I’m not through it yet. I’ve been reading it in little bites—a chapter or three here and there, then nothing for two weeks. Somehow I haven’t been able to sustain the attention Dickens requires. From time to time I had twinges of guilt or shame at being less capable of reading a big novel, but this is just not the summer for (multiple) big novels. Whatever. Someday this fall Florence will get her happy ending, and that’s just fine.
  2. James Nestor’s Breath, a new non-fiction book about how we breathe and how we should breathe for better physical and mental health. I have gotten one massage  in the last six months, and when I did, my massage therapist recommended it. And now I recommend it. It’s readable, practical, and I found myself reading passages out loud to unsuspecting family members about how to calm anxiety and get better sleep. Timely, no?
  3. A Book that Takes its Time by Irene Smit and Astrid von der Hulst. This is basically a compilation of articles suitable for publication in the magazine FLOW, and I enjoyed all the pieces and their piecemeal nature. It’s easier to read two pages of something delightful than, for instance, 900 pages of Dickens.
  4. Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days. I recently started in a new leadership position with a wildly different job description, so I was looking for resources. Tragically, my first 90 days were all online, during summer, far away from the fine folks I’ll be attempting to lead, so all this one gave me was a vague sense that I was missing opportunities.
  5. Patricia McKissick’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. This is a lovely collection of African American fiction for kids, and it was one of the several ways I started thinking about race and history and doing better personally and nationally. I also bought Alice Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Walker is miraculous, but I haven’t read any Whitehead. I’m optimistic.
  6. Small Teaching: Online by Flower Darby and James Lang. Darby is adapting Lang’s Small Teaching, and I am frantically searching for ways to help my students stay connected to each other and the texts I teach. This has some good stuff, so I hope I finish it and put it to use in time. Cross your fingers for me; the countdown’s on.
  7. The first two novels in the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. These were the first choices of a friend who did what it takes to guarantee that I read a book—she bought me a copy and started a book club. We had good talks on Zoom about whether the murderbot is male or female and all the other things one talks about when one reads science fiction.
  8. Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, which I found via her TED Talk, and which gave me lots of little, happy boosts from reading it and consciously looking for sources of joy. For an incontrovertible happy-ass like myself (who’s been struggling of late), I now feel super-charged in the “Notice Cool Stuff and Enjoy It” category.
  9. Lisa Schneidau’s Botanical Folktales of Britain and Ireland. If you know me, this has my name written all over it. I’m reading one a night, and they’re perfect.
  10. Allan and Jessica Ahlberg’s The Goldilocks Variations. It’s a picture book. That one I finished.  But it’s also outstanding in every way, and I highly recommend it.

So what have we learned? I’m scattered, or eclectic, looking for comfort and inspiration, sometimes finding them, sometimes not finishing what I start or even starting at all. It’s been a wild summer, hasn’t it? What I’ve learned above all is to be gentle—with myself, with others, with the world. That’s all that’s working for me consistently.

I hope wherever you are, you’ve found some comfort, some solace, some insight and inspiration this summer, and if you’d like to talk about books—books I read, or you read, or books half-finished or waiting patiently on the end table, filled with potential, let me know.

Reading · Teaching

Reading Dante in Isolation

I recently moved my teaching online, along with the rest of the world. I was in the middle of Dante’s Inferno.

The course on Epics (this term) wound its way from Greek and Roman treatments of the Trojan War to Dante’s critique of some of those tropes and characters, and we were just about to talk about how low in Hell Ulysses gets placed when we disbanded. We left some things hanging as we moved in to a new, foreign medium.

But the conversation continued. We were fortunate to have built a good base; we were about halfway through our semester, so comfortable with each other and our content. And the content is all connected.

The last day we met in person, we talked about Dante’s treatment of thieves. As we considered why thieves get transformed in to snakes in hell, we teased out all the imagery and traced through-lines. For about four cantos, Dante winds the image of a coiling snake through theft and fraud and lying to achieve personal ends: thieves and liars, snakes and friars. In a  beautiful confluence of word and image, all of Dante’s snake imagery fits those who steal, like the serpent who stole Paradise from Adam and Eve, with his forked, venomous tongue, through Ulysses, who counseled fraud and convinced his men to seek that which was beyond their reach (the mountain of Purgatory). Because we had a firm grasp of the snaky thieves, our first discussion online went almost as smoothly as it would have face to face.

Gustave Dore’s illustration of a thief transforming to a snake

After that, though, two things happened. First we went deeper, and trying to envision the fractious Sowers of Discord and the ultimate traitors in the 9th circle were harder to get our heads around. That Dante places those who create division among humanity—divisions in religious sects, in families, and between people and their lords reminded us of our distance from one another during our quarantine.

We are stronger together in so many ways, but one of them is in education. Dante argues this negatively in Inferno, when he shows how destructive division is to humanity, and he argues it in Paradiso, where he shows that the unity of humanity is godlike. We are most like god when we gather together and support each other as one. That’s why the Sowers of Discord are in deep Hell. That’s why even the introverts are feeling the sting of a quarantine. That’s why we learn better in a classroom than on the internet.  

Lucie reads the Inferno. Her Italian is impeccable.

But sometimes we have to be apart. So I am grateful for all the ways we have found to create community virtually. The next big event was that the midterm took place as scheduled–a dramatic reading of seven cantos of the Inferno. People read from their own homes, some with sound effects (because they’re way cooler than I am), and on their phones or their laptops or with whatever means they had. And we heard Ugolino confess his cannibalism and Nimrod shout his babble and Satan mumble with his mouth full. And we shared in the horror of those scenes and the power of performance to unify actors and audience.

Finally, we discovered my cat and Dante share a birthday, so they decided my cat was Dante reincarnated. Therefore, despite what feels like the theft of our face to face community, I’m confident in our ability to come together in other ways, building unity and shared knowledge, and optimistic about the rest of the term.

Reading · Teaching

Primary and Secondary Epics, or Why Virgil is Harder than Homer

Primary vs. Secondary Epics, or why students have more trouble with the Aeneid than the Odyssey

My students finished the Odyssey last week. I think it went well. We had good talks about all the things—from the mythic underpinnings to the historical details to the glory of oral formulae and the literary delights of the epic simile. (They found the animal similes charming—Odysseus as lion, as octopus… I still prefer Odysseus imaged as a sausage rolling in a pan, close to bursting.) We even discussed translation issues, and the fact that class issues are not obscured in Emily Wilson’s new translation—slave status was clearer than ever.

And we wrapped up, thinking this old tale is still beautiful, provocative, useful, and relevant. Mission accomplished.

Then we started Virgil’s Aeneid. And many of them balked.

It’s harder to read. They feel like they’re missing something. It’s so dense. And they’re absolutely right.

The Odyssey is a primary epic. Even though we pin our hopes on someone named Homer, it doesn’t feel authored. It feels straightforward, accumulative, formulaic, inevitable. It feels like it has been composed orally, around hundreds of hearths. It reads quickly, and it’s full of action. Everyone felt able to comment because it invites everyone inside. It builds its lessons by comparing examples of how to treat guests, for instance.  

The Aeneid, in contrast, is VERY authored. Commissioned by Augustus Caesar to give weight to the destiny of Rome, this story follows the Trojan survivor, Aeneas, on a comparable path through the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but continues on to the west coast of Italy, where he will found the city of Rome. The content is comparable, but everything else is different.

First, Virgil has a commission. He’s writing for the emperor—the most glorious audience, about the origins of Rome—the most glorious of subjects. So he’d better make it sound glorious. He does. But what makes a poem glorious can also make it difficult. He uses elevated language; he relies on his audience for allusions he makes to other texts and myths; he weaves in subtext about the possible collateral damage on the way to Rome. Especially for the protagonist, Aeneas, the founding of Rome must take precedence over anything he might want for his personal life—a happy second marriage in Carthage, for instance.

So we have a lot to unpack that we didn’t when reading The Odyssey. The poem begins, for instance, with Juno raging about Aeneas’s relative success. It summarizes neatly three main reasons Juno despises Aeneas. (Trojans have spurned her beauty and taken her daughter’s job, not to mention the fact that Trojan-founded Rome is destined to overthrow her cherished Carthage in the Punic Wars.) Virgil expects that his audience is familiar all these intertexts, and that they know the history of Troy and its many founders, and all the variant names of Roman gods. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

This means the first day of the Aeneid discussion was more literary and history lecture than most. It was more damage control and me assuring them that it was a really good story, worth the time to sink in to. Fortunately, there’s plenty to appeal. All I have to do (with any text, really) is show them where to look.

What you gain with an author over a folk composition is detail. Virgil details scenes and the emotions they evoke with painstaking, breathtaking precision. When the old Trojan king, Priam, dies at the hands of Achilles’s son, all the pathos of the young, disrespectful thug desecrating the sacred altar of the Trojan gods bring one to tears:

                “…he dragged him to the very altar stone,
                with Priam shuddering and slipping in
                the blood that streamed from his own son. And Pyrrhus
                with his left hand clutched tight the hair of Priam;
                his right hand drew his glistening blade, and then
                he buried it hilt-high in the king’s side.
                This was the end of Priam’s destinies.” (Aeneid II. 738-43)

And when Dido falls in love with Aeneas, tempting him to linger in Carthage, his divine mandate to leave and get back to his destiny makes Dido desperate, and she lashes out at him:

“Deceiver, did you even hope to hide
so harsh a crime, to leave this land of mine
without a word? Can nothing hold you back–
neither your love, the hand you pledged, nor even
the cruel death that lies in wait for Dido?” (IV. 410-14)

She vacillates between outrage and despair, and she sounds at once timeless and current–psychologically real. That’s what an author adds that oral formulae don’t achieve. These characters pulse and bleed. We feel we know them. The emotions  they feel are real and immediate; we feel with them.

So it may take a little longer to get in to, but when we do, all will be well. Authored texts offer different experiences, and they’re usually the kind that English majors respond well to—ones where we can talk about how knowledge of the culture and the author add to our understanding. Folk texts are not less cool, with their archetypes and patterns and regional “flavors.” But they are different. It depends on whether you’re in the mood to read about “Jack” or Jay Gatsby. You get to choose.

Except when it’s assigned for a class. Then you read what is assigned. Yes, there will be a quiz.

Reading · Uncategorized

Journey to the Center of the Real World, Part One

My son and I exchanged books on Christmas. Uncle Gerry had given me a copy of Norwegian Folktales, and him a copy of John Muir’s short works. They were thoughtful gifts—he knows I love folktales, and my son had talked with him at length about John Muir on several occasions.

But he underestimated the size of my library, and overestimated my son’s interest in reading nonfiction.

To be fair, I wouldn’t ask anyone to buy me a book of fairy tales unless I gave them an ISBN. That is one genre very well represented on my shelves. I teach folklore (because I love it), and that has given me an excuse to buy widely. Also my daughter and I make an annual pilgrimage to Solvang, where there is a Hans Christian Andersen museum and a well-stocked bookstore we visit dutifully.

All right; I’ll just say it. He bought a classic collection, and I already have three different translations of it. So I traded with my son for John Muir.

My daughter also received a book of environmental nonfiction: Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land. She gave it to me for “safe keeping.” By my count, she should be ready for it about twenty, maybe twenty-five years from now. This is speculation, of course, but informed speculation.

My daughter reads fantasy. My son does too. When they’re reading for pleasure, which is pretty frequently for American teenagers, they read fiction and some poetry. I remember this. I once told my mom (a biography nut) that there was no point in reading about real people; real people are boring. And I told my dad at the wise old age of 16 that nonfiction was useless. The real world was taking place all around us. If I was going to read, there should be dragons.

So I’ve seen this sort of thing before. But my kids are doing it a little differently. My son is reading that new folklore book with the intent of plundering it for content for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures. My daughter does this too. She likes novels with well-developed worlds and accompanying maps, in part because she draws her own maps for her D & D campaigns.

Where my experience and my kids’ overlap is in territory they’re not paying attention to yet, but I recognize it. While they read about all these magical places, they’re putting them to immediate use. But what they don’t see happening is the building of their own internal landscapes. They are stocking their brains with fantastic settings and spectacular characters whom they speak of as friends. These images and scenes are building up their framework for understanding the world—their frame of reference from this time forth. That is huge, and fantasy will do the job.

There must be families somewhere who like nonfiction as kids, but where we live, reality can wait. We have lots of years of Narnia and Hogwarts and Wonderland and Discworld before they can be tempted away by the majesty of the real world.

In other news, I have arrived at the age of loving nonfiction. And it is breathtaking.

Living · Reading · Teaching

The Road to Memory is Paved with Giant Teeth

I’m thinking about memory again.

My position on reading print over electronic texts is not changing. When I discussed Maryanne Wolf’s recent book, Reader, Come Home, I was looking (because she was) at the different ways we read when we read print on paper versus screen. Wolf demonstrates that we read more superficially when we read on a screen, in part because of the distractions possible through advertisements and notifications. We are more interruptible in that context, and we read more content, but much less deeply.

This weekend on the patio I had a moment.

My well-worn Penguin edition of the Prose Edda. I am a reader, not an illustrator.

I was strolling through the fertile fields of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda on Saturday for… I don’t know… maybe the thirtieth time, reading about the creation of the cosmos from the head and body of the giant Ymir. After they kill the evil frost giant, Odin and his brothers dismember him and use his parts for raw materials. They use his skull to form the dome of the heavens (and install unfortunate dwarves at the cardinal points to hold it up). The use his bones to make Midgard, the realm of humans. They use his blood to make the oceans.

This time I stopped here and pondered. It’s gross and gory, yes. And I usually just tromp right through, almost mechanically tallying the parts with their upcycled functions, so I remember them when students ask: his bones become mountains, teeth become rocks, brains become clouds. His blood becomes the oceans.

I paused. I lifted my eyes from the book and gazed for a moment into the distance as one does when contemplating spiritual truths. In mid-ponder, my partner bustled out, mid-chore, and couldn’t help but notice my philosophical stance. He asked what on earth I was doing.  

Processing. I was processing. I imagined giant blood for oceans and, put off by the sheer grossness of it all, I pushed on that image for a minute in my brain. This guy was a frost giant. What do frost giants bleed? Maybe water. Thirty times reading this, in all sorts of contexts with people way more and way less experienced than I, and it had never occurred to me that frost giants must perforce bleed water. The oceans are water.

Well, then. That’s fine.  Way less gross. Cool, even—those clever Norsefolk.

Rob was still looking at me.

And it occurred to me how I read differently online than in a book. When I’m staring at a screen, it’s much harder for me to glance away and think, so I don’t do as much questioning or imagining or connecting to other books and things I know. The screen keeps me riveted, and that keeps me in receiving mode exclusively. I read more quickly. I don’t reflect as much. And if I don’t reflect and somehow connect what I’m reading to other ideas in my head, I don’t remember as much.

Books present information in a lovely, static format. If I lift my gaze, there is no risk that when I look down again the text will be altered or gone. But virtual text taunts me with that possibility all the time—sometimes from faulty internet connection, but sometimes I hit the wrong key or place on my phone’s screen, and I lose the whole damn thing and can’t get it back. (Totally justified) comments about my technical ineptness aside, the risks are greater in the ephemeral world of electronic text, and that may be one reason why I dare not look away. And there is always the risk that some ad in the margin or some clickbait at the bottom will draw me away from the Thing I’m Trying To Read, and I’ll never wend my way back.

This has far-reaching ramifications, my friends. If we only receive a steady stream of information, and don’t give ourselves time or mental space to process it thoroughly, it’s no wonder we read more superficially.

But we also won’t remember as much.

“I’m reading,” I said to my expectant spouse. “This is what reading looks like.”

Reading

Orpheus is Hip Again

He is timeless, of course. The impulses are all just as real, the loss just as horrible, the potential just as tempting. In the new Broadway musical, Hadestown, Hermes keeps repeating “It’s a sad song, but we’re going to sing it again.” It really never gets old.

Orpheus is a worldsinger. He is able, through his music (helloooo, poets!) to control the natural world. His music makes trees uproot themselves and walk closer to him. It makes rocks hurled at him fall out of the sky and roll up to his feet, prostrating themselves before him, asking forgiveness for their audacity (at least in Ovid’s rendering.)

His music makes the furies cry. It makes Hades relent. It changes the world.

Orpheus plays the lyre.

When Orpheus goes to hell to find his bride, all lovers and artists go with him. Anyone who has ever tried to write something or create something to capture the spirit of someone they’ve lost knows what he’s doing. If we can remember our loved ones, they’re still with us. So we take pictures and write letters and bake their favorite cake, and try to feel what it was like when we still had them.

But Orpheus actually goes after her. His art gives hope to all of us; it succeeds. He makes Hades feel remorse. He makes Hades feel empathy. He reminds Hades of his own love, and Hades relents. He agrees to let Orpheus take his bride back, conditionally, of course.

This is the magical moment in the new musical by Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown. In this version, Hades has turned the underworld in to a mine, and the inhabitants are working for him. Hades has been working to craft jewelry to keep Persephone happy. He has been convincing the dead souls that they need him and a wall to protect themselves. He has doubts—about his love, about his power, about everything.

In Mitchell’s hands, the story of an artist weaving a spell capable of overturning death takes on shades of class and social justice and ageism, along with the birth of seasons and love. Mitchell’s Hades is a surly foreman and a jealous, older husband who returns for Persephone early because he misses her and because he doubts.

Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney as Eurydice and Orpheus, respectively, in Hadestown

The descent of Persephone brings the onset of winter, which makes Eurydice hungry. In fact, hunger is Eurydice’s defining characteristic in this production. She is poor but scrappy, and she ultimately trades her life with Orpheus for the comfort and lack of want that Hades peddles. Perhaps that is the greater tragedy here—not that art cannot bring love back, but that art is a luxury that many can’t afford, can’t even survive long enough to enjoy.

When Orpheus arrives in Hadestown, Persephone advocates for him. Against all odds Eurydice remembers him, and Hades succumbs to his magic. But as they leave, Hades adds the condition—Orpheus must not look back. He must not give in to doubt. This is made all the more clearly a test, given that Hades has already exhibited even he doubts his love. What chance does Orpheus, just a poor boy with a song, have?

The possibility that others will follow Orpheus and Eurydice looms in the musical as well as the myth. If Orpheus can escape, why not others? This is the underlying problem with people like Orpheus; their unearthly power threatens the natural order. Letting Eurydice go back would be one thing. Starting a zombie revolution is quite another.

But that’s another of the threads woven through this new retelling—revolution. The possibility of revolution in response to poverty is terrifyingly real. And the idea that despondency can be alleviated by art and beauty is powerful—empowering. For me the take home message of Orpheus has always been that love, expressed through art, has the power to change everything.

Yeah, Orpheus will never not be cool.

Living · Reading · Writing

The Wedding Vow is a Performative Speech Act

In the category of Wonderful Things I Never Thought I’d Do, I officiated at a wedding.

It was on Halloween, or Samhain, or Dia de Los Muertos, or Midterms, depending on your denomination. And it was an utter delight. This is good news, as it was quite stressful for me in the months working up to it. Contrary to popular belief, the ability to stand before a room full of undergrads and talk about how we read myths judiciously is not the same as the ability to enunciate clearly the knitting together of two souls before the people who care about them most in the world.

But I did it. And I am grateful for the honor. And I had such a lovely, lovely time, that of course, I have to write about it.

I was terribly, terribly nervous.

I was enchanted by the ritual of the thing. This couple—former English majors and alumni from my school—wanted some literary reading, a Welsh handfasting, and “whatever medieval badassery” I could come up with.  Hours of careful internet and bookish research convinced me that the formula was easy, but it was all about the details. Such is life.

You need a greeting and a general spiel about marriage and/or love. I got to say my version of “Dearly beloved” and mention that this couple met in a literature class, and that went some way to explaining why I was there, and why I was deploying William Butler Yeats instead of Ecclesiastes.

You need a reading—from a spiritual text typically, but in this case, I read Yeats’s “The White Birds,” and the bride’s uncle read the description of love from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. (I hadn’t read that before, and holy wow, is it beautiful.)

You need some rings, and some vows to accompany the exchange. (I may have made a cheap Lord of the Rings joke. I hope no one filmed. It was shameless.) And you need some promises you know you can keep. In this iteration, the vows were punctuated by the mothers of the couple binding their hands with  a sash, and when they had spoken their vows, they could literally tie the knot. That was very satisfying.

And then they smooched. That’s important too. It’s all important.

The vows are important; the words are important. The wedding vow is one of very few “performative speech acts” left to us in a literate society. As Westley notes in The Princess Bride, “If you didn’t say it, you didn’t do it.” But the march is also important. The recession of the wedding party, followed by the crowd. The first dance. The toasts. The cake. These are all formalities, all weighty, and all observed with remarkable consistency even at a wedding as funky and cool as a masquerade on Halloween.

Human life is formulaic. Our rituals are too. If we’re honest, our arts are too—music, literature, even visual arts. We bear according to pattern in so many things, from the genes we pass on to our children to our “regular” dishes at our favorite restaurants.

And that’s just fine. Because we find ways to make each step our own, while sharing enough structure to create bonds with others. Now this couple has their wedding story to share. It is uniquely their own, with all the goofy, delightful specifics and also its shared participation in a tradition. And in that lovely way that events turn in to stories, and stories belong to all who live and tell them, I now have a new story too.  

Picture Books · Reading

Picture Books that Inspire Creativity

One of my Teaching Assistants led a discussion in class today that ended with her students thinking about creativity and how it preserved their identity, even their humanity, in the face of mass marketing, corporate programming, and aggressive branding that tells us how to live.

One student shared that he felt most himself when he was playing his guitar—when he was alone with his thoughts and expressing his emotions without overt outside input. As they talked, the class agreed all art afforded that space, and then they realized that they used that creative or hobby time to make their most authentic connections to others—through their art.

It was a lovely moment, when students moved from reading a novel to applying some of the ideas to their lives. And it got me thinking, we need to start them young. There are, of course, picture books that can help. 😊 Here are some I love. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them.

Alison’s Super Awesome List of Picture books about Art and the Creative Process:

  1. “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. One of my all-time favorites, this is a story about a kid who doesn’t think she’s artistic, and a teacher who brings out her best efforts. My favorite part is the end, where she pays it forward to the next kid who underestimates his potential. Every house should have a copy, she said firmly. It’s marvelous.
  2. “Little Mouse’s Painting” by Diane Wolkstein and Maryjane Begin. This one is also about visual art, and especially about what others see in your art (spoiler: themselves). But it’s true; we see ourselves in art—visual and other art—and the original artist can’t always predict what others will see or value. So we owe it to each other to keep creating.
  3. “Draw!” by Raúl Colón. This one is wordless, but speaks volumes about a boy’s power to explore the world in his art—to imagine and bring to life vast landscapes, exotic animals, the implication is anything, really—and to value art as escapist and aspirational. (Bonus: his later “Imagine!” takes the artist from his room to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with equally magical and empowering results.)
  4. “Sun Bread” by Elisa Kleven. Not all art has to be painted. In “Sun Bread” a baker makes a vibrant, golden loaf of bread that looks like a sun, and it revives her community, stuck in the doldrums of winter. The book includes the recipe, egg wash and all, so that you can reproduce the sunny bread and understand for yourself “all the joy good bread can bring.”
  5. “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken. This one is about a greedy king who loves presents and has everything, but he can’t get his hands on a quilt made by the master quiltmaker, because she only gives them to people in need. He has to learn to give things up to get what he wants, but of course, he gets more than he expected.
  6. “The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. A mysterious gardener is transforming ordinary trees in to extraordinary animal topiaries in the darkness, and a community wakes up to new beauty every day. It’s a lovely fable about the transformative power of art.
Reading · Teaching · Writing

Fables are Real: Thoughts on Marcovaldo

I’m teaching Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo this week, and the older I get, the more I get out of it. I’m so full of things to say, I have to sort through them or risk imploding.

Marcovaldo is the protagonist in a short novel that doesn’t feel like a novel. It feels like a cartoon series to me more than anything—short vignettes with a guy who is sort of a caricature, but also one I can identify with sometimes and pity other times. The book’s subtitle is “Seasons in the City” and begins to explain why some classify it as a mid-20th century “nouveau roman,” or New Novel in the French tradtion. It’s a series of vignettes organized by seasons, not by events in an ongoing plotline.

The seasons pass in the city, but they pass more subtly than in the provinces. And poor Marcovaldo–whose history readers piece together from details dropped occasionally, but even more from his attitudes toward the world–must have been raised in the country, been drafted in to service during World War II, and later moved to the city where all the jobs were to raise his family.

All the jobs, but none of the humanity. All the jobs, but very little from the natural world.

He finds himself trapped in a demeaning job, resentful of the family he struggles to support; the story reads like a list of repeated attempts to escape.

This sweet image is from an Italian version aimed at young readers. This book can be read “simply.” But seriously, the more I read it, the deeper it gets. (Also, there is no point in the book where Marcovaldo stares at a ladybug, on his hand but it is very much the kind of thing he would do–perhaps not this sadly.)

So he’s an idealist in the sense that he thinks he can stumble in to a scheme that will rescue him from this. In the first chapter he finds mushrooms growing wild in the dirt near a tram stop, and he immediately plans a huge feast for his family—watching the mushrooms grow and bringing his kids to help gather them by the hundreds.

In another chapter, he reads in an old newspaper that bee venom has been used to treat rheumatism, and he turns his one-room basement apartment into a clinic, applying angry wasps to people’s skin under a paper cup. He’s receptive to the natural world and its opportunities.

But this is the city. The only mushrooms that grow there are poisonous. The wasp clinic (obviously) goes south and lands him in the hospital. He doesn’t give up, but readers can get tired for him, as he tries one way after another to get something for nothing.

Students sometimes get hung up on this aspect of him and label him as greedy. So this time I’m going in ready to redirect that line of thought. It’s not wrong; it’s just superficial.

First, Marcovaldo is poor. He’s not so much greedy as he is desirous of pretty reasonable things—enough space to house his family comfortably, enough food for them all to eat, enough time to enjoy the world around them. He’s an unskilled laborer with a wife and six kids. His wife has to be home to raise the kids, so it’s all on him to provide for eight people. That he continues to do that seems admirable to me. That he also looks for moments of delight and opportunities out seems healthy.

That is where I’ll start this time. He’s not greedy; he’s burned out.

He’s also lots of other things. He’s an early environmentalist; he notices and cultivates the natural world; in fact, he yearns for it. He’s a class warrior, showcasing the inequities in post-war Italy. He’s full of childlike wonder, always looking for butterflies and stopping to watch birds fly. He’s also kind of a caricature of Calvino—an introverted, disillusioned, middle-aged dreamer. He’s not yet Mr. Palomar, but he’s moving in that direction.

And now I’m thinking I need to write a paper about Marcovaldo. Maybe that would help get him out of my head, like listening to the whole song does, when I have a line repeating in my mind. I need to do something to stop channeling him. Because I can’t stop looking for butterflies and noticing the sunlight hitting pine boughs and freezing when I hear birdsong to see if I can find the bird. I just live in an area with too many birds for that kind of behavior to be practical. 😀

Picture Books · Reading

Cornucopia: Picture Books for Autumn

It’s been a while since I’ve done a picture book blog, and since a-something like twenty of my former students had babies in the last year and b-I love fall, I’ve decided to collect some seasonal books that don’t have snowfolk or reindeer as protagonists.

  1. “Little Tree” by Loren Long. When all the trees are little, everything is great, but when fall comes, one won’t let his leaves fall because he’s afraid of the cold. The problem is that stunts his growth, and once he establishes the pattern of holding on to stuff too long, it’s hard to break. I feel personally called out by this picture book, so I love it and need to share.
  2. “Room on the Broom” by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler. This is such a great book: it’s Halloweeny, but just because the character is a witch. It’s mostly about finding your tribe and protecting your homies. And when your homies are all adorable critters, that’s awesome.
  3.  “John Pig’s Halloween” by Jan L. Waldron and David McPhail is the first Halloween book my son had, and we all loved it. I’m a sucker for good verse, and John overcomes his fear by making friends with monsters, so I feel like that is a win all around. The verse is so catchy we practically memorized the whole thing, and 18 years later, we still find ourselves using a line or two in conversation when it’s appropriate, which is more often than you’d think.
  4. “Thanks for Thanksgiving” by Julie Markes and Doris Barrette is our requisite Turkey Day book, in part because of the wonderful fall-toned illustrations that include wonderful family moments but also school and play. It also includes a blank page at the end for families to write in what they’re thankful for, which makes my Bullet Journaling heart happy. Train ‘em young, I say. You want them to read? Then read. You want them to be grateful? Then be grateful. And write that stuff down, so you can remember what it was like to be grateful for Thomas trains and Fairy Fudge.
  5. “The Giant Cabbage” by Chérie B. Stihler and Jeremiah Trammell. This one is adorably illustrated by Trammell and a sweet fable about coming together for a common purpose, then sharing in the fruits (or vegetables) of that labor. Fall is all about abundance, after all.
  6. “Persephone” by Sally Pomme Clayton and Virginia Lee, speaking of abundance… and what comes after the harvest.  This is a solid version of the myth of Persephone and her mom, about seasons and sorrows and cycles and the bond between life and death.
  7. “Georgie and the Robbers” by Robert Bright is not overtly a fall book, but it must take place in the fall, if one uses the illustrations as a guide. And since it’s about a ghost and an owl and a cat, it has an autumnal feel to it. It remains, after thousands of books, my very favorite book to read aloud. Part of that may be nostalgia. I had it as a kid and remember reading it when I was little, and then I read it to my kids. But when I read it to my kids, I realized how delightful the music and drama and character building is when you read it aloud. It’s amazing. It’s hard to find now, but if you want to borrow mine, or even better—ask me to read it to you—I’m down.

Happy Fall y’all.