I picked up Marjane Ambler‘s memoir Yellowstone Has Teethat the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman Airport in Bozeman, Montana, back in February when my husband and I made the trip out west with my sister, her husband, and a few friends. Though my aim was to read it before our day-long winter tour of Yellowstone, I kept so busy hiking, snowshoeing, site-seeing, and socializing, that I didn’t begin the book until my husband and I were back home in Virginia. In at least one way, it worked out for the best: Reading this book after my return home allowed me to seemingly extend the trip. Each time I opened its pages, I found myself transported back to the wintry clime of Yellowstone in the snow.
One mark of a really good book is that upon finishing it, you feel a sort of sorrow. Some irrational part of your being hoped you’d be able to go on reading the book indefinitely, despite the dwindling pages behind your bookmark. This was the way I felt when I finished Yellowstone Has Teeth. Luckily, I have a whole cache of books waiting for me to read them, but that was my only consolation. I felt a nagging sadness when I closed the book for the final time. But this was not just because the book was behind me; it was also because (spoiler alert!), as I was finishing the book, Ambler was finishing the cherished chapter of her life that was living in the park. Ending the book this way of course made logical sense, but it was also artful and purposeful. Reading about the end of her time in Yellowstone as I approached the end of my time reading the book resulted in an emotional impact that could not have been achieved had she ended it some other way. Our feelings ran parallel: She was loathe for that chapter of her life to end, and while I commiserated with that sentiment, I also experienced my own grief about ending the book.
If the book’s ending made an impact, its pages did as well. The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.
Ambler also does a superb job of illustrating the juxtaposition between the “civilized world,” and life in the park, in statements such as this one: “I read the animal tracks in the snow instead of a newspaper to discover the news of the day” (30). A page later, she describes the way her husband, Terry, would listen to the traffic report in Los Angeles as he drove his groomer down the snow-covered and deserted park roadways. As he heard the radio announcer advise LA motorists to find an alternate route because “‘An accident has stopped all westbound traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway,'” her husband “smiled at the contrast on his roadway. His headlights illumined only bison tracks breaking the surface of the newly fallen snow” (31).
The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.
In addition, Ambler’s imagery sticks with you. When writing about the historic fires of 1988, she describes the sky in the following way: “…huge cumulous clouds…boiled over Two Ocean Plateau, the clouds stained red from the fires below, like cauliflower boiled in blood” (148).
In short, I am so glad Ambler sat down and wrote this book. It provided so much food for thought, and so many insights. I can only imagine what a gift it must be to so well–so intimately–know a place so well-known and infamous. Ambler helped me imagine it a little bit better. Now, there are so many people to whom I want to recommend this book. This week, it will be in the mail on its way to Rocky Mountain National Park, where I hope one of my best friend’s best friends, a female ranger in the park, will enjoy it.
As the title of her blog post makes plain, Charlene writes about universal truths in our own writing. When I was in AP English Literature as a high school senior, my teacher refused to use the word “theme,” instead demanding that we discuss universal truths. I embraced this idea. To me, it made the literature more relevant–more real. I wasn’t searching for some obscure (to teenage me) author’s message, which, I was sure, wasn’t really his message, anyway, but some critic-imposed theme originating in academia; I was looking for truth, a pursuit that seemed much more noble.
Our ability to discern the universal truth in the writing of others directly correlates to the value we will or will not place on that writing. It directly affects our ability to understand a work of literature beyond its surface elements (characters, plot, setting–that sort of thing), and to instead see those elements as tools used to communicate a truth about the human condition. At the same time, as Charlene explains, while our ability to discern that universal truth does not depend on our having had the same life experiences as the writer or characters, it does depend on our having had the same emotional experiences.
Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature.
For example, the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was unimpressed. Really. It was, as they say, “meh.” I was unmoved. It was my fourth year teaching. I had just been assigned the honors classes, and the book was to be the students’ summer reading assignment. I read the book from cover to cover–all the introductory material, all the acknowledgments, everything. I took notes in the margins. I read carefully. But I didn’t like it. It was a chore. A year or two later, we changed the summer reading book, and Their Eyes Were Watching God collected dust on the shelves of the English department work room for several years. Two years ago, though, we reintroduced it as part of the core curriculum for both the honors and academic level classes. Since several years had gone by since I’d read the book, I decided I’d better read it again. Sigh…
The second time around, I loved it. What had changed? It was the same book with the same introduction, the same acknowledgments, the same notes in my same handwriting. Certainly, the story hadn’t changed. The writing hadn’t changed. Even the universal truths hadn’t changed.
But I had.
While I had not been married off by my grandmother to a man three times my age; while I had not run away with a man who swept me off my feet only to find myself stuck in a loveless marriage; while I had not nearly died in a hurricane or (spoiler alert!) shot my one true love in self-defense, I had a deeper capacity to understand the emotions these situations elicit because I had had my own life experiences that had deepened my understanding of what it means to be human–of love, loss, friendship, and self-actualization.
Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated a decade of marriage. The experiences we have shared helped open me up to the truths expressed in Hurston’s novel. Our marriage, and the sense of love and commitment I feel for my husband, expanded my emotional capacity, and helped me feel what Janie feels, though our situations are very different.
I had a similar experience with one of my all-time favorite books, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate at Michigan State. I. Loved. It. The complexity of the characters’ relationships, and of the characters themselves, fascinated me. It all seemed to so novel, so shocking, so eye-opening.
Several years later, having graduated and been in the working world for at least as much time as I’d spent in college, I reread it. I still loved it–I still refer to it as one of my favorite books–but my love wasn’t as enthusiastic the second time around. I was older. Maybe a little wiser. Maybe a little jaded. Whatever it was, somehow, the book’s impact wasn’t as powerful.
A book is never the same book twice, because you are never the same reader.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has also affected me very differently at various points in my (emotional) life. When I read it as a junior in high school, despite my teacher’s assertions that Daisy was shallow and flighty, I really admired her. I wanted to be like her, or, more accurately, I wanted to be loved like her. Now, 15 years later, I’m far more fascinated with Nick and Gatsby’s characters, and with ideas like personal responsibility (or lack thereof), the American dream and how far one is prepared to go-should go–to achieve it, what it means to be American and how this book fits with our national identity, among others.
Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature. We don’t need to have had the exact same life experiences as the writer or characters, as long as we have had life experiences that allow us to have the same emotional experiences. You may never have lost your spouse to a car wreck, but you may have lost him to another woman, and thus experienced loss and grief (among other feelings, no doubt!). A book you may have genuinely related to as a teenager may seem trite when you reread it as an adult. Something you may not have grasped in a book when you were a bachelor may be crystal clear when you read the same book after you’ve been married for fifteen years and have two children. For these reasons, and others, rereading is valuable. A book is never the same book twice, because you’re never the same reader.
But I Already Know What Happens
I’ll admit it. Sometimes I dread rereading a book I’ve already read multiple times. Even if I’ve actually read it only once. Even if I really liked it. Even if it’s been years since I read it. I mean, I already know what happens.
But the fact is, I’m an English teacher, so sometimes (lots of times), I have to read the same book more than once. Besides the fact that reading the same book twice (or more than twice) can prove a different experience every time, every time I reread a book (and as an English teacher, I reread many books, many times), I find something new. Students sometimes marvel at the way I can read aloud and write notes in my book at the same time, without missing a word. Here’s the trick: When you know the story line and characters and setting–the basic stuff–your mind is free to notice deeper elements like motifs, author’s purpose, writing strategies–or even universal truths. The more times I have read a book, the more familiar I am with its fundamental parts. The more familiar I am with the fundamental parts, the more literary elements I am free to notice and attend to.
While you may know the plot like the back of your hand, and have certain sections of dialog memorized, rereading a book can still prove an enlightening and surprising experience. Instead of waiting for just what happens next, you’re waiting for what revelation dawns on you next. What will you notice about the author’s word choice or rhythm? What epiphany will you experience regarding theme or the use of setting? What literary devices have you somehow missed the first (and second) time you read the book? What cunning turn of phrase has escaped your notice–until the fifth reading of Huck Finn?
For students, bus drivers, and teachers across the country, spring break has come and gone, Memorial Day is just around the corner, and summer break is cresting over the horizon. We can all comfortably begin our official days-until-summer countdown. For those of us who love to read, but rarely find time during the school year (unless, of course, you count student essays, research papers, journal entries, essay tests, etc.), this is also the time to begin officially making our Summer To-Read lists. To be honest, I’m hesitant to publish this just yet, as it will inevitably grow, but you’ll just have to keep your eyes open for addenda as I learn of more must-reads for the summer. Here’s my list as it stands now:
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, Rinker Buck
Why I Want to Read It:
I have to admit that I’m cheating just a bit with this one, as it’s actually the last book I started reading at the end of last summer. September caught me unprepared, and I hadn’t finished reading. Between the start of the school year and now, I think I’ve managed to turn something like a mere 12 pages. First and foremost, I intend to return to this neglected nonfiction work by author Rinker Buck, whose writing chronicles his trip tracing the original Oregon Trail across the prairie in a covered wagon pulled by three mules with his ornery but helpful brother and his brother’s Jack Russel Terrier, Olive Oyl.
My interest was initially piqued because of my position as a high school English teacher, my primary course being American literature. In addition to my professional interest in this memoir of the American spirit, the review reminded me of one my favorite author’s works, John Steinbeck‘s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Both books feature men traveling the country by unorthodox means, Steinbeck in his jalopy named Rocinante, alluding to Don Quixote’s horse, and Buck in a covered wagon. Both men are on a quest, in search of something they perhaps do not even know they want to find. Both books detail the historical, physical, and societal landscapes of America. And both books, of course, include a dog, the terrier Olive Oyl in the case of Buck, and the standard poodle Charley in the case of Steinbeck.
I was also interested because for a five-year period during my childhood, I lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I have, on numerous occasions, visited the Oregon Trail ruts, Plymouth Rock, and Fort Laramie.
So far, I have learned an incredible amount about history, the American landscape, society, mules, the mechanics of covered wagons, and the particulars of wagon travel. The book has proven not only entertaining, but educational, informative, and thought-provoking. I am eager to read the pages the school year temporarily stole from me.
Read an excerpt from the book and highlights from a 2015 interview with the author on NPR here.
2666, by Roberto Bolano
Why I want to read it:
A few summers ago, I read Salman Rushdie‘s novel Midnight’s Children. I enjoyed it so thoroughly, that still I find myself often ruminating over its pages, though I have long ago returned them to the local library’s shelf. I conducted an extremely thorough and analytical reading of this particular book, as I wanted to use it as an example for the literature portfolio assignment I planned to assign to the upcoming year’s honors English students (more on that in a future post). My careful study of the book made it even more impressive and enoyable. Bolano’s 2666 sounds reminiscent of Midnight’s Children, as well as one of my other favorites, John Steinbeck‘sEast of Eden.
How I heard of it:
Almost every morning on my way to work and almost every afternoon on my way home, I listen to NPR. Two of my most beloved programs are Fresh Air and All Things Considered. During a recent broadcast, I heard a story about a stage adaptation for 2666, and the complex characters, plot that spans continents, and its impressive 900 pages (I love a good, long book) immediately mandated I add this to my Summer 2016 To-Read list.
Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak
Why I want to read it:
When I was in first grade, my family moved across the country from Michigan to Wyoming with the help of my maternal grandparents, who assisted my mom in driving our family, which included four of us children, across the mid-west and west to our new semiarid prairie home. At one particular rest stop somewhere along the way, my little brother and I were horrified at what we saw on the other side of the fence from the rest area. Several cows were placidly grazing near the bloody dead body of an apparently trampled-to-death turkey. Traumatized, we went running across the rest area parking lot to fill our family in on the gruesome details of what the deceptively docile cows had done to the innocent bird. My grandfather calmly followed us back to the scene of the crime, where he pointed to a wobbly
calf nearby, its mother gently licking its slick coat. The cows had not trampled a turkey. What we interpreted as a brutally stomped turkey was actually the placenta and after-birth of a mother and her newborn calf. My grandfather gently explained everything, and from then on, I grew up knowing I could ask my grandpa anything–anything–about animals or plants, and he would know the answer. (This was also true of sports trivia, but that’s another story.)
Driving down the road and see an unfamiliar crop? Grandma will know what it is.
How can you tell if it’s going to rain all day? Grandpa knew that, too. It had something to do with the birds coming out and the cows standing (or was it not standing?) under trees.
He even helped my parents hand-build a horse fence encompassing six acres of pasture after we had lived in Wyoming a couple years.
Two years ago, I began to follow, albeit it with much smaller shoes, in his footsteps. I planted two cucumber and one zucchini plant directly into the dirt at my back fence line. Despite my husband’s skepticism, they grew and flourished and stocked us with more vegetables than we could eat alone. The following year, we started our own raised bed garden, and experienced success with grape tomatoes, watermelon, sweet pepper, carrots, lettuce, corn, cilantro, and strawberries. This fall, we just went right on ahead and built a greenhouse, where all winter long pineapples, grape tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries, along with some flowers, thrived. This year, we have expanded our garden by two raised beds and have added egg plant, squash, some varieties of tomatoes, and broccoli to our menu.
But my interest in agriculture and homegrown food is only one reason I am interested in this book.
Another is that I am currently taking a certification course to become a life coach, and this book seems as though it could help me become a more informed life coach in the area of nutrition, as well as stewardship, responsibility, and overall well-being.
Finally, a third reason this book fascinates me is the fact that shortly after I picked it up, one of my dual enrollment students began writing a research paper on GMOs. I loaned her the book, believing it might help her in her study. It did, and the quotes, facts, and statistics I read in her paper, attributed to this book, were enthralling.
How I heard of it:
Earlier this spring, I was proctoring a standardized test in our school’s library. As I pace around and monitor students’ test-taking, I also read the occasional book jacket. As I walked near our librarian’s desk, I noticed this book sitting on the top of a stack. Each summer, she and a few other teachers at our school lead a sort of scientific nonfiction book discussion club, and I inquired if this was the book they had chosen for this summer. It wasn’t, but it had been in the running, and she offered it up to me. Of course I wasn’t going to turn away a free book on a topic of interest to me, so I took advantage of her offer.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Why I want to read it:
Because it is absolutely shameful that, as an English teacher, I haven’t yet. And because I have never, ever met someone who has read it and not loved it.
How I heard of it:
Who hasn’t heard of it?
Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
Why I want to read it:
Yes, I realize that as an English teacher, I should be absolutely ashamed to admit that I have yet to read this book. But aside from my burning embarrassment every time a colleague wants to discuss it, the polarizing effect of this book fascinates me. I have met very literary people who have been absolutely disappointed, particularly with the character of Atticus Finch, and equally literary people who have been absolutely delighted. I am eager to read it and make my own judgements.
How I heard of it:
Honestly, I have heard so much about this book for such a long time, I couldn’t tell you when I first heard of it.
The Curtain, by Milan Kundera
Why I want to read it:
This book is a nonfiction work that explores writing fiction. I believe it could help me become a more adept reader, as well as a more skilled writer. I cannot wait to see what I will learn. I am hopeful for moments enlightenment and epiphany like the ones I experienced several times in my undergraduate English courses at Michigan State University.
How I heard of it:
Earlier this spring, my husband and I spent a weekend with my parents at their river house. I happened into my parents’ room for something, and found this book on the edge of the bathtub.