The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

This is the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their lives together, especially the time they spent in the American ex-patriate community in Europe. It’s a fictionalization, not a biography, but sticks to the basic facts of what really happened.

The most interesting part of the book was the descriptions of the couple’s life in Paris and the relationships they had with other famous writers, like Fitzgerald, Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Gertrude Stein. The accounts of how and when Hemingway wrote some of his early books and stories made me want to go read them and see if I could catch the references that this book made in them.

My biggest reactions to the book were mostly about how poorly Hem treated Hadley. Insecure and ego-hungry, he can’t take any criticism from her and prefers the sycophantic praise of another woman. I hated how Hemingway has all the power in the relationship, and Hadley is complicit in that. When they talk about their problems it’s always in terms of how “we” went wrong, not how he singlehandedly ruined everything. The marriage ends when he has an affair with a mutual friend, who became Mrs. H #2 (of 4). When Hadley finds out about the affair, he’s angry with her, as if she’s the one who’s done wrong. There is a period of time in which the couple, their child, and the mistress are living in a hotel suite together, and you can imagine how uncomfortable that situation is for the wife. In the novel, McLain portrays Hemingway and his mistress having sex, while Hadley is half-asleep in the same bed. One of the best metaphors of the book explains pretty well how that lack of boundaries led to the dissolution of the marriage:

Ernest once told me that the word paradise was a Persian word that meant “walled garden.” I knew then that he understood how necessary the promises we made to each other were to our happiness. You couldn’t have real freedom unless you knew where the walls were and tended them. We could lean on the walls because they existed; they existed because we leaned on them. With Pauline’s coming, everything had begun to tumble. Nothing at all seemed permanent to me now except what was already behind me, what we’d already done and lived together.

Hadley is undoubtedly portrayed here as very strong, enduring great pain and turmoil. It seems that part of her strength is knowing when to give up. The final letters that end the marriage are loving and respectful of the bond they did share. She says that she has grown and changed and become stronger, and it seems true. I’m slightly wary of a woman growing thanks to the pain a man puts her through; her deepened character does not justify his actions. I feel ambivalent about it, but that’s not a bad reaction to have to a book.

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is amazing, of course. He’s one of those authors whose entire works I’d like to read. So I picked up The Graveyard Book, a children’s novel about a boy who grows up in a cemetery. It’s eerie and funny and whimsical and scary. It’s on about the same reading level (and interest level, and level of violence and language, etc) as the first three Harry Potters, so it’s perfect for anyone who’s at least 8 years old or so.

As a baby, Nobody Owens, called Bod, wandered into the cemetery after his parents were killed. He’s adopted by the ghosts, who raise him and teach him all they know. Much of the book is concerned with his education in the graveyard and in a more traditional school, and his relationships with the graveyard’s interesting inhabitants. The climax of the book comes when his parents’ killer comes back for him.

The story follows a satisfying episodic structure, with elements that will be important in the climax introduced early on, and a movement toward Bod’s growing up and becoming independent throughout the book and especially at the end. Like many fantasy novels, it ends with the loss of the fantasy and the movement into reality. The language is clear and fitting, with some surprises in descriptions, names, and phrasing, as well as Britishisms. The copy I read also had some fun graphic-novel-like illustrations in black and white. It was fun to read, like everything Gaiman does.

Lucky Jim

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim is about a lazy young lecturer at a British university. He’s a bit of a prankster and a drunk, and he gets himself into silly problems that work out in the end. The book is funny, but the humor seemed somewhat dated and foreign to me, though I usually like British humor. It seemed like it might be better in a movie than a book in some places. Some of the best parts are the digs at professors and academic life and its foibles and ridiculousness.

Much of the plot of the book is concerned with Jim’s relationships with two women he’s interested in dating, Margaret, a fellow academic, and Christine, his boss’s son’s girlfriend. I was kind of uncomfortable about the way Jim thinks about Margaret and Christine, comparing them and discussing at length how much more attractive Christine is, pondering their various parts and exactly what makes each of them attractive or not. I know this triangle is created mostly for tension and suspense–which girl will he pick?–but the fact that Christine’s looks weigh so heavily in her ‘pro’ column is problematic. In the many books about love triangles that feature two men and a woman, it is generally much less common for the male characters’ differing attractiveness to be a major factor in the woman’s decision; usually they’re both good-looking in different ways, or if one is less attractive it might be because he’s significantly older (and/or sometimes richer), or has a heart of gold while the hottie is a jerk.

At the end we find out that Margaret faked the suicide attempt she made before the action of the book begins, which had been a catalyst for her relationship with Jim. This information makes Jim feel he has permission to cut things off with her finally. What bothered me about this whole thing is that even if Margaret didn’t intend to kill herself, she did still take enough pills to need to be hospitalized. It’s still self-harm, it’s still serious, and she still needs help. If she did it because of how Jim and another guy, Catchpole, were treating her, if it was a real “cry for help,” or she was trying to “send a message,” then the issue is why she felt she had to get their attention this way. Why didn’t she think she could just talk to them about the problems in her relationships with them? I think if she felt she couldn’t talk to either of her boyfriends, it’s the boyfriends’ fault for being dismissive of her generally. Calling a woman needy, clingy, and crazy is at least potentially misogynist. These guys should feel some responsibility for the way they treated Margaret, rather than feeling utterly absolved when they deduce what she did. Jim’s reaction to this news is complex; it seems he may feel some of this responsibility, but not close enough to the surface that he names why. Either way, it gives him an excuse to do what he’s been hoping to do throughout the entire book, ditch the unattractive girl and go after the looker. Though Margaret is undoubtedly better off without these guys, I still feel bad for her.

I only wish irresponsibility were rewarded in the real world the way Jim’s is in this book. He gets everything he could have wanted at the end, but it’s kind of hard to feel he did much to earn it, since he spent most of the book drunk, procrastinating, pranking obnoxious rivals, or chasing Christine and Margaret. The book is considered a classic. I enjoyed it, but if I were choosing which books were classics, I wouldn’t have chosen this one.


Hades by Alexandra Adornetto

I hated the first book in this series, and my optimism in picking up the second one anyway was unrewarded. My hope for this book was that Beth’s saintliness would be tainted, that she’d come down to earth and show more complexity, but that hope went unfulfilled. She’s as boringly angelic as ever. At one point I was hoping for a revolution in heaven and hell a la His Dark Materials, but no such luck. This series is much too conservative for that.

The very worst thing about this book was the sentence-level writing. This might be the wordiest prose I’ve ever read. The overwhelming majority of sentences is bogged down in superfluous description that adds nothing to plot, characterization, or atmosphere. Mostly, it’s a bunch of unnecessary adjectives and adjective phrases reminding you how hot all the characters are. I really wish Adornetto had gone to a writing workshop with a truly brutal teacher who had taught her how to edit this stuff out. I couldn’t help editing in my head as I was listening to the audiobook; it was a game I played with myself to help me pay attention. The book would have been half the length and half as painful to read without this flowery style. I’d add quotes to illustrate how bad it is, but I just can’t bring myself to pick up the book again.

Other offenses:

  • It’s a basic damsel-in-distress plot with a Scarpia Ultimatum that ends with an eighteen-year-old proposing marriage.
  • An angel and a demon have a debate about the purpose of sex, and they say exactly what the Christian right wing would expect them to say.
  • The presentation of heaven and hell is one without much room for God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness.
  • The villain got halfway humanized, then reverted to form, when it would have been so much more interesting to finish humanizing him.
  • It’s Twilight for the Christian set, without the sexual spark that made Twilight viscerally compelling, and with even worse prose (which is really saying something).

This book ended with the most blatant cliffhanger ever, an overly transparent grab for audience attention. I’m not going to fall for it this time. I gave this series a second chance, but it won’t get a third.

Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There

Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms by H. Richard Milner IV

My principal gave all of us teachers a copy of this book and we read it over spring break. The overall goal of the book seemed to be to change the attitudes of teachers so that they will be more effective with their diverse students. The most valuable part of the book for me was the first chapter, which summarized some mistaken attitudes that teachers often hold and why they’re wrong. Teachers who claim to be color-blind, who believe in the meritocracy myth that says that the poor deserve poverty, who have low expectations for disadvantaged students, are unable to teach effectively because of their own attitudes. Changing these subtly (and not-so-subtly) racist and classist attitudes is the necessary first step, without which all of the other work is useless.

I planned two new lessons based on the information from this book, because I thought this attitude-changing isn’t only good for teachers, but for students as well, especially since mine are old enough to begin to grasp the complexity of these issues. They need to learn to make sense of their world for themselves, and I hope these readings and our discussions of them will help them do that. To deal with the issue of meritocracy, I’m resurrecting a chapter from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and excerpting a new chapter from Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. I think it’s important for students to know that though the world will say it is their fault or their parents’ fault that they have not had some advantages, it’s not true, and I hope that this takes away some of the guilt and shame that come with poverty. If they can see the bigger picture and realize that their success or failure in life is dependent on things far outside their control, they can be freed from the stigma of struggling financially. I also have a new lesson on poetry about America, poems that try to make a statement and define America, that includes a rap song (in addition to Whitman and Emma Lazarus’s sonnet). This one is an effort to include the things that the students are interested in–hip hop is explicitly mentioned in the book as a potential learning tool–and to show that the stuff that we read for school is sometimes not all that different. I really wanted some perfect short reading that would illustrate the “culture of power” that Milner talks about here (quoting Delpit), but couldn’t think of or find one in time for the start of our new  term (I’d love suggestions!).

My only complaint about this book is that it was kind of vague about what exactly the profiled teachers did to create good relationships with students and engage them in classwork. The advice is pretty generalized and consistent with established best practices. The book seemed to spend a lot of time describing the teachers’ personailities, identities and attitudes, and how these attributes made them successful, but I would have preferred a focus on actions that lead to success, since we have more control over our actions. It’s so hard to read books like this when I have specific problems in mind and of course there’s no immediate answer. It’s like the book is a magic 8 ball or something. I’m always looking for specific things that I could try to do tomorrow; maybe that’s not a fair expectation because there is no magic key. Still, it’s somewhat frustrating to read about perfect Mr. Hall, who “treats his students as individuals” in discipline matters, because how does that create the consistency that every other education text has told me is so necessary? What happens when students protest this inconsistency? He gives his students multiple opportunities for success, and that makes me wonder what he does when grades are due and several students still haven’t succeeded yet. I would love to see how that works in his gradebook: that’s how specific I want to get in these books. I want to go beyond the generalized theory and see how it works when you translate it to real life. The picture painted is so rosy that I want to push a little and find out what really makes these model classrooms tick. These expectations and frustrations of mine are not fair, I know. I’m wishing for the moon. The important thing is that the book is useful for the perspective it encourages teachers to take and its focus on social justice in education.

Shakespeare’s Birthday Party

I love the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, and wanted to share this awesome thing they’re doing this weekend. I probably won’t make it, as I’ll be on the road, but If I could be there, I would.
Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebration This Sunday! – April 22, 3:00pm
 At Centennial Park Bandshell
Pizza and birthday cupcakes (while they last)
 The third annual Biggest Balcony Scene Ever: Everyone present will play Romeo or Juliet in a mass recitation of the famous balcony scene! Download the edited script, and bring it with you. We’ll also have copies on hand.
Costume Contest: Prizes for best couple, best dog costume, most creative costume (adult and children).
Strut your Shakespeare: We invite you to perform a fun, Shakespeare-related piece of your own: a scene, a song, a soliloquy, a sea shanty, a silly sonnet…
We want to hear it!
Doesn’t that sound like a perfect Sunday?

Before I Fall

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

I picked up Lauren Oliver’s first novel because I had so enjoyed her latest two, Delirium and Pandemonium. Before I Fall is a more typical YA book than her recent dystopia novels because it’s set in a normal high school, with bullying, popularity, and romance as primary topics. The twist is Groundhog Day: about 80 pages into the book, the main character, Sam, dies, and then she relives the day of her death until she “gets it right.”

Sam and her friends are typical “mean girls.” The book falls into a recently popular anti-bullying genre. Jay Asher, author of another popular YA book that focuses on bullying and suicide, is the cover blurb. This genre has some limitations, like a tendency to stereotype and black-and-white morality, but Oliver mostly avoids the worst of these. It’s good to see Sam change and rethink the people around her, from her shallow boyfriend to her victims to her teachers. One weakness may be the character of Lindsay, the clique’s leader and Sam’s best friend. She is shown to be flawed and insecure, taking out her issues on less popular kids, but even after Sam is more enlightened, she still doesn’t ever really call Lindsay out on her bullying because she’s just so magnetic and fun to be with.

The structure of the relived day allowed Oliver to concentrate on the things that changed based on Sam’s actions, and a few of the days even had themes that seemed to determine everything that happened: avoidance, “nothing matters,” “bucket list,” and finally acceptance. Oliver keeps readers guessing until the last minute whether doing the right thing will result in Sam’s survival or her death.

Sam’s tone and voice rang true to me for a teenage character, especially because it changed as she became more empathetic. There was a bit of the brand-name-dropping that I wrote a rant about once, but it made a big difference that a first-person narrator character was doing it instead of an omniscient narrator, that the brands were middle-high end instead of obscenely expensive designers, and that the references were 3 per chapter instead of 3 per page. It made sense that Sam would sometimes think about these brands; they became a touch of realism. There was a good amount of humor, but in the moments when the gravity of her situation hit her, Sam was insightful and used language well. She even described kissing in mostly non-cliched ways.

Before I Fall is an enjoyable book for anyone who likes YA novels. There’s romance, female friendship, a compelling plot, character development, and a strong ending. I think I prefer Oliver’s more recent dystopian efforts, but I’m glad I read this one too.