Tuesday, November 29, 2011

November Reading

Oh no!  Don't you hate the realization that the book you just read and enjoyed was an Oprah Winfrey selection?  It just happened to me.
I thank you, Morrissey, for many things, including writing this depressing, depressing song.

If you have read my recent posts, you will know that I spent the first part of November reading Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  (And you may even know why reading this children's book took me longer than it should have.)  But that's not all that I read, of course.

My older brother, Jason, is completing his licensure program at Alverno College in Milwaukee, and has been doing some student teaching recently.  One of his assignments was to help lead a class through Richard Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man."  I had never read this one before, even though it is often anthologized in high school textbooks, so I decided to give it a shot.

1. "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," by Richard Wright

"The Man Who Was Almost a Man," is a short work that follows Dave, a poor African-American in the deep south, as he goes through a painful maturation process.  Dave wants to buy a gun, to prove to himself and the others in his town that he is a man.  His parents, of course, think this is a bad idea.  Dave buys one nevertheless, takes it out into a field to shoot it off, and begins a horrifying chain of events that leaves him humiliated and alienated from adult society.

2. A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines

"The Man Who Was Almost a Man" dovetailed nicely into the next novel I read, Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying.  I picked this book up because it was the closest thing at hand as I was locking up my classroom for the long Thanksgiving break.  Our 10th grade English teacher had taught this one before, and I had about five copies lying around, so it seemed a likely read.

 This book and the Wright short story touch on the same themes of what it means to be a male in an unforgiving world of poverty and injustice.The main character, Grant Wiggins, is a teacher in a small, African-American Cajun community in Louisiana.  When Jefferson, a man who is not quite Grant's cousin, is sentenced to death for his involvement in a liquor store robbery that goes wrong, Grant is called on to teach the condemned prisoner how to be a man before he faces the electric chair.

But A Lesson Before Dying took it further, questioning the role of a teacher in an unjust society.  This novel is not about the death penalty or regret as much as it is about teaching.  Teachers like to think of themselves as pretty important people, who do nothing but change the world for the better.  Being a teacher, though, is more uncertain than that.  We have to punish, chide, sometimes humiliate, and sometimes fail our students.  And it's not fun to think that we may be as much a part of the problem as we are the solution.  It's as Grant realizes, at the end of the book, "You have to believe to be a teacher."  It is sometimes hard to believe.

The lesson in A Lesson Before Dying is pessimistic and cynical, but it happens to be true.  This was a wonderful book, and I am looking forward to seeing the film version, starring Don Cheadle and Cicely Tyson.

3. Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw

Reading Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw was a strange, book-free sort of reading experience.  As I was driving home from work the other day, listening to my iPod on shuffle, an excerpt from this play popped up.  It was delightfully funny and made me want to read the whole thing.  

I did a google search for the text of the play, and found it with little trouble.  Then, I bought an audio performance of it on iTunes for about $3.50.  And there it was.  I kicked back in my computer chair, put on the play, and spent the next hour and a half reading along with the actors.

When I was done, I thought it was only right to have a look at some clips of My Fair Lady, which is, of course, a musical, and therefore not a movie that I enjoy or would ever enjoy or even really think about enjoying.  But I wanted to give it another shot.  

Yeah.  I didn't like it.

I needed to brush up on my mythology a little bit afterwards (don't we all), so I went to my copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology to re-read the story of Pygmalion.  I found Ovid's version on wikisource (in English and Latin) and read that, too.  Over the years, I had forgotten that Pygmalion was the man in the story, not the statue/woman.  Also, I'd forgotten the happy ending the myth has (Pygmalion and Galatea seem to live happily ever after); it's a sort of Midas tale in reverse.

Also, I couldn't help remembering a story called "Silver Threads Among The Mold," from an old Vault of Horror from E.C. Comics, which is a gruesome retelling of the the Pygmalion myth, only with a rotting corpse of a woman hidden inside a statue..  I know I have a copy of this in my parents' attic.  Perhaps someday I will be able to find it and post clips from it.

1 comment:

  1. Just read Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha. You just might love it.