Readings from my School Days

All the talk of Steinbeck in the comments of my previous entry has me reflecting on books I read during my school years. Growing up I loved fantasy novels and dog books (haha), and rarely branched outside of these genres. My Lit classes often provided my only introduction to other readings. Like everything in life some of the required readings I loved, others I hated. Here I’ve reflected on my favorite and least favorite books that I read during my school years (in no particular order).

The Favorites

1. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Freshman Year – 1996-1997
Mr Kraft – Libertyville High School
Something I’ve come to notice about myself through this book blog is how much I love novels with a sense of place or nostalgia. In Cannery Row John Steinbeck’s absolute reverence for Monterey, CA is apparent and he paints a whimsical portrait of life on the semi-fictional street. Steinbeck has a knack for writing quirky, surprings characters. One of my favorite vignettes from this book involves Mac and his crew NOT watching a parade.

2. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Sophomore Year – 1997-1998
Mrs Carp – Libertyville High School

I adore this book. It’s a touching reflection on people who are profoundly lonely despite being in the company of others. Mick’s character is a favorite; her frustrations are universal to anyone struggling to acheive their dreams and figure out who they are. My favorite moment is where she promenades around the neighborhood with a boy who has weepy eyes and a stye. Cute!

3. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Senior Year – 1999-2000
Mr Kelso – Scripps Ranch High School

Initially I was not excited to read this book, but almost from the start I was captivated by the interplay of characters. I loved the transformation of Carrie’s character, from naive country girl to jaded actress, and I marvelled at the men left in her wake.

4. Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Senior Year – 1999-2000
Mr Kelso – Scripps Ranch High School

To say Mr Kelso loves Thomas Hardy is a understatement. This man lives, breathes, and dies Hardy. His enthusiasm for Hardy was a fever I caught because of Return of the Native. Usually Hardy’s melodrama comes with sacrificing his characters’ happiness; this is one of the few Hardy novels where my favorite characters succeed. And if you have read the novel, I have two words for you–dice scene.

5. The Collector by John Fowles
Senior Year – 1999-2000
Mr Kelso – Scripps Ranch High School

Delightfully creepy and disturbing, this psychological thriller is told in three parts. One and three are told from the perspective of the twisted kidnapper, and part two delves into the mind of the kidnappee. This book is icky and twisted in the best way and I could read it over and over.

6. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Junior Year – 1998-1999; Freshman Year – 2000-2001
Mr Boyd – Scripps Ranch High School; Stevenson Core – UC Santa Cruz

I was fortunate enough to be assigned this book twice, and two years in a row at that. This book is a classic for a reason. Christy of A Good Stopping Point has written a glorious review that pretty well covers all my thoughts on the novel.

The Books I Hated

1. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sophomore Year – 1997-1998; Senior Year – 1999-2000
Mr Carp – Libertyville High School; Mr Kelso – Scripps Ranch High School
Oh my god, words can’t even describe how much I hate this book! Not only did Mrs Carp make us read the book, but we also had to watch the movie. If you ever want to see horrible acting from Liam Neeson, just rent this movie. Senior year, my teacher Mr Kelso announced we were reading Ethan Frome and my normally quiet, unassuming self burst out emphatically “NO!! I HATE THAT BOOK!” Mr Kelso pish-poshed my outburst and was convinced that I would like it on the second go-round. Not only did I still hate the book, but our assignment was to ‘mark-up’ our edition with ‘notes on symbols and themes’. I still had my marked-up edition from the first reading, so I re-read it and made additional notes. By the end I had copious notes. My friend Brandon hadn’t read the book so I let him copy my notes (not something I usally did, but I felt I was saving him the profound agony of reading this hideous creation). When Brandon got an A on the assignment and I got a B, I knew my grade was based solely on my dislike of the book. AND THEN MR KELSO MADE US WATCH THE MOVIE IN CLASS! *Head ‘splodes*

2. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence
Freshman Year – 1996-1997
Mr Kraft – Libertyville High School
This book left me with a bad taste in my mouth. None of the characters had any worth to them and, frankly, DH Lawrence pissed me off. I’m not sure if he’s a misogynist or what his deal is, but I find him to be just odious. I resolved never to read anything by him again. Oddly enough, Mr Kelso gave his senior class gifts–books he thought described or were somehow compatible with a student’s personality. He gave me a DH Lawrence anthology. I had to be all happy and graciously-accepting, but really what I was thinking was “Really, Mr Kelso?? Ethan Frome and freaking DH Lawrence?!? Really!?!” Brandon received a collection of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poetry…who happens to be my favorite poet ever.

3. The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Sophomore Year – 1997-1998
Mrs Carp – Libertyville High School

I know it’s one of the great books of American Literature, but it’s also appallingly boring. And yes, I recognize that, at the time, the book was scandalous and wrong, but through my modern, 10th grade perspective still boring as hell.

4. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
6th Grade – 1993-1994
Mrs Herbst – Highland Junior High

I actually really liked this book. So why is it in the “Books I Hated” section? Well, I had read the book for the first time when I was 7 or 8. Oh god, it made me cry. For days I was just distraught and inconsolable. So I grimaced when we were assigned the book in 6th grade, but also excited because I really DID like the book. But then! Cruel, cruel Mrs Herbst decided that we would have “Silent Reading” and finish the book IN CLASS! As I was the only person who had read the book before, I was HORRIFIED by the the prospect. I gave her a pleading look and she smiled when her and I made eye contact. SMILED! She knew what she was doing to us. And so we read, I with a knot in my heart and they with all the innocence of an unknowing 11-year-old. The girls cried. The boys cried. Then we had to discuss the book. So with tears choking our throats we talked about the ending of the book. It was not an experience I ever want to repeat.

And so, dear reader, what books do you remember loving or hating from school assignments? Any thoughts on the books I’ve listed here? And finally, were any of your teachers as cruel and wicked as Mrs Herbst?

A note about the teachers metioned here: Mrs Herbst was not actually cruel, just that one time. While I disliked most of the books we read in Mrs Carp’s class, her class was probably my favorite–a great combination of creative latitude and thought-provoking assignments. Mr Kraft was a great man, with a wide variety of literary interests; I wish I remembered the play we read in his class about the crazy Russian or Norwegian family. Mr Boyd was a little bit hopeless. He came to my school from a rather poor school district and his classes lacked creativity. Because Illinois teaches American Lit in 10th grade and California in 11th, my guidance counselor recommended that I take a senior English course. Unfortunately it was the remedial English class, but fortunately Mr Boyd thought I was a genius for skipping a grade level and I practically was able to get away with murder in his class. Mr Kelso was a fantastic teacher; he and Mr Kraft could have been teacher-twins…I reread in Mr Kelso’s class four of the books that I had read originally in Mr Kraft’s class.

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5 responses to “Readings from my School Days

  1. My 11th grade English teacher was Mr. Marinelli. He was my dentist’s brother. And my own brother had had him for English 4 years earlier. [This makes it sound like I grew up in a really small town…]

    My brother’s advice about 11th grade English with Mr. Marinelli was, “Everybody gets a B.” That was fine with me since I didn’t really care about grades or school or even books back then.

    Now, I’m sure you’re thinking Mr. Marinelli must have been a crappy teacher, not caring enough to assess students’ contributions and apathetically giving out upper-middle-class grades to all the upper-middle-class kids in his class. But he may well have been the the best teacher I had in high school.

    We studied many Shakespeare books that year, and the one that stands out for me is one I’d never heard of at the time, King Lear. We were assigned the book, written in the bard’s Middle English with explanatory foot notes on nearly every page – you know the ones. We had to read the book on our own, but then every day in class he’d have us read some of it out loud and he’d explain what the confusing phrases and different word uses meant in modern English. This gave us a feel for what Shakespeare was actually saying, the story he was telling; we didn’t get stuck in trying to translate every sentence, thus losing the thread of the story.

    Here’s an example you’ll get, from a book you know: “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” This means, “Oh god, Romeo, why do you have to be Romeo?! Couldn’t you be from ANY other family but the Montagues?!” And when you hear Juliet’s meaning, you feel her pain at the realization that she, a Hatfield, was irretrievably in love with a McCoy.

    We also watched a movie adaptation of King Lear in class. Again Mr. Marinelli commented in all the right places, and seeing the story acted out along with having read the book while being told the meaning of the words beyond the words themselves, told us a story rather than making us struggle through an arcane, albeit somewhat familiar, language to try to memorize things for a test.

    I gained a respect for Shakespeare because of that class, because of Mr. Marinelli. But more than that I gained an understanding that Shakespeare was not necessarily a brilliant author, but he was a brilliant story-teller. His books were the pop culture phenomenon of the time. He was a rock star writer. He was Mozart; he was Jimmy Page. And his stories are full of titillation and intrigue. He’s a hell of a read if you give yourself a moment to see past the words to the meaning.

    Oh, and for the record, not everyone got a B, but the focus in that class was on literature rather than labels.

    Mr. Marinelli cared about his kids and he cared about exposing us to literature in a way that we would understand it. Or maybe he just cared about literature too much to trivialize it like all the other English teachers I had. He taught me to read, long after I was able to understand words on a page. That’s much more important than a grade, and I’ll always respect him for that.

  2. First of all, if you love a sense of place and nostalgia, you are going to absolutely adore East of Eden.

    Now, onto your actual question, I don’t remember many of the books we read in high school, but I remember that I loved Tess of the D’urbervilles, and I disliked the All the King’s Men and Billy Budd.

    We read The Scarlett Letter, but I just remember feeling indifferent towards it. I never had to read most of the stuff on your hated list!

    • Hmm…sounds like I will have to read East of Eden then. I’ve almost nearly picked it up a few times and I love Steinbeck. I wonder if it’s on Gutenberg!

  3. Interesting post!

    I read Sons and Lovers in college and despised it. When I think of books assigned that I hated that one is the first to pop in my mind. And yes, Scarlet Letter is so so boring. Not fun.

    I think I actually liked Ethan Frome.

    Thanks for the link to the Frankenstien review. :)

    Memorable books assigned in high school:

    Parts of the Bible – I was quite familiar with the Bible, and it was surreal to discuss it in a secular school setting as literature. One of my classmates pitched a fit about having to read it, not understanding the difference between reading the Bible as world literature and reading it for religious instruction.

    Beloved by Toni Morrison – I was first assigned this in high school and didn’t quite get it and the teacher I don’t think understood it either. Later I was assigned it in college and liked it so much better.

    I remember Crime & Punishment being a bit of a slog.

    Books assigned to me in college were much more interesting, generally speaking (Sons & Lovers excluded). I was an English major. Favorites off the top of my head: Faulkner, King Lear, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, British World War I poetry.

    • I’m so glad to find another DH Lawrence anti-fan!

      In terms of Ethan Frome I now almost want to recommend the movie to you just for the comedy of it.

      The HS I went to in Illinois offered “The Bible as Literature” as one of its elective classes. I really was interested in taking that class, but moved to California before I got the chance. Also, what a neat dicotomy you got to experience, being both a pastor’s daughter and also considering it from a literary perspective.

      I haven’t read Beloved, but I did read The Bluest Eye which I LOVED! I highly recommend it. I did a practice AP Lit essay on The Bluest Eye and I think I would have gotten a 5 if that had been my essay for the real test. But alas, we got some weird page of a socialite’s calendar and had to write an essay on that.

      One book I forgot to add to my hate list is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I read it in college and really didn’t enjoy it.

      And! A second plug for King Lear! This might have to go on my TBR :)

      Thanks for the comment!

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