Summertime for English teachers means reading freely and capriciously — some of us pick up that tome we’d never have time for during the hectic year, some of us read the trashiest romances we can find because we won’t run into our students on the beach in the Outer Banks, and some of us read 3-6 books at once, jumping from one to another within the course of a day because there is so much time (!) to read. I’m the latter– I read great books all year round, but when I’m on a break from teaching, I read more and more and more.

I also find that I’m not really on a break from teaching, because so much of the way I teach reading and writing is by showing my students models of great writing. And those models arise from what I read on my own, even when I’m not looking for them.

I thought it might be fun to show this side of my brain with analysis of an excerpt from a superb book I just finished, Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter.

I struggled last year to teach the concept of metonymy to my AP Language students. It’s a hard one to grasp. It seems so similar to metaphor, but while metaphor is the substitution of a different thing for the referent (the actual thing you’re talking about), metonymy is a sneakier substitution. Metonymy is the naming of similarity as sameness. It takes a word or idea adjacent to the referent and uses it as a reference to its almost-self. So business men become “suits” or the dictum of a chef is translated as “the kitchen says.”

In Beautiful Ruins, writer Alvis Bender uses the technique in stages in his unfinished autobiographical novel, “The Smile of Heaven,” about World War II.

Then Spring came, and with it, the end of my war. The generals with their grease pencils had invited too many soldiers and they needed something for us to do and so we marched over every last inch of Italy. All that spring we marched, through the chalky coastal flats below the Apennines, and once the way was cleared, up pocked green foothills toward Genoa, into villages crumbled like old cheese, cellars spitting forth grubby thin Italians. Such a horrible formality, the end of a war.

In this beginning section of the novel, the generals are associated with grease pencils, presumably because that’s what they use to write orders. Here and in the next passage, there’s a subtle contrast drawn between the generals writing orders on paper and the actual movement that the humble foot soldiers must complete.

Each morning, the grease pencil generals caused artillery waves to crash to the north as we marched in our sudden rain gear into a slashing, insistent drizzle.

Bender has moved the terms “grease pencil” and “generals” physically closer together this time, and his repetition emphasizes the association between the two. It seems now like he is describing them as like grease pencils, which to me implies that they are only generals on paper. They get to move the waves of artillery around Italy, but it is the soldiers who get wet in the rain. Bender continues to explain the pointlessness and discomfort of his experience.

Clearly, there were larger tactics at play in my war’s end (we heard rumors of nightmare camps and of the grease pencils dividing the world in half), but for Richards and me, our war consisted of wet, fretful marches up dirt roads and down hillsides to the edges of bombed-out villages.

Here we have true metonymy. The word ‘generals’ (the referent, the actual thing) has been fully replaced by a thing already associated with them, the grease pencils. Bender needed to establish that association previously for this to work, because we don’t automatically think of grease pencils when we think about generals (more obvious metonyms would include “military brass” or “the pentagon”). But now, it’s as if the grease pencils themselves are doing the ordering about. This time, they’re doing even more powerful work, dividing the world between Russian and Western spheres of influence. This meaning of the war’s end has very little to do with the actual experience of the soldiers, which is wet and fretful. The generals aren’t doing any of the actual marching, which again goes back to the idea that they are generals merely on paper, blind to risk and wasted time while they doodle at their desks. Whose war now seems more important?

This is an unusually masterful use of metonymy. Jess Walters allows his surrogate, the writer Alvis Bender, to play with this technique in an easily understandable, yet subtly powerful way. By moving us slowly closer to full metonymy, he makes sure that we get it. But the metonym itself makes a statement about power and military hierarchy.

Back to the age-old question of what separates English teachers from the rest of the world’s readers– I wouldn’t expect my students to be reading this book and suddenly jump to their feet and yell “that’s metonymy!” But the technique is still there, making meaning, and it will work on our brains whether we recognize it sharply enough to analyze or not. If you’re reading this blog post, you might be able to recognize a metonym next time someone uses it in everyday speech (my bet is that you’ll hear someone refer to the current presidential administration as “The White House” within 24 hours).

Or you might be reading an excellent yet fun novel and stop to linger a little longer over some of the words and wonder why the author might have done that, and what it might be doing to your thinking. And that’s really why I teach analysis: it’s just a way of reading the world with more practiced eyes than you had before.

Did you enjoy pretending to be in my English class for a few minutes? Let me know in the comments as I contemplate writing more passage study posts. 🙂 

A Foray into the Gothic

When I was in 6th grade, my team (the ravens) did a focused project on a certain epic poem by Edgar Allen Poe (can you guess?). I loved the way Poe evoked a dark and dreary mood and evinced such mystery and gloom with the croak of the raven. Since then, I have periodically pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten gothic literature.
This March I decided to delve back into the gothic, and as soon as I made that decision, the Northeast conjured up a leviathan storm to knock down trees and winds to shake my entire house. So it seems I made the right choice. I’m construing gothic rather broadly– although I love the classic tale of a twisted family and a haunted house on a hill, I am also interested in contemporary lit that borrows mood and magic from Romantic predecessors.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Nine years ago, I read Wuthering Heights in my high school English class, and I stubbornly loved it despite the criticisms of my classmates. This novel, written shortly before Emily Bronte died young,  is a triumph of dark Romanticism. A Byronic, mercurial, gypsy-like man. Catherine, his everlasting love, who is poisoned by fits of extreme emotion and who is as wild as the winds over the moors. Oh yes, the moors of Yorkshire, maybe the most mood-inducing setting ever conceived. And of course the narrative structure of an outsider who visits and must unravel the tragic, disturbing history of an old noble family. I love it for its ambience, for its overblown emotionality (I AM HEATHCLIFF!! says Cathy), and its deliciously slowly unwinding plot.

So Much Blue – Percival Everett

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThis novel about an artist with a troubled past has a few beautifully updated hallmarks of gothic literature. The story is told in present, 10 years ago, and 30 years ago, in the introspective and troubled voice of the artist. It has clear echoes of The Portrait of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde): a secret painting that the artist wishes to conceal from everyone in his life, which is not a portrait but a giant canvas covered in blue shades. As the artist deals with modern struggles– addiction, marital infidelity, teenage daughters, he uses this hidden masterwork as a mirror for his inner angst.

Two Men – Elizabeth Stoddard

Elizabeth Stoddard was the subject of a research project with which I assisted one my professors in college. She was a queen of snark, as evidenced by the tone she takes in her letters, and was a woman who was determined to lead an unconventional intellectual life, despite the constraints of her society. Her three novels are all fascinating, with complex character development and hidden dramas. Two Men focuses on a blended family and the contrasting personalities and power struggles of its members. The title should hint that Stoddard is interested in the inner workings of men’s hearts and minds– as am I.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit This novel has gotten buzzy recently– women develop a strange dark power to control the world? Sign me the fuck up. I don’t know if this novel will qualify as gothic, but I have an inkling it will match well as I think about emotional power, the role of the supernatural, and the imbalances of gendered power (so present in Wuthering Heights!). Thanks to my friend Bridget for buying me the book! I really look forward into diving into this one next.

What’s next? I have some more gothic-inspired titles on my list, so I’ll happily send a second post your way in another week or so. Do you have suggestions for me? Do you want to quibble about the definition of literary gothic? I’d love to hear from you!
I am an affiliate with IndieBound, and if you choose to purchase the books I mention by clicking on the book covers, I may earn a teeny tiny commission 🙂

Friday Reading Rainbow

Sometimes I sink my teeth into one novel and become engrossed in it. Other times I read clusters of books– usually that have some connection to each other. Friends of mine find this to be a disgusting habit and abhor watching me sit at a cafe table and read 10 pages of one thing and abruptly pull out another book. Here’s a cluster that I’m working through now. What do these books have to do with each other? Intimacy? Romance? I think maybe it is something about self-discovery and its interplay with the relationships we carry or break. 

The Mountain ~ Paul Yoon

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I loved Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters so dreadfully much that I eagerly grabbed this new short story collection from my library shelf and looked around to make sure no one would try to wrestle it from me. His writing seems to be about something in a real yet elusive way. And his sentence-level writing is sparse, intriguing, and inventive. For example, in the first story in The Mountain, called “The Willow and the Moon” he writes,  “He was smaller than I was, but he moved like a dancer to me,” and I think, towards me? Is the character moving closer? But later, he repeats, “He was strong to me,” and I realize that Yoon has embedded perception and in fact love so seamlessly into description that only the repetition explained it. Fantastic craftsmanship.

Considering buying a copy? Find one at Indiebound

Where Angels Fear to Tread ~ E. M. Forster

Light, light, light fiction. We are not plumbing the depths here, people. We are interested in conventionality and propriety, and we are titillated by the breaking of those things. I am reading this book (as I am keenly aware) to gloss over life and I am investing very little in it. However, some good things are happening– characters seem to be reversing their nature as they are explored by others who get to know them. And there’s a duality between Italy and England and the manners of each that Forster played with here, in his first novel (published 1905). If you’ve read A Room with a View, you’ll know that he eventually arrived at a masterful rendering of these themes.

Tremble ~ C.D. Wright

I’m a bit startled by the eroticism of most of Wright’s works here. She is undoubtedly a master. I grasp some of the poems easily, which usually results in a smile and a re-read. Others take me some time to puzzle out, and many are out of reach and I don’t understand them at all– which helps me to understand what my students sometimes feel when we read poetry that they find unforgivingly cryptic.

Writing Down the Bones ~ Natalie Goldberg
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI think I’m a little too analytical to wholeheartedly embrace Goldberg’s methods, which involves zen meditation and letting the writing flow through one in an organic, inspired way. I have not been writing much since school started, and I’m kicking myself a little to do the daily, purposeful practice that Goldberg recommends. Rejoice– today I finished a series of poems that have been brewing for two weeks!

Far From the Madding Crowd ~ Thomas Hardy

I paused my Hardy reading for quite a while, as you may remember. I’m back now, and the second part of the novel is beginning as Gabriel and Batsheba are in the flipped social position. The nonsense with the valentine, though… having been NOT one of the popular girls in school, I can’t quite get over the unkindness of sending a valentine that you didn’t really mean. But oh, such romance is awaiting me as I progress through this story. It’s quite thrilling.

Poetry in a Violent World

Today, despite the news that I heard on the radio, I had to go to school and teach children who are vulnerable and brave and hopeful and wise. I want their generation (which is still my generation) to be the one that ends the senseless gun violence that we’re living with.

Here’s a poem for them:

The Opposites Game
by Brendan Constantine

for Patricia Maisch

This day my students and I play the Opposites Game
with a line from Emily Dickinson. “My life had stood
a loaded gun,” it goes and I write it on the board,
pausing so they can call out the antonyms –

My // Your
Life // Death
Had stood ? // Will sit
A // Many
Loaded // Empty
Gun ?

For a moment, very much like the one between
lightning and it’s sound, the children just stare at me,
and then it comes, a flurry, a hail storm of answers –

Flower, says one. No, Book, says another. That’s stupid,
cries a third, the opposite of a gun is a pillow. Or maybe
a hug, but not a book, no way is it a book. With this,
the others gather their thoughts

and suddenly it’s a shouting match. No one can agree,
for every student there’s a final answer. It’s a song,
a prayer, I mean a promise, like a wedding ring, and
later a baby. Or what’s that person who delivers babies?

A midwife? Yes, a midwife. No, that’s wrong. You’re so
wrong you’ll never be right again. It’s a whisper, a star,
it’s saying I love you into your hand and then touching
someone’s ear. Are you crazy? Are you the president

of Stupid-land? You should be, When’s the election?
It’s a teddy bear, a sword, a perfect, perfect peach.
Go back to the first one, it’s a flower, a white rose.
When the bell rings, I reach for an eraser but a girl

snatches it from my hand. Nothing’s decided, she says,
We’re not done here. I leave all the answers
on the board. The next day some of them have
stopped talking to each other, they’ve taken sides.

There’s a Flower club. And a Kitten club. And two boys
calling themselves The Snowballs. The rest have stuck
with the original game, which was to try to write
something like poetry.

“It’s a diamond, it’s a dance,
the opposite of a gun is a museum in France.
It’s the moon, it’s a mirror,
it’s the sound of a bell and the hearer.”

The arguing starts again, more shouting, and finally
a new club. For the first time I dare to push them.
Maybe all of you are right, I say.

Well, maybe. Maybe it’s everything we said. Maybe it’s
everything we didn’t say. It’s words and the spaces for words.
They’re looking at each other now. It’s everything in this room
and outside this room and down the street and in the sky.

It’s everyone on campus and at the mall, and all the people
waiting at the hospital. And at the post office. And, yeah,
it’s a flower, too. All the flowers. The whole garden.
The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it.

Don’t write that on the board, they say. Just say poem.
Your death will sit through many empty poems.

Friday Reading Rainbow

The “Pace” of this week has been running around far too frantically and frazzledly (is that a word? Don’t know, but it’s how I feel). So this round-up will serve to show what I’ve been reading for the past 2 weeks! As always, feel free to comment with suggestions for what I should read next! 


I finished reading Ann Patchett’s very tricky and artful Commonwealth (see my thoughts upon starting it at the most recent Friday Reading Rainbow ) Some interesting notes:  I kept getting mixed up between which children belonged to which family, and my confusion persisted through till the end. I think this is intentional– the families are so intertwined and are really one family at times. Also, I find it fitting that the romantic relationships were either barely visible or were eclipsed by the sibling and parent-child relationships. It’s a hard task to prioritize these thornier non-sexual relationships in order to answer the questions the novel must ask.

And then I delved into Deborah Kennedy’s brand new gut-busting Tornado Weather. It is chillingly true to our time– notes from Trump country, from that “real America” we all wonder about, from working class laundromats, old car, dairy farms, and high schools. It is in some ways the America in which I currently teach, and in some ways not. The story: little Daisy Gonzalez disappears in her wheelchair from her bus stop on a tornado watch afternoon. A multitude of characters in the town gets a voice, an experience, and a view of the damage that’s been happening in their troubled year-2010 lives. I am crossing my fingers that they find hope.

May I suggest you buy a copy here at Indiebound 


Thanks so much to Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog for this fabulous piece, which my AP Language students enjoyed reading and dissecting: “The Little Girl at the Door”

I’m also enamored of this gorgeously sprawling essay on Fireflies by Ellie Shechet: “Summer in the Heartsick Mountains”  I don’t usually engage with writing about climate change– I find it too overwhelming, too big and too speculative to even comprehend. It’s something that I acknowledge as real and present, but have no sense of what to think or do about it. I’m saddened but intrigued by this essay, which feels specific enough to show environmental change in a way that makes sense to my emotions.

Have a great next week of reading, everyone!