Monthly Archives: February 2014

Novels that educators should read – lecture and discussion

Richard Trama is Assistant Director of Academic Advising at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. His talk was entitled “Fiction – the Fabric of Our Lives: Twelve Novels that All Educators Should Read”.

For some reason, I walked in with the conviction that if he missed Z N Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God I wouldn’t listen to a word he said. Whew! It is on the list. 

There were two more books on the list that I have read – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (M Spark) and The Line of Beauty (A Hollinghurst). One hit and one miss. I liked Miss Jean Brodie and suspect, after hearing it discussed, that it is worth a second read. I read The Line of Beauty when it was nominated as a Freshman Year “common reading”. I didn’t like it, and couldn’t imagine what students would get from it.

Why does Trama think “educators” should read these books? He was especially speaking to college teachers who serve as “preceptors”. He sees these books as embodying the development of “voice”, as narratives of the journey of growth, and he suggests (stunningly, to me) the a preceptor should “read” a student like a text. One function of education is to help the student find her/his voice and express her/his personal narrative. Reading good literature helps.

What’s a “preceptor”? The intent is to do more than just “advise” the student on how to get through college and maybe get a job. A preceptor fills some functions of a mentor, with an interest in personal growth as well as academic success.

Without re-typing the whole list, a few comments…

Two of the books on the list (Billiards at Half-Past Nine by H Boell and The Assault by H Mulisch) were translated from German and Dutch, respectively. Surely a College that focuses on Global Awareness should encourage students to read works that are translated, and to think about the impact translation may have had on the narrative. (Wouldn’t it be great if students studied languages deeply enough to undertake some translation?) 

This led me to ponder how much (or little) I read in translation. Since I started this blog (ten months ago), I’ve read two short novels by C Aira translated from Spanish. In the past, I read the works of Jorge Amado and G G Marquez. That’s it! I’ve only read works translated from Spanish, which I never studied. (Maybe I will think of something else… I know I’ve read a few books from China.) Should I look for translated works? From the languages I’ve studied, or others? Does “authenticity” translate?

Trama cheated a little with his list. He included three works by Margaret Atwood and two each by Walker Percy and Hilary Mantel. The Handmaid’s Tale scared me so much I never read anything else by Atwood. Maybe now I could handle it. The Robber Bride sounds interesting and was described as humorous. 

Trama said if you want to read a distinctive female voice, try Hilary Mantel, so I put her Wolf Hall trilogy onto my personal list. Can’t get too much historical fiction. 

My teaching and preceptoring days are past, but I spend enough time with teens and young adults to feel that books like these are well worth my while (and I’m always looking for a good read). Thank you, Richard Trama!


“Pentecost Alley” by Anne Perry

Anne Perry is an astonishingly prolific writer, with more than 50 books to her credit. I’m sure “Pentecost Alley” is not the first book of hers that I have read. She has published several series, and I think I would like to try her Christmas books and Young Adult novels. 

So what about “Pentecost Alley”? It’s good, maybe a little more complicated than I like. The atmosphere is well drawn. I don’t think it’s fair to resolve a plot with a bag of dynamite that turns up five pages from the end of the book! I wonder if her interpretation of Victorian womanhood is historically “accurate”. And WHERE did she get the title/place name, Pentecost Alley?? There’s no speaking in tongues… One character saves himself through (amateur) social work. A young woman experiences a type of redemption. 

Further analysis seems unnecessary. I’ll read Anne Perry next time I need reliable distraction.

“Moonrise” by Cassandra King

I wasn’t sure whether I had gotten my hands on a mystery or a romance. Moonrise turned out to be a romance, one aimed at the “middle aged” demographic I am starting to outgrow. It’s a novel about attempting a new start. Taking place in the South, it is told from the viewpoints of three women. The protagonist is a forty-something dietician who stumbled into a career as a TV chef and then got passionately involved with a very high powered media mogul. The other two woman are part of the mogul’s circle of acquaintances, most of whom resent the fact that he remarried precipitously after the accidental death of his wife. It’s all about atmosphere and personality quirks. Enjoy!

“The Patron Saint of Liars” by Ann Patchett

I read this book because I loved Patchett’s Bel Canto. In each of these books, Patchett creates a microcosm and draws the reader into it. The microcosm in Patron Saint is St. Elizabeth’s “home” for pregnant girls in an large, disused hotel surrounded by vacant land in Tennessee.

The story uses three narrators in sequence (not jumping from one to another). Rose married young and realized, when she became pregnant, that she did not love her husband. She leaves her husband and her life, and travels from California to Tennesee. Son is the middle aged handy man at St. Elizabeth’s who marries Rose and adopts her daughter. The family stays at St. Elizabeth’s. Cecelia is the daughter, who soaks up love and attention from everyone at St. Elizabeth’s except her distant mother.

Who is the liar? The girls who come to St. Elizabeth’s all tell lies, mostly about the men who impregnated them. Rose refuses to give Cecelia the personal information she craves, depriving her of grandparents and other relatives. Son loves his adopted daughter so much he cannot bear to tell her she is not his biological daughter.

What about St. Elizabeth? Per Wikipedia, Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias were a faithful, honorable couple who grew old without a son. Then their prayers were answered. Elizabeth’s cousin Mary conceived Jesus who was born after Elizabeth’s son John (the Baptist). Elizabeth is revered in both the Christian and Muslim traditions.

Elizabeth confirmed to Mary that her son was divinely conceived. So St. Elizabeth is the comforter of young, pregnant girls. The girls waiting out their “inconvenient” pregnancies hope and pray that their children will end up in the  hands of someone like Elizabeth, a wise, kind woman who fervently wants a child.

What can be said about Rose? She caused an incredible amount of pain. Having left her gentle, kind husband, she has the strength to wrest from St. Elizabeth’s an unheard of outcome – marriage and parenthood. She accepts a limited, quiet life at St. Elizabeth’s, then bolts again many years later when her first husband finds her. Cecelia, with a strength beyond her years, gives up on finding out about her heritage and turns her eyes to the future.

What makes this book engrossing? There’s such a contrast between the constant flow of pregnant girls who arrive, gestate and surrender their babies and the static quality of St. Elizabeth’s, where the same few nuns and small staff labor in a setting that almost never changes. There are references to the “outside world”, but they are few.

Sister Evangeline (whose viewpoint we are not offered) seems to be a reincarnation of St. Elizabeth. She is old and kind and has second sight, which gets her into trouble. She is very much loved.

This is a very fine novel, and certainly qualifies as “literary fiction”.

The importance of “literary fiction”

Recently an article turned up (sorry, I can’t cite it) that claims reading “literary fiction” will improve your “emotional intelligence”. I’m OK with “emotional intelligence”, but what is “literary fiction”?? For starters, it’s the recognized fine literature, like Shakespeare and Jane Austen – plays and books that deal with the complexity of human emotions – texts that get better on a second or fifth reading.

Can “literary fiction” be found in recent novels? I vote “yes”. Trying to think of an example, I came up Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. It’s a tale of journeys and transformation. By the end, I felt like I had traveled very far. More recently, I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Mesmerizing! She creates a microcosm and populates it with people so real, so detailed, you feel you know them like best friends.

Please let me know of books YOU would put into this category!

A Trip to the Library – Part 3

Three weeks ago, I expressed my happiness at GETTING to the library after a long period of Kindle reading, and I listed the four books I brought home. I finished (and blogged about!) two of the books and wrote a third off as a bad choice. I was greatly enjoying the fourth when I realized it was a “two week book” and had to be returned. I decided to drop the books off on my way home from work.

Bad choice. It was 4:30. Traffic was heavy. I crept past the hospital, on the lookout for emergency vehicles. Past highway construction. Why was there a wood chipper part way out on the road? Traffic lights. Potholes. Turned in at the Library, but there was water across the driveway – bad drainage. I backtracked to another entrance, parked illegally and walked to the book drop. Bang, slam, gone. My trip home was the similarly unpleasant. Forty five minutes! I went on line and downloaded the Kindle version of the book I hadn’t finished.

Now hear this, Library! You are going to have to win me back. At least fix the driveway and put a book drop where I can pull up to it. I’ve become much more of a Kindle fan than I ever expected.

“Courting Greta” by Ramsey Hootman

In my post of January 20, I talked about my problems choosing fiction. Here’s another! What if it’s TOO GOOD? What if I can’t put it down, lose a whole day, neglect an obligation? Has this happened? Yes. It’s a wonder I didn’t get arrested for child neglect when I read The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott.

Courting Greta is probably not as good as The Raj Quartet, but it kept my attention. I stayed up late to read.

The protagonist is Samuel Cooke, a brilliant computer geek trapped by in a severely damaged body. He can walk, but with difficulty. He grew up in an  abusive family, and has emotional issues. We don’t really learn what (aside from boredom?) caused him to leave his high powered job and go to work as a substitute teacher in a public high school. He falls for and courts the gym teacher Greta, a big, hard edged woman with “a past” who has everyone, teachers and students alike, seriously intimidated.

At first I thought this was a setup for something very trite – handicapped man can only find love with deeply neurotic woman. Two damaged people settling for “damaged goods” in the marriage market. Thank goodness Hootman didn’t go in that direction! Her characters were complex and interesting. They fight and love their way to a relationship full of promise.

Was this book an intentional “consciousness raiser”? I don’t know. I caused me to reflect on the “handicapped” among my friends and relations. One thing I know is that it is chancy to use that category. People’s lives and conditions are so varied! I just hope my friends find what they are looking for in love, maybe without as much difficulty as Samuel and Greta.

“American Mirror – The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell” by Deborah Solomon

I remember the “Saturday Evening Post” and its Norman Rockwell covers. I don’t remember when I learned to read well enough to enjoy the contents, but the covers attracted me even earlier. The “Post” may have been our only magazine. It was supplemented by two different newspapers and a TV that received two channels, sometimes. That was the Fifties, for me.

Norman Rockwell was an illlustrator. Experts disagree about whether he was an artist. I enjoyed Solomon’s comments on Rockwell’s paintings. She pointed out details I might have missed. Rockwell was much scorned by “modern” artists like the Abstract Expressionists. Solomon tears them to shreds… “What was Abstract Expressionism? In a way, it strove to be the opposite of a vacuum cleaner – devoid of practical value, spewing out particles of color rather than pulling them in, unaccompanied by user directions, incomprehensible to the average person.” (The vacuum was iconic of the appliances that suddenly appeared in American homes after World War II.) Take that, abstractionists!

Rockwell did not have a “Norman Rockwell” childhood, and as an adult he found relationships difficult. He may have suffered from OCD, and he invested heavily in psychiatric counseling, although he did not actually engage in psychoanalysis. It can be argued that his artwork expressed how he wanted life to be. He wanted the small town life where people looked out for one another.

So why did Rockwell, whose work was heartwarming and often “nostalgic”, jump into social criticism in the 1960s? His 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With”, showing a tiny African American child being escorted by federal marshals during school desegregation, is an incredibly powerful commentary on American life. The book includes the newspaper photo that inspired the painting. Another painting with a civil rights theme was “New Kids in the Neighborhood”, an optimistic look at integration.

Solomon describes “Rockwell’s great theme” as “the possibility that Americans might pause for a few seconds and notice each other”. Many of his pictures have a “witness” quality. The figures in his work “…have all the time in the world to linger and talk”. Rockwell was, however, essentially a lonely man.


The Best Place in the World

The Best Place in the World

Don’t miss this post by a true bibliophile and library lover! (Is there a word for library lover?!) His experience of the Boston Public Library makes me want to move to that city. I’ve found the Free Library of Philadelphia to be a bit off-putting. There’s a great deal of security, and the room in which we have held discussions was uncomfortable, the bathroom situation just scary… I understand renovations are underway. I hope it won’t feel so embattled when they are complete.