Your Alternative English Syllabus
In all the ways that really matter English was one of my better subjects, but I was a complete and utter failure at it in school. I was very nearly always bored in those classes and it was only through rote memorization (and a talent for writing what my teachers wanted to read) that I did so well academically. The only poem I remember learning in high school contained the line “I saw pale Kings, and Princes too.” I vaguely remember a bit about the poet, John Keats (very romantic, died young) but like Byron, Shelley and everyone else I had to cram my head full of for the AP exam, none of them stuck. The bottom line is too much memorization, not enough actual learning but everybody has a story like that from high school.
If you’re the slightest bit curious about what you missed (or trying to get a handle on the poets right now) then you must pick up Catherine Andronik’s collection Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets: The Mad, The Bad, and the Dangerous. (Sounds a lot more interesting then a standard textbook, doesn’t it?) The author has linked together the lives of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats and the Shelleys into a compelling and highly readable series of essays. I had no idea that William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge were friends or that they decided to write “a set of poems whose language would echo more closely the way ordinary people talked.” They wanted to write poems that people could relate to. It wasn’t John Milton they wanted to emulate, it was something new and fresh and exciting they wanted to do. While that might not sound like much in the 21st century, in the early 1800s a poem could get you put in jail. What these guys were doing was truly wild and dangerous and finding this out about them made me want to know more.
Andronik has a lot to share about her subjects and she writes it all in a language that teens will surely embrace. “There was something in the blood of the Byrons that drew them to the dark side,” is how she begins her chapter on the monomaniacal Lord Byron. When it comes to his relationship with Percy and Mary Shelley (and most significantly Shelley’s sister Claire) there was a ton of information for the author to work with and she shares it all with her readers. Everything about their interactions was creative, chaotic and destructive and even though it brought great acclaim to the Shelleys, mostly it just brought them all death. It was no surprise to me that young John Keats would come into play through this group as tragedy was the hallmark of his life. Of course Keats knew Shelley, of course they were both dynamic and amazing and of course they died way too freaking young. Bad boys just didn’t get cut many breaks way back when.
I found Wildly Romantic to be an exceptional read and probably one of the few books on the subject that most teens will even consider picking up let alone ultimately enjoy. Adult readers might think Andronik gets too casual sometimes in her language but I found the whole book very refreshing. Stuffy self-importance isn’t going to get you anywhere with the average high school student (or this long ago pissed off former student). Give us more of your biographies please, Ms. Andronik; we’d really like to read them.
I will confess that while I enjoyed the Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet film, Sense and Sensibility, I have never been able to actually read any Jane Austen from cover to cover. Feel free to start with the verbal flogging now. I’m very curious about Austen though and this whole business of whether or not she can be considered a “romance writer.” Veronica Bennett, whose recent novel Angelmonster delved deeply into the life of Mary Shelley, has now set her sites on all things Austen with the most delightful Cassandra’s Sister. This is a book that I can not recommend enough and should be a perfect accompaniment to the Anne Hathaway biopic, Becoming Jane. (When is somebody going to make movie about Mary Shelley is what I want to know.)
The Jane -- or “Jenny” as she was known in her family -- who is introduced to readers in Bennett’s novel is funny and smart and dedicated to writing stories. Her sister Cassandra has already met the love of her life, Tom, and is patiently waiting for him to make a fortune so he can afford to marry her. The waiting is killing them both, but Cassandra is the patient and proper sort. Jane is not so sure and while she realizes that alternatives, like elopement, are completely unacceptable nonetheless she can not help but be frustrated by the way in which Cassandra has no choice; that all the choices are made for her. This powerlessness chafes at Jane and as she watches Cassandra pine for the distant Tom, a small shift begins to take place in her thinking, which becomes evident in her stories. Bennett shows this subtle change beautifully:
Jenny’s delight in the gift was tempered by her brother’s words. It was true that she and Cass never asked for anything. It was the responsibility of other people to notice their needs and supply them, because they had no money of their own.
It was a timely reminder. Feeling ungrateful and ungenerous, and aware that such feelings would never have occurred to Cassandra, Jenny wondered if anyone would remember when she was twenty-one and was going visiting, or collecting her trousseau, that an expensive Indian shawl might be welcome in her wardrobe.
How satisfying it must be, she thought, to have some money, however little, that one has earned oneself!.
Jane writes the books that later became Sense and Sensibilty, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey as Cassandra’s Sister unfolds and her interactions with family and friends heavily influence those manuscripts. Marriage is on the minds of everyone they know it seems, at least for the women, and the constant pressure to meet a suitable man is ever present in Jane’s world. As she gets older and is disappointed more than once by the vagaries of attraction and love, she pours her emotions and experiences into her books. Ultimately though it is the tragedy of Cassandra’s life that truly changes Jane, and transforms her into someone willing to take a chance for what she and her sister need.
Cassandra’s Sister goes a long way towards making Jane Austen a person that readers can identify with and enjoy. Her books might seem stuffy or sedate but after reading Bennett’s novel, and knowing what Jane’s life was really like, readers will likely look forward to rediscovering Pride and Prejudice and her other books through Jane’s eyes. I think what Bennett has done here, again, is humanize her subject and bring her back from the lofty heights of literary greatness where, quite frankly, she has gotten a reputation for boredom. Start with Bennett’s words and then move on to her subject’s; it’s the best way I can think of to bring Austen and Shelley out of the literary cold.
In Song of the Sparrow author Lisa Ann Sandell has set her sites on King Arthur and the days when the Round Table was a place to set battle plans against the invading Saxons. Her verse novel is told from the perspective of Elaine of Ascolat, a teenager who grew up in the war camps as the daughter of one of Arthur’s knights. Her family lived in Shalott, before the invading Picts took it all away and her mother was murdered and her father and brothers became warriors. Elaine has grown up around many men, learning the ways of healing and tending to their sewing and mending as the wife/mother/daughter that all of them had to leave behind. She is loyal to Arthur, dear friend to his sister Morgan and hopelessly in love with the knight Lancelot. Fate intervenes in the life she has always known with the death of the Briton leader (the historically real Ambrosius Aurelius). Arthur rises to power, the beautiful Gwynivere, who seems to be everything Elaine is not, arrives and suddenly the war escalates.
In the book’s pivotal chapters, Elaine finds herself questioning everything she has ever known about the men around her and, on a more painfully personal note, wondering if she is the “right sort” of woman to have romantic love in life.
It is unnecessary for readers to have any prior knowledge of Alfred Tennyson’s epic poem, “The Lady of Shalott” or even Arthur and Camelot to enjoy Song of the Sparrow. In fact, one of the strongest points in the book is the way in which Sandell writes about war, an aspect of the Arthurian legend that always seems to get short shrift in comparison to all the romance, magic and intrigue. (Merlin is here, but plays a decidedly smaller role then you would expect.) Here is some of what Sandell shares about the war between the Britons and Saxons:
The noise brings me back,
the fearsome noise of swords
a metallic clanging that rings in
my ears, echoing and echoing
din of men
screaming and crying as they
meet the sharp ends of blades.
They fall, they die.
The battle plays out like a game,
a game my brothers once played with
drums and shouts measuring
But this war is no dance;
it is no game.
My father and brothers are down there.
Sparrow is filled with some of the most thrilling writing I have found about medieval battle and most impressively it is a book that also manages to be a great coming-of-age story and a romance (not, as it turns out, with Lancelot but with a far more interesting and also infamous knight). I was quite pleased to me that when a spy was revealed and Elaine had a chance to do something to help her friends, she did it. Gwynivere’s motives are unexpected and her part in the story is much more surprising. But part of Sandell’s goal with Sparrow was to give the women more credit, for while the truth behind Arthur and his knights is still a mystery, the fact that Elaine and the other female characters in these long told stories have “suffered at the hands of male writers” is clear. Sandell wanted to give them a chance to shine, as she writes in the story’s afterword: "I wanted to give her [Elaine] strength and power and relevance. And indeed, it is without a sword that she manages to save her friends and loved ones.”
Sandell has succeeded brilliantly in writing a gripping tale of equally strong male and female characters. It is a compelling thriller and first class story of love, battle and betrayal with familiar characters filling their roles in a much deeper and fascinating way. This is a side of Arthur that few readers have had a chance to explore and seeing him and his men on the battlefield, through the eyes of someone who cared about them, makes him less a mythic figure than a man and a leader who struggled to do the best thing for his men and his people. Sandell wanted to humanize these figures with her story, and she has done that. Song of the Sparrow is a great place for teens to discover just what Arthur’s life might really have been like as he sought to build a peaceful world. We all think we know the story of Camelot but as the author shows here there is so much more to this story yet to be discovered.
While I was reading Christopher Grey’s absorbing historical thriller, Leonardo’s Shadow I tired to remember when I first learned about Leonard da Vinci. I can’t remember being taught about da Vinci in school or ever discussing in the classroom his inventions and art and the sheer depth and breadth of his creativity. It seemed to me that as one of the greatest journalists in history that the perfect place to consider da Vinci’s infinite curiosity and contribution to society would be in English class. I know he was Italian but we don’t get a lot of chances for Italian history in the U.S., you know?
The problem with Leonardo is the same thing that plagues lessons in Shakespeare: the world he lived in is a complete unknown to most American students. It’s hard to put the work of men like this into any sort of useful perspective when so little is known by Americans about their life and times. Grey’s book is an excellent way of entering da Vinci’s life though, through the eyes of teenage Giacomo, the “master’s” servant. Giacomo was saved by da Vinci as a child when he was being chased as a would-be thief by a mob. Since then he has worked for the artist as a critical member of his small household. It is through Giacomo that we learn of the long delays in da Vinci’s mural of the Last Supper, his stormy relationship with his sponsor, the Duke of Milan, and his aeronautical experiments. Everything da Vinci does, Giacomo is in the middle of and he takes the readers right along with him.
Grey used a copy of Leonardo’s Notebooks as his main source material for the book and Giacomo is based on a real servant. The author’s attention to detail is impressive but readers should not be worried that the history gets in the way of a thrilling tale. On top of the tension between the Duke and da Vinci, and Giacomo’s own problems with some of the master’s wealthy and spoiled young art students, there is also the presence of an alchemist who demands inside information on da Vinci’s planned meeting with the Pope. Giacomo finds himself pulled in many different directions as the story moves towards its exciting -- and near deadly -- climax, and teen readers will easily find themselves caught up in all the excitement. I must say that the most interesting moment for me was da Vinci’s test of his flying machine, and the Pope’s response. This is one historic moment that will resonate with readers for sure and bring home to them just how different the Renaissance period was from our own modern times. Even the most reluctant student will find Giacomo’s life appealing and through him, Leonardo da Vinci may make a few new fans as well.
Fairy tales are given short shrift in the classroom once students leave the early grades behind. With their international connections and wide ranging appeal however, they provide an excellent way to look at the commonality of certain stories across borders. Author Paul Fleischman and illustrator Julie Paschkis take on one of the most famous fairy tales in history with their new book, Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella. Including aspects of the story from countries as distant as Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Mexico and Ireland, Fleischman writes the familiar tale with words from various local versions, accompanied by Paschkis’s different backgrounds and illustrations, all clearly labeled for each country of inspiration. The story moves seamlessly along as it travels the world with sections showing how differently Cinderella has been told, while still remaining the same tale. For example:
The girl was free to go, but she had nothing to wear except rags. Then she looked in her mother’s sewing basket. [Laos]
Then she reached into the hold in the birch tree. [Germany]
Then a crocodile swam up to the surface -- and in its mouth was a sarong made of gold. [Indonesia]
…a cloak sewn of kingfisher feathers…[China]
…a kimono red as sunset. [Japan]
And on the girl’s feet appeared a pair of glass slippers…[France]
…sandals of gold. [Iraq]
Reading Glass Slipper made me wonder just where the American version of Cindrella came from. The glass slippers are clearly from France, and when the girl’s “Aunt” transformed breadfruit into a coach with her wand in the West Indies story, I read echoes of our own pumpkin-to-coach magic. Her shoe comes off in the prince’s hand in the Irish tale and the Chinese king orders every woman in the kingdom to try it on. In Korea, the girl’s foot slips with ease into the straw sandal and they are married at the palace in Zimbabwe. Parts of the American Cinderella are found everywhere in these pieces of the international story and recognizing how much is the same (and how subtly it is different) will be quite intriguing for readers who think they know everything the fairy tale has to offer.
Moving forward to modern times, in Your Own, Sylvia author Stephanie Hemphill has accomplished an impressive and daring piece of literary biography. She has written about the entirety of poet Sylvia Plath’s life through original poems and even more remarkably she does this by shifting point-of-view dozens of times. While detailing the poet’s life, both personal and professional, Hemphill shifts from the voices of Plath’s family and friends to her husband and editors. Through the diligent use of footnotes she keeps readers informed as to whose perspective she is using in each poem and how they knew Plath. Even those with the barest knowledge of her life will easily follow along and in the end will feel they are as well acquainted with their subject as they would be from reading a conventionally written biography.
There is a lot to love about Hemphill’s poems -- about the variety of voices she uses to tell Plath’s life and also the ease with which she accomplishes her task. Sometimes she drops into her own voice as narrator, and writes poems about Sylvia, using styles similar to Plath’s own work. “Manic Depression” is written in the style of Plath’s “Aerialist” and describes the poet’s life in December 1952.
An acrobat of moods,
She juggles like a pro.
She clowns her painted lips;
She giggles. She broods.
She begs to be followed.
Then shifts and gives them all the slip.
The biggest surprises are found in poems written in the voice of old boyfriends or roommates; those who knew her before she was the poet and author, before she was anyone other than the brilliant student. Dick Norton was Plath’s “on-and-off college boyfriend,” “Stalemate” is written as if by him in July 1953, after he was diagnosed with TB and the two were exchanging letters:
I fret for Sylvia.
She appears anchored
to the idea of sinking,
which is silly when she so clearly
soars above almost everyone.
Much later, after marriage to Ted Hughes and a permanent move to England and the birth of two babies in rapid succession, Plath began the struggle to maintain the life of poet and mother that ultimately broke her. Aurelia Plath, her much maligned mother, often expressed her concerns to her daughter in letters. Hemphill uses Aurelia’s voice for some of the most poignant poems in her book. From “Routine,” winter 1962:
Without poetry she would crumble
like a dried-out lemon cake,
stale and inedible. She talks
bright, but something has hardened.
I think this life of two children,
two literary careers, multiple gardens
and too many rooms to dust
must exhaust her weak constitution.
For would-be poets in particular, Your Own, Sylvia will be a revelation both by itself and as an introduction to the many published works by and about Plath. It is perfectly tailored for teenage girls in particular, for those so long misunderstood and overwhelmed; angry, intense and excited just as Plath often was. Stephanie Hemphill’s book belongs solidly in the classroom, in a place where Plath’s work and life can be discussed by those who will understand her frailties all to well, and sympathize with her dramatic and disturbing genius. Consider this one most highly recommended.
Finally, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a modern retelling of the 16th century Scottish ballad that has attained cult status among fantasy lovers since its original publication in 1991. Last year Firebird reissued the book as a lovely trade paperback introducing it to a new generation of readers. Tam Lin is not at all a typical urban fantasy. The book is set on a college campus in the early 1970s where the characters are all, in one way or another, fans of Shakespeare. Deep discussion of the plays and witty quotes drawn from various dialogues are thrown back and forth at entirely appropriate moments. It makes sense when you consider that several of the students are English or Classics majors; this is the sort of thing they clearly excel at.
The story opens with Janet, whose father is a professor at Blackstock College where she is just starting her freshman year. Janet is a English major and an unabashed book geek; her main worry as she moves into the dorms is that she won’t have enough shelf space for all her books. (A girl after my own heart...) Her roommates are of the entirely normal sort but they find themselves, particularly Janet, puzzled by a ghost who occasionally tosses old editions of several Classics texts out the window of their dorm. Tracking the activity of this ghost slowly becomes a passion of Janet’s and combined with rather odd encounters with her adviser, a professor in the Classics department, give her an uneasy feeling about how odd things really are at the school. As the roommates become romantically involved with a group of gorgeous young fellow students who seem to be equal parts exciting and emotionally unavailable, Janet wonders more and more why everyone accepts strangeness as normal at Blackstock. The culmination of all this is the annual late night Halloween ride of the Classics department, led by the frightfully intimidating Professor Medeous. Clearly, the Classics majors are more than just a little bit different.
In the course of the novel the characters all advance in their studies, hold many spirited discussions on all sorts of literary subjects and change their affections more than once. Janet finds herself suddenly, surprisingly, falling for Thomas who seemed like more of a surly friend than anything else right up until the moment they kiss. Thomas has struggled throughout the book with leaving the Classics department but has been relentlessly pursued by Medeous. The reasons for this attention are revealed at the end, as Janet finally uncovers just why all of them are so well acquainted with Shakespeare’s work. This is when Dean plays her biggest trick on the readers, showing that everything that has led to the final chapters, the literary talk, the ghostly visitor, even the various romances, has been about Thomas’ revelatory moment. And then, just as the original ballad commands, it is all up to Janet.
Tam Lin is a big, rich book, clocking in at over 450 pages. I have read it more than once and find that I enjoy it more each time. There’s a lot to this story and it unfolds slowly; you have to sink into it and let Dean carry you away into her academic world of question and conflict. I do have to say though, that this is one of my favorite books of all time -- it is an excellent and informal way to encounter Shakespeare and a delightfully opaque mystery that only becomes clear at the very end. Tam Lin dazzles me; forget about dry classroom discussions and give this modern fairy tale your full attention. It has everything a good story needs as well as a ton of the liveliest sort of literary discussion. As always, you can find me at my site chasingray.com where discussions about books like Tam Lin come up all the time.
Cool Read: In Thomas Nau’s beautifully illustrated biography, Walker Evans: Photographer of America, the artist is portrayed as both a curious and committed artist. I was aware of Evans as a chronicler of American life, particularly during the Depression years, but never realized how much he loved literature. He attended one year of college where, according to Nau, he “spent much of that time in the school library reading authors who were writing the most exciting fiction of the day: D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, among others.” Evans did not see a difference between photography and books, in fact he would say, “Fine photography is literature and it should be.”
Nau has done a great job here of pairing Evans’s photographs with different periods in his professional life. He slowly takes readers through the artist’s life and is never dull; he has a fascinating subject and he knows it, and so lets Evans’s own words and adventures provide the book’s spark. This would be an excellent choice for any of those “book report on famous Americans” assignments but more importantly needs to be shared with anyone looking for a reason to believe in what they love. Walker Evans was a brilliant and talented man, how delightfully appropriate that he has found someone to share his story with a generation looking for someone to believe in.