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Monday, April 30, 2007

The Rewards of Teaching...

I finished reading Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief" a few days ago. I have been unable to post because my weekend was filled with grading and also with the purchase of my first-ever, top of the line lawn mower. It was an interesting adventure to actually buy one of these things, really. It took us nearly a month to decide on one. It took me an hour and a half to do the front yard alone.

At any rate, I finished a few days ago with "The Palace Thief." The three stories that follow "The Accountant" (of which I wrote before) are excellent and each one grows in excellence from one to the next. The crowning achievement of this collection is, of course, the title story. In "Batorsag and Szerelem" a family struggles to understand a son who seems gifted in mathematics. As a regular genius, he is indulged and praised. The narrator, the genius' little brother, struggles with himself and his eccentricity. He invents his own language, which essentially turns out to be Hungarian at the end of the story. There are some compelling passages here regarding the protagonist's identity and the narrator's effort to convey this. I am not going to write to spoil any of these fascinating stories, so you'll have to read them and find out. In "City of Broken Hearts," the narrator, a middle-aged gentleman whose wife had just left him, is receiving his son who is away at college. His son is only staying one day at home (Boston) and father and son decide to go to a Red Soxs game. The dialogue between father and son is an exquisite ballet of alluding and avoidance, a constant back and forth game of "one-upmanship." It all boils down to a father concerned with his son's future and a son who in turn able to shape his father's life in the time he spends with him. Excellent twist.

"The Palace Thief" is an excellent story about a teacher at a preparatory school. He teaches antiquity, the history of the great civilizations. He takes under his wing a problematic student who turns out to be the catalyst of the story. The narrator is gifted--Canin's use of language here is particularly interesting. Canin is able to reproduce a diction of high intellectual with great ease. The narrator, Mr. Hundert, prepares the annual history competition, "Mr. Julius Cesear." As a teacher he fails to promote the one student who actually was supposed to compete in order to fit in the rebellious one, Sedgewick Bell. The story is about failures, repercussions, and the power of a teacher to make difference (for good or bad). I loved it because it mirrored some of the things I deal with in the classroom almost daily.

I am now reading "Dog Soldiers" by Robert Stone. This books won the National Book Award, but I am still struggling to find out why. I have read "Bear and His Daughter" and also "A Flag for Sunrise" by Robert Stone, and it was on the strength of these that I ventured into "Dog Soldiers." The story takes place in the last days of the Vietnam War. The protagonist, one John Converse, is preparing a drug deal that is supposed to make him rich, but the story doesn't go according to his liking. I am still early on the story, so I can't comment much. More to follow.

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At 1:11 AM, Blogger suzanabrams said...

Yes, I remembered you talking about The Accountant. I don't quite like the title Dog Soldiers though.
I wonder if titles ever put you off a book, JCR. Hope you'll post an entry on this thought, sometime. ;-)


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