January 2010

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Extra Curricular

There is, without fail, that moment in American high schools when one must turn to Ernest Hemingway. Usually the work of choice is The Old Man and the Sea, which is splendid if you like fish and the ocean. There could be short stories -- consider yourself especially lucky if you are assigned the “The Short Unhappy Life of Frances Macomber” -- but likely it will be a novel, because in American Lit class, it's always a novel. (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Williams -- all the dead white fellows will be there.) The thing about Hemingway that is so bloody frustrating is that as much as I enjoy some of his writing (but certainly not all) it is his life that forever fascinates me. He lived big and yet his life is often shrunk to a paragraph or two that includes many wives, Paris, Cuba, Key West, bullfights and suicide. There might be mention of unhappy sons and granddaughters if you have a more gossipy teacher. But so much about this intriguing man, will never be heard in class. That is where a book like Catherine Reef’s fabulous Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life comes into play.

Reef excels at biographies for young people but don’t mistake this title for a child’s book. Hemingway is a teenager’s subject, best appreciated in high school at the earliest and Reef recognizes this, delving deeply into all the conundrums and chaos of the writer’s life. His childhood issues with a mother he came to despise are considered, as is his compulsion to place himself in dangerous situations for the sheer love of being there. Man of war, of women, of letters, he can not help but be an example of a man’s man -- from the battlefields of Italy and France to African safaris and big game fishing -- but Reef doesn’t romanticize his life. There are still the choices he made that hurt those who loved him, the selfish manner in which he behaved with friends and family, the arrogance which truly reached epic heights. Yes, he was a great writer, but that doesn't grant one the right to be an ass -- Reef sees this, and makes sure her readers see it as well.

Mostly, in the final analysis, it is clear that Ernest Hemingway was one very interesting person. The stories behind all of his great works are included, as well as the struggles to find the words, the revelations when they came and the commitment to hard work. His death is framed as another family tragedy, and likely the legacy of depression or bipolar disorder that was in some way inevitable given the times in which he lived. But his death is, in many ways, the smallest part of Reef’s biography. This book celebrates a writer’s life, after all, and so she gives her readers that, and makes sure that while regardless of the direction their teachers take, they may still find Hemingway’s appeal all on their own. Where oh where were you, Ms. Reef, when I was in the tenth grade?

If Hemingway is not your author of choice, then I'd recommend I Am Scout by Charles Shields, the YA version of his biography Mockingbird. Discovering just how ahead of her time and unique Harper Lee truly was will be quite interesting to aspiring writers -- and she is a lot easier to identify with than Hemingway, that’s for sure. Throw in a lifelong friendship with the always intriguing Truman Capote, and Lee’s life is as close to a smart literary gossip story you will find for teens. Reach for this one, it’s a real beauty.

If we’re talking high school lit class, then we have to talk about Shakespeare. There are several authors reimagining his work, but for my money, Lisa Klein is the one to watch. In the wake of her startling Ophelia, she takes on another title in the canon with Lady MacBeth’s Daughter. Again we have a young woman at the center of the story and again readers will find themselves swept along by the events that capture her. In the case Klein introduces a new character, Albia, daughter of the MacBeths who is raised by the mysterious witch women of the woods. Unaware of her true parentage, Albia happily grows up surrounded by those who love her and also respect her occasional gift of foresight. It is only after she is pulled away from that safe haven and into the intrigue of Scotland’s politics that she learns who she really is and what her responsibility must be to both herself and her people.

What I like about Klein’s work is that she weaves themes modern readers will identify with into very old stories that frankly, most teens approach with trepidation. In this case she gives readers Albia who is suddenly pulled from a very predictable, albeit occasionally dull, life and thrust into a lot of craziness. Lord MacBeth is a selfish jerk, Lady MacBeth is a social climber right out of reality television and the increasing levels of paranoia and guilt that circle the two of them will ring familiar to anyone who has ever gotten close to the fringes of the popular clique. The basic story is still all Shakespeare but Klein’s riffs are 21st century all the way.

The nice romance dropped into the plot doesn’t hurt things either although the page turning is not dependent on that – it’s all about Albia’s adventure as she makes a choice for her countrymen and doing what’s right. It’s not hard to know how Lady Macbeth’s Daughter is going to end (Google will tell you that in seconds), but what happens to Albia is all up to Klein. And while the lord and lady are still who Shakespeare made them, there is more to learn here about who they were and what they did and why. It is still a tragedy of power and hubris, but now it is a far more hopeful story as well. Plus, Albia is one tough chick -- and seeing her work things out, and act on what she learns, is really fun to watch.

While I at least made good grades in English class (bored, but able to memorize with the best of them), when it comes to science, my high school experience was really quite abysmal. I will never understand what the point was of unloading a bunch of poor dead frogs on a classroom of squealing ninth graders and then having them cut the suckers open so they could fill out a worksheet identifying the body parts. What a waste of innocent amphibians' lives. (I should note that chemistry and physics classes were little better.) But what's a science teacher to do? If only we could skip the textbooks and share something that’s all kinds of real world creepy and awesome like Colin Dickey’s Cranioklepty. Here you have the history of corpse stealing, both for display (I’m not kidding), and phrenology, or the very questionable science of skull analysis. (Actually. it’s not science at all. But it was thought to be for a while, which is what Dickey writes about.)

Traveling primarily through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European history, Dickey writes about the demand for the skulls of creative people. He reveals the history of phrenology and its inherently racist beliefs, while also detailing the many people who found themselves attracted to both the science and the academic kitsch of having body parts belonging to the great people. (Mostly it was always skulls.) The weirdest parts, though, are when he recounts the way in which the skulls were actually obtained, and the protections that had to be placed upon some famous people (Beethoven in particular) to make sure their heads were left unmolested. It was a very real problem, for the poor who were fodder for anatomists eager to learn more about dissection, and the talented who were preyed upon by collectors practicing their own macabre idea of interior decorating, and phrenologists constantly seeking new examples to prove their foregone conclusions. They struggled mightily when those conclusions would just not work out (Mark Twain played a big trick on that score) but people wanted easy answers to big questions. They wanted to believe that every part of life was predetermined, even talent. They wanted to know it wasn’t up to them and the phrenologists tried hard to prove it. Dickey follows each and every one them down their varied paths in fruitless search of physical answers that did not exist -- and lucky for readers, he takes all of us with him. It’s a very strange story, the kind of science history that all too often gets left off the cultural map. Teens will eat this stuff up, however, and if they happen to be fans of author Paul Collins, then they’re really going to feel lucky.

Interestingly, another book I recently read also focused on a dead body that was not buried intact (this sounds like a zombie trend, but it’s not). While Dickey mentioned Beethoven relatively briefly, authors Russell Martin and Lydia Nibley delve deeply into the post-death activities of one part of him, in The Mysteries of Beethoven’s Hair. They reveal what a souvenir clipping taken from his deathbed by an admirer exposed about his battle with various illnesses, deafness, and even his cause of death. This is twenty-first century science at work, along with some interesting history that includes the WWII pursuit of Jews in Denmark, of all things. It was written for the 12-and-up crowd, making it highly readable for those new to forensics, and also maintains a certain level of suspense, both about what the hair might reveal and the path it traveled in the years after his death in 1827. Honestly, I’m not sure what appealed to me more: finding out why he suffered so much in life, or puzzling over who got the hair out of Germany and into Denmark, and how it got into the hands of a heroic small town physician there. This is the book to start with for the novices, and if you spark some interest, then certainly hand over Cranioklepty. It’s a tougher read, but the two go hand in hand quite effectively, and honestly, any books that blend science and history so well need to be celebrated.

Finally, I have been fascinated by Frida Kahlo for ages, due equally to her startling art and passionate life. In Finding Frida Kahlo, Barbara Levine quite literally discovers the artist in a bigger way than modern scholars can imagine. Levine is, as she notes in the book’s introduction, a collector. She has written about this in previous books, and was contemplating a title on her own personal archive when she stumbled upon an apparent cache of Kahlo’s art, diaries, and other ephemera in an antique store in Mexico. The owners obtained the collection from an intriguing source, and had it surveyed and proven as her work and possessions by acknowledged experts. (Be aware that not everyone agrees on this point, however, and there is an ongoing battle about the collection’s authenticity. This has brought some backlash to the book, although I think Levine makes her case effectively, and is clear about the ongoing issue of provenance in the text.)

Kahlo apparently had a penchant for leaving items with various people in an attempt to make sure her legacy would be preserved. Levine quickly realized that not only were the objects themselves powerful stuff, but the manner in which they had been grouped together was equally significant. With collaborator Stephen Jaycox she set out to photograph and study this new Frida Kahlo archive. Along with her commentary, an extensive interview with the antique shop’s owners and an overview of Kahlo’s life and loves, Finding Frida Kahlo is a treasure chest of artistic endeavors, a peek into one incredible woman’s life, and a look at how we preserve our own history.

While I can clearly see Finding Frida Kahlo as irresistible for fans, its oversized full color format is the sort of lush reading experience that makes it appear like the ultimate biography for teens. Kahlo loved Diego Rivera and hated him; she was filled with sorrow and she was euphoric; her friendships were deeply personal, intensely loyal and determined. Can you think of a better teen friendly heroine? High school and college students who have not fallen under the artist’s spell are going to sink into this review of her diaries, letters, artwork and clothing (plus so many other magical odds and ends) as if finding a complicated kindred soul. After her chatty introduction and interview in the antique store, Levine wisely stands back and lets Kahlo do all the talking. It is her words that narrate the archive’s display, and her emotion that carries the book forward. This is how you meet Frida Kahlo and fall hard for her near manic determination to love and live, regardless of the turbulent times and traumas she suffered. Levine is always looking for evidence of how we live, and Kahlo was a woman determined to leave a passion-filled record behind. Their “meeting” is a magical combustible mix, and for teens looking for someone to understand and respect their compelling dramas, Finding Frida Kahlo could well be life-altering. For a few sexy admissions, it remains best for older readers, but they are ones who could best appreciate what Levine and Jaycox discovered in Mexico. There is such more to Frida Kahlo to discover, and while she was never -- not once -- mentioned in a single one of my high school classes, I salute teens who find her on their own, and embrace her as a woman worthy of their time and attention.