History In Her Words: A Year of Reading Women’s Voices

 

 

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It’s September, time again for a new year of reading for my Rediscovering the Classics book group! Our theme this year is History In Her Words: Women’s Voices, and we have a great syllabus. We take a journey back in time and look at some of the major events and eras of history through women’s eyes and writing. The books are in chronological order taking us from Ancient Greece to the modern era, and with stories from all over the world. We dip into drama, memoir, non-fiction, and novels. (Note: The very first book, the play Medea by Euripides, is not by a woman, but it does tell a very compelling woman’s story, so I included it as our BCE selection.)

Happy Reading!

A Divider

History In Her Words: Women’s Voices
Rediscovering the Classics, 2015-2016

September 25: Medea by Euripides (dramatic play, 431 BCE)

October 9 and 23: Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman (non-fiction history, p. 2004, covers middle ages through modern era)

November 6 and 20: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskill (fiction, p. 1854)

December 4: Beloved by Toni Morrison (fiction, p. 1987, covers civil war era and after)

December 18: *Holiday Party and Book Exchange!* Bring food & a gently used book to exchange. To Discuss: Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman, “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” “Never Do That to a Book,” “Words on a Flyleaf,” “My Ancestral Castles,” “Secondhand Prose” (essays, p. 1998)

January 8: Little Women, Part 1 by Louisa May Alcott (fiction, p. 1868)

January 22: Little Women, Part 2, “Good Wives”  by Louisa May Alcott (fiction, p. 1869)

February 12 and 26: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (fiction, p. 1982, covers 1910 to 1970s)

March 11 and 25: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (fiction, p. 1989, covers WWII to 1980s)

April 8 and 22: Résistance, A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France by Agnès Humbert (memoir, p. 1946, 2004)

May 13: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (graphic novel memoir, p. 2001, translation 2003, covers 1980 to 1994)

May 27: Persepolis, ALSO Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (memoir, p. 2003)

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“A word after a word after a word is power.” -Margaret Atwood

The Perfect Summer Reading: Long-Form Journalism!

PrintedWordLivesEvery summer my Rediscovering the Classics book group chooses something off-the-beaten path to relax with for our summer session. One summer we read poetry, another summer it was short stories, and this summer we’ve chosen something that may be the most exciting yet: long-form journalism!

I spent the weekend doing research into some of the history of long-form journalism (also sometimes known as immersive, literary, or “slow” journalism) and from the very first I was hooked. This syllabus promises a fun summer of learning new things, becoming more acquainted with the world, listening to writers talk about their work (thank you Longform Podcast!), and most of all–reading great writing!

Below is our “syllabus” for the summer. I hope all my readers out there will give long-form journalism a try this summer. Read by yourself, follow along with us, and join the conversation in the comments, or over at the Rediscovering the Classics Facebook page.

Happy Reading!

A Divider

Rediscovering the Classics Summer 2015 Syllabus
Long-form Journalism

To Start With – A History of Longform Journalism: http://bit.ly/1MzW3ZY

June 12
Arts and Entertainment – The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie. On the trail of two women who changed American music, then vanished by John Jeremiah Sullivan: http://nyti.ms/1T5M8Q8

Celebrity Profile – Pearl Jam: Five Against the World by Cameron Crowe: http://rol.st/1FK1i3s
(Songs- Rearviewmirror: https://youtu.be/U6lCVgE6xnM, Black: https://youtu.be/cs-XZ_dN4Hc
Further Listening/Watching: How Pearl Jam Stayed Alive, Cameron Crowe & Kelly Curtis interviewed on NPR: http://n.pr/1KP8KyX; Pearl Jam 20 Documentary–not free, sorry: http://amzn.to/1KP8TSW)

June 26

Investigative Journalism – Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly: http://bit.ly/1KjltM9
(Further Reading – Nellie Bly short biography: http://bit.ly/1HVHrjo)
(Ten Days in a Madhouse movie trailer/website: http://www.10daysinamadhouse.com)

Investigative Journalism – The Apostate (Scientology Expose) by Lawrence Wright: http://nyr.kr/1KVAPHL
(Further Listening – Lawrence Wright Longform Podcast: http://bit.ly/1dpL3lD)

July 10

Business – The Price of Nice Nails by Sarah Maslin Nir: http://nyti.ms/1IwgYhN
(Further Listening Sarah Maslin Nir Longform Podcast: http://bit.ly/1Iwh6On)
(Further Reading: Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers: http://nyti.ms/1BTcxWA)

Culture – The Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck: http://bit.ly/1MzVYpd

July 24

Culture & Sociology – Monkey Day Care by Michelle Dean: http://bit.ly/1MzXyat

Crime – A Very Dangerous Boy by Amy Wallace: http://gqm.ag/1AZy0lK
(Further Listening – Amy Wallace Longform Podcast: http://bit.ly/1eXl06s)

August 14

Sports – Heroes for Sale by Brin-Jonathan Butler: http://bit.ly/1FDxk1Y
(Further Listening – Brin-Jonathan Butler Longform Podcast: http://bit.ly/1InYXiV)
(Further Watching – The Greatest Fight There Never Was documentary film (14 minutes): http://bit.ly/1Hgnp7c)

Science & Technology – The Body Electric by Ferris Jabr: http://bit.ly/1HgnzeQ

August 28

Culture and Sociology – Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Crime – Is It A Crime Now To Be Poor? by Barbara Ehrenreich: http://nyti.ms/1FDPjWi
(Further Watching – Bill Moyers interviews Barbara Ehrenreich: http://to.pbs.org/1IoNfEP)

Politics – Let’s Be Real by Wesley Morris: http://bit.ly/1AZWgEa
(Further Listening – Wesley Morris Longform Podcast: http://bit.ly/1dXcFzo)
(Further Watching – Let’s Be Cops movie trailer: https://youtu.be/ExciLtpHp74)

Exploring Genre Literature with 10 Great Women Authors



We are in for a fast, furious and FUN year in the Rediscovering the Classics group this year! Last year the theme was “An Exploration of Genre”, and when I realized that the syllabus I was putting together was 90% male authors I decided to go all-out with all-male authors in each genre. What this means is that this year we get a syllabus full of wonderful WOMEN authors in every genre!

This year’s syllabus is unique not only because it’s all women, but also because each book was written comparatively recently. (All of the books on the list were published after 1900.) While I could have chosen the very ancient and revered The Tale of Genji or the poetry of Sappho to put on the list, I felt that, for the most part, the female experience–and especially the female experience in the world of publishing–was more accurately represented by the more modern novels listed below. (Yes, there are plenty of women writing before 1900 whose work accurately represent the female experience, but we’ve read many of them in previous years, and also, at the end of the day I had to choose. This is what you get.)

I hope this will be a dynamic and fun year, with brisk opinions and warm conversation! And I especially hope that the books below will inspire you to read more from these (and other) authors in each genre!

Let me know in the comments what books or authors YOU think represent the essence of the female experience in each of these genres. And if you’d like to read along with us and join in the discussion, check out Rediscovering the Classics on Facebook.

 An Exploration of Genre Part 2: Female Authors 
Rediscovering the Classics 2013-2014 Syllabus 

October 11th: MysticalAn Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, (p. 1922, Australian)
October 25th: HorrorThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (p. 1959, American)
November 8th and 22nd: BiographyMy Life in France by Julia Child (with Alex Prud’homme) (p. 2006, American)
December 6th and 20th: Bildungsroman (Coming of Age) – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (p. 1943, American)
January 10th: EpicOrlando by Virginia Woolf (p. 1928, British)
January 24th: AdventureThe Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy (p. 1903, Hungarian)
February 7th and 21st: RomanceThe Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (p. 1938, American)
March 14th and 28th: Science FictionKindred by Octavia Butler (p. 1979, African American)
April 11th: PostmodernWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (p. 1966, Dominican-European)
May 9th and 23rd: Children’s LiteratureThe Secret Garden by Fraces Hodgson Burnett (p. 1910, serial format, Britsh-American)



Trust Me, "The Iliad" Is Not As Scary As You Think

Although the length, age, and revered “classic” status of The Iliad can sometimes make the thought of reading it for the first time intimidating, the story is well worth that initial leap of faith. Once a reader has taken that leap and read the first couple of chapters they will be hooked; so wrapped up in the story of Achilles, Hector, Patroklus and Paris that they will be unable to put it down.

The Robert Fagles translation is especially accessible, bringing these ancient heroes with their anger and honor right into our modern realm. Who could not be hooked when they read of Achilles’ disgust with Agamemnon in Chapter 1: “Shameless–armored in shamelessness–always shrewd with greed! How could any Argive soldier obey your orders…” Or when they get a peek at how Hector, the great hero of troy, softens when he is with his wife and son in Chapter 6: “Loving father laughed, mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector, quickly lifting the helmet from his head, set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight, and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms, lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods…”

Of course, interspersed with the chapters filled with drama and emotion are chapters filled with battle and death, the pettiness of the gods, and chapters which outline the history–not only of the Trojan war itself and what led to it, but the histories of individual warriors and their families. All of this means that while some chapters may be more difficult to read than others, there will be something for everybody in The Iliad, you just have to keep turning the pages.

I read this book over the course of an entire summer with my book group, and found that reading with a group, giving ourselves time to be leisurely with our reading and focus on two or four chapters at a time, having regular meetings to discuss our progress and questions, and having the opportunity to look up historical material and ask questions really made this a delightful reading experience. I highly recommend reading The Iliad with a group or partner, if possible.

The Iliad is one of the oldest, most influential writings in the Western Canon. Taking the time to read it not only gives the reader insight into the numerous pieces of literature that have followed, it beautifully and poignantly displays the best and the worst of humanity. Reading The Iliad gives us a glimpse into our own souls, into how little we’ve changed over the centuries. It shows us that even in our technology-filled world we each have the potential to be a bastard, a hero, a martyr or a god.

Helpful Resources for Reading Homer’s Iliad

Every summer my Rediscovering the Classics group chooses a reading project that is slightly different from our usual “school-year” syllabus. One year we read short stories, another year we decided to delve into poetry. This year we decided to tackle Homer’s Iliad–one of those classics that everyone wants to read, but many people find intimidating. To our delight, the group is finding that when broken up into bite-size chunks, and read with a worthy group of friends, this daunting book can actually be a page-turner. We’re only 8 chapters in as of this writing, but already our group is asking probing questions, participating in heated discussions, and having a hard time holding ourselves back from reading ahead!

Many of the questions that crop up regularly have to do with the context in which the story takes place–the culture of the ancient Greeks and Trojans, the lineage (both mortal and immortal) of the major characters, the many locations mentioned throughout the story, political structure, religious values and traditions, etc. At each of our meetings we take one of these contextual subjects to learn a little more about and discuss in relation to the book itself. As moderator I have found that the internet is littered with helpful facts and information, but wading through all that information to find the right pieces can be time consuming! Here are a few of the most helpful sites I’ve found. I link to these with a deep bow of gratitude to the original authors and owners.

When starting a new book the first place to start your research is often with the setting. The Trojan War, for all of its timeless and far-reaching consequences, was actually a fairly localized skirmish, almost nothing compared to the world wars we’ve experienced in the past century.

Detailed Map of the Aegean Sea with Places of Origin of Major & Minor Characters.
From the Boston College Cassandra Home Page

 To put it in perspective, here’s what this area looks like today:

Modern Map of the Mediterranean Sea and Surrounding Areas.
Courtesy of Google Maps.

Because The Iliad begins in media res, the next question asked by readers is often “How did these characters get here?” In the case of The Iliad, this isn’t an easy question to answer. The events leading up to the Trojan War are many and convoluted, and in a few cases there is some disagreement about how events actually transpired. For an excellent overview of the events immediately leading up to the story we read about in The Iliad, please see Stanford University’s page on The Trojan War. However, as any lover of ancient mythology will know, one myth always leads back to another, and that one back even further, on and on until it makes your head spin! For even more back story about the events and characters in The Iliad (back story which some argue is extraneous, but which I believe gives important insight into the hearts and minds of some of our main characters) the Heroes and Heroines webpages over at TimelessMyths.com is a useful resource. The grammar and writing style leaves something to be desired, but for sheer volume of information easily accessible in one organized page there is no better place to go.

Once you feel comfortable with the setting and back story of The Iliad you’ll begin to notice that many chapters detail the ancestry of our heroes at length; at such length, in fact, that you may begin to feel that you need to draw a convoluted family tree just to understand how all our heroes are (or are not) connected to each other and to the gods and goddesses. Luckily, someone has already done this for you, and the detailed ancestry of many of our heroes, gods and goddesses can by found in Hesiod’s Theogeny (to find this in a readable size please visit the Theoi Website):

Hesiod’s Family Tree of Greek Gods. Find this in a readable size at the Theoi Website

If you’re looking for a more pared down family tree relating only to the main characters, here is one detailing the Greek side of the war, made by me to share with my class–apologies for the unprofessional look of it, I just drew it up by hand one afternoon. Gods are in black, mortals are in the color of their lineage, demigods are in color with a black underline:

Homemade Family Tree

And there is a genealogy of the royal house of Troy found in the back of the Penguin Classics edition of The Iliad, Robert Fagles translation, which I will not include here for copyright purposes (sorry). I will tell you, however, that Hector and Paris and etc. are descended from Zeus through their father Priam, and that they are cousins to Aeneas (son of Aphrodite and Anchises) and the nephews of the infamous Tithonus.

This is as far as I’ve gotten thus far regarding handy resources for reading The Iliad. As I mentioned, we’ve only read through chapter 8 yet, so I will post more resources as we continue and as they seem useful. If you have any questions or requests please feel free to leave a comment. In the meantime…

…Happy Reading!

Horror and Familiarity Go Hand-In-Hand: Review of Ishiguro’s "Never Let Me Go"

In A Nutshell

Simple, subtle, and insidious. The most horrifying parts are the ones that are the most familiar.

The Whole Enchilada

Never Let Me Go is a book I couldn’t stop reading, and one I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about for quite some time. On the surface it can almost come off as a simple love triangle, although the circumstances (revealed slowly over the course of the book) make the story so much more; and beyond the story itself, the moral and societal issues brought up in the book are hardly the kind of thing you can sweep under the rug after reading the last page. The story of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy is a centuries-old one: two girls, one boy, love, uncertainty and betrayal. On its own there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the triangle between these three young adults; it’s the dark secret that underlies their very existence which makes this story so compelling.

You see, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy aren’t just your average lovelorn teenagers; they each have an important and specific purpose which they absolutely cannot escape or deviate from. It is this purpose, what it means and how they gradually come to terms with it, which sets their love triangle apart from all others. Each of their decisions and reactions takes on much more weight and importance than you might otherwise find. It is the contrast of this simple and recognizable story set in such amongst such utterly disturbing circumstances that makes it so powerful, and so impossible for the reader to put down.

Ishiguro proves that he is a master storyteller with Never Let Me Go. It’s clear from the very first sentence that there is something not quite right about the world that our narrator Kathy H. belongs to, but Ishiguro (and Kathy) take their time revealing exactly what that disconnect is. This exquisite restraint is what keeps the reader going, what causes a frisson every few pages, and what makes the careful reader look closely at every seemingly innocent event, every mysterious character, and every curious choice of words.

One of the things that struck this careful reader most strongly by the end of the book was the way vocabulary is almost hijacked by those in power to keep the powerless from rebelling. There is nothing so effective as using a victim’s own language to induce pain, confusion, and submission. The book begins, for example, with this: “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years… My donors have always tended to do much better than expected… hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before fourth donation.” If all of this subversive and incomplete talk of “carers”, “donors” and eventually of “completing” doesn’t disturb you then there’s something wrong. Before the meaning had been revealed I shuddered every time I read the word “Completing;” once I knew for sure what it meant I had to hold back tears every time it cropped up in the story.

Never Let Me Go is both hard to read and too easy to read, all at the same time. It’s an extremely uncomfortable book that tells a story so important and compelling that it is impossible to put down.

Reading is a solitary experience, but contemplation of a book benefits from discussion and argument. For a slightly different take on this book check out the blog of my very well-read friend Denise: Let Sleeping Dragons Lie. If you have your own opinion or review to add to the conversation please comment below, or feel free to link to your own review.

Rediscovering the Classics 2011-2012 List of Books

(For my Rediscovering the Classics reading group.)
I recently read something by Thomas Foster who wrote about literature as a conversation; how older classics influence all the writers who come after–whether they inspire other authors to write a story as a tribute, or write a contrasting novel as a response, or sometimes influence newer authors in ways they don’t even realize.  So this year we are reading books in pairs (or in once case in a triumvirate) and part of what we will be discussing is how one novel influences another, and how together they can make a conversation, and make us see the topic differently.

And so, without further ado, here is the reading list:
—————————————————-
Sept. 9th and 23rd: The Odyssey, A Dramatic Retelling of Homer’s Epic by Simon Armitage
Oct. 7th and 21st: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Nov. 4th and 18th: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
                    
Dec. 2nd and 16th: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Jan. 6th and 20th: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
    (“Orpheus & Eurydice”, a Greek Myth)
                    
Feb. 10th and 24th: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
    (“Prometheus brings the gift of fire”, a Greek Myth)
March 9th and 23rd: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
                    
April 13th and 27th: Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
    (“King Thrushbeard”, a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm)
May 11th and 25th: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
—————————————————-
As mentioned at the top of this post, this is the reading list for my Rediscovering the Classics reading group. If any readers not in RtC happen upon this list and would like to read along with us you are more than welcome to join us. It may be a few months after the fact, but that is no matter; just jump on into whichever month we are in and start reading, and please join in the discussion of the books in the comment section here, or on our Rediscovering the Classics Facebook page.


Happy Reading!

Long Summer, Short Stories

(Picture courtesy of NY Times “Paper Cuts” blog)

Things move fast these days.  Someone recently mentioned to me “it’s mid-April, which means it’s almost May, which means it’s almost summer.”  Yikes!  Is that true?  I’m still in the midst of (extremely unusual for Southern California) April wind and rain storms, the heart of hay fever, and school plays and projects.  Summer seems awfully far away.  But I looked at my calendar for my Rediscovering the Classics class and was shocked to find that there are only two meetings left of our “school year.”  My forward looking friend is correct, summer is almost upon us.

I have a love/hate relationship with summer.  I hate how dry my flower beds get. I hate sweating when I take the dog for a walk at 8am.  I hate that my oldest daughter stays up all night and sleeps all day, I hate using the air conditioner, and worrying about Southern California wildfires. And I hate, hate, hate putting on all that sunscreen before beach days and pool dates.  That said… I really think that when it comes to summer it’s more good than bad.  I love that I don’t have to wake up at a certain time to get the kids to school, I love not making school lunches, I love having my girls home with me, I love barbecuing and traveling and going to the beach and seeing Shakespeare in the park.  And I love, love, love having all that time to read.

Now, most people hear “summer reading” and they think “light reading”: fluffy novels, chick lit, magazines.  Somehow people got the impression that reading in the summer heat (at the beach, by the pool, in the lounge chair with your Mai-Tai) was way too taxing, and that the general public needed a break from all that heavy classical reading they do during the year.  Really?  Well, I’m not sure I agree, but I can understand how a thick book like Anna Karenina might not be the one you want weighing down your beach bag or requiring you pay the extra carry-on fee at the airport. Somewhere between People Magazine and War and Peace there must be a summer reading alternative. 

Well there is… Short Stories!

The right stories can be perfect summer reading. Generally short enough to finish in an afternoon or two, many short stories nevertheless contain quality content that can keep you mulling them over for weeks.  They can be just about anything you want them to be: light and fluffy, cold and frightening, romantic, mysterious, political, moral, religious… you name it, they’ve got it.  And the best part is that many well-known authors got their start writing short stories.  Do a search on your favorite author and more than likely you’ll find they have a short story or two in their past.  (This is especially true for many classic authors.)

And so in the spirit of summer and short stories (and thanks to the brilliant idea of my Lit. Class members), I’m offering a fun and low-pressure summer reading group: Long Summer, Short Stories.  We’ll meet (as we do during the rest of the year) two evenings a month and discuss a different short story at every meeting.  I’m very excited about this because in all honesty it’s been a long time since I’ve gone on a short story reading spree!

If you have a favorite short story you’d like to recommend, or if you’re in the area and want to join us, please let me know.  I’ll be compiling short stories next month and have the “Long Summer, Short Stories” official reading list to share by the beginning of June.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for summer, and happy reading!

9 Books in 9 Months–Unveiled!


I wrote a few weeks ago about my “Rediscovering the Classics” class, which is beginning its third year this September. In fact, this weekend we had our first meeting where we talked about what the year may bring and I unveiled the list of books we will be reading. The list is (I hope) a mix of well-known favorites and lost treasures ready to be unearthed again.

Anybody who knows me knows that I have strong opinions about how the classics are taught in school. One of my criticisms is that students are thrown into books whose vocabulary, terms and language–although it may still be English–are so antiquated that the students are intimidated and even feel that the story has no relevance to their lives anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth! These books are classics because the language is often hauntingly beautiful and because the stories themselves deal with timeless themes. But sometimes students need to ease gradually into these older works of literature, so that the language and vocabulary is not such a shock. So you may notice that (with one or two exceptions) we read the books in backwards chronological order based on the date of publication.

And now, without further ado, here is the list. I hope you will enjoy it, and maybe even read along with us. I would love to hear your comments!

Happy Reading!