Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: A Brief Moment of Weightlessness

A Brief Moment of Weightlessness
Stories by Victoria Fish
Mayapple Press
132 pages

A Brief Moment of Weightlessness is a slender collection, eleven stories in all, coming in at just over 130 pages. The stories are about children in families that are tearing apart a little or a lot at the seams, housewives feeling unmoored in their own lives, an American girl in India, wrapped in grief for the loss of her mother. Two stories, the strongest in the group (for this reader, at least) feature a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Overall I liked the stories, although I thought some stories were more assured and well-crafted than others. Fish's writing is quiet, and she is at her best when she stays with her characters, charting their internal lives. My favorite stories in the collection, "Green Line" and The Last and Kindest Thing," both focus on Adam, a returned veteran whose relationships have shattered under the strain of his return from war. I loved the fact that Fish returned to Adam,years later in his life, and showed how he had made a new life for himself--a life with pockets of loss, but a life. The best, most believable writing was in these two linked stories, especially in "The Last and Kindest Thing," about the relationship between Adam and his dog, Banjo.

Animals are important in this collection, and another strong story, "What is the Color Blue?," tells of a housewife in rural Vermont, whose new neighbor is more glamorous and more troubled than anyone else she encounters in her "sweet but boring" life. Claire, a stay-at-home mom who is starting a home baking company, is tempted and dazzled by her new neighbor, Isabel, an accomplished rider who seems to have the perfect everything: figure, wardrobe, husband, life. But as Claire gets pulled into Isabel's sphere, she discovers that her "sweet but boring" personality has its strengths.

A Brief Moment of Weightlessness is a promising first collection. I liked these quiet stories, and would certainly look forward to more work from Fish. I don't know whether she is done with the characters here or not, but I'd want to read more stories about Adam, her Afghanistan veteran character. A Brief Moment of Weightlessness captures those reflective moments contained in every life. Recommended for those who enjoy short stories and moments of epiphany.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday Coffee: Classics Club Update

It seems like a good time to do a Classics Club update. My progress has been slow but steady. If I'm really going to meet my goal, I will have to step up my pace considerably. But even if I don't meet my goal, my reading has become much more intentional, and the classics I've been reading have enriched my reading life immeasurably.

My post The Classics Club: I'm In! was posted on November 8, 2012--almost two years ago. In retrospect, my list was ambitious and optimistic. I planned to read 85 classics within 5 years. Two years have already gone by, and I've only finished 11 of the books on my list (I'm in the midst of reading a 12th). Still, I don't feel bad at all. Each of the books I've read has been an addition to a body of reading, and if it takes me more than five years to read all the books on my list, I can live with that. I'll still keep trying, though. I've noticed that since I started keeping track of the books I read, I have increased the number of books read each year. The same should hold true for my classics list.

Here are the books I've completed so far:
1. All the Pretty Horses Cormac McCarthy.
2. The Crossing Cormac McCarthy.
3. Cities of the Plain Cormac McCarthy.
4. The Known World Edward P. Jones.
5. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov.
6. Go Tell It On the Mountain James Baldwin.
7. The Ladies' Paradise Emile Zola.
8. Hard Times Charles Dickens.
9. A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens.
10. Invisible Man Ralph Ellison.
11. East of Eden John Steinbeck.

Right now I'm reading Another Country by James Baldwin.  This novel, set in Greenwich Village in the 1950's, was published in 1962. The characters are artists, writers, musicians, gay, straight, black, white. Baldwin's writing is very, very beautiful.

I haven't even talked about Romantic Literature in September, or the September meme question. I think I will just send everyone to The Classics Club (http://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com).

Have you joined The Classics Club? If so, how are you doing on your list? If not, are you interested in reading more classics?

I'd love to hear how other Classics Club bloggers are doing....

Monday, September 1, 2014

East of Eden

East of Eden
John Steinbeck
Penguin paperback
602 pages

East of Eden is John Steinbeck's letter to his two sons, odd as that sounds. Steinbeck wrote his great family saga at a happy point in his life--he was finally married to the woman he loved (his third wife, Elaine). Each morning, as Steinbeck sat down to work on his novel, he warmed up by writing a letter to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici. Those letters were eventually published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.

Steinbeck's sons were quite young when he began writing East of Eden, which was published in 1952. At first I was puzzled over Steinbeck's desire to have his sons absorb this tale of sibling rivalry (based on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel from Genesis). But then I realized that Steinbeck was also telling his own family story--eventually the reader realizes that the narrator is John Steinbeck, and that Samuel Hamilton is Steinbeck's grandfather. So John Steinbeck the novelist incorporates a family saga--his own family story--into the ultimate story of the battle between good and evil.

I haven't finished reading Journal of a Novel yet, but I've read enough to realize that Steinbeck made significant revisions before East of Eden was published. The first pair of rivalrous brothers, Adam and Charles Trask, have a troubled relationship, marked by envy and competition. Adam gives their father a gift (a puppy), and Charles is deeply hurt when their father loves and prizes Adam's gift over the gift that Charles saved for (a knife). This story takes up a significant portion of the novel, but it is really just laying the groundwork for the heart of the story. The sibling rivalry and competition for a father's love gets played out all over again with Adam's sons, Aron and Caleb.

Spoiler alert:

Of course, as the reader knows, Adam may not even be the biological father of his twin sons. That's because his wife, Cathy, a Lilith-like figure of unredeemed evil, slept with Adam's brother on their wedding night, after drugging Adam. Yeah. I know.

East of Eden is a completely absorbing novel, one that made me forget about everything else as soon as I sat down to read. I loved the characters: Adam, a wholly good man, perhaps too innocent and naive for this world. Sam Hamilton, the moral core of the novel. Lee, the Chinese servant who adds another level of moral precision to East of Eden. Cathy, the most coldly evil character, rendered in the most realistic and believable way.

The twins, Aron and Caleb, defied my expectations. Aron was too angelic to be really likable, and I ended up identifying with and loving Caleb, who fought the evil in himself. And Abra, the girl both boys loved, was another fully developed, compassionately real, character.

I'll have to add East of Eden to my list of absolute favorite books. It was the ultimate read in so many ways, offering the kind of complexity I love, along with beautiful writing and riveting characters. Completing this novel was satisfying too, because I get to cross another book off of my Classics Club list, and herein ends (belatedly) The Estella Society East of Eden Read-a-long.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Coffee: Catching Up....Again

Reading with the kids....

I said this before, but my number one priority this year is to turn my students into life-long readers this year. Some of them are already there. Others haven't actually read an entire book since the fifth grade. Students are experts at fake reading, and often their teachers suspect or know this, but aren't sure how to fix the problem. And English teachers are just so devoted to the whole class read, which is where we lose so many of the kids. Here's why:
  • The book just isn't everyone's cup of tea. Reading a book with your class for three to six weeks is a perfect way to ingrain the attitude that books are boring... based on the kid's experience of being forced to read a book he or she just didn't like.
  • Students read at different rates. If you hand The Great Gatsby to a group of students on a Friday, there is going to be that one student who finishes the book by Sunday. She's going to be bored and disengaged when the class is still discussing the first half of the book two weeks later.
  • Every reader is unique. Probably some of you reading this now were reading all through high school, churning through dozens of books... Just not the books you were supposed to be reading for class.
  • The only way a reader is going to fall in love with books is to find the right book. This means students have to be free to choose their own books.
So, this year in my classroom students are being given choice, and being asked to read both in and out of class...books that they choose. This doesn't mean we won't be reading anything together... there will be at least one whole class read. And we will read and discuss plenty of shorter pieces: essays, stories, poems, etc. Our first reading this year was Sherman Alexie's "Superman and Me."

For fans of classroom photos, here are a couple. In the first one, my husband is working on my bulletin board the weekend before school opened. We have a tradition that he always comes in to help me at the beginning and the end of the school year.
And this year I really started from scratch. I moved from a first floor classroom that I had been in since the school opened ten years ago, to a second floor classroom with a nice view of our stadium. Also... birds!
I need to take some better pictures, but you can probably see that my podium has a painting after Magritte... This podium was created by some of our students a few years ago, and I traded a more traditional podium to get this one. The kids like it!

Finally finishing East of Eden...

At last! Cue the Etta James song. I just finished reading East of Eden on Friday, and even though it took me forever, it is one of my favorite books of all time. I need to write my final post for Andi's event East of Eden Read-a-long hosted by The Estella Society...The even officially ended August 18th, but I'm going to use my "teacher card" and not worry about finishing so late.

An event I don't want to miss...

Aarti at Book Lust is hosting A More Diverse Universe (#Diversiverse) during the second half of September. I love this event! Reading books by diverse authors expands the universe for all. I've already signed up--I just have to make sure I manage my time so that I can get at least one, or maybe two books in. My first choice for this event is Men We Have Reaped, a memoir by Jesmyn West. I've heard this is a very powerful book, and it has been on my TBR stack since spring. I'll be making a list and arranging my reading priorities to try to get at least one more book in. Maybe Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique. This novel is set on the island of St. Thomas, which is where my husband was born and grew up. This is another book that has been sitting on my TBR stack.

For more about Aarti's Diversiverse event, go to the sign-up page at Book Lust.

Some of that other stuff....

I don't want to forget about The Classics Club. The latest "Spin" gave me my next Classics Club book: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Yesss! And I need to post an update very soon....

Coming soon:

Two books I want to mention: 
A novel from Anne Leigh Parrish, author of the short story collection Our Love Could Light the World. Parrish's novel, What is Found, What is Lost, is a beautifully written story of four generations of women, and I was enthralled by it. My review is coming within the next week.

And Judith Starkston, who is Reader in the Wilderness to me, has a new novel coming out. I just got my copy of Hand of Fire in yesterday's mail, and can't wait to read this novel of Brieseis and the Trojan War.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Coffee: Where I Am

The first week of school is over, and I can take a breath.... sort of.

Things really could not have gone better. My students are great, and that energy and excitement is there--now I remember, quite clearly, why I love my job! Although, in the midst of summer, I forgot.

Two things:
My feet really, really hurt at the end of the day.
I'm exhausted, as is every teacher I know. That first week really knocks it out of you.

This week I found out how much my creative writing students love to write (a lot). And I began anew my lifelong crusade to turn students into readers (of course, many students come to me with a love of reading already).

I've discovered Penny Kittle's wonderful book Book Love. I read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer over the summer. It is an excellent resource for any teacher who wants to begin an independent reading program in the classroom. But Penny Kittle's book is more applicable to my high school classroom--and her book is written in an accessible and eloquent voice.

As the school year continues, I'll be posting more about my classroom, and about what my students are reading. Here begins the emptying of my wallet directly into my classroom. I'm definitely going to be applying for some grants for books for my classroom library.
Here's a view of my classroom the weekend before school opened. As you can see, I have begged, borrowed, and bought a large number of books for my classroom. But, here's the thing: I need the books my students will actually read, those unputdownables. I can hand a kid a book, but it really has to be a book that will engage him or get her so engrossed that she forgets she doesn't really like to read.

I'm still working on East of Eden, so my post for the read-a-long will be a bit late. So you have that to look forward to....

Where I am right now is the local bookstore, with a stack of books I'm about to buy. Incorrigible!
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
The Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

What's everybody else reading?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Coffee: Back to School


Penny Kittle's Book Love
John Steinbeck's East of Eden
Susan Campbell Bartoletti's They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group

Thinking About....

Ferguson, Missouri

Getting Ready for....


Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Classics Club Spin #7

The Classics Club

The Classics Club Spin #7:
List twenty books from your Classics Club list (that you haven't read yet), and on Monday The Classics Club will post a number--that's the book you will read!

1. Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann.
2. Stoner by John Williams.
3. Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner.
4. Go Down Moses by William Faulkner.
5. Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope.
6. Another Country by James Baldwin.
7. The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos.
8. Paradise by Toni Morrison.
9. The Street by Ann Petry.
10. Stories and Occasional Prose by Flannery O'Conner.
11. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima.
12. Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
13. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
14. A Death in the Family by James Agee.
15. Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall.
16. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.
17. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
18. Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn.
19. An Autobiography Anthony Trollope.
20. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope.