Today I finished reading a book I remembered seeing a lot of hype for when it first came out in 2005: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Back then a lot of the reviews compared it to The DaVinci Code, but now that the hype has died down over both books, I can safely say that Kostova’s book runs circles– gloomy Bulgarian circles, but circles nonetheless–around Brown’s potboiler.
The most famous of all vampire novels is, of course, Dracula by Bram Stoker, but the vampire legend is as long-lived as the creatures themselves; witness the Buffy and Angel universes, the new HBO show that I can’t remember the name of, and all the many Dracula movies there have been over the decades of film history. The Historian references Stoker’s masterpiece liberally without ever seeming derivative or imitative, alluding to the epistolary style, the romantic relationships, and the portrayal of the master vampire himself. The tone and style of the novel is certainly more classic than contemporary, but again, Kostova avoids seeming dated or too old-fashioned, partly through a wealth of fascinating historical detail and partially through a sophisticated and sure-handed use of shifting perspectives and finely drawn characters. As the title indicates, The Historian is also a historical novel about the power and importance of history and stories.
The book is 900 pages (!!) and is not a quick or easy read, but nor is it a sluggish one, and Kostova leads us through a labyrinth without ever making us feel bogged down or directionless. If you like Victorian novels as much as you like contemporary ones, or are simply looking for a thoughtful, rich reading experience, I’d recommend The Historian.
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In the midst of this election season, which has been alternately horrifying and depressing, I read Run, a great new novel by Ann Patchett, one of my favorite contemporary novelists. The “run” of the title refers both the physical activity and the electoral one, and throughout the book characters repeat legendary political speeches to each other by the likes of Eugene Debs and FDR, in a device that never feels gimmicky, happily enough.
I’ve read all of Patchett’s novels except her first (which I’m determined to pick up soon), finding her through Bel Canto and falling in lovethen, and being even more in love after reading Truth and Beauty, her memoir of her friendship with writer and poet Lucy Grealy. Run is another great book, not quite as great as Bel Canto but still moving forward as a writer, and still engaged in her usual themes of friendship and family, strangers and the familiar. The characters were well and finely drawn, but I think the book’s great strength is how it treats subjects (interracial families, death of a parent, adoption) that could easily become maudlin or cliched without becoming either. None of these characters are cardboard, none are moral messengers with no flesh on their bones, and none of these relationships feel forced or artificial. Run is not a “message” or “problem” novel, but it does convey great messages, and think carefully about great problems.
I’ve been thinking a lot about war lately, because our juniors read The Things They Carried as summer reading, so we’ve been going over it to begin the year. I really enjoy teaching this book, and the students are usually engaged as well, and we spend hours talking about these young men marching off to a conflict they don’t understand, with roots that stretch back centuries, and how it changes and contorts them in ways they could never have expected.
Today I gave them some war poetry and told them to respond to it over the weekend, and I thought some of it would be appropriate to post today.
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work–
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
I spent a fair amount of time today writing “reflective and guided narrative” statements as part of my first evaluation at my day teaching job. While some of the questions were a bit difficult for me to think about, I think it was very helpful for me to think about patterns in both my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. There are many memoirs about “teacher-saviors,” the kind that get made into movies and feature the lone warrior-teacher who rescues entire classrooms full of students, but there’s not quite as much writing done about the daily work of teaching. I’m continually surprised at just how much work it takes, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to be a good teacher.
In these busy times, I haven’t been doing very much reading for pleasure, although I did reread Bridget Jones’ Diary for some comic relief. I hadn’t read the book in a long time, but had seen the movie several times since and forgotten just how blackly funny and witty the book really is. I’ve been reading a lot of lesson plans and brushing up on the basics, while I also work on setting up my gradebook program for the fall term. I also read a few of the new books I’ll be teaching this semester in my college course: The Wisdom of Crowds and Millennial Makeover, which is about politics and new media. I’m really glad I chose both and feel very satisfied with how I’ve set my syllabus up thus far.
The beginning of a new year or semester always involves so much set-up and organization, and I keep trying to remind myself that I won’t be spending this much time on prep and development issues once the year starts. Still, there is also part of me that really enjoys designing new lessons, exploring new texts, and of course– meeting new students!