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 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.

East of Eden: Discussion #2.... Birth, Death, and OMGCathy/Kate

The East of Eden Read-a-long July 21-August 18 
The Estella Project

Steinbeck considered East of Eden to be his big book. The Grapes of Wrath is a great book, but East of Eden is personal: Steinbeck is telling the story of his family (the Hamiltons), and he insinuates himself into the novel ( we finally find out that the narrator is John Steinbeck, Olive's sone and Samuel's grandson.
Question #1: What do you think of the characters' growth and/or development?
So much happens in this section! We find out that Lee is an intellectual, a philosopher, and a good mother. Good thing too, because Adam is a mess, and Cathy has the mothering instincts of a serpent. Samuel is the storyteller and the moral core of the novel. He may die, but his spirit endures.

Okay, I have to admit that I adore the character of Cathy/Kate. She absolutely luxuriates in her evil--she's like Milton's Satan! 

Thank God Adam gets some testicles! About time!
Question #2: Lee's insights, his thoughts on language and ethnicity...
Steinbeck is brilliant here. His development of Lee's character upends the stereotypes of the time, and defies the reader's expectations. Of course he is still the wise spirit guide that Adam and the boys need. Is that still a stereotype?
Question #3: the Cain and Abel story....
I'm glad Steinbeck spends so much time on the significance of this story. Lee's obsession with the meaning of specific words in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel forces the reader to really think about the story very deeply. And Steinbeck makes this story part of a family pattern: the first pair of brothers, Adam and Charles, have the same rivalry that will be repeated with Aron and Cal. Cal seems to be frighteningly like Cathy. We still don't know whether Adam or Charles is the father of the boys...'and neither does Adam.
Question #4: How do you perceive Samuel now that he's gone?
I think Samuel is extremely important: he is the moral core of this novel. I think one thing Steinbeck was  doing with the character of Samuel was showing his sons where they came from. The novel was a story Steinbeck urgently wanted to tell his sons, one he hoped would be universal.
Question # 5: Cathy/Kate: expound.
Oh her vicious little sharp teeth! Her sadism! Her desire for revenge! She is a cold murderess, a plotter and a little actress. Yes, OMGthatwoman... Nothing Cathy/Kate does will be boring!

So: this book just keeps getting better and better.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: The New Men

The New Men
Wayzgoose Press
303 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

What I look for in a novel is a cast of characters who are real to me, enough craft that reading is a pleasurable experience, and that immersive feeling of sinking into a good story. It's an added bonus when the narrative is one that tells me something surprising and new about a time or place. The New Men, Jon Enfield's debut novel, does all of the above.

Set mostly in Detroit, The New Men is narrated by Tony Grams (who was Antonio Gramazio of Ghilarza, Sardinia). The newly named, newly American Grams family settles in Detroit at the turn of the century, and Tony ends up with a coveted position with Ford Motor Company. His job is to help create the "New Men," Five Dollar Men who will be accepted into Ford's profit-sharing program--but only if they pass the investigation conducted by men like Tony, from Ford's Educational department.

This is a period in history that I haven't studied much. Henry Ford had radically changed manufacturing, and he offered a chance at a new kind of life for his workers. But the price paid by the workers was allowing an intrusive and paternalistic employer unbelievable access to the most personal areas of their lives.

Tony Grams is intelligent, devoted to the care of his family, responsible for the welfare of his mother and siblings. He is also flawed, both physically and morally, which makes him an interesting narrator. As a child, he hangs monkey-like from rafters or anything else he can reach, trying to straighten his spine, or at least relieve the pain. As a young man, he is excruciatingly conscious of his small size and his slightly warped physique--but this doesn't prevent him from falling for Thia Mueller, a wealthy, sad widow involved in many social causes. Always aspiring, and only sometimes ridiculous in his aspirations, Tony is a sympathetic character, despite the moral ambiguity of his actions.

The New Men spans the rise of Socialism and Communism, World War I, racial bigotry and unrest, and women's quest for the vote. It was a time of excitement and change, and a time of suppression and violence, and Enfield expertly draws the reader into the time period, while continuing to tell the personal story of Tony.

It's hard to fathom just how easily a powerful company intruded in and manipulated the lives of its workers. Tony becomes drawn into more and more unsavory aspects of this intrusion; in the end he is both guilty and redeemed.

The idea of "New Men" being manufactured like new cars, through character-molding interference from their employer seems more shocking than it really is. Somehow it fits in with the Puritan ideals of the first settlers, who envisioned a "city on a hill."

I thoroughly enjoyed The New Men for its craft, and for the insight into a time and place I never knew much about. This is the kind of stuff that isn't in your high school history book. I highly recommend The New Men for readers of historical fiction who might be ready for something a little different, and for anyone who enjoys the play of big ideas and fine writing.