Friday, July 27, 2012

"Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer

Several years ago I saw the movie Into the Wild, a fictionalized narrative of the life and death of Chris McCandless, a young man who left his good home to hitchhike to Alaska and live alone in the wilderness. He was discovered, several months later, starved to death, despite being within several miles of civilization. The movie, of course, is based on Krakauer's nonfiction book. When I saw the movie, I was mostly disgusted by the character and the movie's basic theme. The film seemed to be romanticizing the pointless journey of a self-absorbed and stuck-up kid who looked down upon everyone else and society.  Fortunately, however, I came away from Krakauer's book with a much more nuanced view of McCandless. Mostly this is because Krakauer acknowledges my reaction and willingly explores McCandless' faults. But, he also puts those faults and McCandless' goals in perspective, and though he doesn't romanticize McCandless' journey like the movie, he does offer insight into why such an odyssey would appeal to a young man like McCandless.

Contrary to public opinion, though he was reckless, McCandless wasn't stupid, and he probably would have survived except for a few devastating, but easily made, mistakes. In the end (and I'd agree), Krakauer seems to suggest that McCandless' greatest flaw was the hubris of the young. He rejected his parents because they had faults, rather than recognizing them as human. He rejected all trappings of society (money, housing, jobs, plentiful food) in an effort to find "purity" in nature rather than dealing with the world the way it is. By removing himself from it, I think he tried to take the easy way out--perhaps not easy physically, but I'd argue it's a lot easier to focus only on basic needs (food, water) than to try and work with society (and plan for retirement or set up health insurance or get the car fixed).

I'll be teaching American Lit in the fall, and I'd like to eventually include Into the Wild in the curriculum because it fits in so well with basic American themes (trying to find one's self; rebelling against the pressures around you) and connects so clearly to major American works (Thoreau's transcendentalism; the call of the wild in Huck Finn). It'd be neat to compare it to Kerouac's On the Road as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain

This has been an all-classics summer as I've been reading through the new books I'll be teaching this year. Some I had never read before (like Red Badge of Courage) and some I'd read but barely remembered (like The Scarlet Letter). A few I debated on (deciding, for example, against reading The Great Gatsby now because I reread it only a few years ago), and I was on the fence about Huck Finn since I don't think I've read it since college. I chose to reread and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was also surprised by just how familiar the entire book was to me. Heck, I remembered it better, even though it's been probably nine years since I read it, than I now remember Red Badge of Courage, which I finished a couple weeks ago.

My excellent recall is probably due to Huck Finn's memorable storyline and iconic narrator. We all can't help but love Huck Finn who, despite his awful upbringing, is at heart a decent and loyal boy. Of course, we love him all the more because he is convinced of his own wickedness yet struggles mightily to do the right thing. When he tricks Jim for fun and sees how hurt Jim is by his actions, he apologizes and changes his ways. He's even able to evolve beyond the social mores of his time and choose to assist Jim in his escape from slavery. Nonetheless, Huck wouldn't be any fun if he were all "heart of gold." He's also inventive and intelligent, reminding me of Odysseus in his skill (most of the time anyway) in lying.

The book is best when it focuses on Jim and Huck's travels, including the indelible American image of the small raft on the Mississippi river. When the "king" and "duke" join the caravan, the book is more humorous, but it also shifts away from Huck and Jim's central relationship and largely ignores the fact that Jim is separated from his family and running for his life.

This leads to the almost intolerable last quarter of the book, when Jim is captured and Huck is reunited with Tom Sawyer. Though Huck is for freeing Jim and escaping quickly, he allows Tom to talk him into a complicated and convoluted plan created solely for Tom's amusement. Though I think this is probably true to life--as a teacher, I often see students who are good and decent on their own but turn into asses with their friends--it's also frustrating as a reader. Huck and Tom not only put Jim, but Tom's Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas, though hell, and though Huck sees the pointlessness of it all, he doesn't really seem to consider the pain he's inflicting. Because the book's a comedy, their actions are in the end largely innocuous--Tom isn't seriously hurt; Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas forgive; Jim is deus ex machina-ed out of slavery--but that doesn't change the fact that we lose some of that good side of Huck we'd come to love.

Nonetheless, Huck Finn is an excellent adventure story in its own right and so clearly has a central place in American history, making is one of those rare high school required reading books that I think teenagers will actually enjoy.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

When I mentioned reading The Scarlet Letter to a friend, she immediately responded with, "Ugh, I do not feel bad for Hester at all." I was a little taken aback. Is that a common reaction? That Hester's "sin" of having sex with a man she loves is so bad that we feel her and her daughter entirely deserving of being shunned and reviled by her community for years? I found nothing to judge in Hester and her actions. She accepts the town's judgment of her and devotes her life to her daughter, Pearl, and doing good in the community. So what if she doesn't really repent of her crime? Maybe there was nothing to repent of, you Puritans!

Now, if you're looking for an unsympathetic character, I'd go with Hester's partner in "crime," the Rev. Dimmesdale. I don't fault him for sleeping with Hester, and perhaps not even for keeping it a secret, but I do find fault in his grandiose sense of self-worth. He berates himself for years over his crime, moaning to his congregation that his faults are the blackest of those there. And, you know, maybe his sin just wasn't all that bad? Maybe God just doesn't care that much about it. At the same time, he drinks in the adoration of his congregation. It seems Hawthorne is trying to portray him as worse off than Hester for living a lie--suggesting that the congregation's praise only makes his sin feel worse--but I think he rather likes being an adored sinner. Dimmesdale does come to peace and some redemption at the end by confessing his actions in front of the town. But then he also conveniently dies, relieving him from having to face the consequences, which I think are far, far harder to live through than the confession itself. Hester deals with that for her whole life.

The secondary characters are somewhat odd. First, there's Pearl herself, who is constantly referred to as an elf, or devil, or sprite because she's not a quiet, static, obedient little girl. She's also frequently associated with the Scarlet Letter itself, an ostentatious badge of shame upon Hester. Yet Pearl doesn't seem to have a real personality. Hawthorne avoids the suggestion that any oddness, perhaps, arises from being raised, from birth, ostracized from the community. And I certainly don't buy this "Dimmesdale dies and his kiss changes her" crap. What is this, Hawthorne, Beauty and the Beast?

Then there's Mr. Chillingworth (what a fabulous name), Hester's husband who devotes his life to seeking revenge upon Dimmesdale. But why? I can understand a man might be angry his wife slept with another man, but we're not given any special motivation for Chillingworth. He's an empty, evil vessel and seems completely unnecessary for the story.

But, Hawthorne isn't interested in these characters as much as I am. He's much more focused on the nature of guilt, sin, and revenge and the way in which these negative traits consume an individual (e.g. Chillingworth literally starts looking evil once he begins his campaign against Dimmesdale). I find guilt and sin largely dull, as were some sections of the novel. Nonetheless, I mostly appreciated the text, and I'm sure I enjoyed it significantly more than I must have in high school.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"The Crucible" by Arthur Miller

In four years of blogging, this is the first play I've read and reviewed. Like most people, I imagine, I just find it weird to sit down and read a play solo. But, I'm teaching The Crucible this fall, so a rereading of this high school staple was necessary.

What I was most struck by is just what great drama The Crucible, a retelling of the Salem Witch trials, makes. I mean, I was angry reading it! I wanted to spit at that smug Abby and knock Danforth senseless. I tensed in frustration as Proctor desperately tries to save his wife's life. And, I even shed a tear at John Proctor and Elizabeth's last conversation as John refuses to save himself by lying and admitting to being a witch. If a play can stir that much emotion read silently, I can only imagine the scenes on stage.

Like the other great play I've taught at the high school level, Inherit the Wind, there's not a ton of depth to The Crucible. Don't get me wrong--there's excellent characterization, clear conflict, and compelling themes, but most of what it is is on the surface. In terms of a text to read, that doesn't bother me, though I have found it can be challenging to pull much from the simpler plays in the classroom. We'll see how it goes this fall, though given my male students' frequent desire to play Juliet, at the very least I do think teenage boys will be clamoring to cry witch as a hysteric teenage girl.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

"A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway

After the rather unpleasant experience of reading A Red Badge of Courage, I wasn't looking forward to A Farewell to Arms. No matter that they're in different wars (Civil War vs. WWI), have different protagonists (a young untested soldier vs. an American ambulance driver with the Italian forces), and focus on different events (bravery in battle vs. ...well, I'm not sure in the case of Farewell), I went a bit reluctantly into Hemingway's novel. In the end, of course, all war books are not the same, and I appreciated Farewell immensely more.

The best part of A Farewell to Arms is Hemingway's sparse and unsentimental style, which could come off dull but instead seems an apt reflection of the inner thoughts of the protagonist, Henry. Much of his life is routine, and he thinks in that manner, only occasionally pausing to reflect on his life or the people in it. Like the young protagonist of A Red Badge of Courage, Henry is ambivalent about war. He feels a sense of duty in doing his job correctly, but the fighting doesn't inflame his passions or mean much to him. Unlike the youth in Red Badge, though, Henry feels no guilt in this. He's more interested in being good to his friends and in being with Catherine, an English nurse with whom he's fallen in love.

The back flap of my novel seems to describe A Farewell to Arms as a love story, but although Henry and Catherine's relationship is central to the novel, it's hard to describe the book as a romance (at least in the way that most of us think of the term). One of the reasons is because Henry thinks of his relationship matter-of-factly through most of the book, which is perhaps realistic in the situation but not especially heartstrings-pulling. Another reason, for me, is because Catherine is such a flat character. Though we know she initially pursues her flirtation with Henry in order to overcome the death of a fiance, she so quickly subsumes her life into Henry's that it's hard to think of her as a full-bodied person. In my review of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, I lamented that the love interest Maria is "frail and delicate, ...and it is only through her relationship with Robert that she feels whole again. She gives herself to Robert fully and desires nothing else but to provide for his needs." The same is true of Catherine, who dedicates herself solely to Henry, eventually becoming a somewhat cloying partner who fails to recognize Henry's need (and, hey, perhaps her own need? c'mon) for some kind of purpose and independence.

The ending of the novel is almost surprising, especially in contrast to the end of Red Badge. At the end of Crane's work, the youth believes he has become a man and grown from his experience in war. Even the cynical Catch-22 ends with hope. In contrast, A Farewell to Arms ends with no such lesson. Henry has survived war, and people have died, and nothing is different.

Though I had problems with Catherine, Hemingway's writing style is enough to make A Farewell to Arms compelling, and it does make an interesting study in contrast with Red Badge.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane

Somehow I was never assigned this classic text in high school or college, so this was a first reading for me. I was happily surprised by the short length, though I must have been channeling my inner sulky teenager as I read, because the book felt interminable. Now that I've finished, I can look back with more interest in Crane's work, but man, I do empathize with the generations of teenagers who have slogged through it (I'm a teacher, so note to other teachers: just because a book features a teenage protagonist and is about war does not mean teenagers will like it).

The Red Badge of Courage takes places over several days in the Civil War, and is related from the point of view of Henry (who is more often called the "youth"), a young and untested soldier. Prior to their first real engagement, Henry worries that he will turn cowardly and run in the battle. He later does so and feels ashamed and concerned that others will discover him. However, in later battles, he fights brazenly in an almost crazed manner and decides, in the end, that he has become a man.

To be fair, the exploration of Henry's mental state throughout the battles is well-done. As many critics have noted, Red Badge of Courage was one of the first works to complicate the mythology of war as glorious and soldiers as selflessly courageous and heroic. Instead, Henry goes through a barrage of emotions, from fear to shame to arrogance to self-reflection. Henry doesn't fight because he loves his country or he hates his enemy; instead, when he does fight, he does so for more complicated reasons: fear at being branded a coward; anger at a colonel who calls them "pack mules;" unreasoned group enthusiasm.

I read somewhere that Red Badge was the first anti-war novel, and I'm not sure whether or not I agree. At the end, Henry comes to some peace within himself, believing that he has finally become a man. When I first read the ending, I was angry, thinking Crane equated war with being a man. But, others have argued that the ending is ironic, as Henry's arrogance shows he hasn't really changed or grown. Furthermore, the novel ends with the line, "He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace." Perhaps his turning away from war suggests that war is animalistic and that being at peace with nature is truly human. Truthfully, I'm not sure yet of which interpretation I support.

There are some interesting things going on in Crane's work, but I found myself skimming and falling asleep while reading. Maybe war books just aren't for me (comforting thought, since A Farewell to Arms is next--blech).