OroonokoI first heard about Oroonoko by Aphra Behn from my wife.  She’s a British Literature guru and recommended this work to me when I asked for a piece that was from the Restoration period and written by a woman.  I’ve picked it up a few times over the summer, but I just didn’t think I’d like it.  I was wrong.

The opening was slow, but then it all hits the fan.  Oroonoko is a prince in what is today Ghana and he falls in love with Imoinda.  They get married but he hasn’t told his grandfather, the king that they are married.  The King is a spiteful man and he wants Imoinda for himself so he calls her to his harem and basically takes Imoinda for himself.  Then there’s whole plot where Oroonoko’s doing what he can to just see Imoinda.  Finally, the King realizes what’s going on and sends Oroonoko to the battle field.  On his last night in the palace, Oroonoko sneaks into the harem and “ravishes” Imoinda (Behn’s words not mine).  And while this ravishing is going on, his buddy Aboan is getting “caresses in bed” from another woman of the harem.

While the language isn’t graphic, it’s shocking to me that Behn is not hiding what’s going in this harem.  And maybe I’ve been too influenced by the Victorians but I didn’t think the 1600’s was a time where they talked so openly about sex.  Maybe it’s also because Shakespeare uses innuendos rather than direct statements that lead to my being comically shocked by the “ravishing” and “caressing” that happens in this scene.

The story then gets to the meat of what Behn is writing, Imoinda is sold as a slave by the King and later Oroonoko is kidnapped and sold into slavery.  They both end up in Suriname (how convenient) and this is where Behn describes the evils of slavery and the clash of what the Europeans consider “civilised” and what civilized actually means.

Apparently Behn had actually lived and traveled in Suriname so she’s using this experience to speak about racial injustice and the evils of slavery.  Just like the more popular American slave narratives by Solomon Northup, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass, slavery corrodes not only the slave but the slave master.

The fact that Behn is writing this in the mid to late 1600’s is shocking!  It makes me even more disgusted that slavery continued even after this when clearly this work was being published and passed around.  It’s not like people didn’t know about the evils of slavery.  And this work just shows that even back then people where questioning the role of slavery in society.

What’s further interesting about this work is that she makes a brief mention of the indentured servants who were housed with the slaves.  I was interested in this fact because this same mixing of slaves and indentured servants occurred in the U.S.  Originally, slaves weren’t determined by race, but by whether they had been concurred in war in Africa and sold into slavery by their conquerors or whether they indentured themselves to a plantation owner as a means of coming to the New World.  It wasn’t until later that Black meant slave and White meant free.

I’m saddened that even back in the 1600’s people were speaking out about the evils of slavery but no one did anything.  I just hope that as we continue on in this journey called life that we will seriously consider what people are speaking about against because I’d hate for someone to read something from 2014 and think, they were still doing that way back then?!?  History should be a lesson to correct our errors, not reminding us of how much work we still have to do.  I’m grateful for reading this work and being inspired to share it with my students.  Hopefully even some of my indignation will be contagious.

Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

As part of my quest to read 52 books, I’ve been stalking my library’s “New Books” section and adding titles that catch my attention to my ever-expanding to-read list.  This book was in the non-fiction section, one that I had tended to ignore until lately, and the title caught my attention.  I at first thought it was going to be a memoir or a personal account of books that had affected her.  I was both right and wrong.

Why I ReadWendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books is both a memoir and a textbook.  I was disappointed it wasn’t more a memoir, yet there was just enough of Lesser’s relationship to the books that have shaped her life that I wasn’t immediately turned away.  But as far as enjoying this book for pleasure, the lectures on the different literary elements that shape literature and affect readers made me feel like I was at work.

I will give Lesser credit for dancing this line.  She kept me invested in the book through her well thought out organization and her descriptions of the passages and authors that have made her life better.  I credit her with being a great writer.  I just think the book is more to be used in a classroom than for pleasure reading.  Or maybe not quite a classroom but maybe in a book club.  All in all it wasn’t bad and as an English teacher it did remind me of what I enjoy about books and how the different books I’ve read have shaped my life.

In each section of the book, Lesser includes specific novels and authors to support her point.  From these selections I have some new titles to go find in my library.  And interestingly enough she included a list of one hundred books that have impacted her.  As she is an academic, I was happy to note that many of the works I had at least heard of if not read.  But before my ego could get too big, I realized that fifty percent of the titles and authors I had never heard of.

Like Lesser, I do read for pleasure.  And I’m glad to share in her enjoyment of certain authors and titles.  The reading community is worldwide, yet I feel it’s not so large.  We all enjoy a good book, we hate the “choose your top five book” question, and ultimately, we’d all like to spend our days reading in our favorite places.

Eight World Cups

World CupsAfter reading several books related to work, it was nice to get back to something more recreational.  As a football fan (and by football I mean international football aka soccer), I always get into a slump after the World Cup, the Euro’s, or any other major international tournament.  But after browsing my libraries “New Books” section the title, Eight World Cups by George Vecsey caught my eye and gave me a little emotional boost.

Eight World Cups is the memoirs of a sportswriter who was assigned to the 1982 World Cup because no one else really wanted to from his publisher.  And after experiencing the excitement of the World Cup and seeing what the Brazilians call the jogo bonito (beautiful game) he became hooked and continued covering the next seven World Cups the four years in between each month-long tournament.  Since the book was written before the 2014 tournament in Rio de Janeiro, I don’t know if he covered that one or not.  But he writes up through the U.S.’s successful attempt to make it to our seventh World Cup in 2013.

I can relate to his experiences a lot and I appreciate that he is sharing with a new generation of Americans who have grown up in a more diversified sports world.  By that I mean a world in which American don’t think soccer isn’t a bad word and is only for people who can’t play “real” sports.  Vecsey grew up playing soccer for his elementary school back when most kids weren’t good at soccer unless your parents were immigrants.  There wasn’t an established professional soccer league where players could hone their skills in order to play competitively on the international level.  So with his limited background and fledgling interest he volunteered for his first World Cup.

I came of age with soccer along with the majority of the current twenty/thirty somethings.  We were the ones who watched the 2006 Germany World Cup because ESPN finally decided it was an event worth showing.  And since then I’ve been hooked!  Vecsey also describes his coming-of-age in soccer.  From the days where the other team’s fans outnumbered ours to the days where we finally have record-breaking game attendances at our MLS games.

Vecsey does a good job at mixing the events of the World Cup as well as his own self-awareness of how soccer and soccer culture affects him.  For those of you who are doubtful, I would encourage you to give this book, and soccer, a chance and see how the jogo bonito can change your life.

Pudd’nhead Wilson

WilsonPudd’nhead Wilson was my first introduction to Mark Twain, but as a freshman in High School I’m sad to say his brilliance was lost on me.  I didn’t read any more Twain until I started Cannonball Read this year.  I decided to read Huckleberry Finn.  I really did like the book, but I hated the ending and I didn’t like how long it took to teach.  So this is what led me to consider another work by Twain that didn’t feature Tom Sawyer.  Don’t even get me started on him.  I feel like it’s important for people to read Twain not only for his wit and satire, but because of the way he can tell a story and tackle issues such as slavery and society’s expectations for race.

It took me awhile to get into Pudd’nhead Wilson mostly because it takes Twain awhile to land on which character is going to be the focus of the story.  First it’s Roxy, then it’s Tom, then it’s the twins, and finally, Wilson.  Then I had to work to figure out what the point of the novel is because it’s one of Twain’s darkest and most satirical.  I like to get to know a character or characters and invest in their development.  So Ronaldowhen it takes awhile to get to know a character it’s hard for me to get invested in the book.

When we finally settle on Tom it becomes easier to get into the plot.  But then you realize Tom is a douche. He’s the guy you just want to punch in the face and you don’t know why (which is exactly how I feel about the dude to the right).  Ok, by the time you get into the book there’s a ton of reasons why you want to punch him in the face, but yet everyone seems to just accept him as he is.  Maybe people were just more patient and accepting than I am.

And then there’s Wilson.  Dear, dear Wilson.  He’s patient in the face of ignorance, accepting in the face of douche baggery, and he’s persistent in the face of hopelessness.  He’s sort of the late-blooming hero.  Honey_badgerAnd the thing is, looking back on the story, you know he’s going to win in the end, yet you aren’t sure how the plots going to get there.  I think he’s a good role model because he does him like a honeybadger.  He doesn’t change who he is because the townspeople don’t understand him.  He persists in his hobby of fingerprinting before it became a legitimate form of identification and criminology.  And he is genuinely a nice guy.  A little naive, but nice all the same.

Ultimately what I came away from the novel is how absurd society’s expectations are for race.  While we don’t legally treat people different based on race (unless you live in Ferguson, Mo.), we do “expect” individuals of particular races to behave in different ways.  That’s where racial profiling occurs or when people are shocked that someone of Hispanic or African-American descent is a valedictorian.  Or if you’re a European American who is fluent in Spanish but is continually questioned whether he can legitimately speak Spanish because his skin is so light; it’s just insulting.  I think it’s all the more potent that Twain wrote this satire on race and social expectation in 1894 so long after the Civil War yet clearly people were still treating individuals as if they were back in the antebellum South.  And sadly we haven’t moved very far from this paradigm.  We have room to grow but we have to embrace the desire for growth.  I hope that someday in the future, readers will reflect on how far in the past racism and racial profiling are and we can all just get along and accept each other for who we are.

Reading in the Wild

With only a week to go until school starts, I’ve been frantically trying to prepare myself for the changes I want to make in my classroom.  As I mentioned in my post about The Book Whisperer, I want to incorporate more reading in my classroom and make the assignments and assessments more authentic.  Instead of teaching books to students, I want to teach the students through books.  Thankfully, Donalyn Miller followed up her work in The Book Whisperer with a book that breaks down the facets of what she does in her classroom and gives in-depth descriptions for her process, procedures, and activities in her classroom.  She’s made the book very helpful to teachers like me, who were left with questions like, how does this work? How do I track the students?  What specific goals/behaviors do you have?

In her follow-up book, Reading in the Wild, she begins by outlining what behaviors readers exhibit outside of a school setting that help them succeed in reading.  Then she explains what actions she takes in her classroom that helps scaffold and teach students to become independent in that behavior.  This organization method has made it easier for teachers who, like me, want to replicate her method in our classrooms.

Part of me wanted more from the book.  I wanted it to be very detailed and specific and that’s one complaint I had against the book, at first.  But then after I finished it, I realized that what she’s done is given me her goals and enough details to get an idea of how she applied her goals in her classroomindex so that I wouldn’t be copying her.  Instead, I am forced to reflect on my own goals and craft procedures and processes that reflect my own classroom context.  This was a smart move on her behalf.  Instead of making a one-size-fits-all model, she’s given us an outline and challenged us to make it applicable to our students and community.

I appreciate the details she does give and the fact that several teachers in my building are on board with this method and are willing to work with me to try it.  I hope that by the end of the year, students in my class will not only be wild about reading, but can enjoy and be successful readers outside of my classroom.

Ice Bound

Ice BoundIce Bound by Dr. Jerri Nielsen, recounts the adventures of an ER doctor who decides to winterover at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole research center in Antarctica.  The climax of the adventure occurs when Nielsen discovers a mass in her right breast.  From there it’s incredible how people outside of Antarctica work to get her the medicine she needs and arrange a way to get her out before it’s too late.  It’s an autobiography, and while I was engrossed in the story the writing style was somewhat lacking.

The best part about the story was her adventures in Antarctica.  I’ve always been fascinated with the Arctic and Antarctic adventurers and I knew there were research stations on the Antarctic continent, but I’ve never really known much about the people who are there and what they actually do.  Nielsen’s account gave an inside glimpse into what it would be like to live at the South Pole during the 24-hour darkness of the austral winter.

One of the points that stands out is how close everyone becomes.  You can imagine living under a small dome for six months with 41 people in sheer darkness you’d either all hate each other or become a close-knit tribe.  Luckily, it’s the latter in Nielsen’s case.  What I found difficult to relate to, is that she doesn’t develop her sense of acclamation to the tribe.  She shows up in the austral summer and seems to immediately think of her self as a part of the tribe.  I don’t know whether this is because she left out how she wove herself into the group of those wintering over, or whether she was in such a need of friendship that she just glommed onto the group.

Reading her autobiography has ignited my interest in reading some of the biographies of the Antarctic explorers such as Amundsen and Scott.  Maybe because Antarctica is one of the last frontiers, and will never be concurred, but I think it’s the fact that anyone who goes to Antarctica has to come face to face with their good and bad sides as well as constantly be faced with their mortality.  Antarctica is like a crucible and those who chose to put themselves in that situation seem to be more confident and aware of what life really is all about.