Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Recent Work/Reading

My new (in the 4th month, is it still new?) job as librarian in a junior high (grades 7-8) has been a bit frustrating at time. I have read so few of the books that my students read/should be reading. I taught high school, mostly juniors and seniors, English for fifteen years, and I have no children. I hated the Children's Literature class that I took two summers ago. I haven't yet acquired a taste for much young adult literature either. So, I looked forward to reading something by an author that I knew and respected. I wasn't disappointed either.

Years ago, I read one or two short stories by Sherman Alexie, and I had seen the movie based on some of his short stories, Smoke Signals. I have heard him interviewed on radio and television, but I have never read one of his novels. When I heard that he won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature this year, I was excited for two reasons. First, I actually knew the author of a book that I might want to purchase for my school's library collection. Second, I remember enjoying the stories and the film and enjoying his interviews--he seemed like an affable, funny guy.

The whole time I was reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian I kept thinking about Whitman's "Song of Myself." (I'm sure some smarter critic has already pointed out the similarities, but I can't find evidence of it online.) At first I thought the similarity was just a physical similarity--the printed pages looked like some (much?) of Whitman's poem: The short, sometimes only one sentence, paragraphs and the use of cataloging, parallel structure, and repetition. After I finished reading the novel, I thought more about the thematic similarities, and I kept trying to remember Whitman's line with "barbaric yawp" in it. The next morning at work after I finished the novel , I pulled a book of Whitman's poems off the shelf--ah! the joys of working in a library. I browsed through "Song of Myself" to find the line, which is in the final part. I read through this part of the poem several times, and I really think that the whole part sounds like Arnold Spirit, Alexie's protagonist.
"The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me....he
complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed....I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the
shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air....I shake my white locks at the runaway
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at the first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you."
(I wish that I knew Ginsberg's Howl better, and I might be able to make some connections between it and this book too. I know that Howl has been much compared to Whitman's "Song of Myself. " I could go into a detailed comparative analysis here, but since I'm not an English teacher or student right now, I'm not. Plus, it would bore and/or scare off my few remaining readers, and I wouldn't want to do that. )

Arnold Spirit is this boy who has so much bad in his life that it would be easy to accept him giving up and settling for a life of too little everything except bad. Instead, he strikes out on his own and succeeds, but not without struggle and not without the help of family and friends along the way. Wow! What a trite summary. I promise this novel is not trite!

I think this novel tells a great American story. And you have to love a book with a character who compares the joy of reading a good book with getting a boner. :-)