Summer’s Promise: Reading Wrap-up 2015


Throughout the school year, I accumulate a pile of novels I want to read that I simply don’t have time for when I’m reading novels with students for, often, four courses simultaneously. I’m lucky if I eek out a reading-for-pleasure novel a quarter during the course of the school year. Each summer, I look forward to delving into my pile. So, this summer, I’ve tackled eleven novels. Some new. Some old. Some read-agains. I’m teaching a new course this school year, new to me at least: A.P. Language and Composition which is paired with American Literature. Much of my reading was consumed by non-fiction, which is the preferred genre for this course, but I also read & re-read some American classics. Now, if you know anything about me– British literature is really my thing, but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by some of my American literature choices. I did manage some British literature selections though and a couple of World literature novels, too. And, of course, there are a couple of completely self-indulgent selections because, afterall, it is my summer.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 12.23.53 PMLondon, Edward Rutherfurd

Literary British Historical Fiction

This is one of my re-reads, as I assign it every other summer to my British Literature students. I love this novel, one that I first picked up the summer after traveling to London and beyond with 26 students and two colleagues. Reading this book is like going back in time. Featured around the lineage of six bloodlines, Rutherfurd takes the reader from earliest settlers of London to modern day. He weaves the fiction of these bloodlines in with the historical accuracy of both events and people. Among the characters include Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.Reading this novel is like watching time-lapse photography. It’s long, but well worth it.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 12.28.47 PMThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Literary Historical American Fiction

A staple in any American Literature classroom, I’ve been teaching this novel for many years. I’ve focused mainly on the relationship between Huck (white boy) and Jim (slave). It is a springboard for a host of discussions on racism, language, censorship and satire. This is another re-read for me, as my approach to reading it this summer changed from a reader of Twain’s work to a writer attempting to discover the rhetorical strategies Twain used to make the social commentary that has long been debated about this novel. It’s interesting to re-read novels for just this purpose: the reader opens him/herself up to what had gone unobserved before.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 12.35.21 PMThe Awakening, Kate Chopin

Literary American Fiction

Also a re-read, but one from my distant past– a college Women Writers course. This is a feminist novel set in 19th century Louisiana. Edna Pontellier struggles with her identity as a woman and a sexual being. Both story and writing are exceptional; I can’t believe I waited this long to read it again. I plan on using this, too, in my upcoming A.P. course centered around the idea of identity.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 12.40.58 PMDark Places, Gillian Flynn

Mystery, Fiction

This was, as the title denotes, a dark novel. It takes the reader on a journey with Libby Day to discover the events of the night her mother and two sisters were murdered leaving Libby an orphan and her brother in jail for the murders. I like Flynn’s writing style. Like Gone Girl, it was a page turner from the beginning; although, unlike Gone Girl, the ending of this novel was not a disappointment.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 12.48.25 PMThe Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Literary Fiction

Kundera, Czech author, writes an unforgettable novel which makes my top 10 of all time list. The writing is unique. The subject matter existential. The relationship between Tomas and Tereza (and their dog with a little side of Sabina) is realistic and romantic at the same time. This novel made me think; I dare say it even changed the way I think. Definitely a will-read-again.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 1.42.25 PMGrey, E.L. James


This, my guilty pleasure for the summer, is the flip side of the 50 Shades series. Christian Grey’s point of view, which, at my core, borders on disturbing, yet this novel gives him more depth than the original series. I’ve written about the series in another post. I do believe, at it’s core is a love story and a very disturbed man. I want to understand Christian Grey because I have to believe anyone who wants or feels compelled to enter a relationship with intentions like his has some very deep seeded psychological issues behind his desires. So, to this end, I did gain some satisfaction by his relationship with and influence of his therapist. And the writing of E.L. James has improved– a side note.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 1.43.11 PMThe Constant Princess, Philippa Gregory

Literary Historical Fiction

One of my favorite authors, Gregory never disappoints. If you like her subject matter- the British Monarchy– you will enjoy this novel. Centered around Katherine of Aragon, Gregory manages to create a character of depth and vulnerability. Her ability to create dynamic characters, for me, is second to none. I just cannot get enough of her writing. There is a poetic aspect to it that keeps the highlighter in my hand while reading so I can note quotes that I never want to forget.This is probably the sixth novel I’ve read, and I’ll always be ready for the next one.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 1.41.34 PMPaper Towns, John Green

Mystery, Coming-of-Age, Fiction

After reading A Fault in Our Stars last summer and pairing it with the film as the subject of a summer reading group with students, I decided to take this novel on before its release in film.Since, I have created a second novel/film pairing reading group with students where we will have a novel/film talk when we return to school, so I’m curious to see how that goes. While I really enjoy John Green’s writing style and I suppose this was a good YA novel, it just didn’t pull at my heart strings as much as A Fault in Our Stars did, and it didn’t have anything to do with the absence of death as a theme in this novel. I just didn’t grow to love the characters as much as I did with the previous first novel, and the same was true of the film. Both were just good. I’ll be interested to hear my students’ take come next month.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 1.43.37 PMA Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway


After reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain which was a mostly fictitious account of Hadley Richardson’s first marriage to Ernest Hemingway (also goes down as one of my favorite novels), I was so intrigued to read Hemingway’s memoir of this same time period. Rather than being a fluid account, it’s a collection of vignettes associated with food and drink. While I was disappointed that there wasn’t more depth to their (Hadley & Ernest’s) relationship, I very much admire his writing style. For this reason, I will be using an excerpt of it in my A.P. class, though that wasn’t my intention for reading it in the first place. This memoir is one that I would recommend writers to read because Hemingway is definitely a writer I revere for his style.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 1.54.12 PMNarrative Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass


This narrative was recommended to me by a colleague for its writing style. She thought it would be a perfect pairing for Twain, and she was right. The writing style is very controlled, guarded almost, as Douglass wrote this to an audience of white males. A very influential figure and speaker of the abolitionist movement, Douglass recounts the atrocities of his experiences. It reminds me of Elie Wiesel’s Night, in that, the style of writing is so precise for the recounting of a series of events so raw. I am most glad to have read this novel this summer, as it opened my eyes to an experience providing me with a new perspective on slavery and willpower. I would highly recommend.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 2.01.05 PMThe Stranger, Albert Camus

Literary Fiction

I came upon this novel, as my son had read it for college last year, and I never had. It chose me in a way. Another existential novel, this one reminded me of the control of Narrative Life… and the writing style of Unbearable Lightness… There are two distinct parts to this novel in which Meursault, a French Algerian, attends his mother’s funeral and is jailed after committing a murder. It’s a bizarre story which explores the state of mind on one who is set apart from society and societal norms. Interesting, short read, though not one of my favorites.

I would describe this as a very thought provoking, eclectic list.


Listening to the MUSES



muses anderson

Greek mythology tells of nine muses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne: goddesses who inspire with their talents representing aspects of the arts and sciences.

The dictionary definition includes a brief etymology of the word, but also offers more modern day interpretations.

Muse definition





Often, artists (painters, writers, musicians…) tell of the muses whom have inspired them to create

muses dante

These are the muses and how I’ve been inspired by them:

Muse astronomy


There is nothing more majestic than the night sky. Symbols of it fill my pages of writing. In awe of the galaxy, the moon, the sun, the planets, I observe– me watching them, them watching me. As a student of astronomy and astrology, I study the constellations using aspects of signs in the characters I create. I believe their signs are part of the energy force that moves each character through a piece of writing, allowing him/her to take on a voice, action and thought that surprises even me, the creator.

Muse Love poetry

My first exposure to love poetry was probably during my freshman year of college in a Romantic Poets class studying Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Blake. This lead to the study of Victorian poetry– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Bronte & Christina Rossetti. Later, I found Shakespeare’s sonnets and grew to appreciate brilliance of his work.


          “Love is not love which alters when its alteration finds

          or bends with the remover to move

          O no, it is an ever-fixed mark that looks on the tempests

          and is never shaken

          It is the star to every wandering bark

          whose worth’s unknown,

          although height be taken”

                                                          William Shakespeare

                                                          Sonnet 116


          “When I saw you, I fell in love

          and you smiled because you knew”

                                                          William Shakespeare

                                                          Romeo and Juliet

          “Be with me always

          take any form– drive me mad!

          Only do not leave me in the abyss

          where I cannot find you.

          I cannot live without my life.

              I cannot live without my soul.”

                                                          Emily Bronte

                                                          Wuthering Heights

 And, later still, I found other pieces that inspire. I write them all down– in a notebook, and on a wall in my study, so the words become a part of me.


“It’s only with the heart one could see rightly

          What is essential is invisible to the eye”

                                                          Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

                                                          The Little Prince


          “You know that place between sleep and awake

          that place where you can still remember dreaming?

          That’s where I’ll always love you.

          That’s where I’ll be waiting.”

J.M. Barrie

                                                The Adventures of Peter Pan


Love is the most powerful emotion. How could one write, after all, without love?



Muses history

If I didn’t pursue some vein (or many) of English in college or life, for that matter, I would have pursued history. It fascinates me. Everything about it. I’m drawn to antiquity. I’m drawn to stories of the past. I’m curious about how the past affects the future. I even get politically charged on occasion and relish a good political debate. History is about what makes people tick–  whole cultures, too.

When I was little, I grew up with two Italian grandparents whose parents immigrated to the U.S. before they were born. If I had to equate them to a modern(ish)-day example, it would be Cher’s character’s family  in Moonstruck.


My grandfather served in Guadalcanal during World War II, a great sense of pride for him until his dying day. My grandmother waited for him. Separately, they told me stories about the war and the Great Depression which, I believe, sparked my curiosity about history. Later, I would lose myself in research, digging to find more and more– the personal stories. I event went to Pearl Harbor and interviewed some of the vets there. THIS inspired my first novel– my first history muse.

muses war




Muse TragedyWe all have a tragic story to tell. Some hide it deep within; others share with ease. I’m still grappling with my story. Bits and pieces of it thread through my work– poetry, novels, short works, even some ideas I have for film. But I’m not quite there yet. Sure, I can make sense of some of the pieces. Some of which I represent in my writing better than others. But I’m still trying… with every piece I write I try to discover the triumphs of my tragedies, big and small.


Some of the tragedies that have inspired me include, but are in no way limited to…


Hamlet, William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all. Hamlet explores the psyche– so many sides of it. It begs us to question ourselves, the choices we make, our own lives.


          “What a piece of work is a man!

`        How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!

          In form and moving how express and admirable!

          In action how like an angel in apprehension.

          How like a God!

          The beauty of the world

          The paragon of animals!

          and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?

          Man delights not me”

                                             William Shakespeare,  Hamlet


Alex: The Life of  a Child, Frank Deford, a little non-fiction book I happened upon, then later saw a film adaptation of. It’s the story of a courageous little girl, struck with cystic fibrosis, and her loving family in the wake of her loss. Beyond sadness, it’s about the triumph of spirit, much like the fiction novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I am often struck by the strength of those in the face of tragedy, perhaps, because I’ve seen a lot of it, too much.


Yet, I hold onto the belief that life is about Yin and Yang– balance. One can’t know extreme joy without having experienced tragedy. One cannot know beauty without knowing the beast. One cannot know peace without fear and love without hate. It is through experiencing the depth of such extreme emotions that, as creative types, we create.


Muse dance


This is the weakest of my own muses, for I am a dreadful dancer. I try to avoid dancing except in the privacy of my alone time. I wish I were graceful. I wish I had the poise, stamina and talent to move my body to the rhythms of the day.

I do have two very vivid memories of dancing, however, which fill me with joy. One is standing atop of my grandfather’s feet as he taught me how to waltz; he was as good a dancer as he professed. His left hand held my right in a firm grasp, while his right elbow jutted out perpendicular to my ribs as he gently placed his right hand on my back. 1,2,3 and repeat. He told me it’s all about the timing. For the second there were no rules. Just me holding each of my babies, on separate occasions, in my arms, either swaying to the rhythm of soft lullabies or dancing wildly across the floor to upbeat children’s dance music. Their sweet eyes closing as they drifted off to sleep or opening wide, wide as their laughing mouths to mommy being silly.

I try to capture moments, just like these, little snapshots of perfection, in my writing.


Muse music


Now, music– that is one of my greatest muses. I listen to music of many genres: rock, soft rock, pop, indie, alternative, singer/songwriter, disco, classical, pop(ish) country, some rap. I like music for the melody AND the words. Often, when I find something that I love, I listen to it on repeat too many times for others but never enough for me. Music serves many purposes in my life. It is the basis of fond childhood memories– a time when my whole family saw plays and sung entire soundtracks in unison. I wished I were one of the Von Trapps or the Osmonds or Jacksons. I could sing The Age of Aquarius from the first word on the album to the very last, the same with the Carpenters albums and Jesus Christ Super Star. My mother taught me a love for music.

As I grew older, I learned to love music in different ways. Attending concerts is one of my favorite past times. I’ve seen too many (yet, still not enough) to count: Rod Stewart, Madonna, Carly Simon, Cher, James Taylor, Genesis, Dianna Ross, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Train, The Cars, Chicago, The Police, Third Eye Blind, John Mayer, Maroon 5 and Coldplay (I’m sure there are more…). There is still one band on my “to see” list that I’m dying to see: Aerosmith. Being at a concert, body moving to the music, crowd singing in unison, my blood feels as if it’s boiling, so much adrenaline running through it, and like it’s swaying on an ocean tide at the same time.

While I’m writing, I plug my ear buds in, choose a play list that either my character would be listening to or one that imitates the mood of the scene I’m writing. This is what gets me in the zone. I could write all day like this.


Muse Epic Poetry

When I was a T.A. in grad school, my mentor professor had this painting on the wall of her office. Earthy colors and placid. A girl, looking forlorn, dressed in a flowing white gown, halo band wrapped around her hair, sitting in a boat, tapestry draped over the side, floating down a river. She’s looking up, as if to something.

I wanted to know what she is thinking. Where is she going? Is she running to something or away from something? Is she sad or introspective?

I’d learn that the painting, rendered by John William Waterhouse, was of his adaptation of an epic poem entitled “The Lady of Shalott,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It’s about an embowered woman, locked in a tower by a curse, who sees a reflection of a man she instantly falls in love with living in what seems to be a utopia. She can only look upon this man and his surroundings in a mirror, for if she looks directly upon it, the curse will break.

Muses The lady of shalott

Upon reading the poem, my questions became more complex. My understanding altered and intensified. Is living life a reality or a reflection of it? Isn’t everything about our perception, no matter from what the approaching stance? Is it better to live safe and protected or risk everything to venture out into the unknown? Is the unknown always utopian-like? Will it never quite measure up to the way we had imagined it?

Questions like these, prompted from epic works such as “The Lady of Shalott” or “The Canterbury Tales,” “Beowulf,” “Paradise Lost,” “The Divine Comedy,” “The Odyssey,” “The Illiad”… aren’t they just questions of life, the basis of philosophy, psychology & sociology? This is what makes us think. Thinking. Taking action. Interacting. These are what make us human.

All of life is an epic poem. Each of us with a different story to tell. Conflicts to overcome. Tapestries to weave. Unique journeys to take.

Questions. Observations. Experience. These are where the ideas come from.


Muse comedy



muses bombeck


I try to find that line in my writing, the in between, the thing that we all feel but have difficulty encapsulating in words.

We need comedy to deal with life, for without it, we’d buckle under.


Comedians that inspire me: Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, Dana Carvey, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Dane Cook, Melissa McCarthy… and the one who makes me laugh the most: my son, Tyler.


The Yes Man


Muse Hymns


Listening to hymns, for me is like reading a good ending, one that satisfies all my expectations, to a book I can’t put down.

In all their majesty, hymns fill me with joy, faith, hope, perseverance. They remind me that beyond the struggle there is always something better. We need to live through the struggle to see that, for without it there couldn’t be clarity. Not only do hymns like these, my favorites, inspire me to be a better person, they inspire me to write more authentically.


Hallelujah: Jeff Buckley


Amazing Grace: Judy Collins


The Prayer: Celine Dion & Andrea Bocelli


You Raise Me Up: Josh Groban



muses what inspires





Devil’s Teardrop Box: A Lesson from Before Women Had Wings

MM BWHW Book jacket

MM BWHW Bird Quote


Before Women Had Wings (1997),a novel written by Connie May Fowler, is one I end the year of American Literature with. Avocet, a.k.a. Bird, Jackson’s narrative grips the reader before the end of page one. She’s an innocent girl trying to understand life– what’s fair/ what isn’t. She endures pain, often issued from her parents, sometimes her sister, too, but she loves them and searches for understanding. A spiritual journey provides her with hope, an unlikely friend, and finally salvation. Although her family defines dysfunctional, it begs the reader to understand the flaws in human nature and the power of forgiveness.

MM BWHW Olds Quote



MM BWHW Clifton Quote

I find this unit, more so than others, is connectable for students. I’m not sure if it’s the arc of the unit. We begin with women’s poetry (Maya Angelou, Marge Piercy, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Anne Bradstreet, and even Ann Sexton) because I want to create an image of what it means to be a women– HER whole story: the good, the bad, the ugly.  When we read the novel, which I approach more like a book club than instruction, I allow the conversation to become fluid and completely directed by the students in the class. Next, I ask students to interview a  prominent female figure in their lives to reach an understanding of what being a woman has meant to her.

MM BWHW Piercy Quote


MM BWHW Angelou Quote


The students borrow from a part of the book in creating a “Devil’s Teardrop Box,” a keepsake Bird’s father made for her which holds all that she cherishes, for each chosen woman. In it should be 5 objects (or more), authentic or recreated, that help the student tell her story.




Finally, a reflection is written on the whole process. What I find most endearing is what students say about learning her (often a mom, older sister or aunt) story, something each student appreciates in unanticipated ways. For the girls, it’s often a sense of pride that emerges. Suddenly, this woman who has been more concerned the mundane, because after all she’s often just mom, emerges as a woman, a being that existed before the birth of the interviewer. For the boys, empathy comes through the most; they are the ones most surprised by the outcome. But, overall, all students regardless of gender come away with a newfound knowledge, and, I believe, real understanding. It’s such a positive way to end the year.


MM BWHW Plath Quote


[WHY] Is the LITERARY CANON Important?

lit canon

The elusive canon that all of us literary types know exist but is difficult to define. Sure, there are lists of canonical literature while the contents vary dependent upon the source. Some classics, more than others, may find themselves on most lists. In truth, I believe the canon is and should be evolving. If the canon represents the exemplars of literature from a given time, timeless in their nature, it should indeed be a fluid body of work depicting culture and humanity.

Students should have in their back pockets a representative array of canonical literature which they acquire over the spans of their educational careers. I am asked by my students, more so than any other single question, “Why am I reading this?” “It’s old and out-dated,” they often quip. “It’s irrelevant,” some will say.

LC books 3

My job isn’t to take the easy way out and comply by giving them what they’re interested in as a way of pacifying them, bribing them, as such, to engage. My job is to get them to understand the relevance of these great works, why they are considered great, what makes them relatable, still today, thus, why we are still teaching this “old stuff” anyway.

It wasn’t until college that I understood, as a student, why such works were important. Somehow, it all fell into place with these words stated by a college professor who shared that her summer reading list included canonical works she hadn’t yet read.: “Reading literature from the canon makes one literate.” Further, it struck me that my literature professor, who I would still argue is one of the most brilliant people I know, had yet to finish all the works in the canon. For me, this awakened the realization that we are all lifelong learners and will never get to a place of “all knowing,” but that’s the point, isn’t it, appreciating the journey of learning as we go, knowing a little more every day, every year?

LC books 1

Reading literature from the canon makes one literate. I have pondered this statement a great deal. For I had been one of those students in high school who questioned why I was reading The Awakening or Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales or The Catcher in the Rye. After all, people don’t even say the word “phony” anymore, I thought then.

Her statement resonated with me; it surfaced on many occasions. Through hindsight, I’d recalled the messages, characters, motifs, symbolism, allusions of such literature I’d read in the past and her words began to fall in place. As I moved through college, I became enlightened by the connections to life and literature and the whole world around me I was making. Classic literature makes us literate. It provides us with a common history, understanding and language.


I once had a discussion with my son about a SouthPark episode. We watched the same show together, yet laughed at different lines. I questioned him, afterwards, on why he laughed when he did and why he didn’t when I did. I realized some of the jokes were above his head, in that he hadn’t lived through some of the allusions made or hadn’t read widely enough to understand them. While I’d  previously dismissed SouthPark, as a crude show doing no more than poking fun at society, I gained a new-found appreciation for its sophistication.

This is the same sophistication, though often subconsciously so, people experience when they are well-read. Life becomes richer when we’re privy to the experiences that come before us; we see things with widened eyes. We make connections innately from our prior knowledge.

That’s what my professor meant about the classics making us literate. Not in a literal sense of the word. Sure, I can read. I’m a strong reader, in fact, but armed with host of classical literature, I can read into life more effectively, efficiently and insightfully. I can reach an understanding that I couldn’t have without experiences which have lead to my own literacy.

LC books 2So, what do I tell my students who ask me that question? I tell them about the canon: what it is, why it is. I promise them that works like Harry Potter will end up in the canon which I firmly believe. Moreover, it’s important for them to know that their culture will be represented in the canon one day. But more importantly than telling my students anything, I find ways to show them how the classic literature we read in class is relevant. I model for them and provide them with opportunities to see the connections from one work to another or from same piece to a contemporary novel they might have read, or a movie they’ve seen or a personal experience. I don’t expect them to fully “get it” in high school, in much the same way I didn’t. In time, they will understand the importance of reading this “old stuff” and I hope to make their engagement with the classics, now, as dynamic as possible so they do.

Life is about making connections, thinking critically about our world, finding our place in it. I believe literary classics are a vehicle to learning such lessons. So, yes, the literary canon matters.


Graphic Images :



The Art of a Woman

In honor of INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’s DAY, March 8th, I’ve reflected on women whose words and deeds have inspired me. They’ve filled me with goals and dreams. They’ve altered my thinking and changed me, somehow.

Women Writers copy

Their words have affected my words. This is my homage to them.

Woman Poem Final copy

Their WORDS…

a Alcott a angelou a Blume a Bronte a Dickinson a dineson a Gregory a Hoffman a Quindlen a Sexton copy a Wells a woolf


Alcott, Louisa May.

Angelou, Maya.

Blume, Judy.

Bronte, Emily.

Dickinson, Emily.

Dinesen, Isak.

Gregory, Philippa.

Hoffman, Alice.

Mitchell, Margaret.

Quindlen, Anna.

Sexton, Anne.

Wells, Rebecca.

Woolf, Virginia.

This Summer’s Promise

books summer 13

Each year while I’m reading, often, three books simultaneously for school and eking out a pleasureful read here and there,  I’m accumulating a pile of books for summer. A designated spot on my bookshelf marks the long awaited promise when I have the luxury of time to lose myself. Likewise, I have an ongoing list of “To Reads” on the notepad app on my phone. Whenever someone suggests a title that resonates with me or summarizes a book that piques my curiosity, I write it down.

This summer includes some books I’ve been wanting to read for a long time (God of Small Things and Diary), books recommended to me by a friend who knows my reading proclivities (PTown and Tipping the Velvet),  books written by authors I adore (Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake and The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder), in addition to some pedagogical reads (Mindset and Write Beside Them) for a bit of legwork I’m doing for curriculum I’ll be writing this year, and, finally, a lofty read-again (London).

Ahh… the promise that awaits. I yearn to dive in… to not only lose myself, but learn something about life, education, experience and myself in the process,

What will you be reading this summer?

A Window of Opportunity with The Great Gatsby Release

Gatsby tickets

Amidst lots of hype, a delayed release, The Great Gatsby debuts, FINALLY. Besides being directed by one of my all time favorites, Baz Lurhmann, the cast is amazing: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire. I’m predicting, now, this will be Leo’s ticket to Oscar, also long overdue.


I’ve been teaching this novel to junior high school students for years. There are not too many American literature novels that I love and none that I love to teach more than Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a timeless classic that defined the Jazz Age and makes us all question love and the American Dream. The language of the novel is challenging, and the subject matter difficult for high school aged students to relate to, but it’s a classic and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least expose them to it. So, since I heard about the remake of this film (done earlier with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in 1974  and again with Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino in 2000, neither of which I liked), I’ve been conjuring up excitement and anticipation in my students that mirrors my own. I even went so far as to invite them to join me with the promise of doling out some extra credit. But even without the dangling extra-credit carrot, I do believe most students are excited about it. They’ve seen the trailers. Some, who I have as seniors who did not read it as juniors, have even asked to borrow the novel to read before they see it on screen.

Gastby Novel cover

Just as I approach any adaptation of a novel, I am cautiously optimistic that it will somehow enrich all of the beautiful imagination the words on the pages have conjured up in my mind. This adaptation of Gatsby did not disappoint. With twenty six junior high school students in attendance, myself and my former student teacher, we sat in the theater wide-eyed and immediately entranced by the soundtrack. One cannot speak of this adaptation without addressing the modern-day flair given to old school jazz through Jay Z, Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, Florence & the Machine… just to name a few. I was literally swaying in my seat. Further, the cinematography, propels the viewer into the scene (and I didn’t even see it in 3D); Lurhmann is masterful at making the viewer feel like part of the experience and, like Nick Carraway, a voyeur.

Among my favorite scenes was the party scene in New York, set in a high rise amidst the Valley of Ashes. There is a sax player sitting out on the balcony doing his thing while Lurhmann takes us on a ride of windows popping out at the audience to show us exactly what’s going on inside. Nick Carraway, after an exhausting journey of alcohol and drugs and sex, like he’s never been accustomed, as he admits, delivers one of his famous lines,

Gatsby Quote 1

Another of my favorite scenes is when Daisy is on the floor below Gatsby sitting on his bed while they are caught in the midst of laughter as Jay is throwing down an array of  colored, silk shirts upon her from the balcony of a closet above. It’s a scene of innocence and opulence all at the same time until Daisy’s laughter turns to tears and we feel her regret at every having let Gatsby go. The thing about this scene, that I must have read a hundred times, is that, in this moment, Lurhmann brings it to life for me. Previously, I’d rushed through description after description of the shirts, but in seeing it, the idea of what might have been resonates within me.


The Great Gatsby Featurette

The ever present green light, looming, on Daisy’s dock. The 3D eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, watching. The orgiastic parties of music, libations, dancers, confetti…celebration and sin. The stark contrast in Nick’s humble cottage as compared to Gatsby’s grandiose mansion, polarizing the two men. The seediness of the Valley of Ashes mirroring Myrtle and George, the darkness within them. The hope that sparkles in Gatsby’s eyes when he delivers the lines:

Gatsby Quote 2

The film is like a majestic tapestry culminating the symbols and themes and characters that Fitzgerald so poignantly put into words.

In my experience, viewing an adaptation as a substitute for the original never works because it always falls short of the imagination. But in viewing an adaptation as it’s own work, a representation of the original, a viewer opens himself up to a whole new experience.

Gatsby Quote 3

As the credits rolled away, I sat for a moment, overwhelmed, for I’d been completely satisfied. Out in the lobby, I was met by twenty six students who, wide-eyed and expressive, couldn’t wait to share how much they’d enjoyed the film. I remembered how they’d grumbled when we’d begun reading it in class. “It’s too hard,” “It’s old,” were among the early rumblings I heard. But when we heard it would be a film, there was a shift, suddenly the fact that it was relevant enough to put on screen called attention to it’s worthiness as a piece of literature. So, if this is my window into the classics, for these kids, I’m going to take it.

Great Gastby Jay

Why Wuthering Heights?

When someone asks me what my favorite novel is, the answer is always the same– has been for the last twenty-seven years when I first read it in my British Literature class at college: Wuthering Heights. I must have read this novel twenty times since, never tiring of it, for it’s one of the most complex and satisfying novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Emily Bronte is masterful at creating a gothic, love story that is so undeniably embedded in the setting where she was born and raised. She’s been called by her sister, Charlotte, “a product of the moors” as is her (questionable) heroine, Catherine. I say questionable because both “protagonists”– Catherine and Heathcliff– are also viewed as antagonists. I’ve been teaching this book for eleven years, now, and what I love so much about teaching it are the different reactions it elicits. I love Catherine and Heathcliff, but not everyone does, some actually feel contempt for one or both of them.

Emily Bronte sets up such a complex narrative that it becomes arguable over whether these two characters are the protagonists of the novel. Told from the outermost perspective of a traveler who happens upon the settings of this novel, Thrushcross Grange (a regal and lush estate) and Wuthering Heights (a “misanthropist’s heaven), Lockwood becomes a tenant to Mr. Heathcliff, who upon our first meeting with him is a dark, brooding, bitter character. Eventually, Lockwood comes into contact with Nelly Dean, the keeper of Heathcliff’s property, the Grange, where Lockwood will be lodging for a time– she takes Lockwood back to the beginning, as an observant/ 1st person participant narrator. We trust her objectivity, mostly; though she’s sympathetic to Heathcliff, she favors Catherine’s character (just a few years her senior and her primary care taker and confidant since the early death of Catherine’s mother).This is not unlike Emily’s experience in that she lost her mother and was looked after by her aunt and father for most of her childhood.

Inherent in this novel is the life and mind of Emily Bronte. The second youngest of six children (3 of them would publish novels within a year of one another that would go on to become classics: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Anne’s Agnes Grey, all published under pseudonyms), she spent most of her life in Haworth, a small village, on the edge of the moors. I had the opportunity to visit her home, the parish, walk the moors and see two of the buildings she’d fashioned her primary settings after. I can only liken that opportunity to a religious experience of sorts; I felt part of the landscape she so accurately depicts in her novel. While rustic, it is overwhelmingly majestic. Emily never strayed far from her home, leaving only twice to become terribly homesick, so her novel is as much a part of the landscape as it is the representation of what lived in her mind.

She also never experienced a love, which has been recorded, so strong as Catherine’s for Heathcliff and vice versa. She’s an anomaly really– that she could be so strong and independent (having the gall to publish under a man’s name) yet so innocent in never straying far from the vicinity of her upbringing, but instead, creating worlds of people in her mind. There is evidence of the wooden figurines it is said that the Bronte children played with, creating collaborative stories (“The Gondal Chronicles”) which they would then scribe in teeny, tiny notebooks. That Emily would have such insight into love and human nature is incredibly fortuitous. The spirituality of the novel does not surprise in that her father was curate of the parish, adjacent to their home. Likewise, his religious rantings appear in one of her characters in the heights, Joseph, as does the erratic behavior of her brother, Branwell in the character of Catherine’s brother, Hindley. She draws upon what she knows and fills in the many gaps of experience by what she creates which marks her as an incredible visionary.

Human nature in Wuthering Heights is portrayed in polarities: love & hate, storm & calm, high class & low class, right & wrong, inside & outside. Through her themes and motifs, Bronte begs us to question all that we know and realize we can’t know one polarity without having had experienced the other.

Bronte sets up a love triangle where Catherine is made to choose between the man she loves and the one society has taught her would be the better choice. In making her choice to marry Edgar, while Heathcliff believes she is denouncing their love, she is instead choosing the life that would help her advance Heathcliff. Though naive, Catherine believes she is making the only choice she can– a selfless choice. However, through, Bronte’s masterful storytelling, she allows the reader to judge Catherine’s decision as selfLESS or selfISH.

Through Catherine and Heathcliff’s love, which transcends not only generations but earthly and heavenly existence, we are called upon to question our own beliefs about the differences between loving and being in love, about the eternal idea of soulmates, about spiritual love extending beyond corporeal existence, as we know it, (regardless of the decisions we make) into the FORever-after.

This Summer’s Promise

I rarely read for pleasure during the school year. Usually, I’m juggling, keeping ahead of my students re-reading (most often), three books concurrently. When I read my own selections during the school year, the books are most likely easy, all encompassing reads that I can’t put down. When I pick up a book that really makes me think or isn’t a mindless read– the amount of times I need to put it down makes me lose interest. I usually opt to read smaller works for pleasure during the school year– ones that I can enjoy over a short period of time. So, throughout the year, I accumulate a pile of books I want to read over the summer, when I can take all the time I need to savor them. My pile is like a promise that at summer’s end I will feel more fulfilled, inspired, educated than when the summer first began.