October Reading & Teaching

atkinson-shrinesOctober was a terrible reading month for me. I didn’t even start many books, much less finish them. A last minute push (and, I’ll admit, a bit of fed-up skimming) got me to the end of Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety, which I had acquired precisely because I figured that, whatever gripes I have had in the past with her logic or narrative trickery, I could trust Atkinson to tell a story that would carry me along out of my slump. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen: Shrines just never clicked for me. Its overly elaborate plot is delivered piecemeal, with lots of chronological jumping around; although there are a lot of well-conceived characters, none of them came to life for me, at least not enough to provide any momentum; and the ending is beyond bad — the last several pages read as if Atkinson got tired of the whole project and just transcribed everything that was left in her notebooks. YMMV, of course: the novel has gotten a lot of glowing reviews, and many readers on Twitter replied to my grumpy report about it saying they’d enjoyed it just fine. flynn-berry

The only other (new) novel I finished in October was Flynn Berry’s Northern Spy. It’s a thriller, well paced and plotted and with a bit of intricate moral dancing around questions about how far it is right to go, for your family, for a cause, or for your conscience. I’m not rushing out to buy Berry’s other novels, but if I saw one at the library I’d definitely pick it up.

I’ve been reading steadily for my classes, of course. In Women and Detective Fiction we’ve finished Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place and now also P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; tomorrow we have our first discussion of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi.  Rereading Grafton today I appreciated the light-heartedness of it. I mean, obviously as it’s a murder mystery there’s a grim aspect to it, and at times it is very serious indeed, but Grafton has a sense of humor about the genre and is clearly having fun up-ending its tropes. My experience in previous years is that students find her revisions more dated than they do Sara Paretsky’s; there’s usually a certain impatience with Kinsey’s “I’m not a girly-girl” shtick. I admit, I relate to it, perhaps because my own early introduction to feminism was by way of Free to be You and Me and not being allowed to have Barbie dolls. I do think V. I. Warshawski is a more interesting character and Paretsky overall is more thoughtful about the politics of her novels. I also got pretty tired of Grafton’s series well before the end of the alphabet (she only got as far as Y). But A is for Alibi is brisk and smart and has plenty of unexpected twists, which I hope will help keep the students’ attention.

oupIn 19th-Century Fiction we have been working on Middlemarch for a couple of weeks. I wish I could say it is going well. I don’t think it’s going badly exactly, but honestly this term I don’t really know. Attendance is just appalling: most days, maybe 60% of the class shows up, which is unprecedented, in my fairly long experience. I don’t know what to make of this. I know it’s not personal, or at least I’m trying not to take it personally, but that doesn’t make it any less disheartening. The students who are present are pretty quiet; I think – I hope – they are engaged, but much of the time it’s hard to tell, and I worry that at this point I am mostly performing enthusiasm, not eliciting it. The ones who do speak up have good things to say, but I’m not used to having to work so hard to get anything out of the class, to get any energy back from them. I’m going to keep trying! The ones who are showing up deserve no less, and I remain hopeful that between us we can and will make the most of this opportunity to read this great novel together.

I was really looking forward to these classes on Middlemarch because I thought, or hoped, they would shore up my faltering faith in all the ways I have spent my “one wild and precious life.” Whatever else was going wrong in my life before all of this, I could count on my classroom hours to make me feel better, by taking me out of my own head for a while and also because of the joy of engaging with students about books in ways I really do value and cherish and believe in. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it isn’t so simple this term. The image I keep returning to lately is that it’s like I’m crossing a suspension bridge. It’s a bit unsteady underfoot, but as long as I look straight ahead it’s not too bad moving forward, just doing the next thing that’s in front of me, and the next, and the next. It’s when I look down and realize all over again what’s below it, or it’s shaken by a gust of wind (a memory, a place, a picture, or just a feeling) that the vertiginous sensations return —  “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” — and I am overcome, unbalanced, beside myself, in spite of myself.

capilano suspension bridge

2 thoughts on “October Reading & Teaching

  1. Jeanne November 1, 2022 / 8:00 pm

    I’ve not been feeling good about spending so much of my precious life on ungrateful students, but reading your post makes me realize that I need to take my own advice (given to three decade’s worth of new writing tutors) about not judging what you’ve done as a teacher by the immediate results. Some results take years and you never hear about them. That’s the job.

  2. Patricia Stefanowicz November 12, 2022 / 11:07 am

    I find your comments perceptive, but perhaps outside of my normal fiction/novels, which tend to be classics, or perhaps, early modern classics, in English or French. I know, as a Phi Beta Kappa person, I am supposed to read modern fiction, but mostly I do not. I reckon my last was something from Salman Rushdie?

    Detective fiction, if not too grizzly, is fine, but Los Angeles setting, does not work…for me.

    Catcher in the Rye is about as modern as I can cope with. Prefer Faulkner and Hemingway…or older, pre-20th century. Old English is also acceptable.

    Is that simply an English idiosyncrasy? Possibly? Probably?

    Enjoying your ideas, always,

    Patricia ________________________________

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