reading mmxxi

I’m just trying to look at something without blinking, to see what it is like, or it could have been like, and how that had something to do with the way we live now. Novels are always inquiries for me.

Toni Morrison

28 thoughts on “reading mmxxi

  1. Utopia AvenueUtopia Avenue by David Mitchell
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    David Mitchell wrote the singular Cloud Atlas, a novel so ambitious and creative it deserves first mention even in a review of any other David Mitchell novel. Although I’ve now only read two of his books, I feel okay saying if you read only one, it should be Cloud Atlas. It’s not for everyone, though, so maybe his latest is as good a starting point.

    Utopia Avenue is a different creature entirely, and it reminds me not one iota of Cloud Atlas, yet some things are consistent. Mitchell’s fondness for the English language’s music and flow:

    On the table is a pot of tea Jasper doesn’t recall making, the core of an apple he doesn’t recall eating, and a page of staves, notes, and lyrics he knows he wrote.

    His clever descriptions of people, places, and moments:

    It’s a classy Victorian pub with brass fittings, upholstered chair backs, and NO SPITTING signs.

    His combining the physical with the cosmic, sometimes without explanation and always without apology:

    If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world.

    And always an understated, wry humor:

    The cellar of the 2i’s Coffee Bar at 59 Old Compton Street is as hot, dank, and dark as armpits.

    It’s set in the second half of 1967 and the first half of 1968, mostly in London, the days following the Summer of Love. Levon Frankland, a band manager, invites four local musicians he admires to form a band. It’s almost Monkees-like, one character observes, but these are players with serious chops, selected not for their looks but their talent and disparate playing styles.

    Elf is the folksy singer-songwriter-keyboardist. Jasper is the long-haired psychedelic guitar god. Dean is the bluesy rock bassist. Griff is the jazzy drummer. Each has something to say apart from the others, but the band clicks because each has something to say to the others and with the others.

    Utopia Avenue is most enjoyable when the writer captures the musicians’ responses to one another, as they’re performing and as they’re creating. The energy generated and absorbed by each player, and the musical conversation they have with one another, spoken in riffs, fills, and solos, makes the reader want to pick up whatever instrument he or she once studied and get the band back together. Mitchell’s capturing this feeling of creativity in motion is my favorite aspect of this novel.

    It’s a great story with compelling characters. When you change your mind about who’s your favorite character from chapter to chapter, a writer has come up with some good ones. Real-world figures play supporting roles: Hendrix, Joplin, and Bowie make appearances, among many others, but where their presence could easily be nostalgia-pandering gimmickry, it is instead the color and flavor of life for this nearly-famous band with talent recognized by successful musicians first, and not yet by the consuming public.

    For readers averse to certain cosmologies, the story will bog down a bit near the two-thirds mark. I admit I found myself skipping lines, then forcing myself back to read more attentively. I was happy I slogged through this bit because the payoff is worth it, although I wonder if it would have been a stronger story without it.

    Still a highly recommended read, and I may be turning into a David Mitchell fan.

    1. Your description appeals to me. I like Mitchell’s prose, too, so I would seriously consider reading this.

      By the way, what was the other book you read?

      1. No, I misread your post. When you said that you’ve only read two books by Mitchell, I thought you mean two books prior to the one you reviewed above. Ugh.

  2. The List of Things That Will Not ChangeThe List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (2020)
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    When Bea’s parents tell her they are splitting up, they give her a green spiral notebook with a green pen. On the first page is the List of Things That Will Not Change. Number one, of course, is “Mom loves you more than anything, always.” And number two is “Dad loves you more than anything, always.”

    Bea has trouble managing her feelings. Anger, joy, worry, embarrassment, and guilt don’t always know where to go in Bea, sometimes leading to hurt feelings, injured bodies, profound loneliness, and judging glances by her classmates’ parents.

    But she has this notebook, plus two adoring homes and a friend named Miriam, whose office Bea visits once a week. Miriam helps Bea sort her feelings.

    Two years after the divorce, she’s still carrying the notebook, occasionally adding to the growing List of Things That Will Not Change even as certain other things do change. Big things.

    I continue to be blown away by Rebecca Stead’s agility navigating the daily tragedies of preteen life without a shred of condescension. The classmate bragging about a bottle of root beer. A parent’s new homosexual relationship. They are both highwires for Bea to traverse, and she handles this one gracefully and that one awkwardly, and she doesn’t know why, and the author handles it all with an amazing touch.

    There’s a lot in The List of Things That Will Not Change for the middle elementary schooler to sort through, and a lot for the grown-up to help unpack. And it’s quite a rewarding story.

  3. Class Act (New Kid, #2)Class Act by Jerry Craft (2020)
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Jordan Banks and his classmates at Riverdale Academy Day School are in eighth grade now, no longer the babies of the school, but they’ve got a whole new set of problems to go with some continuing stressors from the year before.

    Jordan’s feeling overlooked by Black schoolmates because his skin’s a lot lighter than theirs. He’s self-conscious about his fondness for comic books and drawing, worried they are signs he’s still a child. And the physical aspects of his adolescence don’t seem to have kicked in yet.

    His best friends have issues too. Drew still won’t play basketball, his favorite sport, because he doesn’t want to be a stereotype. He’s become increasingly aware of the differences between his experience catching two buses to and from school every day, and some of his friends’ experiences, dropped off and picked up by drivers.

    Jordan’s other best friend Liam’s parents never come to his soccer games, and their arguing at night makes it difficult for Liam to get sleep.

    In Class Act, Jerry Craft tells the story of a school year, weaving young people’s social weirdness with their school’s awkward, sincere effort to improve multicultural understanding. The themes are heavy, but the storytelling is silly and fun, and Craft’s tone-setting illustration moves between dramatic, melodramatic, whimsical, and poignant as his story dictates.

    There are smiles everywhere in this graphic novel, some of them right in your face as the artist parodies popular literature for young readers (including his own book!) or draws emojis next to characters’ faces to show their moods.

    Some chuckles are subtler, and likely intended only for the grownups in his audience. In one panel, Jordan and his friends meet in front of an ice cream truck called EZ Like Sundae Mornin’, a visual gag unlikely to be appreciated by even forty-year-old readers, never mind middle-schoolers.

    Teachers at RAD attend a conference held by the National Organization of Cultural Liaisons Understanding Equality with never a reference to an acronym. These little, silly touches are everywhere, and they make Class Act a joy to read.

    Yet Craft doesn’t try to laugh everything away. When Jordan’s father is pulled over in his car by a white cop, it doesn’t matter if the officer is friendly and helpful. It’s a routine traffic stop for the officer, but there’s no such thing as a routine stop for someone like Jordan’s dad.

    Craft’s New Kid won the Newbery Medal in 2020, and as I write this, the announcement for 2021’s recipient is two days away. It would be a first for a writer to win the award in consecutive years, but because Class Act is at least as good as its predecessor, a touching, thoughtful story right for its audience and time, it would be well deserved, and it wouldn’t be a shocker.

  4. Mitchell,

    Have you read any of Megan Abbott’s novels? A friend of mind recommended some of them to me. She sounds like someone you could have read.

    1. I haven’t. I like hard-boiled crime fiction but lately (as you know) my tastes lean more to cozy mysteries. Let me know what you think when you read her. I’ve read Kristi Abbott, though. I have the second book in her popcorn shop mysteries in my stack right now, in fact. 🙂

    2. For what it’s worth, here’s my friend’s description of her later work:

      Her early novels more conventional genre work and are somewhat like Cain. The later ones are about the social/emotional lives of teenage girls, but from a similar sensibility/aesthetic, so they’re not quite like anything else I’ve read.

      He recommended reading The End of Everything and the books after that. The description of the former and the quote made me think of you.

  5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

    I’m not motivated to do a proper review, so I’m just going to leave some random thoughts.

    • I would think this is a book that would be appropriate for high school students, maybe college freshmen. Or maybe I’m selling intermediate students short.
    • Was the book going for realism or was it mostly functioning as a kind of parable? Maybe a mix of the two? I’m not sure. In general, I think I’m a little underwhelmed. The writing itself was OK at best, and I did have trouble with British phrases and the language of when it was written.
    • With regard to the question about realism versus parable, the character of Jack comes to mind specifically. I don’t have trouble believing that humans can devolve to savagery, but I’m uncertain if the way this is expressed in the book, especially via Jack, is realistic. I think the key is to know what Jack was like before landing on the island. That is, did he have the attributes to suggest he would behave the way he did on the island?
    • I’m not clear on the meaning of the pig’s skull and its designation as “Lord of the Flies.” Is that a reference to Satan?
    1. I used to teach this novel for HBA ninth-graders. I think I went four years with it before discontinuing it. The realities of the year-round school calendar were one factor; the other was this feeling that some ninth-graders just weren’t ready for the themes. It’s an age where some are still clinging to childhood ideals, and my partner and I decided it wasn’t really our job to yank them out of innocence, not at that age.

      It was a very good companion to A Separate Peace, especially since the themes are nearly identical. We thought the Knowles book worked on a literal basis, though, and our more innocent students could deal with it on that level. Plus it was later in the school year, when they were a little more grown-up. A lot happens in the first semester of a frosh year of high-school.

      Lord of the Flies is absolutely meant to be a parable, but it’s okay to read it literally if you don’t just read it literally. That scene at the end, on the beach when the boys weep, I think that’s mean to be more literal than illustrative, and it’s my favorite part of the novel.

      You’re right about the writing. It’s not especially well-written. It’s fine. Compared to A Separate Peace it’s practically pedestrian.

      There are a few schools here who teach it to middle-schoolers.

    2. We thought the Knowles book worked on a literal basis, though, and our more innocent students could deal with it on that level.

      This resonates with me, although I can barely remember ASP. Social commentary and human nature manifesting itself in society make LotF more abstract and maybe harder to relate to–or at least I would think that’s the case. At what age would you say students have the capacity to think about questions that society as a whole–e.g., ideas relating to social stability, the nature of a good society, etc.? Maybe juniors and seniors?

      Lord of the Flies is absolutely meant to be a parable, but it’s okay to read it literally if you don’t just read it literally.

      My sense is that the more literal–or more realistic aspects–create problems or weaken the novel. While it may be a parable, the characters are still humans and ostensibly behaving as real humans would. Again, I probably agree with Golding about the overall points he wants to make, but the way his characters get there seem a little off. A part of me feels his understanding of children is flawed.

      Oh, there’s one thing I disagree with him on–specifically, the implication that without an almost absolute faith in science, technology, and reason, the social order would collapse. This is my reading of the scene where the kids freak out over the possibility that a beast is roaming the island. Piggy rejects this, and when Ralph asks how Piggy can be certain, Piggy mentions that we wouldn’t have modern technology if beasts and ghosts were real. And the social order on the island seems to devolve, in part, when they kids allow or leave open the possibility that a beast and ghosts exist.

      I do agree that a society that abandons reason, facts, and science would likely not survive–or at least a liberal democratic society would not survive. But I don’t agree with Piggy’s argument.

      I’m interested in hearing how you interpret the meaning of the Lord of the Flies and its connection with the sow’s head.

      1. I have to run an errand so I’ll get back to your questions. Just want to say that while I don’t reject your reading of this as a parable about science, technology, and reason vs. religion or faith, I think you’re not going deep enough and I think the metaphor of the island is distracting you from the real central theme, which is more pro-faith than pro-science. One reason I liked teaching it at HBA.

        There’s a reason the author makes the entire population children, beyond removing them from the influence of society and family. And despite what I said about the scene on the beach being more literal than figurative, think of it figuratively. What are the boys really crying about?

        It helps to think of these things while remembering Simon’s scene alone with the Beast — and one thing he says before he meets his demise.

        🙂

        1. PS: I know how you feel about re-reading books, but you might think differently about A Separate Peace if you gave that another look. 🙂

    3. Wait, to be clear, I’m not saying the book is a parable about reason vs. religion, or that reason vs. religion is a central theme. Off the top of my head, I would say the parable is about the fragility of civilization, including the seemingly most civilized, and social order; darker forces lie below, and they are a constant threat to civilization.

      Additionally, perhaps the novel is not in opposition to religion so much as irrationality and emotionalism. I do not believe the two are not equivalent, and perhaps Golding agrees?

      There’s a reason the author makes the entire population children, beyond removing them from the influence of society and family.

      You’re thinking the characters are children to imply God is a parent–that the children, because they have disobeyed God, have created chaos and destruction.

      What are the boys really crying about?

      The feel a mixture of remorse and relief? Remorse, that they know they have disobeyed the grown-ups (God) and relief that the grown-ups (God) has returned to restore order?

      It helps to think of these things while remembering Simon’s scene alone with the Beast — and one thing he says before he meets his demise.

      Are you thinking of Simon trying to tell the boys about the dead man on the hill? If so, are you thinking that is an allusion to Jesus?

  6. Responding to this comment first.

    Social commentary and human nature manifesting itself in society make LotF more abstract and maybe harder to relate to–or at least I would think that’s the case. At what age would you say students have the capacity to think about questions that society as a whole–e.g., ideas relating to social stability, the nature of a good society, etc.? Maybe juniors and seniors?

    Actually I wouldn’t have an issue discussing this with middle-schoolers, because they experience this stuff on their own level and I’d love to deal with it wherever they are. At this age, they’re clearly aware of social injustice and racism, for starters. At least as they’ve observed it in the world.

    My sense is that the more literal–or more realistic aspects–create problems or weaken the novel. While it may be a parable, the characters are still humans and ostensibly behaving as real humans would. Again, I probably agree with Golding about the overall points he wants to make, but the way his characters get there seem a little off. A part of me feels his understanding of children is flawed.

    Fair critique. This may be one of the things keeping this from ever really being considered a classic. There’s a reason I’ve never heard of English majors reading it in college.

    I’m interested in hearing how you interpret the meaning of the Lord of the Flies and its connection with the sow’s head.

    You are free to take this or leave it, obviously. And I have never studied Lord of the Flies under anyone’s tutelage — the first time I read it was the summer before my first year of teaching because I knew I’d be teaching it.

    Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace are both loss-of-innocence stories, and so they tie into the original loss of innocence story in Genesis 3.

    The island in the novel is something of a Garden of Eden, but I’m going to stop drawing connections to Genesis 3 because they’ll be obvious as I lay this out. Pointing to it now to answer my own question about why Golding makes it about children.

    When Simon encounters the Beast, he hears his own voice coming from it. The dialogue he has with it is a dialogue with himself. When he runs back to tell the others, he says, “Maybe there is a beast … Maybe it’s only us.”

    Simon is the first to recognize his inherent evil, and the inherent evil in all the boys on the island. It’s not some outer force inspiring division and war on the island: there is no outer force. It’s just the evil within them all compelling them to war and murder.

    When the boys sob on the beach as they are being rescued, yes, they are crying for the death of Piggy, but they are really crying about their own loss of innocence. Simon or Piggy (or both? I can’t remember) is the sacrifice bringing them into this awareness — not Christ figures exactly, but close enough for discussion’s purpose.

    This is an easy theme to teach at HBA, but for some ninth-graders, we felt it might actually force children to confront this reality when they weren’t quite ready — some of them still think of evil only as doing bad things. By the end of ninth grade I would have been fine with it, but the end of ninth grade is all about Romeo and Juliet and no way was I going to mess with that, the best piece of literature I ever taught.

    Besides, as I said, I got into it with A Separate Peace in a more satisfying way anyway, and thanks to the novel being actually a good novel, students received it at whatever level they were ready to receive it. Plus, part of my job was to get them ready for tenth-grade English, and eventually for AP English, so giving them this lesson also with the benefit of a tree and some water made it the better novel for the lesson.

    I wouldn’t have felt right teaching Lord of the Flies without hammering home the novel’s point that we are all evil.

    1. At this age, they’re clearly aware of social injustice and racism, for starters. At least as they’ve observed it in the world.

      Yeah, I can see that, but for what it’s worth, I was thinking more about questions that have to do with the conditions for a stable society and qualities of a good society–something more philosophical. In my son’s assignment, he chose to write about actions Ralph could have taken to be a more effective leader. To me, knowing the attributes and conditions for a good society underlies that answer to this–or it should. I think these questions are important, and my sense is that middle school kids aren’t ready for this.

      When Simon encounters the Beast, he hears his own voice coming from it. The dialogue he has with it is a dialogue with himself. When he runs back to tell the others, he says, “Maybe there is a beast … Maybe it’s only us.”

      When you mentioned “Simon’s demise,” I thought you meant his last words before the boys killed him. In that situation, he was trying to tell them there was a dead body on the hill–i.e., the beast is not real–it’s a dead body. But by “demise” did you mean his mental demise? It seems like Simon has a mental breakdown; but I thought the sow’s head–which the book refers to as the “Lord of the Flies”–speaks to Simon. Was it the dead body talking to him?

      I do remember Simon’s remark about the beast being “only us,” although I felt this seemed thrown in there, as if Golding is simply using Simon as a didactic mouthpiece. That is, the novel doesn’t convincingly establish that Simon as someone with the precociousness to have this insight.

      (By the way, I wanted to know why the sow’s head was referred to as the “Lord of the Flies.” Off the top of my head, the pig’s head might represent the savagery that lies below all of us. Jack becomes obsessed with hunting and killing pigs. There also might be a connection with authoritarianism–that is, people will embrace a strong man as long as they appear strong and provide for one’s physical needs, including providing security.)

      It’s not some outer force inspiring division and war on the island: there is no outer force.

      I think this is a valid reading, but I associated giving in to the fear of the beast related to abandoning rationality, good sense, and ultimately science and civilization.

      But I do think Simon’s declaration pushes back on this. With your reading, giving into the fear of the beast would be symbolic perhaps–a view that evil comes from without more than from within. Then again, the collapse of the social order seems to stem for more literal reasons–e.g., Jack’s ambition for power and his view that power stems from hunting and violence, as well a lack of discipline from the children.

      When the boys sob on the beach as they are being rescued, yes, they are crying for the death of Piggy, but they are really crying about their own loss of innocence. Simon or Piggy (or both? I can’t remember) is the sacrifice bringing them into this awareness — not Christ figures exactly, but close enough for discussion’s purpose.

      This reading, or the Garden of Eden motif, did not come to mind, but I think it’s interesting and valid reading–although if this is the central idea of the parable, I might think less of the novel. I do agree that loss of innocence is a prominent theme.

      This is an easy theme to teach at HBA, but for some ninth-graders, we felt it might actually force children to confront this reality when they weren’t quite ready — some of them still think of evil only as doing bad things.

      I’m curious to hear how you would use LotF to explore the way evil can be internal feelings and motives, versus bad behavior.

      I wouldn’t have felt right teaching Lord of the Flies without hammering home the novel’s point that we are all evil.

      I don’t know if I agree, although my take is very, very similar. The emphasis for me wouldn’t be that we’re all evil, but that the potential for barbarity and savagery exists even in people who are highly civilized on the surface. I may be splitting hairs, here, though. I do think the novel can be used to make your point–it’s just that I would emphasize slightly different things.

      If I recall A Separate Peace might be a better book to say that we’re all evil. I also like Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro for making this point–actually, I’m not entirely comfortable using the phrase “all evil” to describe the major theme of those books.

  7. But by “demise” did you mean his mental demise? It seems like Simon has a mental breakdown; but I thought the sow’s head–which the book refers to as the “Lord of the Flies”–speaks to Simon. Was it the dead body talking to him?

    I never thought of it as a mental breakdown, but no, I meant before his death. It’s been 20 years and I may remember things out of order.

    I do remember Simon’s remark about the beast being “only us,” although I felt this seemed thrown in there, as if Golding is simply using Simon as a didactic mouthpiece. That is, the novel doesn’t convincingly establish that Simon as someone with the precociousness to have this insight.

    Simon is the model of kindness on the island. He would be the first boy to come to this realization.

    (By the way, I wanted to know why the sow’s head was referred to as the “Lord of the Flies.” Off the top of my head, the pig’s head might represent the savagery that lies below all of us. Jack becomes obsessed with hunting and killing pigs. There also might be a connection with authoritarianism–that is, people will embrace a strong man as long as they appear strong and provide for one’s physical needs, including providing security.)

    This works. The name just sounds to me like other names we give to Satan (father of lies, ruler of darkness, king of the bottomless pit).

    I think this is a valid reading, but I associated giving in to the fear of the beast related to abandoning rationality, good sense, and ultimately science and civilization.

    You’re not wrong. But I am right.

    But I do think Simon’s declaration pushes back on this. With your reading, giving into the fear of the beast would be symbolic perhaps–a view that evil comes from without more than from within. Then again, the collapse of the social order seems to stem for more literal reasons–e.g., Jack’s ambition for power and his view that power stems from hunting and violence, as well a lack of discipline from the children.

    Whoa whoa whoa. Giving in to the fear of the beast is symbolic of the opposite: evil comes from within, not from without. Because the beast doesn’t actually exist as an outer presence.

    The collapse of the social order does stem from these things, but where do violence, ambition for power, and lack of discipline come from? This is why the author uses children as his characters. They come from within, expressions of the first sin, pride. Not learned from our environments but inherited from Genesis 3.

    I’m curious to hear how you would use LotF to explore the way evil can be internal feelings and motives, versus bad behavior.

    I really wouldn’t. I’d just use it as an example of something the students were already learning from their biblical studies.

    I don’t know if I agree, although my take is very, very similar. The emphasis for me wouldn’t be that we’re all evil, but that the potential for barbarity and savagery exists even in people who are highly civilized on the surface. I may be splitting hairs, here, though. I do think the novel can be used to make your point–it’s just that I would emphasize slightly different things.

    This is splitting hairs. If I’d conceived my four quarters of instruction differently, it might have worked your way, though, since we taught Of MIce and Men, Romeo and Juliet and Antigone later. Themes of authority and power could have been a good thread for the whole year, but I think I would have lost too many of the froshies. I’d say at least half are still dealing with everything as what it means for them personally, not really into talking about society, although by the end of the year we were addressing the topic head-on. Laws of man vs. laws of God, for example.

    If I recall A Separate Peace might be a better book to say that we’re all evil. I also like Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro for making this point–actually, I’m not entirely comfortable using the phrase “all evil” to describe the major theme of those books.

    This is why it worked better than Lord of the Flies for my purpose. Students could safely stick to A Separate Peace on its first level — a story about one young man and what he did in high school. Easier to keep it external. I did save one class discussion for the fall of humans and their redemption, but it was at the very end, and I taught it more as a literary analysis lesson. The advanced students loved that discussion. You could see lightbulbs going on over heads. 🙂

    1. Simon is the model of kindness on the island. He would be the first boy to come to this realization.

      I guess I wasn’t reading carefully because that (Simon being so kind) did not come through to me. Still, even if he was kind, being really kind doesn’t necessarily mean a pre-teen or younger would be confident that supernatural beings don’t exist and that human beings possess an inherent evil that would make them the real beasts. I don’t know, maybe I’m selling children of this age a bit short.

      This works. The name just sounds to me like other names we give to Satan (father of lies, ruler of darkness, king of the bottomless pit).

      Yeah, I recall from somewhere that the Lord of the flies is another name for Satan, but I initially couldn’t find corroboration on the internet. I just checked again, and according to Wikipedia, Beelzebul translated means “Lord of the fly” or “Lord of the flies.” The meaning of this is not clear, but whatever it is, the sow’s head clearly refers to Satan….I wonder if this means the following: Satan is associated with the pig/hunting, and those two things are associated with savagery. Ergo: Satan is the savagery every human possesses, which is basically your interpretation of the book.

      Whoa whoa whoa. Giving in to the fear of the beast is symbolic of the opposite: evil comes from within, not from without. Because the beast doesn’t actually exist as an outer presence.

      But if the children believe the beast is real—i.e., an external source of evil–how does this belief represent the idea that evil comes from within?

      The collapse of the social order does stem from these things, but where do violence, ambition for power, and lack of discipline come from? This is why the author uses children as his characters. They come from within, expressions of the first sin, pride. Not learned from our environments but inherited from Genesis 3.

      One could argue that human beings are not strictly evil—but a mixture of good and evil. And to be more precise, ambitions, emotions, and the desire for comfort and convenience (which can make being disciplined so difficult) are not evil per se, but if people are not careful, these forces can be destructive. The point of the book could be that even children—human beings in a state of innocence– from the elite classes, raised in elite institutions, and given tremendous resources, are not impervious to the harm that could be caused by these forces. Therefore, humanity must be ever wary and vigilant to guard against these factors, lest they destroy individuals and society. Do we have to believe humans are inherently evil to get to this conclusion?

      I do think that ambition is a manifestation of pride, but pride, as the original sin, as a source of evil, seems really theological, and beyond the scope of the novel.

      I should acknowledge, if it’s not already apparent, that I’m interpreting the novel through a lens colored heavily by recent political events—specifically, the fragility of liberal democracy in America and the degree to which people will accept a strong man leader and abandon the rule of law. For example, in the novel, during the assembly after the failure to keep the fire burning, Jack begins to dismiss the rules, including the one about the person holding the conch shell gets to speak, and Ralph says something like, “Without the rules we’re nothing,” or something to that effect. This scene, as well as the scene where the conch, as a symbol of legitimate authority and order, gets smashed to pieces, also definitely made me think of the last four years. What I see from the last four years is not that humans are inherently evil (to me, this is a given), but that humans are highly flawed and these flaws and weaknesses make a society based on the rule of law very fragile.

      The lens I’m using could very well be leading me to misread the novel.

  8. On the HorizonOn the Horizon by Lois Lowry
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    It turns out Tae Keller, 2021 recipient of the Newbery Medal, is not the first Hawaii writer to win the award. Lois Lowry, who won the medal twice, was born in my home state in 1937 and lived here for a couple of years. As a pre-teen, she moved with her family shortly after World War II to Japan.

    She mentions these connections in an author’s note at the back of On the Horizon, a collection of poetry set mostly in 1941 Hawaii and 1945 Japan, telling the stories of people touched by both sides of the war in the Pacific: the beginning and end, the United States and Japan.

    Writing serious poetry for children is supremely difficult. Make it too artsy and it never connects with its audience. Make it too explainable and it loses poetry’s ineffable magic. I’ve seen very few collections that hit the sweet spot consistently, and On the Horizon doesn’t quite do it either.

    It’s a really good attempt, though, as Lowry employs free verse and a few traditional forms without being teachy or preachy. She sticks mostly to rhyme, but usually doesn’t settle into a ricky-ticky rhythm that would work against the sobriety of her subject. She’s writing about the deaths of young men in war, after all.

    She does use a lilting, melodious voice when writing about her young self, and young readers will likely grab quickly onto these poems:

    I wonder, now that time’s gone by
    about that day: the sea, the sky . . .
    the day I frolicked in the foam,
    when Honolulu was my home.

    But I appreciate other moments, as when Lowry personifies the ships (a centuries-old tradition) and plays with words a little:

    Their places
    (the places of the gray metal women)
    were called berths.

    Arizona was at berth F-7.
    On either side, her nurturing sisters:
    Nevada
    and Tennessee.

    The sisters, wounded, survived.
    But Arizona, her massive body sheared,
    slipped down. She disappeared.

    Lowry makes it work, grouping poetry in three sections. “On the Horizon” contains poems set in Hawaii. “Another Horizon” contains poems set in Japan. A third section, “Beyond Horizons,” connects the first with the second in ways I won’t spoil, but the poetry in this last part is the reason to read this book, offering a collective thesis and theme. It’s rather devastating and lovely.

    It’s also a keeper. Young readers will find second and third readings rewarding, especially if the grownups around them resist the temptation to explain it all for them. Here’s hoping they do!

      1. Thanks. Just corrected a couple of errors you were gracious not to point out. It’s interesting, if not quite great.

  9. There are good poetry books out there, but not many with the serious subject matter of World War II. I’d say the most successful I’ve seen is Out of the Dust (1997) by Karen Hesse. It’s about a family escaping the Dust Bowl.

    I’ve often wondered what young me would have thought of this book. Even as an old guy, I didn’t think it could be that interesting, but it is. Super compelling.

    For teen readers, an anthology called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and other poems is great, although it’s not poetry necessarily written for young readers. It’s also used (or, it was once used) as a textbook anthology. Also, probably not as sober in content as On the Horizon or Out of the Dust.

    1. I will look for these books, thanks! (And for what it’s worth, I don’t mind that the subjects are not about WWII or really serious.)

  10. Clouds by Aristophanes

    Kierkegaard mentioned that Aristophanes had the best understanding or depicted Socrates the most accurately–relative to the understanding and portrayals by Xenophon and Plato. That really piqued my curiosity, especially since Aristophanes parodies the sophists, utilizing Socrates to represent the them–which seems furthest from the Socrates I am most familiar with (Plato’s).

    I’m still fuzzy on the reasons for Kierkegaard’s position, but I would guess it has to do with the irony that Kierkegaard is a stand in for the sophists. Or maybe that Socrates’ approach has ironic similarities to the sophists, while achieving totally different outcomes–which heightens the irony more. (Note: Kierkegaard’s remark comes from his book, The Concept of Irony, and part of the book examines the relationship of irony to Socrates. I should spend more time trying to understand Kierkegaard’s position, but I’m not sure I will.)

    The other thing of note about Clouds. In the translator’s introduction, my sense is that much of the value of Aristophane’s plays, similar to Shakespeare, lie in his language–specifically the poetry and puns. The translation works well enough to get the sense, but I’m not sure if the translator doesn’t quite succeed, or I just didn’t care for the humor. On a related note, while reading this, I kept think Lin Manuel Miranda is a modern day version of this type of approach. If Aristophanes were writing now, I’d imagine he’d feature rapping in his plays.

  11. Leaves of Grass (1892 edition) by Walt Whitman

    I started reading this, off and on, maybe about ten years ago. At one point I designated Sundays as a day I would read this, although I didn’t consistently stick to this plan. Indeed, I think there may have been months, if not a year or two when I didn’t read this at all. By 2020, I was only about half way through. I’m just about finished with the book now, and I wanted to start jotting down some general comments and impressions.

    • Is this a great work of art? Is this a great American work of art? I would say it’s more the latter than the former, and it certainly very American, definitely patriotic. Indeed, Whitman’s passion and gusto, even ecstasy, for America, democracy, and the individual pours forth in a way that is clear and maybe even admirable. Certainly if one loves America and democracy, you have to find Whitman endearing and kind of love him even if you think he maybe limited as a poet.
    • I do find him limited as a poet–specifically his writing and command of language. I could be wrong, but that’s my honest reaction. Whitman often refers to his poems as songs, and you know how song lyrics are not poetic, because they’re made to function with music? Whitman’s poems are closer to that, I think; and once I got a feel for his individual style, I could enjoy the sound of his poems.
    • I like the title, “Leaves of Grass.” Grass is something expansive, which matches Whitman’s subjects and the length of his book. He writes (sings) about the entire country, mentioning specific places and states, from the east, west, north and south; he writes about humanity and the universal soul, in a New Agey way. (I think this last part can make some roll their eyes, particularly the exuberance he expresses when talking about this.) The “leaves” represent the poems in this book, but also each individual soul, which is connected to everyone….

    More later.

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