Sunday, May 27, 2007

Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

May 27, 2007

Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes place in the early 1800s in China, when girls were foot-bound and lived in upstairs rooms from the age of 6 or 7, in almost total seclusion. Women's lives were dictated by the limitations of their gender, abiding by a strict set of ancient codes which decreed that a woman's only purpose in life was to produce sons, serve their husbands, and respect their mother-in-law. This novel is set in a remote Hunan county, and the women have developed their own secret code, called nu shu, which is based on men's character writing. With nu shu they are able to communicate with one another in an otherwise isolated life. Snow Flower and Lily are bound as "old sames" (soulmates) at age 7 and communicate through infrequent visits and nu shu over the course of the next 30 years. The two develop a friendship that supercedes any other relationship in their lives, keeping their hopes alive in an oppressive society. The book was fascinating in its look at the women's duties, life, and ceremonies in this time and place, as well as in the relationship between Snow Flower and Lily. The sheer torture of foot-binding, the superstitions, sickness, view of girls--all of this was fascinating and written in Lily's lyrical, resolved voice.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Closet Classics: Gerard Manley Hopkins

May 24, 2007

Years—dare I say decades?—ago, in the early days of MTV, there was a segment that came on at noon called Closet Classics. (Perhaps this is still part of the MTV line-up, but I haven’t watched MTV in over 15 years.) I was in college then, and there were several of us who, disdaining pop music, would gather in our dorm’s lobby religiously to get our daily dose of Closet Classics.

The 18th century writer Charles Caleb Colton wrote: “Books, like friends, should be few and well chosen. Like friends, too, we should return to them again and again for, like true friends, they will never fail us—never cease to instruct—never cloy.” Immersing myself in American Lit classics these past few weeks, I’ve been re-reading many writers with whom I was, as a student and English major, once more intimately acquainted. I read much poetry and many short stories in high school and college. I rarely read poetry now, which is odd since I am, primarily, a writer of poetry. And I rarely read short stories now, which is also strange because some of my best literary friends are short stories.

And so my summer resolution is to read more classic literature, from poetry to short stories to novels to plays. And when I remember, at noon, sporadically, I will post a Closet Classic, like this…


by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush ;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing ;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue ; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy ?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

About the Writer:
Gerard Manley Hopkins (July 28, 1844 – June 8, 1889), a Jesuit priest, was an English poet. Hopkins is famous for defying conventional poetry of his day. At this time, most English poetry embraced a particular rhythmic structure, with the stressed syllables falling in the same place on each repetition. Most of us remember this from high school English class, when we thought we would die from trying to figure out the mysteries of iambic pentameter.

Hopkins called his own rhythmic structure “sprung rhythm,” which he saw as a way to escape the constraints of conventional rhythm. Hopkins said that poetry written in only conventional meter often becomes "same and tame." In this way, Hopkins can be seen as anticipating much of free verse.

Hopkins is also loved for his use of language, particularly in his gentle use of alliteration. I love the language in the middle stanza: juice and joy, being and beginning, Eden and garden. Added richness comes from Hopkins’ extensive use of assonance, onomatopoeia and rhyme, both at the end of lines and internally as in: Hopkins was a poet who tasted the words, speaking them and perfecting them before he put the word on paper.

One of my professors in college, a poet himself, loved Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it wasn’t unusual for Dr. Magness to quote a line from Hopkins in Bible class or during a communion meditation at church. Amazingly, none of Hopkins' poetry was published during his lifetime. His work finally appeared in 1918 when it was published by his friend and fellow poet Robert Bridges.

More works by Gerard Manley Hopkins here.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book Review: This Rock

May 20, 2007

This is another amazing book by Robert Morgan, who as an author amazes me. His writing style is precise but lyrical; his use of regional dialect accurate without being trite. This Rock is the coming-of-age story of a young mountain man in the early 1920s. Morgan captures details about the hardness of mountain life that are practically tangible, and his characters are full and knowable. I've had a penchant for southern literature since college, and, as far as I'm concerned, Robert Morgan is today's crowning voice of southern literature.

Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

May 20, 2007

This is another one of the books on my American Lit possibility list. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a candid look at life in Brooklyn's slums in the early 1900s, told through the eyes of Francie Nolan. Francie is the daughter of a lovely alcoholic papa and a hardworking, floor-scrubbing mama. She navigates through her adolescence in the midst of poverty, realizing early on that education is the key to rising above the plight of the poor and that family is ultimately what provides sustenance. I read this book as a teenager and remembered only that I loved it; to re-read this as an adult was a tremendous gift.

Book Review: One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd

May 20, 2007

This book was not what I was expecting. I must not have read the reviews carefully enough, for I believed this to be a nonfiction account of a little-known part of American history. Actually, this “historical” account never happened, as author Jim Fergus quite clearly states in his introduction. Apparently a Cheyenne chief suggested to an Army officer, sometime in the 1870s, that 1000 white women might be traded for 1000 horses; but the chief’s offer was met with scorn and dismissed. This book is a “what if” story: what if the U.S. government had agreed to provide 1000 white brides in exchange for 1000 horses, so that the American Indian and white American cultures might start to be blended?

The premise of the book sounded promising, but I have to give this book a “blech” rating. It had its moments: the writing was good and the characters interesting and some quite likeable; however, the author was too crass for my taste. My favorite chapter was probably the last, written as if it were penned by the monk, Father Anthony. Here the writing was gentle and lyrical, something I appreciate and admire much more than the “shock value” technique the author uses throughout much of the book. If this were truly nonfiction, I might recommend it for its enlightenment of a historical period; but as a work of fiction, I’d skip it.

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

May 20, 2007

Every time I’d go to the library, this book would be checked out—and with good reason. Diana Setterfield is a master storyteller. This was an absolutely riveting mystery/thriller/ghost story. This is the kind of book that I really thought about after I finished it. Driving for hours through the Bugaboo-induced smokiness of I75 on our way to Orlando, I replayed the whole book in my head, trying to figure out how all the pieces joined together. The story is multi-layered, with the primary being the true story of famous author Vida Winter as she reveals it to the amateur biographer/narrator. Many other tales unfold in the process, making this a perfect book for a 10-hour car trip when one has the luxury of doing nothing but reading and tossing snacks to the kids in the back. There is hardly anything more luxurious than a good book on vacation.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Book Review: The Endless Steppe

May 11, 2007

This Sonlight Core 7 novel has been given the "best Sonlight book ever" designation by my kids. The Endless Steppe is author Esther Hautzig's narrative of the 5 years she spent in Siberia as a Polish-Jewish exile during WWII. Hautzig is a master storyteller. At age 10 she and her parents went from a completely normal life in Vilna, Poland, surrounded by dozens of family members, to being outcast in a barracks in Siberia. The five years spent in exile are filled with the daily struggle of finding food, clothing, and shelter. This was one of the books, too, that spanned the ages of my kids. While written for a young adult, the novel was appropriate for my 4th-grader, as well, and even my kindergartener listened in now and then. And a warning for those moved to tears by Sonlight books: get your tissues out for the last few chapters.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Book Review: My Antonia

May 8, 2007

I am taking great joy in re-reading, or in the case, reading for the first time, classics in American Literature in preparation for my class next year. This past week I've been reading Willa Cather's wonderful novel about the immigrant experience on the Nebraskan prairie in the early 1900s. The star of the novel is Antonia, an immigrant girl from Bohemia. Told through the eyes of her neighborn, an American-born boy, the novel chronicles her optimism and innocence in the midst of struggles over the course of 25 years. The prose is simply lyrical, a quality which is most often absent in today's novels. (Even contemporary poetry lacks a lyric voice, as often as not.) Reading classics leads me to wonder why today's novelists focus primarily on telling the story, with little regard to the craft of language. But I'll save my criticism of contemporary lit for another time. My Antonia will likely make the list of books we'll read in American Lit.