BOOK REVIEW: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Processed with MaxCurveHow to Read Literature Like a Professor, Revised Edition:
A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines

Thomas C. Foster

Anyone who wants to be a better, more thoughtful reader should invest in How to Read Like a Professor. In the book, Foster, who retired from the University of Michigan-Flint in 2014, helps readers develop a deeper and more enriching experience of reading. Several times he emphasizes that there is really, fundamentally, only one story. While I think that is overstating things, he is correct that all of literature is engaged in an ongoing, unending conversation, and any one work can’t be seen in isolation.

Certain plot structures persist, archetypal characters recur, and works of literature refer to, draw upon, and play off each other. The more a reader knows about the body of literature and practices close reading, the more she will be rewarded for her efforts. Does this mean that reading isn’t worthwhile without this effort? Of course not! Good works of literature tell compelling stories with interesting characters, and that is enough for some readers in certain situations.

Works of literature are unique as are the people who consume them. Being a better reader then requires a flexible approach. Since there isn’t a single best way to analyze texts, Foster illustrates his strategies through examples and in studying not just the content of his analysis but also the process he used to arrive at it, readers can learn how to emulate him.

The chapters are loosely based on themes, such as eating, weather, illness, religion, sex, and so on. Foster also includes a chapter on Shakespeare and one on Greek mythology and how those stories continue to influence writers today. The final chapters serve as a type of empowering pep talk, cautioning readers to be aware of the political and sociological context on which a work was written and reminding them that they are better at analyzing literature than they think. A culminating chapter reproduces the short story, “The Garden Party,” as a practice run. I encourage you to read the story and collect your thoughts before reading Foster’s summary.

Although the examples are skewed toward classic literature, with good reason, Foster cites Western literature (defined widely as including novels, short stories, poems, films, and even songs) published as late as 2009 (Let the Great World Spin). Beloved and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison illustrate several theme and symbols as does Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. Foster also discusses films (e.g., O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and fairy tales. I learned a lot about books I’ve already read and been inspired to put other on my TBR list, maybe even Ulysses by James Joyce. Or maybe not.

Foster writes in an engaging, humorous, and irreverent yet authoritative conversational style. At time he is in dialogue with himself or a hypothesized student, and on the rare occasions he uses that device it works to cut through ambiguity. He makes readers feel empowered. Finishing How to Read Literature Like a Professor, you will gain insight into many literary works (from The Iliad to A Clockwork Orange), become attuned to watch for certain elements in the texts (e.g., signs of a quest; indications that a character might be Christlike), and gain confidence in your ability to interpret a text.

Foster reminds us that the best authors include the necessary interpretive tools within their creations. After all, they want to convey their message. Subtlety provides a rewarding challenge. Obfuscation fails by author and reader. A writer might include the most exquisite message but if no one understands it, the point is lost.

The more you exercise the symbolic imagination, the better and quicker it works. We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters those of the writer, and in that meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to. Imagination isn’t fantasy. That is to say, we can’t simply invent meaning without the writer, or if we can, we ought not to hold her to it. Rather, a reader’s imagination is the act of one creative intelligence engaging another.

As much as I liked the book, I had a few quibbles. Though the focus on Western literature is understandable given the target readership and adding books from non-Western cultures is beyond its scope, I wish Foster had acknowledged this limitation and perhaps briefly compared and contrasted literature from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East with that he discussed.

If he included the same work in different chapters (e.g., Song of Solomon), Foster at times repeated himself as if the writing was independent and/or uncoordinated; in other words, some novels and stories were summarized twice.

Most people who pick up How to Read Like a Professor likely do so because it is assigned reading. I encourage you to not to see it as a required text but to read it to enhance your own reading practice. I consider myself a fairy sophisticated reader, yet found the book valuable and I look forward to using its ideas.

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Vox by Christina Dalcher

VoxIn the not-too-distant future, Sam Meyers, advised by the fanatical Reverend Carl Corbin (leader of the Pure Movement), becomes President. Just a year into the Administration, they had systematically disenfranchised women. Women were no longer allowed to work, their passports were invalidated, premarital and extramarital sex were illegal, LGBT and other undesirables were put into labor camps–and women were fitted with word counters. These counters monitored women’s speech, and if a woman uttered more than 100 words in a day, she was shocked with an electric current that increased with the number of infractions.

Dr. Jean McClellan, previously a preeminent neurolinguist, was lured into the President’s service when his brother and key adviser, Bobby Meyers, suffered a skiing accident and developed aphasia. While Jean worked on a cure, she–and her daughter Sonia–were exempt from wearing the word counters. In a state-of-the-art lab, reunited with her previous team, Jean wrestles with the implications of her work and the fact that when it concludes, she’ll be subjected to the word counter again. Her estranged best friend from graduate school, Jackie Juarez, previously active politically but now assumed to be in a labor camp, became the voice of Jean’s conscious asking Jean what she would do for her freedom. Jean pushes herself to the limits of what she will do not just for her own freedom, but for that of all women in the United States.

The book has an interesting premise and draws from the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Future Home of a Living God. In flashbacks, Jean considers how the government laid the foundation for such widespread oppression–for one by requiring a religious class in high schools that taught the “proper” realms of men and women–and how she was complicit for failing to become involved politically. She also traces how men respond to their new power, often through reflections on her husband, Patrick, who doesn’t believe in the Pure Movement but who is willing to keep Jean’s books locked up and prevent her from using the computer, so far as telling her that things aren’t that bad. How a class of people might react to newfound power is an interesting component of the book. Jean’s son, Steven, becomes a true believer in the Pure Movement, and it is revealing how she struggles in her relationship with him.

The society under Meyers is harrowing, and, like many of these dystopian novels, not impossible to imagine. Especially in the last half of the book, I was compelled to read to find out what would happen. Diminishing my enjoyment of the novel, though, were frequent plot holes, unconvincing twists of logic, or simply confusing passages. I also didn’t like the writing style which to me was too conversational and casual. That said, I do think readers who are fans of this genre will enjoy Dalcher’s addition.

Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing for an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn BrighterGirls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poornami and Savitha meet soon after Poornami’s mother dies of cancer. It seems her father views this as little more than an inconvenience. Poornami won’t be able to marry until a year after the death, and the loom Poornami’s mother operated stands empty, reducing the family income. Poornami’s father decides to hire a laborer, and Savitha, near Poornami’s age, joins the family business. While her father and Savitha weave the saris for which their region is known, Poornami spins cotton thread. As part of her wages, Savitha receives meals at the family home, but she and Poornami are only allowed to eat after the patriarch. Sometimes, he takes seconds, leaving very little for the teenage girls to share.

Immediately, the girls develop a strong bond of friendship, with Poornami in awe of Savitha’s zest for and enjoyment of life, and Savitha telling Poornami that everything is bland and colorless except her. They look forward to seeing a movie for the first time together, and Savitha starts staying at Poornami’s during the night so she can work on an indigo sari for Poornami while still completing her tasks for her father. Poornami even sabotages a meeting with a potential husband because he lived too far away for Savitha to visit. But after a harrowing ordeal, Savitha leaves the village, taking only the half-finished sari, and Poornami, alone, marries into a family that values her only for her domestic labor. So begins Savitha’s quest to find freedom and Poornami’s journey back to Savitha.

The women encounter domestic abuse, prostitution, human trafficking, poverty, and sexual violence as they struggle to maintain the internal hope–the light that burns inside–that allows them to press forward despite the numerous setbacks and overwhelming odds. Although some of the men with which they cross paths are kind, or at least helpful, the majority are predatory and treat the women as objects or investments giving them the feeling they are owned and have little agency, though both of them in turn use men, and Poornami is particularly adept at reading people and manipulating the men around her. Still, these moments are few.

About halfway through the novel, the setting moves to Seattle, and it is interesting to read how Savitha and later Poornami react to America. At one point, Poornami reflects, “What a mysterious country, she thought, how small for all its vastness.” The move also complicates Savitha’s efforts to escape her bonds since she is unable to speak English, and, even when people might be trying to help her, she can’t understand them. One moment of clarity comes when a character points a gun at her forehead. “”Now she understood. The whole night now a violence of understanding.”

Overwhelmingly, this is a novel of false starts and setbacks, and when Savathi finally realizes that “all the beacons of the world, standing all in a row, couldn’t save her,” it’s easy to understand her hopelessness. In fact, it was hard to imagine how the characters maintained a drive to press forward when they faced so many obstacles. There were times I had to put the book aside because the pain and devastation were so completely relentless. With a somewhat ambiguous ending, there’s nothing to halt the despair. So while the novel is well-written, it is difficult emotionally. I found the book valuable for the depiction of the oppression of Indian girls and women, particularly of a particular social class but I questioned if the presentation was the most effective possible.

View all my reviews

We Are Not Yet Equal

we are not yet equal.pngIn 2016, Carol Anderson shocked readers with her book White Rage which revealed the insidious and often hidden racism underlying laws and institutions in the United States. Here, she and Tonya Bolden have adapted the book for a young adult audience. The well-written and engaging book begins in the aftermath of the Civil War and continues through the Obama Presidency and traces the lost opportunities for providing equality to all. Over and over again, the United States reaches a fulcrum, a moment in history, where inequities could be redressed: the Civil War, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Era, the Obama Presidency. Rather than use those watershed moments to boldly and justly address past wrongs, the government, supported by a large swath of white citizens, undermines the gains to maintain the status quo of white supremacy.

For example, instead of holding Civil War rebels to account, the federal government under Lincoln and Johnson prioritized reunification. Oppressive Black Codes went unchallenged by the federal government. Johnson in particular stymied efforts of Congress to redress the evils from centuries of slavery. Though Congress overturned his vetoes of legislation of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, Johnson’s pardon of Southern rebels meant that their elected representatives were leaders from the Confederacy. Poll taxes and unfavorable decisions by the Supreme Court undermined efforts to provide rights to blacks.

After reading this book, I feel completely and utterly gutted and outraged at the lack of justice and compassion reflected in the actions of the country’s leaders, lawmakers, and many citizens. Although there was a time that new racism was disguised by an ideology supporting color-blindness, under Trump, spewing hate based on race has become acceptable once more.

I learned so much. While I knew that Southern states were resistant to the Brown decision, I didn’t realize the lengths to which they went to prevent integration. Several students were without education for years while local and state governments delayed implementation. Though I was aware of the challenges to voting rights through voter ID laws, many of the specific examples presented here were new to me.

Sadly, I became disillusioned with Presidents Lincoln and Eisenhower, Lincoln for failing to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War and Eisenhower for failing to use the power of his office to enact the Brown decision. Nixon and Reagan’s racist policies disguised as tough-on-crime stances were not surprising. I also didn’t know the extent of the Supreme Court’s role in undermining progress. With some exceptions, like Brown, their rulings weakened protections of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, undercut the Voting Rights Act, and rang a death knell for affirmative action.

I regret not reading White Rage before We Are Not Yet Equal because I can’t compare them. I can attest that the latter is an important stepping-stone to dialogue on ways to halt this chain of oppression. Although written for a young adult audience (and seems appropriate for such an audience in terms of content and language), adults will find it enlightening as well. The material presented in the book is important and necessary.

Although I have few criticisms of the book, I did find the chapter on the Voting Rights Act more technical and less engaging than the other chapters, though the information was important. I thought the weakest chapter was on Obama’s administration. Though it related the rancor and disrespect Obama faced, it seemed to be less grounded in research than the rest of the book. Perhaps my biggest complaint though is that there is no guidance on where to go from here. The author ends with hope that knowing about white rage can lead to a challenge of its racist consequences, but offers nothing beyond that. Maybe it will be the subject of her next book–and I would definitely read it!

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. for an advance reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Instructions for a Funeral

Instructions for a Funeral.jpg

David Mean’s short story collection, Instructions for a Funeral, contains provocative and heart-wrenching stories about fatherhood, relationships, addiction, and regret. The title story, “Instructions for a Funeral” finds William Kenner delineating his last wishes to his lawyer and in so doing relating a betrayal by a friend and an encounter with organized crime. In “Terminal Artist,” the narrator learns that a friend he thought had died from complications from surgery during cancer treatment might have instead been the victim of an “angel of mercy.” After challenging a rich town boy to a fight for saying he hated Okies, ranch hand Frankie catches the eye of Sarah Breeland who saw in him a complicated kindness.

Two sets of stories are interconnected; the rest stand alone. However, the stories share common themes, one being a sense of fate, destiny, or premonition and how memory can retroactively give certain events or moments significance. For example, one character considers the time immediately before learning his wife had an affair: “On the penultimate day, as I now think of it, the point through which the rest of my life with Sharon would seem to bow, or, rather, bend, so that everything that transpired after that afternoon seemed to lead to the day when Sharon confessed to me, admitted that, yes, she had been seeing X, but that she had broken it off with him, let go of him, was how she put it.” Forgiveness also appeared in multiple stories as did the creation of stories. Ultimately, all the stories seemed to have thematic cohesion with the exception of El Morro which didn’t fit as well in the collection.

Overall, I liked the writing style, but I did find some devices the author used to be distracting at best, at worst, irritating. In multiple stories, the phrase “I thought, I think” or a close variation is used a total of ten times. Although it points to the fallibility of memory and furthers the theme, the sheer volume of the phrase made it lose meaning. Another frequent device was a parenthetical comment followed by an exclamation point (e.g., “I still despise that phrase!” or “Yes, fucking navels!”) which I found off-putting. Finally, the sentences and the paragraphs were unduly long. I found myself frequently rereading because I’d get lost in the prose. As I progressed through the book, I got more accustomed to the style, but it did make for a challenging reading experience.

I wasn’t sure if we were to assume the same person narrated all the stories, but in any case, in many stories, the narrator was a writer and meditated on the art of writing (with two stories explicitly about writing). In “Terminal Artist,” for example, the narrator reflects, “I’d never be able to use her death in a story. I’d have to find some other way, I thought.” Several times, this idea of using the events in the narrative in a story arises. On the one hand, it is interesting to think of how stories are constructed from real-life events and then are manipulated and reformed by the author, but the idea came up so often, it felt overdone and lost effectiveness.

That said, I enjoyed the collection and came away feeling touched. Ultimately, it was through the stories and the retelling that the events gained meaning or, as Means describes it, provides a state of “deeper grace.”

Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.