If You Liked…

In our high school literature studies, we often stick to tried and true classics, which is fine. There are very good reasons why these books are classics. But what if you want to read something newer, but somehow related to a classic? What if you want to extend learning for your students and want to choose a similar book? What if your students must read a certain number of books to fulfill state objectives (Georgia’s GPS require students to read 20 books a year) and you want to steer them toward books related to others you have studied?

I provide you with ten recommendations for extension. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments.

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

Read it with Moby Dick by Herman Melville

What it’s about: In a small passage in his chapter, “The Symphony,” Melville’s Captain Ahab tells Starbuck about his young wife. As God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib, so Naslund from Melville’s brief description creates Una, who begins her own narrative no less memorably than Ishmael began his: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Una’s story is every bit as fascinating as that of her husband. She meets and rubs shoulders with such ninethenth century luminaries as Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The book is a lush garden of literary allusion, from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to Homer’s Odyssey.

Why students should read it: Naslund’s Una is one of the literary characters you will wish you could meet in real life. She is vibrant and real. Students will learn a great deal about mid-nineteenth century life and history from reading the book, too. The prose is gorgeous literary fiction.

A Thousand AcresA Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Read it with King Lear by William Shakespeare

What it’s about: Larry Cook, a farmer in Zebulon County, Iowa, decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline, insisting he is saving them an inheritance tax. The daughters do not want him to do this, but Larry possesses a single-mindedness that will not be crossed. When Caroline objects more firmly, she is cut out of the deal. The family gradually implodes under Larry’s seeming madness, a suit to get back his land, and Ginny and Rose’s competition for the affections of neighbor’s son Jess Clark.

Why students should read it: This Pulitzer-prize winning novel closely mimics the plot of King Lear, but gives Lear’s daughters some depth — while Goneril and Regan are “unnatural hags,” Ginny and Rose have good reasons for hating their father, and Caroline is not the unflinchingly honest daughter that Cordelia is. Students will see quite clearly how Shakespeare’s timeless stories and themes still apply to readers today. Students will be fascinated by how Smiley takes a quintessentially British author’s story and makes it profoundly American.

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Read it with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What it’s about: Jefferson is a young black man who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Falsely accused of murder, tried by a jury of his white “peers,” and sentenced to death by electrocution by a dismissive judge, Jefferson believes the defense attorney’s closing argument, which compares him to a “hog.” Grant Wiggins (no relation to Grant of UbD fame!), a teacher at the black school in the Quarter, is employed by Jefferson’s godmother to help Jefferson die like a man.

Why students should read it: While To Kill a Mockingbird works because a child who doesn’t understand why certain things should be reports what she sees, this novel works because a jaded, bruised, and downtrodden teacher who is all too acutely aware of the oppression of racism tells us the story of the journey to self-discovery. It’s a powerful book, and through a study with To Kill a Mockingbird would make for interesting exploration into the justice system as it existed in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as well as questions of inequity in education and living conditions. Both teach profound lessons about acceptance and love.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Read it with The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and/or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

What it’s about: Gerard Freeman is an Australian librarian who lives with his mother — a clingy, obsessive woman afraid above all that Gerard will leave her. His only real friend is a pen-friend, Alice Jessell, an English woman with an injury which confines her to a wheelchair. Though the two have never met, they have been corresponding since they were 13 and eventually fall in love. Intensely curious about his mother’s past after finding short fiction written by her grandmother, Viola, Gerard travels to England to see Miss Jessell and learn more about the darkest secrets of his mother’s past.

Why students should read it: If your students thought Miss Havisham was deliciously creepy and loved the haunted Victorian feel of The Turn of the Screw, they will enjoy Harwood’s love letter to both novels. Viola’s creepy short stories are as delightful as the novel itself and would be good illustrations of the “story within a story” idea that students might encounter in other works, such as Hamlet.

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Read it with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

What it’s about: Baptist minister Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to serve as missionaries right before that country’s independence from Belgium. The story is told through the viewpoint of Orleanna Price, Nathan’s wife, and each of his four daughters: Rachel, Adah, Leah, and Ruth May. Africa has a way of getting under the skin of the Price family women, each in a different way, and the book is a grim illustration of America’s own culpability in the devastation of colonialism on the African continent.

Why students should read it: The novel is rich in gorgeous prose and biblical allusion and shows readers a side of colonialism that is an interesting counterpoint to Conrad’s vision in Heart of Darkness. Kingsolver has a gift for creating vivid, realistic characters and bringing her setting into vivid relief (see also her novel The Bean Trees for an example set in America).

The Dante ClubThe Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Read it with The Inferno by Dante and/or selections from the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the other “Fireside Poets.”

What it’s about: A murderer is stalking Boston. Strange and gruesome crime scenes appear to be coming right from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. The Dante Club, the group of poets engaged in helping Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translate Dante’s work, are the only ones who make the connection — which also makes them the likeliest suspects!

Why students should read it: Students studying Dante’s Inferno will gain an understanding of and appreciation for Dante’s work and the path scholars took to make it accessible for American readers. Pearl’s novel is also an interesting insight into literary Boston following the Civil War.

PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt

Read it with British Victorian poets, such as Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and others.

What it’s about: The relationship between Randolph Henry Ash, a fictional Victorian poet modeled perhaps after Robert Browning, and Christabel LaMotte, is uncovered by literary scholars Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who turn Victorian literary scholarship on its head with their findings.

Why students should read it: I will admit that perhaps you want to recommend this one to your most voracious and enthusiastic readers because it is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding read. Students will be fascinated to learn about the dark, seedy underworld that is literary scholarship when territorial specialists are more concerned with preserving their pet theories than with disseminating the truth about their “charges.” The love story at the center will likely appeal to the resident romantic in high school and college students.

The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Read it with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and/or The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

What it’s about: Margaret Lea, a fan of nineteenth century fiction like Jane Eyre, turns up her nose at the popular books of Vida Winter. Until, that is, her father, a rare book dealer for whom she works, acquires a first edition of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. Margaret tears through the book, dismayed to discover the title is a ruse: the book lacks a thirteenth tale. Miss Winter, impressed by Margaret’s writing, contacts her to write her own biography, tantalizingly promising the secret of the thirteenth tale will be hers if she accepts.

Why students should read it: Setterfield clearly loves gothic fiction of the 1800’s, and I have to admit, I finally read Jane Eyre this past fall because of Setterfield’s devotion to the book as expressed through the pages of her own novel. This novel will hook students with its mystery and gothic atmosphere, while enhancing their appreciation for the gothic fiction of the nineteenth century.

WicketWicked by Gregory Maguire

Read it with The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

What it’s about: Maguire tells the famous story of Dorothy’s nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West, through her own words and in a sympathetic light. This answer to Baum’s classic becomes a political allegory in the deft hands of Maguire, who imagines the Wicked Witch to be Elphaba, shunned and rejected from childhood, and fashions a complicated past complete with Galinda (Glinda — her college roommate and friend!), the Winkies, and the Wizard himself.

Why students should read it: Most high school and college students won’t be studying The Wizard of Oz, I suppose, but they will benefit from looking at the other side of the story and examining point of view in narrative. Students will be hooked because of what they already know of this story, but they will stay intrigued by what they learn when Elphaba shares her side.

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Read it with Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Daisy Miller by Henry James

What it’s about: Azar Nafisi was a literature professor when the Shah of Iran was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini became the leader of the new Islamic republic. She was fired when she refused to wear the veil, but secretly conducted a book club for female students. This book chronicles her stories teaching Western literature both in and out of a university setting. Her focus is on the four books mentioned above and her Middle Eastern students’ responses to and connection with Western literature.

Why students should read it: Not only does this memoir give Western students a different lens through which to interpret literature, but it also gives students a new and deeper appreciation for these four books of the Western canon. The trial of The Great Gatsby was particularly intriguing to me; I shared this section with my American literature Honors students when we studied Gatsby. I also read Lolita after reading this book (thank you Professor Nafisi — it was wonderful).

Do you have other recommendations for books that can be paired with classics?

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Neil Gaiman: Free Book!

English teachers, here’s one to pass on to your students.  In celebration of his blog’s seventh birthday (quite impressive!), Neil Gaiman is going to post one of his books online for free for a month.  Readers vote on which book they want to see.  It might be fun for book clubs or classrooms to participate in a literature circle or perhaps even create student blogs to discuss the book.

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Book Glutton

Book Glutton might be my new favorite website (via Classical Bookworm).  Here’s a demonstration:

I can see all kinds of exciting potential for literature studies.  Literature circles would be great on Book Glutton!  I love the proximity chat and annotation features.  Caveats: the site is still in beta, and according to Sylvia (Classical Bookworm), only works in Firefox (though I admit I didn’t test the site in other browsers, nor could I find information on the site that states the site doesn’t work in other browsers — still, I thought it prudent to pass the warning along).

The first thing I wanted to do was dive in and form a reading group with my students.  Social reading networks.  I love Web 2.0.

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Memorizing Literature

Did you ever have to memorize literature for English class?

I did.

My luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June
My luve is like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I
And I shall love thee still, my dear
Till a’ the seas gang dry

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my luve
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun
I shall luve thee still, my dear
While the sands o’ life shall run

And fair thee weel, my bonnie luve,
And fair thee weel a while
And I shall come again, my luve
Though it were ten thousand mile.

If you check out Bartleby, which I did after typing this from memory, you will see I don’t have it 100 percent, but I learned it in 1990 — 18 years ago now — in my 12th grade British literature class.

I know it’s considered passé, but I do ask my students to memorize literature. When I initially make the assignment, the reactions are all pretty much along the lines of What’s the point of doing this? This is crazy! This is impossible! I can’t do it… no, you don’t understand, I really can’t do it.

After my students figure out I mean it, they buckle down and start memorizing. My students who read Macbeth last semester memorized “Out, out, brief candle.” My students reading Romeo and Juliet are in the midst of memorizing (some recited today, and others will tomorrow) Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, and my students studying Hamlet are memorizing “To be or not to be.”

Once they realized it wasn’t going away, I really admired the way my 9th grade students reading R&J attacked the text. They made sure to tell me what they thought of Mercutio’s delivery of their lines when we discussed the play yesterday. One of my favorite moments in the play was when Mercutio paused dramatically on the line “And in this state she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of…” One of my students impulsively called out “love!” The good-humored actor playing Mercutio pointed and nodded at my student and agreed, “Love!”

Years ago when I last taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I asked my students to memorize Titania’s “Set your heart at rest.” The next semester, one of my students showed me the speech, written decoratively and inserted in the cover of her binder. She was really proud of having memorized it, and that speech displayed on her binder was her way of saying she owned that piece of literature.

Ultimately, that’s what memorization does. It’s a gift of ownership over literature. It’s being able to say that poem, that speech, that monologue, that soliloquy is mine. I have read and taught Romeo and Juliet so many times that I have many of the lines memorized, and it makes me happy to be able to recite. Please understand I don’t mean that as a boast. I mean that reciting literature, rolling those words around without having to look them up, makes me feel power over them. It makes me love them and understand them. It makes me feel like a part of the literature as much as the literature is a part of me.

And maybe I’m old fashioned (and that’s OK), but that’s a gift I want to give my students. I’m not naive enough to think all of them accept this gift and keep it, the way I did with the literature I have been required to or have chosen to memorize, but if even one student can say in 18 years “That Queen Mab speech? Yeah, I own that,” then I’ll be satisfied. Of course, I hope more than one student will say that.

That Robert Burns poem? Yeah, I own that.

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The Freedom Writers

The Freedom WritersSoon after The Freedom Writers, a movie based on the book The Freedom Writer’s Diary by Erin Gruwell and her students, was released to theaters, I viewed the movie and posted a review here. I know some educators don’t like this kind of movie in general and didn’t like this movie in particular, but I enjoyed the movie and found value in using it in the classroom in order to teach the power of written expression and finding one’s voice. In addition, I think the movie is a great way for my students in particular to understand a broader spectrum of the American experience. Finally, as the movie centers around how Gruwell’s students were affected by a work of literature, I think the movie shows the profound connections we can make between literature and our own lives if we avail ourselves of the opportunity. I think the movie would work well in an English class, but I like to use it in writing courses as well.

The question is, what can you do with the movie? When my students viewed the movie last year, we used it as a springboard for discussion about several important issues, including racism, anti-Semitism, and abuse, and how these issues impacted the characters in the movie. We frankly discussed Erin Gruwell’s sacrifices and the fact that she did move on to working with the Freedom Writers Foundation and no longer teaches.

If you are interesting in using the film in your own classroom, there are many resources available to you:

Please share other resources you know about in the comments.

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Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth

Geoffrey Wright's MacbethEnglish teachers looking for a good version of Macbeth to show their students in conjunction with a study of Shakespeare’s play should avoid Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 production. Like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet before it, this modern Macbeth seeks to lure in the younger set; however, unlike Luhrmann’s production, in the case of Macbeth, the update doesn’t work.

The play’s setting is moved from Scotland to modern-day Melbourne, Australia. The cast, starring Sam Worthington as Macbeth and Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth, is Australian. The play opens as the three witches, who look more like deviant schoolgirls, are defacing a cemetery. Duncan is the leader of a gang, rather than King of Scotland, and when the witches predict that Macbeth can take over the gang, Macbeth murders Duncan and begins his inexorable march toward doom.

The director’s choice to turn the kingdom of Scotland into underworld Melbourne makes the story go awry. Romeo and Juliet makes sense as a gang story as it is essential a story of two warring families. I didn’t buy it with Macbeth, especially when Macbeth’s title of Thane of Cawdor is still applied. I didn’t like any of the characters, and I really didn’t care what happened to any of them.

Pluses:

  • This film might appeal to today’s youth. I read a review describing it as Macbeth for the Quentin Tarantino generation, but I think that’s an insult to Quentin Tarantino.
  • The characters sport cool leather jackets and artfully mussed hair.
  • The opening scene with the witches is truly scary, in my opinion, and the Ghost Banquo scene is superb.
  • The murder of the Macduffs is shocking; the director pulled no punches, though thankfully didn’t show us the poor child’s murder.

Minuses:

  • Nudity and sexual content — Macbeth has sex with all three witches in a bizarre rendition of the second witch scene (“Beware the Thane of Fife”).
  • Butchery of the “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t recommend showing this one to high school students. Though the film is not rated, the sexual content alone would have earned it at least an R-rating (never mind the violence). None of the actors is a standout, and the modern setting has only minimal appeal in light of the film’s flaws.

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Teaching Homer’s Odyssey

For those of you looking for a few good resources for teaching Homer’s Odyssey, you might want to check out the following:

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Prison Performing Arts

My local NPR station broadcast a rerun of This American Life last night that made me stop cold and listen.  The episode, entitled “Act V,” centered around a drama program that serves prisons, exposing inmates to Shakespeare through performance.  Click on the plus sign to listen to the program.

Download link

Stories like this are why I wanted to teach literature.

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Message for Carol

Carol, I wrote you back, but my e-mail bounced back to me.  The five I’s of Romanticism are Imagination, Intuition, Inspiration, Individualism, and Idealism.  Download this accompanying Power Point: Romanticism Introduction.

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