Monday, November 4, 2013

October Reading


Here's what I read this month.


1. Rosina, the Midwife by Jessica Kluthe

If there were such thing as a Mr. Brame's Lock of the Month!™, I would give it to this book, Rosina the Midwife by Jessica Kluthe. Kluthe, a promising young writer from Alberta, has accomplished a unique feat in Rosina, a book that is simultaneously family history, twentieth-century history, and personal narrative.

At the heart of the book is Rosina, the author's great-great-grandmother, who was a midwife in Calabria. After World War II, Rosina's family left their ancestral home in southern Italy for a better future in Alberta. Rosina, though, stayed behind. As Kluthe grew up in Canada and heard more about this far-flung matriarch, she found herself drawn to learn more about her. At first, she had only one photograph of the woman, (reproduced in the first pages of the book) and the details she could gather from her family members to go on, but over time Kluthe filled in the gaps of Rosina's story with extensive research and her own prodigious narrative talents. Eventually, a trip to Calabria led her to a touching communion with Rosina, in which the author discovered some of her grandmother's final secrets.

Read more about Rosina, the Midwife, and pick up your own copy at jessicakluthe.com.

Program Note: Stay tuned to the blog for a special conversation with Ms. Kluthe about the process of writing this book.

2.  "The Storm" by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin

I teach Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" any time I get a chance to, as it exemplifies in just a few pages everything that great fiction should do.  However, I had never encountered "The Storm," which could be seen as "The Story of an Hour"'s companion piece. "The Storm" is the very PG-13 story of Calixta, a woman living in an unhappy marriage with Bobinot, who, like many husbands in Chopin's fiction, is polite and loving but utterly dull. Calixta is at home alone when the titular storm arises, and it just so happens that the dashing Alcee, whom Calixta once had a flirtation with, ducks into the house to avoid the gushing, rushing, uncontrollable heaves of the storm.

If you can't imagine what happens next, you're either very naive or not paying close enough attention.

Like "The Story of an Hour," "The Storm" is sharp and wicked, and it concludes with a wonderfully ironic observation. Read it here.

3. "The Petrified Man" by Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty

For a transplanted northerner who landed in Tennessee at the age of nine, there were some things I learned to appreciate rather quickly: barbecue, blues guitar, and Faulkner. Other things, such as love for SEC football and the acceptance of the second person plural pronoun "y'all" have always eluded me. Add to that category the particular vernacular of southerners (especially women) and the way they can insult one another while appearing to hold a civilized conversation.

You can find many examples of this particular type of southern "courtesy" in fiction. There are examples in To Kill a Mockingbird and "A Rose For Emily" of people who seem to be saying nice things about another character, but are actually saying something entirely in a secret southern language that I have never been able to pick up on. My ear is made of tin when it comes to this.
Oh, dear, I actually included one of
these cartoons in my blog. For shame.

"The Petrified Man," by Eudora Welty is a story that consists of southern women in a 1940s beauty shop. One woman, Leota, is spreading gossip and telling stories while setting the hair of another woman Mrs. Fletcher. Her stories center around a third woman, Mrs. Pike, who may or may  not actually exist. Leota uses Mrs. Pike as a ruse to exert her power over Mrs. Fletcher, who is "p-r-e-g" and considering her options. It was a dense, multi-layered story that I would have totally missed if I hadn't studied it in class.


4. The Tempest by William Shakespeare

I read The Tempest at some point in my undergraduate career, and though it wasn't my favorite of his comedies (or, romances, if you like), I thought that it was wonderful and whimsical, and that Prospero was one of my favorite of all Shakespeare's characters. Prospero's epilogue was devastating and beautiful, but almost nothing in Shakespeare could touch Ariel's song in the first act for sheer delight. I soon committed it to memory.

Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Ding dong.
Hark, now I hear them, ding dong bell.

Reading it again, I found The Tempest more formulaic and tedious than I had remembered. Prospero was more of a dictatorial gasbag than I had remembered, though I now see that Shakespeare was knowingly putting a bit of extra stuffiness in this autobiographical figure.  One notion that hasn't changed is my opinion of Caliban. I found him to be a horribly mistreated creature the first time around, and this reading only reinforced that. 

5. From The Pillow Book by Sei Shonangon

I had never heard of The Pillow Book or Sei Shonagon before assigning it to my world literature class.
Shonangon was a lady-in-waiting for Empress Sadako in the imperial court of tenth-century Japan. She kept a lively journal of her pet peeves and desires, to which she added colorful stories about life in the court. Not unlike Anne Frank, she comes across as a bratty but irresistible young woman with an irrepressible voice. Here is a selection from her list of "Embarrassing Things."

  • A man whom one loves gets drunk and keep repeating himself.
  • To have spoken about someone not knowing that he could overhear. This is embarrassing even if it be a servant or some other completely insignificant person.
  • Parents, convinced that their ugly child is adorable, pet him and repeat the things he has said, imitating his voice.
  • A man recites his own poems (not especially good ones) and tells one about the praise they have received--most embarrassing.
  • Lying awake at night, one says something to one's companion, who simply goes on sleeping.
Maybe some day I will find time to read more from The Pillow Book.



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