Monday, June 11, 2012

Summer Break Begins!

Summer break has begun.

It's summer break, the most wonderful time of the year.  Last summer was the year of Infinite Jest, and this summer is the summer of Crime and Punishment, which I must prepare for teaching in the fall.  But for the next eight weeks I get to read anything I want and do anything I feel.

Which is not to say that teachers don't have work to do in the summer; we have lots.  There is planning, and professional development, and the aforementioned Crime and Punishment.  In fact, the very first thing I did this summer was work.  I am starting teaching at a new school next fall, and the administration has given me a few textbooks to peruse before the year starts. So, on my first evening of freedom from work, I sat down with the first text, Holt's Elements of Literature, Sixth Course and started reading.  I chose selections willy-nilly, just picking poems, essays, and stories I had never read before.  Here's what caught my eye.

I'm transcribing the notes I took while I did my reading.  Lazy?  Sure.  But I'm on break.

1. "Top of the Food Chain" by T. Coraghesson Boyle

I stopped reading T.C. Boyle after The Tortilla Curtain, which was too depressing to deal with and made me hate myself and my bourgeois liberal morality.  While this story had pretty much the same theme as Tortilla Curtain, at least it had a punchline.

(Full text of the story)

2. "No Witchcraft for Sale" by Doris Lessing

Wow.  Very similar to the TC Boyle--privileged whites living amongst the poor in Africa.  This one is about how some people will never be able to connect, no matter how well-meaning either side is.  There is a deep gulf between groups of people, gulfs (gulves?) you can't cross simply through kindness and goodwill.

What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

(Full text of the story)

3. "When I Have Fears" by John Keats.

I've read this before, but looking again at it, and the last letter that he ever wrote.  He died at 25 years old and once said, "I am three and twenty, with little knowledge and middling intellect."  Insane.  It's amazing how a man in his twenties could write such a meditation on death and life cut short and the fear we will never accomplish a fraction of what there is to live, learn, and do.  John Keats owns.

(Full text of poem)

4. "Next Term, We'll Mash You," by Penelope Lively

I don't know anything about this author, but I loved this story.  It was like a Belle and Sebastian song (I'm thinking "Expectations") come to life.  Or "The Headmaster's Ritual" by The Smiths.  In this story,  horribly, society-climbing parents cause misery for their poor child by enrolling them in a prep school from hell.  Terrifying and hilarious at the same time.  

5. "Shooting and Elephant" by George Orwell

I didn't realize until tonight that I had never read this essay before.  I guess I always gotten it confused with "A Hanging," which I have read many times.  At some point, I heard someone refer to this as the greatest essay in the English language, though I am not sure how they can made that distinction.

This is a narrative essay, about yet another white man in a foreign outpost of the great British Empire--this time Burma (Myanmar).  He makes a decision to do something unpalatable (the shooting of the elephant)  because he feels driven by that bourgeoise guilt of being an imperialist.  This guilt is akin to the guilt in "Top of the Food Chain."  And if it's not guilt, then it's at least a sense of duty, a duty he never accepted or asked for.  

He kills the elephant in the most heartbreaking fashion, to the thrill of the natives.  The essay leaves us with an overwhelming sense of sadness, meaninglessness, and moral ambiguity.  I must read this again.

6. "Digging" by Seamus Heaney

This was a beautiful ode to his father and grandfather for their almost miraculous ability to farm potatoes and pull for the earth these earthy, ugly, life-giving things.

(full text of the poem)

7. "Old Man at the Bridge" by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway must have written a hundred little stories like this one, and Charles Bukowski tried to rip off every last one of them.

(full text of the poem)

8. "Cademon of Whitney" by The Venerable Bede

This was the lovely story of a man with a gift for words--a gift he never asked for but was delighted to accept.  I wish I had time to read more Bede and go back to Lindisfarne and York.  There is something in this early medieval British writing that can't be matched by anything else.

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