22 June 2007

9. Pierre by Herman Melville

This was a book I read for a short-lived English-teacher book club. Three of us agreed to read this virtually unknown book by Melville specifically because it was virtually unknown. Only two of us finished it, and it took me a long, long time (blame the book itself, the boat, and the wooing of the new woman).

It was written right after Melville finished Moby Dick, and was looking to go in a different direction. The historical notes say that he had, "exhausted his supply of experiences from his stint in the U.S. Navy." (How the hell they, or
anyone, knows that, I have no idea.)

Pierre is a privileged, rich kid living on his family's grand estate with his widowed mother. He is a great outdoorsman, has a great mind, dotes on his mother, and is engaged to be married to the local beauty, Lucy Tartan. But he longs to know his long-dead father better and wishes he had had a sister to grow up with.

And guess what happens? From out of nowhere Isabel, a long lost sister turns up with some stories about his father!

And guess what? Pierre is absolutely smitten with her! For real. He comes apart and unseams his life from top to bottom: he breaks the engagement to Lucy, abandons his mother, runs off with Isabel, pretends to be her husband and sets up house in the city. His family abandons him - his cousin pretends to not know Pierre when he arrives in the city seeking lodging, and his mother cuts him out of the will (and then she dies of heartbreak, leaving all of the family's riches to the cousin).

But guess who doesn't abandon him?

That's right, Lucy!

She sends him a letter that she loves him so much, and she has figured he is doing something secret, yet brave, and that because she loves him and his secret project so much she is going to move in with Pierre and Isabel and tend to him with "nun-like devotion."

I won't tell you how it ends, but be assured, you can live without knowing.

8. Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki

This book was absolute crap. Total.

For some inexplicable reason this book is on the reading list for the 11th grade curriculum. It's a great book for 8th grade and would fit perfectly in that curriculum, especially in a Humanities class.

Set in California just as WW2 is starting for America, FtM is a memoir of Wakatsuki's experience in the largest of the American concentration camps. Her father is a fisherman who is accused of supplying oil to Japanese submarines - totally false charges. The family, along with thousands of other people of Japanese descent are ordered to be evacuated from the West Coast.

This book had the opportunity to be a rivetting memoir of a harrowing time for so many people. In fact, the conditions were so bad at one point that there were food riots at Manzanar. Wakatsuki gives this riot about three paragraphs, one of the them setting the context for the riot and the other two describing what went down.

Wakatsuki misses every chance she has to make us sympathetic to her plight, and makes Manazanar sound like sleepaway camp - and I'm not even exagerrating: at one point she complains that she hates her piano lessons, at another tells us she is so mad at her dad she is going to break her baton in half (her one, favorite hobby is baton twirling), and that she hates ballet classes because the teacher is too fat and awkward.

And she is overly fond of the phrase, "it's as if" which removes the meaning/gravity/merit of whatever she is describing that much further.

You could read it in less than two hours, but shouldn't.

It's especially disappointing that this book is in the 11th grade crriculum because putting it next to Huck Finn, Othello, or Salesman makes it look even weaker, yet I have to get up there and pretend it's worthy of deconstruction.

I did do a lot of context stuff with this book and we did discuss Executive Order 9066 (FDR), the apology (Reagan) and the reparations (Bush I). That helped a lot and gave the book some meaning.

Still, the whole experience of "teaching" this book left a bad taste in my brain.