Saturday, August 30, 2014

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

"I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast.  And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it's too much.  The current's too strong.  They've got to let go, drift apart.  That's how I think it is with us.  It's a shame, Kath, because we've loved each other all our lives.  But in the end, we can't stay together forever."

Ishiguro has a talent for writing self-denial.  The narrator, Kathy, in this book, as with Remains of the Day (which I loved), is in complete denial about what is going on around her and her friends, Ruth and Tommy.  This happens in layers: she is in denial about the cruelty of the organ-donor farm in which she is being raised, she is in denial about how genuine her friend Ruth is, she is in denial about her feelings for Tommy.

Time and time again, the reader is presented with Ruth's cruelty.  Nonetheless, Kathy seems unaware or, when she is aware, seems unwilling to confront Ruth.  Never does Kathy do what the reader wants--breaking free from Ruth.

Instead, Kathy holds on to her time at the school where she, Ruth, and Tommy grew up.  Kathy idealizes her time at Hailsham, remembering it as this peak of her life.  This is not unusual for many people who remember fondly their high school or college years.  I myself tend to do this with law school.  As time passes, Kathy becomes increasingly concerned about how everyone from Hailsham is going their separate ways:
I thought about Hailsham closing and how it was like someone coming along with a pair of shears and snipping the balloon strings just where they entwined above the man's fist.  Once that happened, there'd be no real sense in which those balloons belonged with each other any more.
As time has passed since law school, I wonder if this kind of inevitable parting and separation is inherent to life.  Kathy sees it and is bothered by it throughout the novel.  Earlier, she describes her feelings after having a kind of fight with Ruth and Tommy:
But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task  If we'd understood that back then--who knows?--maybe we'd have kept a tighter hold of one another.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea of holding on is a consistent theme throughout the novel.  If someone told me there was a book entitled Never Let Me Go and "holding" was a prominent theme, I would probably think it was a tacky novel undeserving of any serious consideration.  However, Ishiguro weaves the theme in and out seamlessly.  The reader is left with a powerful emotional tug as Kathy bemoans the impossibility of holding on.  Tellingly, though, it's not Kathy who acknowledges this impossibility; another character has to point it out for her:
"That's most interesting.  But I was no more a mind-reader then than today.  I was weeping for an altogether different reason.  When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else.  I saw a new world coming rapidly.  More scientific, efficient, yes.  More cures for old sicknesses.  Very good.  But a harsh, cruel world.  And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never let her go.  That is what I saw.  It wasn't really you, what you were doing, I know that.  But I saw you and it broke my heart.  And I've never forgotten."
 The "Reception" section of the wikipedia article on this novel describes critics who read this book as horror or science-fiction.  I think both labels are inappropriate: this is a novel about a group of friends who, once close, get separated as time passes.  The science-fiction elements of the book are, more than anything else, an excuse to explore these characters' relationships.  For that reason, the book worked well for me and I was moved by it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lower terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then get to the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

 Small guy, small house.

Apparently John Updike wrote about Walden that it "risks being as revered and unread as the Bible."  That's a good line, but not as good as a lot of lines in Walden that those who revere it are missing.  On the other hand, I think the opposite has become an equally valid risk: that Walden has become a book that is unread and mocked.  It seems like there's always some jagoff wanting to point out that Thoreau's cabin was, like, a mile from town, and that he went into Concord and ate at restaurants and stuff all the time.  (Am I the only one that hears that stuff a lot?)  Both attitudes--the mockery and the reverence--are silly because they misapprehend what Walden is about, and having not read it, I think I misapprehended it a little as well.

First of all, it isn't really transcendentalist in the way that I think of Emerson as being.  Thoreau gets a lot out of Nature, but there's no Wordsworthian sense that a communion with nature lifts Thoreau to a higher plane of existence.  Rather, living the kind of simple life that Thoreau leads in his two-year experiment at Walden Pond allows him to observe his natural surroundings more closely, and to appreciate them more intensely.  Some of the most beautiful passages of Walden are Thoreau's description of animal life.  I especially like his account of a war between red and black ants:

Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black.  The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black.  It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other.  On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.

But again, communion with nature isn't really the point of Thoreau's experiment.  He says: "If I were confined to the corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me."  Thoreau goes to the woods to rely on himself as much as possible, and to reduce his need to depend on other people as much as possible.  Walden is really an experiment in hyperindividuality, part and parcel with the irascible libertarianism of "Civil Disobedience."  As he writes, "I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead."

Thoreau's grave, Concord, Mass.

Thoreau's version of this philosophy is quite extreme.  Sometimes it leads him to (hilarious) crankism.  Among the things he hates are: farms, politics, post offices, clothes, philanthropy, and other people.  But elsewhere it leads to observations of persuasive beauty:

I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.  Let me suggest a few comparisons, that some one may convey an idea of my situation.  I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself.  What company has that lonely lake, I pray?  And yet it has not the blue devils, but the blue angels in it, in the azure tint of its waters.  The sun is alone, except in thick weather, when there sometimes appears to be two, but one is a mock sun.  God is alone,--but the devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion.  I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumble-bee.  I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a Jaunary thaw, or the first spider in a new house.

That paragraph indicates to me a strength of mind I know I don't possess.  Thoreau only managed to live like this for a couple of years before he rejoined society--but that's more than I think I'm capable of.  Certainly others have tried, some extremely so, and failed.  But I do think Thoreau's experiment is worth admiration, and Walden worth reading.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Revolution by Hannah Arendt

In a constellation that poses the threat of total annihilation through war against the hope for the emancipation of all mankind through revolution--leading one people after the other in swift succession "to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them"--no cause is left but the most ancient one of all, the one, in fact, that from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics, the cause of freedom versus tyranny.

Hannah Arendt starts her book discussing the dichotomy between mutually assured destruction (through nuclear fall out) on the one hand and liberty through revolution on the other.  This makes sense: she was writing in 1963 when the cold war promised a grave and threatening future.  But, the book is not about the cold war.

Rather, she moves backwards to compare two revolutions.  Those of you who know your Declaration of Independence well can probably guess one of the revolutions; the other is the French.  Why these?  She presents the two as distinct.  Thus, although the two revolutions are often understood as thematically similar, Arendt argues they are in fact very different.

And, although hailed as more important historically (I recall my sophomore year English teacher, teaching A Tale of Two Cities, exclaiming that We Think the American Revolution Was Important, But No, The French Revolution Is the One that Matters), Arendt argues that the French revolution was deficient, and should be seen as a revolution that failed.  This is because the French Revolution eventually abandoned its goal of maximizing liberty and instead focused on "social welfare."

In contrast, the American Revolution lead to the Constitution, which, for Arendt, creates a space of political engagement for every citizen.  Thus, the American Revolution was a success because the founding fathers focused on creating a political system which empowered every citizen; it is a system that values and accommodates collective action and political dialogue.

The problem with the French Revolution's turn to social welfare is that it fit into a Hegelian/Marxist political meta-narrative.  That is, the French Revolution set the precedent for revolutions that appealed to the concept of History as justification.  For Marx & Co. (e.g., Lenin, Mao), this provided a model for revolution at any cost, because History would vindicate the revolution--because History required the revolution.  Arendt's issue with this form of revolution is that it justifies atrocities under historical necessity.

In contrast, the American Revolution did not appeal to any kind of historical meta-narrative.  Rather, the framers were simply interested in liberating the people and ensuring they stayed free.

Arendt's writing can be dense.  I'll be honest: I'm afraid much of this book's meat was over my head.  However, as someone interested in the U.S. Constitution, Arendt offers a fascinating view of our history.  My intent is to come back to this book someday when I have more time for philosophical pursuits.  As an aside, I am obsessed with Arendt (this is the fourth book of hers I've read).  The Origins of Totalitarianism remains, for me, the most important analysis of World War II, fascism, and the holocaust.  Similarly, Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, is an extremely important book, both for its historical value and its musings on the existence of evil.  This book, too, stands out as an original and important work.

Recommended for anyone interested in political history, philosophy, and the American Revolution.

I'll close with one last quote from the book, not because it's particularly meaningful, but because it's hilarious:

To sound off with a cheerful "give me liberty or give me death" sort of argument in the face of the unprecedented and inconceivable potential destruction in nuclear warfare is not even hollow; it is downright ridiculous.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present grief.  Tomorrow would bring its own trial with it, as would the next day, and yet the very same that was now so unutterably grievous to be be borne.  The days of the far-off future would toil onward; still with the same burden for her to take up and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days and added years would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame.  Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of a woman's frailty and sinful passion.  Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast--at her, the child of honorable parents, at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, at her, who had once been innocent--as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.

A student that I deeply respect told me at the end of the year that she hadn't enjoyed reading The Scarlet Letter.  That's sadly typical, I think--even students who like reading don't often like to read Hawthorne, who is an accomplished stylist but also a ponderous and stuffy one.  I told her that I had felt the same way about it when I read it in high school, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I learned to appreciate it, when I realized just how profoundly weird it is.  The lurking Satan-allied witch Mrs. Hibbins, the comet shaped like an "A" in the sky, the destructive, yet difficult to describe force that Chillingworth exerts on Dimmesdale--it's all bizarre.  Of course, we live in a world where Hester Prynne's "A" has become the dominant image of social ostracism, but for those who can approach The Scarlet Letter fresh, it's am immensely rewarding book.  (And much better than The Marble Faun.)

Moreover: Is there any book by a male writer in the history of American literature with a female protagonist as strong as Hester Prynne?  The letter on Hester's breast is meant to reduce her to a symbol, a warning sign--to make her a literary trope instead of a person.  Reading it now, I was struck by how that ostracism, by alienating Hester from her society, makes her a better person:

For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church.  The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.  The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.

Hawthorne is pretty down on Puritan society, and in part Hester's strength is a result of her alienation from it.  But comparing her with the Reverend Dimmesdale, her partner in crime, reveals just how strong she already is.  As he yearns to unite his public face with his private one, and undergo the kind of atonement that keeping his adultery secret has denied him, he withers into a sickly mess.  Many critics have noticed the flipping of gender roles here, and I think that's an important contrast even to today.  How many films and television shows have you seen just this year in which a principal female character, no matter how strong she otherwise may be, requires saving by another male figure?  Here, Dimmesdale clings to Hester when he can, so much that the rescue plot--their escape back to the Europe--is her plan, and it only fails because of his own weakness.

Ultimately, the symbol of the "A"--and the symbol of Hester--refuses to remain unchanged.  Her life of solitude and hard work causes some to interpret it as "able," and critics have subsumed many other "a" words into it as well.  (My favorite is "America.")  Hester herself is something of a Moby Dick--the symbol that keeps slipping in meaning.  But Moby Dick can do it because he is inscrutable, unconquerable; Hester can do it because she exerts ownership over herself in a way that Dimmesdale never could.  She refuses to be inscribed upon, to be turned into text, and in this way The Scarlet Letter is a powerful assertion of individualism against the community.

Here's Brent's review from earlier this year.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Real Talk for Real Teachers: Rafe Esquith

A former coworker posted this to Facebook:
"That was Mrs. D. She cared a lot. She tried. She worried. And then one day she just died...She was not an old woman. But she had taught for twenty-five years, and the frustrations and difficult days can wear down a classroom teacher. You pay a price for constantly dealing with mean children, apathetic parents, and the pressure that you must do better. I am not a doctor, but I shudder to imagine an autopsy that concluded "Death by teaching."

When I asked what book it came from, she said Real Talk for Real Teachers. Really, any teacher who is willing to admit that this job can literally kill you, is a teacher I'm willing to listen to. Rafe knows. He gets it. And of course, he should. Unlike so many people who tell teachers what to do when they've never taught or haven't taught in years, Rafe is still in the classroom at the same urban school teaching children of immigrants who are almost all Free and Reduced Lunch kids. When I taught at a similar school, I was the obnoxious teacher who, at every staff training, felt compelled to ask, "So where do you teach? Oh...well what did you used to teach? Ok...and how many of your kids were ELL?...Oh...well yeah, I can see why you wouldn't have that population at an exclusive private school..." I had no patience for the Pearson employee selling my school a reading program or for the AP trainer who had never taught ELL students in an AP class telling me how to run my classroom (okay, the AP trainer was actually great, but he would have been better if he had experience teaching my kind of students so he could help me improve).

I really really wish I had read this book when I was still at that school. I really needed to hear things like:

  • Having a bad day does not make you a bad teacher.
  • There are many well-meaning policy makers and bloggers demanding that teachers reach every child. But some children cannot be helped, even when a teacher is willing to sacrifice her life to do so...All students deserve to be given our best. Good teachers never give up on an individual. But please balance your efforts to help a child with the knowledge that you cannot, and should not, be responsible for solving all his problems.
Much of the book is this: real talk about things that education classes, staff development, and other teachers are reluctant to admit. Not because it's not true, but because admitting it makes it seem like it's okay to not try or it's okay to write off kids because of their circumstances - that's not the point of this book. Rafe has been in the classroom for OVER THIRTY YEARS in a country where 17% of teachers leave the profession every year (20% of teachers in schools like Rafe's) - it's just not sustainable. I'm sure Erin Gruwell (of Freedom Writer's fame) is a lovely woman, but she only taught for four years before leaving the classroom. I'd rather take advice from the teacher who has elementary students putting on an entire Shakespeare play every year, who takes kids on field trips to the opposite coast every year successfully, who prepares them for standardized testing while still giving them a PE period he has to teach himself, who is at school before and beyond his contract time every day AND every Saturday, yet who still says things like, "I still care deeply about doing a good job; I just don't have to kill myself to do it."

I have taught for five years and consider myself a good teacher - sometimes I'm even a great teacher - but I don't yet identify as a Master Teacher. Anyone who considers themselves anything less than a Master Teacher could take lessons from this book. In spite of the fact that Rafe teaches fifth grade and I teach high school and college English, I still feel like I learned strategies to use with my own students.

It is all the best things of a good teachers' lounge: hilarious anecdotes, incredibly inspiring stories, some terribly sad ones, ideas that are workable in any classroom, and reminders of attitudes that I totally believe in yet occasionally forget to enact 100% of the time. 

When he describes the frustrations of trying to put together his first Shakespeare play (which involves after school and Saturday rehearsals), he quips "Naturally I faced the typical roadblocks teachers encounter when they try anything original, but eventually the school district was kind enough to allow me to stay after school and teach some of the students for free." It's this mix of realism with humor with brilliant teaching that makes this an excellent read for just before the start of a new school year.