Summer Reading

For my 2022 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I set my goal at thirty books. As of May, this teacher had fallen behind her own self-imposed schedule. So, as my grading wound down for the year and summer approached, I committed to flipping extra pages and finishing the unread books on my shelves. Funny how some of these books have faded already to a distant memory. Here are some snippets:

Considered a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and regarded as influential in both African American literature and women’s literature, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in rural Florida in the early part of the 20th century. After two marriages, Janie finally finds love, her voice, and ultimately herself. A co-worker recommendation. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read this one before now. I gave it 5 of 5 stars on Goodreads and plan to use it in the classroom next year.

“She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

The winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is the story of a lesser-known novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging and loneliness, creativity and grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, and a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy. This was a re-read for me, the last book of the school year for my students, and 5 stars on Goodreads.

“I’ve got a theory. Now hear me out. It’s that our lives are half comedy and half tragedy. And for some people, it just works out that the first entire half of their lives is tragedy and then the second half is comedy.”

Andrew Sean Greer, Less

The winner for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys follows the life of Elwood Curtis, unjustly arrested through a cruel twist of fate and sentenced to a Florida reform school in the 1960’s. Based on the Dozier School for Boys with a 111-year history of cruelty, abuse, and murder, the novel sheds light on the current reality of the United States. I listened to this one on Audible during my commute and wished that I had read it with my eyes. Still, I gave in 5 stars.

“Even in death the boys were trouble.”

Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, shortly before Wilde’s imprisonment for indecency. With mistaken and hidden identities, the flip-flopping of truth and lies, Wilde’s most-beloved play satirizes the superficiality of Victorian England and the snobbery of the aristocracy. Some of the absurd and witty banter might have gone over my head, so I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. However, Wilde made me think about earnestness and duality, so I’ll give this one another chance.

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

The favorite novel of one of my fellow English teachers, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven did not disappoint. Published in 2014, this post-apocalyptic tale takes place before and after the “Georgia Flu” pandemic, which kills most of the population, and follows a troupe of nomadic Shakespearean actors across the Great Lakes region. The weaving of time and plot lines pushed Station Eleven up into the 5 range for me.

“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Published in Swedish during 2012 and in English the following year, Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove depicts the story of a grumpy, hopeless 59-year-old man, who grieves the love of his life. Ove annoyed me at times but reminded me that no feeling is final, and I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I gave it 4 stars.

“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.”

Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ov

I started Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose back in January. Not necessarily a fun read, but not finishing was not an option. I most appreciated Part 3 on the lyricism, melody, and rhythm of writing and rated this book 3 stars on Goodreads.

A dependence on is and its family screams “rough draft.”

Constance Hale
Revised and updated edition. Originally subtitled How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Now How to Craft Wicked Good Prose. Nice move, Constance!

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave.

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail tells the story of losing her mother, divorcing her husband, and shooting up heroin for a while before setting off on an 1100-mile, solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, ultimately, a journey of self-forgiveness, strength, and redemption. 4 stars.

What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to f* every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Another co-worker favorite and a best-known of Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class woman in post first world war England, with a parallel story of a war veteran, Septimus Smith. I have no doubt I missed some nuance in meaning; however, Woolf’s exquisite stream-of-consciousness prose warrants a 5 and a re-read one day.

It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Inspired by the story of a Belgian woman who assisted downed Allied pilots to escape Nazi territory, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale portrays the storylines of two French sisters during World War II. A good story of love and survival, less-authentic than other works of historical fiction, 4 stars.

But love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.

Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

Anne Lamott wished her father had written down everything he had learned while alive, so just before her sixty-first birthday, she made a list of her own for her grandson and niece. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is classic Anne Lamott, somewhat repetitive if you’ve read much of her, but quotable nevertheless. And I’m a fan of hope. 3 stars.

John Lennon said, ‘Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end,’ and as this has always been true before, we can hope it will be again.

Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope

Dawn of the Silver Moon (Shawnee Friends Mission #1) by Margaret Mendenhall (my former Sunday school teacher and wedding pianist) depicts the life of a Quaker girl living in Kansas territory in the 1840s. Shawnee Indians abduct Lucy in an act of vengeance toward her father, and she builds a bridge between cultures through her faith. There were times when I told myself, “That’s impossible,” but by the end, I felt that nothing is impossible with God.  4 stars.

I think…I just heard God speak to me…He said, ‘Be not afraid. It is not as it seems. All things will work together for good to those who are called according to my purpose.’

Margaret Mendenhall, Dawn of the Silver Moon

For years I’ve followed the story of Maggie Doyne, a girl from New Jersey who took a gap year after high school. During her travels, the trajectory of her life dramatically alters when she has a surprise encounter with a Nepali girl breaking rocks in a quarry. At age nineteen, Maggie invests her life savings of five thousand dollars to buy a piece of land and open a children’s home and school in Nepal. Maggie Doyne’s memoir Between the Mountain and the Sky: A Mother’s Story of Love, Loss, Healing, and Hope is a coming-of-age story that shows how ordinary people have the power to change the world. An inspirational 5 stars.

No matter where I go, I always seem to end up in places like this one—alleyways, outskirts, trash heaps—the back pockets of a place where less desirable things and people get stuffed away. I’ve been traveling all over he South Pacific and living in India on my gap year, but still, a mix of sadness, fear, and shame hits me under my tongue every time I see these hidden, tucked-away places. Little kids go to work in some places. They’re porters, laborers on construction sites, domestics, agricultural workers. Watching them work is jarring—watching them work with a smile, even more so. The girl pulls herself up, shakes the pebble from her skirt, and sizes up a new hunk of shale.

Maggie Doyne, Between the Mountain and the Sky

I’m always thinking about my next book and still have some waiting on my shelf. Dare I ask what you’ve been reading?

Tetrameter?

27. “Which of the following lines is written in tetrameter?”

I shook my head. I was reading a test written by a high-stakes test-making conglomerate when I stumbled upon this question. This is the type of test kids taking advanced English classes in the US must pass to receive college credit while in high school. The type of test I would give as a semester exam—as a practice test for the real deal in May. “That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard,” I said to myself.

I suppose, if students knew that any poetry term ending in “meter” had to do with rhythms and syllables, they might have a fighting chance at the answer. If they counted the syllables of all five answer choices and realized that four of the choices had ten syllables and one choice had eight syllables, they might realize that one of these things is not like the other. As an English teacher of twenty plus years, I had never used the word tetrameter in my classroom. Pentameter. Yes. Iambic pentameter.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony looks upon Caesar’s fresh corpse and says,

“Oh, par | don me, | thou bleed | ing piece | of earth…”

We could discuss the apostrophe, the personification, the metaphor, and the perfect iambic pentameter. We could divide the line into five feet, each two syllables, also called an iamb. An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If I put my hand under my chin and say the words aloud, my chin will drop on the stressed syllable. “Oh” is unstressed. The “par” in pardon is stressed. The rest of the line follows the same pattern. Anything beyond iambic pentameter, I must look up and study.  

And so, in preparation for the semester exam, I gave my students my best iambic pentameter lesson as a quick segue into what the test wanted them to know about tetrameter. We haven’t studied Shakespeare yet. “If penta in Greek means five, what does tetra mean?”

“Four,” they said.

“Good!”  I gestured to the line from Julius Caesar written on my white board, “So, if iambic pentameter is five feet of two syllables, equaling ten syllables total, how many syllables do you think tetrameter would be?”

“Four,” they said.

I slapped my own forehead. “No. Eight,” I said, trying not to sound frustrated over a misunderstood mini-lesson and a stupid test question. “If you see a question on your test asking about tetrameter, count the syllables and look for eight.” I paused to make sure they were listening. “I have no doubt there are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss a few later. On your semester exam, tetrameter means eight syllables.” That was the best I could do aside from saying, “The answer to number 27 is C.”

They nodded their heads up and down, and I tried very hard not to tell my students this question was ridiculous. I might have anyway.

***

Flash forward to exam day. I actively monitored, walking up and down the aisles, when a book on my shelf caught my eye. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I grabbed it. The subtitle—How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose—called my name. The teacher before me had left it behind.

“For the writer or wannabe, Sin and Syntax is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing.” —Jon Katz, author of Geeks

I opened the book and thumbed through the pages about words and sentences and stopped at Part 3—Music. “When you get your grammar down, when you simplify your syntax, you are halfway to mastering the craft of writing,” Hale says. “Appreciate music in prose, and develop your ear for it. Devour novels. Cue up recordings of famous speeches. Fall in love with poetry. Go to the video store and check out all those Shakespeare movies. Read your writing aloud.”

“Nice advice,” I thought and flipped further.

In the last chapter on “Rhythm,” Hale says, “Metric feet can have up to five syllables, but the most common have two or three.” And that’s why a question on tetrameter twists my panties. Tetrameter could be any number of syllables. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

I don’t know Richard Lederer, but I think he’s genius.

“As a prose stylist, you don’t really need to memorize the names of metric feet,” Hale says, “but you do need to appreciate their effect….When we listen carefully to our writing and reshape its rhythms to our liking, prose can become music.” She says the verses of the Bible, especially the King James, “are so easily received, remembered, and recited because of their rhythms.”

Hale cites the iambic pentameter of playwright, David Mamet, the rhythms of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, the repetitions of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the musicality of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr. She writes about parallelism and a Jell-O commercial, rap and Grandmaster Flash.

And Hale’s last chapter reminded me of my last MFA class, Topics and Genres. A study of mentor texts with a focus on opening lines. Dr. Boyleston said, “Your story is only as good as your command of the language.” And he wrote Isak Denison’s first sentence from Out of Africa on the whiteboard:

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 

Our class discussed. I took notes. The first six words of the novel are iambic, and the “had” emphasizes the past tense conflict. The narrator no longer has the farm. The prepositional phrases, “in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” reveal a general location—Africa—and a specific location—the Ngong Hills. The repeating anapestic rhythm connects the music of language and beauty of landscape. In this simple sentence, there are only two polysyllabic words. The rest are monosyllabic, which slow you down and lend a sense of gravity. It’s almost Biblical. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” This lesson on rhythms was one of my favorites of my MFA at HBU.

And still, who cares if I can identify a dactyl or trochee by name? Uh, not me. Tetrameter. Shrameter. The technicality makes no difference. But the musicality? Now that’s another story.