Bad Teacher, Bad Novel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Let the record state that Miss Jean Brodie (whether in her prime or not) is the worst kind of teacher. She keeps a math problem up on the board during the period when they’re supposed to be doing arithmetic. She tells her students to keep their books open on their desks, so it appears they’re doing history. Instead, she tells them stories of her life, particularly of her stirring romance with her perfect man in the marvelously orderly Mussolini-controlled Italy. This man, conveniently, tragically died in WWI, opening the door for two sort of love affairs with other male teachers. She chooses favorites, a group of girls acknowledged by the whole school as the “Brodie set.” She meets with them on weekends and treats them to the theater and outings on her dime. She tells her students to study on their own, so they’ll pass their end of year exams. And, despite all of this, the headmistress can never quite nail her on any fire-able crime. She deserves every scornful stare sent her way by the other teachers at the school who, presumably, are actually doing their jobs, however boring they may be to the Brodie girls. Continue reading

To Be Jewish and To Be American: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Good luck identifying a protagonist in any of Philip Roth’s stories. The good are never fully good, or they don’t stay very good for very long. Good and bad? It’s all relative, to one another, to community, to circumstance. Roth writes characters with the best intentions and the biggest flaws, a recipe for delightfully surprising fiction. How can you, as a reader, not be endeared to his quirky, sincere characters? Once you’re wrapped around his finger, Roth sends you through the wringer, revealing previous blind spots and facing you and his characters with questions of ethics and morality, of right and wrong. The only thing definitively good is Roth’s writing, with its ear for how people talk and a knack for expressing how they think. Continue reading

Narrative History and “So What?”: Hiroshima by John Hersey

It began as a normal day in Hiroshima, till a blinding flash of light destroyed a city and killed thousands. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a singular moment in the history of warfare. Though armed conflict has, of course, changed and evolved in the 70 years since the end of WWII, nuclear weapons — and who does and doesn’t have them — still puts diplomats the world over on edge. John Hersey’s masterful narrative history Hiroshima illustrates why we care so much about nukes, even if another nuclear weapon is never detonated again. Continue reading

Linked Together: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Whether you love it or hate it, Love Actually shows the connections between a group of ostensibly independent Londoners. Liam Neeson’s wife just died; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s marriage is on the rocks; Hugh Grant is the Prime Minister and lusting after his assistant. Three separate, distinct stories. But Liam and Emma are old friends; Emma and Hugh are actually siblings. Each story in Love Actually connects to another.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is Love Actually’s superior predecessor. In Woolf’s post-WWI London, a unified narrative voice swoops from the interiority of one character to another. How many thoughts do you have in a day? How many revelations? In a day, in a life, what stays the same?  In a day, in a life, what can change? Slowly? Suddenly? Though Woolf’s narrative voice is consistent, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates how different people and their perspectives are. Ultimately, though, that consistent voice demonstrates an interconnectedness that transcends our differences. Continue reading