Monday, February 26, 2018

Body and Soul

Well, I switched books again. Not really for any reason, and actually, I kind of regret it. Why? Um, go look up self-trephination. That's why.

Today's short story comes from Barbara Gowdy's book, We So Seldom Look on Love. The book was a finalist for the Trilliam Award, which means Canadian.

The first story in this book is entitled "Body and Soul", and I don't really know what to say about it. Like so many short stories, it stuck with me. My jaw actually dropped when I got to the conclusion of the story. It was a real shock, though not a surprise, if that makes any sense.

Honestly, I found this story difficult to get into. Not sure yet if that's due to the writing style of the author, or this particular story. I'll keep reading the book to find out. She definitely creates a sense of disorientation early in the story, and I can see how it illustrates life in the apartment and gets us right in the middle of the lives of these two girls. But I had trouble figuring out the dialogue, and I found the character of Julie difficult to think about, both before and after the ending.

Aunt Bea is an interesting character. It's funny to take up a character that is both good and not good- not bad, exactly- but inexact, and inefficient and a little foolish. She reminds me a bit of Mansfield's Miss Brill, not because she is so outwardly vain, but because of how transparent her "goodness" is.

Would I Teach it: No, I don't think so.
Where: Nowhere. Maybe 20 or 20-2.

Other stuff: self-trephination. *shudders*

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Vandercook

Well, if any of you were to follow me on Twitter, you would already know the dismal state of my marking pile. So, naturally, I'm going to spend some time today blogging instead of doing any of that other stuff.

Which brings us to today's story: The Vandercook by Alice Mattinson

In short, I quite liked it. It's one of those stories that sticks; a few days after reading it I kept thinking back to a few images, or a few lines that somehow resonated, and I think that's a lovely effect for a story to have. Here are a few of those lines and my thoughts on them:

In the dark, I had finally said, "You may not do this," and from her pillow, sounding wide-awake, she'd said, "You may not tell me what I may not do."

In any other story, I think the above exchange would let me feel good about the woman who stands up to her husband in this way; but here, everything Molly says just adds to the growing dread that leads to the story's end. Molly is something, and it's a complicated something. Too complicated for a high school student? No, not depending on context. But maybe there's too much going on in terms of white feminism and US history to cover in a short story unit. I don't know.

He put the palm of his hand on the back of my father's head and pressed Dad's face into his own white shirt, like a parent protecting a child from seeing something terrible.

Oh, this line just breaks my heart. Here is the character with perhaps the least amount of agency and voice in the story acting with the most compassion in the story and oh, it's awful. The comparison there that brings in the parent-child relationship is extra potent because in that very moment, that's almost exactly what the narrator is failing to do. My heart.

I couldn't look at her frightened face. I wanted love to be simple. I wanted to tell her how nimbly our son with his new haircut had darted across the street, how scared he seemed, how hard it was not to run toward him, stretching my arms out wide.

These are the final lines of the story, and they are exactly what the story is: at once disjointed, recursive and tying together multiple levels of family, of obligation and of the impossibility of having to live with the choices of the people we love. Just great.
And I didn't even talk about the Vandercook itself, which, especially if you're into printing presses and typography or whatever, provides ample opportunity to engage with symbol and image. 

*     *      *

I don't know a lot about the author, which is my own failing, as a quick online search showed me that she has published several novels and her work is often included in the Best American Short Stories anthology. This story does not live online, but it while I was looking for it, I instead found this blog, which does what I'm trying to do here but probably a thousand times better. Ah well. 

Anyway, I liked this story a lot. 

Would I teach it: No, I don't know how! I should probably figure that out, hey? The more time I spend thinking about this story, the more I like it. But I don't know how I'd write an essay of character about a story that deliberately lacks a resolution. I mean, I guess there are students who write about Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which is similarly difficult. We'll see. There are a lot of stories left in this book, but if this one continues to echo around in my little brain I may return to this story with a past diploma topic and see what I can come up with.

Where: An advanced class for sure. 20 or 30 AP or IB. Or a dedicated writing class, if there were ever such thing.

Other stuff: Again, because this story is published in the Pen/O. Henry Prize book, there is a very short blurb at the back where Alice Mattinson writes that she began the story with the idea that the people in it "can't solve their problem". Maybe that's part of why this story sticks in my mind so well. It is made up of a number of lovely shaped puzzle pieces, but they can't come together because they were designed not to. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Uncle Rock

Uncle Rock by Dagoberto Gilb

One story in, and I had to switch anthologies. This doesn't really bode well for that parallel texts book, but I'll get back to it in time. On to the 2012 PEN/O. HENRY PRIZE Stories. Is that really the title of this book? It's a little ostentatious, I have to say.

This is the first story in this book, and actually, I don't hate it. It was also published in The New Yorker in 2010. Wait, 2010? But this is a Best of 2012 book... *makes disgruntled sound*

The story itself is brief, only about 7 pages. It reminds me of the perennial Alberta favorite: The Glass Roses, by Alden Nowlan. Not only is it a similar length, but it also features an adolescent and relatively silent male protagonist; a significant and somewhat inscrutable parent figure; and some clear imagery that would fit neatly into a symbolism lesson.

There are major differences, of course, many of which can be inferred from the illustration that accompanies the New Yorker page, below. The potential pitfalls of this story could probably also be inferred from that illustration, a major one being that the character of the mother is problematic for a classroom.

Now, when I say problematic, I mean that from a teaching standpoint. I don't mean that she's written disrespectfully. It's that I'm willing to bet that students would be quick to jump all over her as an opportunity to write about character, and that really wouldn't work at all. Not to mention all the, um, nascent things they may have to say about single mothers who date, or women who have bodies, or people from Mexico. This would either be a good opportunity to confront students about all the(ir) racist and misogynist assumptions, or a good opportunity to mistakenly provide a place to perpetuate those assumptions. I guess that's all literature. Still, it's a risk.

Illustration by Paul Pope
That said, the potential for a good lesson is also in there. There are some interesting conversations to be had about where we fit (or don't) into the lives of our parents, as well as the power we have when it comes to not using our voices. I quite enjoyed the paragraph about what "back home" sounded like for Erick; I have some experience with the tension between how life here (wherever here is) is supposed to be so much better, but how life there still gets to be "home". It's a small part of the story, but it's there. Finally, it's the small action that closes the story, and that's another nice thing to get to harp on about in class: how the small things matter.

Would I teach it: Never say never.

What grade: 20-2 and maybe even 30-2? If The Glass Roses is fair game for the Diploma, this could be too. I think.

Other things: This anthology has little blurbs from the author of the stories at the back, and the paragraph from the author of this story could be fun to teach.
Also, the author, Dagoberto Gilb, is alive. That's neat.
The New Yorker has another page with some more words from the author, if you needed supplementary texts, or an excuse to read non-fiction.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Beach

Brief recap of what I'm doing here: compiling a self-made resource of short stories to teach in my school, which is a high school in Alberta. That means I'll be making references to the courses (10-1, 10-2, 10AP, etc) as well as to the final standardized exit exam, hereafter referred to as the Diploma, which is made up of a Personal Response task and a Critical Essay task and here is the end of the sentence.

On to the first story!

The Beach by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Translated by Barbara Wright

So, an inauspicious start to this little project, to be honest, because this story was... uh... written.

To be clear, it was written in French, because this is from an anthology called Parallel Texts, where the left page has the story printed in the original French and the right page has the corresponding translated English page.

The story itself has some interesting things in terms of structure, I suppose, but as far as finding short stories to use in the classroom, this one is a little sparse. The entirety of the story simply describes three blond children walking on a beach for a few minutes. I'm not sure why it's important that they are blond, but much is made of the blondness. As they walk to an unnamed destination, one of them hears a bell and then a seagull trots around and then it's over.

I mean, the most likely scenario is that this story is simply beyond my grasp.

Possible Uses: If a teacher were trying to have a model text of making the most of a small moment, this may be a useful study. Or if they really liked stories about anonymous possibly sea-faring blond children.
Would I use it: um, no.
What Grade: If I had to, grade 10? Or very early on in a personal response unit on writing narratives in 30? But does anyone do that? Does anyone have time? But I'd never do this in a -2 class, ever.

Wait, never mind: Ok, on second thought, I actually am going to photocopy this story and give it to a student of mine tomorrow. Not for the glory of the writing or the insights this particular story provides, but because it may prove useful to her to see direct English translations across the page from French. So yeah, forget everything I say, ever.

Friday, February 2, 2018

the field of short stories is moribund

Back to the blog!

I know, I know, blogging is so 2012. All the same, I'm back for the time being, even if no one out there is reading.

Here's the plan: I'm going to try to read a short story a day for however long it takes me to get bored or distracted. Just kidding, I'm already both of those things: I've got two small children and I get about two small hours of sleep night.

I think it would be really nice for new titles to start circulating "out there", but whenever a fellow teacher asks me for short story recommendations, I've got nothing. At least, nothing that I'm super excited about. And that's a real shame, because the truth is that the field of short stories is alive and well, just not in the classroom, or really, not in my classroom. (Another clue is that the most popular post on this blog is the one I wrote on the The Glass Roses, and a lot of the visitors are from students who are looking for answers to their homework. To which I say: see you in class, Michael).

So anyway, I'll read some short stories and post about them here and the rest will be page clicks, which is 2018 for history. If I feel particularly inspired or generous, I may write about how I'd teach it or something along those lines. Or you know, maybe I'll forget all about it and try to resurrect this blog in another 3 years.

And that, my friends, is how you create suspense.

The books I'm going to work through. Optimism!

Monday, April 20, 2015

A post about Macbeth that I think I wrote, but forgot about for a few years

Poor little abandoned blog. Let's just pretend the extended hiatus never happened, shall we?

Ahem. (I had a baby and went on mat leave and changed schools again and took up weaving).

So, I think that English teachers should write the essays they assign. I've felt that way for a while, and this year, being back from maternity leave, I definitely have failed at this ideological resolution, but with the perspective motherhood brings comes the realization that failure is just life.

Discuss. Just kidding, that's what I'll do.

Anyway, I want to start posting things on this blog again, mostly to preserve in digital stone the experiments and ideas of my year back in the saddle. I found this post, which is an old essay that I think I wrote with the intention of publishing but never got around to it. It certainly reads like my attempt at impersonating Camille Paglia's poetic analysis, so there. So I'll post this here as a challenge of sorts to other practicing English teachers: those essays that merit the highest grades- could you write them? Though I admit the essay below is a little on the wordy side (read: someone loves her thesaurus), I think I could write a hundred-percent essay every time. Reading comprehension, well, that's different.

p.s. Did I plagiarize this? If anyone else wrote this, please let me know and I'll take it down or credit you. But I think I wrote it. (Three years ago- before I had a baby and so clearly had too much time on my hands.)

Macbeth's relationship with the state
For King and Country! The battle cry is brief and direct, and so is the meaning: in the hearts and minds of the British people that uttered them, King and Country are firmly and justly tied together. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the word King is amended to Tyrant and the image of country becomes that of a bleeding Christ. Instead of nurturing, right and holy, Macbeth's is unnatural, paradoxical and without sacrament. Macbeth's relationship with the land of Scotland is such that he hurts it, and leaves it changed, both ideologically and geographically. Just as Macbeth turned his back on God when he plunged his dagger into Duncan, so too did he turn his back on Scotland. 
The opening paradox of the play, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (Act 1, scene 1, line 12) acquaints the attentive audience with the fundamental paradigm shift that is the basis of the play. In this play, their chanting tells us, what was right is now wrong, what was good is now bad, and what is clear is now murky. This paradox infects everything: Macbeth's integrity, the role of England and the meaning of patriotism, even the most basic action and word may become perverted, or backwards. The presence of pathetic fallacy beginning in Act 2 take this paradigmatic change and brings it into the physical diagesis of the play. Jacobean England was a time when social orders and expectations were clear and immovable, so it is only natural that when Macbeth instigates the perversion of that order by committing the ultimate sacrilege the ground literally shifts beneath their feet: "the earth/ Was feverous and did shake." (Act 2, scene 3, line 65). Unfortunately for Scotland, Macbeth's choices inflict even worse upon the land, and we hear that the Old Man in Act 2 senses right away that whatever is going on with the land is dreadful, strange and unnatural. By Act 4, the damage has escalated to the point where Malcolm shares, "I think our country sinks beneath the yoke;/ It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash/ Is added to her wounds" (Act 4, scene 3, lines 39-41). Scotland is presented to the audience like a bleeding Messiah in a prolonged crucifixion scene, reminiscient of the other "Golgotha" (Act 1, scene 2, line 44) that Macbeth evoked back when he deserved the name "brave Macbeth" (Act 1, scene 2, line 18). The eclipse is another feature that ties the murder of Duncan to the crucifixion of Jesus, and we wonder," Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame,/ That darkness does the face of earth entomb,/ When living light should kiss it?" (Act 2, scene 4, line 9-11). 
Does the blame for Duncan's murder lie solely with Macbeth, the perpetrator of the act, or is his sin like Adam's, and all of humanity (in this case, Scotland) is left to suffer for his choice? It is certainly a frightening prospect that the lack of light in the kingdom may signal the complete control of the powers of darkness, but at this point in the play, the Macbeth's "are yet but young in deed." (Act 3, scene 4, line 144). This religious allusion likening Scotland's suffering to Christ's reinforces this possibility that though Macbeth has turned his back on God, God has not abandoned Scotland. We are not dealing with the vengeful and terse Old Testament God who abruptly threw the sinners out of the garden. Instead, "the heavens, as troubled with man's act,/ Threaten his bloody stage" (Act 2, scene 4, line 6-7), and the threat in this land is not an attack on the people of Scotland. Rather, since Scotland's new king has turned a deaf ear to God, these unnatural movements and sounds that plague the land is perhaps the only way God's will can still be heard. The reign that Macbeth brings to Scotland is so terrible and so damaging that he makes it ideologically impossible to be a patriotic Scot. By the end of Act 3, to be a true Scotsman is to be a traitor to the king, as Lennox voices aloud "that a swift blessing/ May soon return to this our suffering country/ Under a hand accursed! " (Act 3, scene 6, lines 4-10). That Lennox refers to whatever may relieve the country of Macbeth's hand as a "blessing" reveals his understanding (explicit or inuitive) of the taint that the witches have left on Macbeth's rule, since the notion of King and God should be revered as one and the same. The most lasting and physically impressive change that Macbeth's regime brings about in Scotland is the movement of Birnam wood to the foot of Scone. When Macbeth boastfully asks "Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earth-bound root? " (Act 4, scene 1, lines 96-97), he is in his rights to ask, for even the King has no physical command over the trees and rocks that make up his Kingdom. 
Malcolm, in pursuit of the throne and revenge for his father's death, both of which are rightfully his, is desperate enough to save his country that he commands the English army to hack it to peices: "Let every soldier hew him down a bough" (Act 5, scene 4, line 6). This act, at once cunning and damaging, is another paradoxial example of hurting the country to save it, a paradox made possible only though Macbeth's unnatural reign. Which leads us to what it is that is so unnatural about Macbeth's reign. Nevermind the obvious fact that he was never born to be king, that the "borrowed robes", "fruitless crown and...barren sceptre" were stolen in a violent and bloody act of treason. That Macbeth acted on his ambition and attempted to rise in his station is almost admirable, and the desire for advancement is understandable, if not universal. It's that Macbeth made no attempt to forge the relationship with the country that a king should have, as decreed by God. 
Macbeth's time on the throne had nothing to do with Scotland, or its people. During his tortuous reign, Macbeth was fully consumed with one thing: himself. His schemes, his whispered conversations with his wife, focused all on "the golden round", the "throne" and being "safely thus". He abandoned the country when he abandoned his morality, and the country suffers in the same physical way that he did: no sleep becomes no silence, no prayers become no sun. Macbeth's relationship with the land isn't similar to his relationship with God, it is his with relationship with God: severed and abandoned.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The world is a better place for him having been in it

Maybe this is just selfish catharsis, but a student of mine died this morning and I'm writing about it. The feelings will out, I just discovered, dissolving into tears while typing his name in farewell.

Today, I stared at the face of my 3 month old niece while the death of a beautiful 19 year old rattled around in my mind. The sun was shining. He was gone. Spring is here. He is gone. He was ill, and now he is gone.

I can't think of any other reason besides love that leaves me sitting here with tears dripping down my chin. We call students "our kids"- we call them "ours". I think I'm realizing that the term has or had nothing to do with ownership, and everything to do with love, or pride- some kind of attachment or connection. And it works both ways. We are theirs as much as they are ours. When one is lost, so are we.

 I hadn't felt it in sadness before, how all the students would always matter to me, long after they walk out of the classroom for the last time. Always, and not in a small way.

Students are supposed to move on. Why else do we teach them: preparation for the future, right? You'll thank me later. You'll need this later. One day you'll think back to this, and... "Future, future, future."

Teachers remain behind, in space and in time. Locked away in our classrooms, sure, but also in the memories of the students we teach. For many we'll always be wearing that sweater, those glasses, or the haircut that they remember on us. Telling that same joke. I know all about that- it's something I accepted when I became a teacher: the knowledge that for a while I would matter to these people, and after a while, I wouldn't. I'd be a memory, and then only sometimes. That, I'm ready for. I'm ready to be left behind. Being left behind is easy.

Being forced to move on is not. It's that hopeless plea of "don't leave me here". Here becomes anywhere you aren't. I'm still here, and you aren't. I'm going to get older, and you aren't. I'm going to laugh again, one day.

I have a photo of this boy up on the wall behind my desk, a gift, and it will always remain there. That white jacket. The glasses, the hair. That smile.