My girls and I just wrapped up our last official read-aloud of the school year (though by no means are we wrapping up our reading aloud)! This year we’ve been studying world geography via Build Your Library, and this book was on our list as we studied Europe. I was initially daunted by the length of the book as a read-aloud, but I did want to experience it with my girls, so I charged ahead. I am so very glad I did!
Watership Down is a very complex story about. . . rabbits. You knew that, right? That sums up everything I knew about the story before we read it, but believe me: there’s so much more to this tale. This novel would make a springboard for discussion about personality and leadership styles, archetypal images, sociological observations, rabbit behavior, and so much more. It’s the story of Fiver and Hazel (and a host of other rabbits) as they go through the arduous process of breaking away from their original warren and establishing their own. Through Fiver (the visionary) and Hazel (the practical leader), we get to experience the difficulties of leading such a movement. We might even imagine what it would be like to establish a nation through this, or at least recognize some of what we’ve studied through history as we read it. If I’m being obtuse about it, it’s because first, it’s quite a story to summarize; and second, I feel like I need to study it a bit more myself to offer much commentary. In discussing it with my girls, both girls were able to see shades of the totalitarian regimes of World War II and the Cold War in it, so I think that’s something. This would make an interesting read alongside some of the dystopian novels of the past and present. I’d like to revisit it again after I study it a bit more. It’s quite an exciting story on top of all that. Highly Recommended. (Avon, 1972)
Until this week, it had been decades since I had read anything by John Steinbeck, and then it was only under duress.
Well, sort of. 🙂 My introduction to Steinbeck was probably The Red Pony, possibly in junior high school, but I don’t remember reading it then. (I have a slight recollection of reading it in college.) Fast forward to eleventh grade AP English summer reading. My assignment was to read The Grapes of Wrath, and I remember taking it with me on vacation with my best friend’s family and slogging through it as we traversed the hairpin curves of the Ozark Mountains. I also remember being totally shocked and turned off by the profane language in the novel. This obviously didn’t scar me too badly since I went on to take many, many more literature classes and eventually became an English teacher myself. (I was leery of American literature for a long time after that, though.)
Fast forward several decades to 2016. I decided to add a little Steinbeck to my girls’ world geography studies because I knew they could handle reading what is considered a classic work by a classic author. I’m having them read it slowly, at the rate of a chapter a day. (Both girls read a lot and quickly, so I have to force them to take it slowly.) I finished it this morning, just a few days ahead of my girls. While I don’t exactly regret assigning it to them (and actually, eleven year old Louise has already read it, along with a couple of Steinbeck’s other novellas), I can say it’s one of those novels that is considered a classic for a reason: it deals with the big questions of life in a way that is thought-provoking and sophisticated. My girls are both fairly mature, but they lack the life experience that adults would bring to this novel. (Welcome to the Great Conversation, girls.) That’s what makes a classic a classic, in my opinion: it tackles big, timeless issues.
The story itself is fairly simple: Kino and Juana and their baby, Coyotito, live a simple life in a thatch hut somewhere near the gulf (of Mexico). Their life is simple and peaceful, characterized by what Kino calls (in his mind) the Song of Family. However, the complication comes early in this short novel, with Coyotito being stung by a scorpion. Because this sort of wound can be life-threatening for one so young, Kino and Juana do the only things they know to do: care for him as best they can and seek the help of the doctor. The doctor, a selfish, stuck up, prig of a man, refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay him. Kino, desperate to find money, takes to the oyster beds where he discovers a large pearl–the Pearl of the World. With this pearl comes hope, but so many other things, too: jealousy, anger, greed, discontentment, violence, and even death. The story ends tragically, as one might expect for such a tale.
So many themes and motifs make up this little book: the idea of progress versus a more “natural” way of living; good versus evil; the outsider versus the native; education versus ignorance; and so on. Steinbeck’s style of writing hardly needs any introduction or commentary by me, but I did note a few passages that I thought were particularly striking. This is one.
It is wonderful the way a little town keeps track of itself and of all its units. If every single man and woman, child and baby, acts and conducts itself in a known pattern and breaks no walls and differs with no one and experiments in no way and is not sick and does not endanger the ease and peace of mind or steady and unbroken flow of the town, then that unit can disappear and never be heard of. But let one man step out of the regular thought or the known and trusted pattern, and the nerves of the townspeople ring with nervousness and communication travels over the nerve lines of the town. Then every unit communicates to the whole. (41)
That paragraph alone would provide fodder for much discussion. This is a simple novel through which to think about some big themes. I’m glad I re-read it.
My girls and I are in the middle of our Year of Anne, and we just finished book three, Anne of the Island. It has been twenty-plus years since I read this one, but I had plenty of fond memories of it, and I have to say that it mostly lived up to what I remembered: deep, meaningful friendships, in the setting of the utterly delightful Patty’s Place. I remembered with fondness the china dogs, Gog and Magog, as well as the “globe-trotting” owners of Patty’s Place knitting their way across Egypt. Such an image! 🙂 Reading it as a bonafide adult this time for the first time since I was married (way back seventeen years ago tomorrow!) was curious for me. It made me a little wistful to note how often Anne said or thought, upon returning to Green Gables, how different it was for her, and how she longed to be back at Redmond. Also, the whole Roy Gardner affair was (again) a bit much for me. It is so remote and distant-feeling–anyone can see that Roy isn’t the man for her. Maybe because Gilbert is such a foregone conclusion (though he wouldn’t have been at the time of publication, of course)–that part just rings a bit hollow. The thing I love best about Montgomery’s writing–all the vignettes–is as much a part of this story as all the others, so it was an entirely enjoyable experience for me to share it with my girls. One little bit of wisdom jumped out at me as I read this time, and I wanted to note it here for posterity. This, from Rachel Lynde about Aunt Atossa, upon the occasion of her funeral:
“Nobody except her parents ever loved poor Atossa, not even her husband”. . . “She was his fourth wife. He’d sort of gotten into the habit of marrying. He only lived a few years after he married her. The doctor said he died of dyspepsia but I shall always maintain that he died of Atossa’s tongue, that’s what. Poor soul, she always knew everything about her neighbors, but she never was very well acquainted with herself.”
To never be acquainted with oneself is tragedy indeed.
Lastly, I have to say something about the cover of the paperback I have. I have had this set of books since I was a young teen, so they’re over twenty-five years old. It’s pretty special to me to be reading these to my girls. Anyway, I think this particular cover is perfectly dreadful. Do either of these individuals look like college-aged students? I don’t think so. Yes, Roy Gardner is a bit older than the typical college student, but he’s certainly NOT a middle aged man! (And let’s not even consider that this is supposed to be Gilbert! Eeeek!) I definitely prefer the cover linked above.
I’ve been laid low over the past 24 hours with some sort of “flu like illness” (Official Diagnosis), which I think was my body’s way of saying I needed to lie in bed for half the day and all night so I could finish this book. 🙂
You know I’ve been bowled over by a book when I resort to borrowing someone else’s summary of it. This, from the author’s website:
Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.
In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a rich, complex story. It shifts backwards and forwards in time, and the narrative juggles back and forth among a few characters. I’m always drawn in by World War II stories, but this one has a particular luminosity about it that grabbed me by the heart and didn’t let me go throughout its 500+ pages. This luminosity comes about through the gorgeous prose and the beautiful characterization. Threads of love and kindness and hope run through this story set in a nightmarishly bleak setting. There are very few, if any, wasted words in this story; each description, each conversation is important and should be noticed. The simple fact that one of the main characters of this story is blind makes the sensory details in it all the more powerful.
Well. This is a book best experienced, I think. I’ll just end with a few quotes that showcase what makes this book wonderful:
This from a description of Paris before the invasion:
From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. Adn yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point. (70)
As an employee of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Marie-Laure’s father has been given what might be a decoy diamond from the collection to transport out of Paris so it won’t be absconded by the Nazis. However, he doesn’t know: it could be the real thing.
He scans the field. Trees, sky, hay. Darkness falling like velvet. Already a few pale stars. Marie-Laure breathes the measured breath of sleep. Everyone should behave as if he carries the real thing. The locksmith reties the stone inside the bag and slips it back into his rucksack. He can feel its tiny weight there, as though he has slipped it inside his own mind: a knot. (90).
Marie-Laure and her father finally arrive in Saint Malo after days of chaotic travel across France with its attendant privations:
Eggs crack. Butter pops in a hot pan. Her father is telling an abridged story of their flight, train stations, fearful crowds, omitting the stop in Evreaux, but soon all of Marie-Laure’s attention is absorbed by the smells blooming around her: egg, spinach, melting cheese.
An omelet arrives. She positions her face over its steam. “May I please have a fork?”
The old woman laughs: a laugh Marie-Laure warms to immediately. In an instant a fork is fitted into her hand.
The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold. Madame Manec says, “I think she likes it,” and laughs again.
A second omelet soon appears. Now it is her father who eats quickly. “How about peaches, dear?” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight. (121)
The author explains how he came to write the story. Fascinating.
I picked All the Light We Cannot See (from my birthday project list) up at the library on Friday, and while I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to read it, I am already entranced by both the story and the prose. Beautiful!
Saint-Malo: Water surrounds the city on four sides. Its link to the rest of France is tenuous: a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand. We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo. Bretons next. French if there’s anything left over.
In stormy light, its granite glows blue. At the highest tides, the sea creeps into basements at the very center of town. At the lowest tides, the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea.
For three thousand years, this promontory has knowns sieges.
But never like this. (11)
Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away. (4)
Intrigued yet? I can’t say for certain, but I have a feeling this one will probably make me my Best Books of 2015 list.