January 3, 2014

How Much Power Is In Light


My original plan was to cheat the system and read every word, but the last whole page of words in, We, The Drowned.  However, I started that book like four weeks before Christmas and couldn’t even finish it.  It’s a colossal whale of 700 and some pages about shipping in Norwegian territories and the dramas of the seas, both on the plank and off.  Holy Shoe Horn, I’m only 300 pages of the way through.  That plan plummeted to the ground rather swiftly when I decided not to even pack the book for the mountains for New Years.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946, The Arrival 1913.

Instead some singing angel made it possible that TransAtlantic was finally available for me in the library system.  I think I waited almost five months to read this one, so long that I had forgotten that I even requested it at the time of that little email saying it was ready for me to borrow for only SEVEN days.  If you saw my reading speed last year, then you know that I hardly ever read a book in seven days.  I read a book a week if you look at the sheer number of books (58), but that was because some weeks my Maury drill sergeant of a professor didn’t assign as much reading as others for American Lit.   Colum McCann was all mine through the new year, with his rave reviews and historical fiction, how could I not be completely enthralled with how he mapped American history with Irish history.  As an Irish/Belgian/Cherokee American I am deeply interested in those cultures through the eyes of literature both nonfiction and fiction.  I haven’t read Let The Grade World Spin (feel free to harangue me in your nicest sarcastic voice within the comments for this serious blunder) or any of his other wildly imaginative stories so I had no real gage of what to expect.  I feel like I’m leading up to how great this book was, but in fact, I felt it dud like a pebble in a well.  It was unexpectedly boring at times, actually.

Colum McCann, Transatlantic

Well, that’s not really fair.  It was boring in parts and deeply interesting in others.  I think when McCann was focused on the inner lives of the women that are tied together by (come to find out) one letter that has crossed the fogged seas, I was much more interested than the generalities in other chapters.  In the beginning, I was pretty involved with the first flight of Brown and Alcock.  Being a native of NC, I think I have to be interested in flight as we claim to have the “First in Flight” on our license plates.  However, I think this was more so that I love when authors take something that I know nothing about and give intricate details of how those things work.  It’s much like Roth’s description of making gloves in American Pastoral (which I’m still not over if anyone asks). I was hushed when the men were in the density of cloud without any gage or compass to secure whether they were in sky or herding just above the land.  It was engrossing.

Frederick Douglass Reading, Tumblr

The next part is a perspective on the life of Frederick Douglass, which in my eyes, you just don’t touch.  I like Frederick Douglass from his own writing, with his own tone and not in some fictional debut of Douglass for new generations (although I appreciate reintroducing his importance and in this book, celebrity, for the younger minds).  I found Douglass to be dislikable in this telling, and I’ve never thought that before.  Especially, in the later chapters when the girls go to see him speak and Lily talks about his new white wife, who seemed a bit of a trophy (especially when his African American wife is told from the perspective that she isn’t necessarily anything but a marker of where he’s come from – slavery).  I don’t know, I had a bad taste with this section.  I was fascinated by Douglass’ barbells and will be researching those for my own dorky curiosity.

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 10.51.36 PMThe women in this novel were the true stars.  Lily was inspiring just in the fact that she believed in the American Dream, some dormant seed growing within her, inspired by a man who didn’t even remember her name over dinner, yet knew that her face was familiar in its sweet modesty.  I immediately responded to her view of American culture and I think all of us want to know a bit of where we’ve come from.  That is the power in this collection of interweaving stories from one woman, Lily Duggen, to her daughters for generations.

By Pseudolibrary @ Tumblr

The girls have such fascinating lives.  You wouldn’t think that ice chunks, and moving ice chunks across a lake, and growing ice chunks from a frozen lake made perfect by drilling holes, not for baiting, but for icing, would be the most interesting thing in a novel, but it seriously was.  Lily’s inner life with her son during the war and her husband in the ice harvesting and manufacturing business was the best part of this novel for me.  It was also the showing of true triumph over self and country.  Lily moved to America on Douglass’s word that it was a county moving towards greater freedom, and come to find out the soldiers she sewed up didn’t ever speak of freedom, but just of war.  Women were objects, which is what history tells us we should be, though we have clearly proved to be immovable in our strength and move than moving in our ability to “get shit done.”

July 19, in 1848, Frederick Douglass attends the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. He speaks in defense of its organizer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

After working as the laundress of a war hospital (and an almost-nurse) she meets her husband who has an ice trade and a carriage and for some reason, I thought this one of the sweeter marriages in literature.  It was a marriage of convenience, but still one of love.  The women that follow in the line of Duggen’s all had this unbalance in their lives of expectations.  Nothing was all true, or all untrue for any of them.  Each suffered a full life; loss, hardships, floating, sarcasm and grandeur.  None of these women lived perfectly, loved perfectly, or expected “perfectly.”

I think I really learned the true value of this book only at the end because the final daughter with the last paper-eaten letter was my favorite character in the whole story.  She cloaked wetsuit and swam belly-up in her lough, caked in debt and grimy dog fur, and lived as a broken single woman in the shell of her family’s legacy. Yet, she wasn’t a victim.  She had struck this almost perfect, and strange, cord of rebellion with defeat.  Some of the best quotes are in this final section and some of the best characterization throughout the whole book.

“How had he ended up here, at the edge of the Irish Sea? What was it that brought us such distances, rowing upwards into the past” (283). 

“I am not in the opinion that we become empty chars, but we certainly end up making room for others along the way” (267).

“As a boy Tomas loved the notion that the light hitting our eyes might be coming from a star that had already disappeared” (255). 

“It’s hardly wisdom, but the older I get the more I believe that our lives are built not out of time, but light.  The problem is that the images that so often return to me are seldom those I want” (254).

Colum McCann – The Millions – Tumblr Quote

It’s true this is a slow one.  It was a hilled read, there were sections that I would completely high gear and there were sections that I just had to drudge through to get to the next.  I think I can safely say it was worth trudging through.  That would only be fair to the famined mother, Lily Duggen, the child of Brown, and the constellations of Tomas’s decisions.  It was a good first read for the year, a solid one.  Not overwhelmingly good, like it’s all down hill from here, and not bottom rung so that I have to make sure the next one is glowing.

Lastly, the end of my Fall Semester with these first students is January 17th.  I am a blubbering baby when it comes to Of Mice and Men, that book completely broke me, but I know that it’s not everyone’s favorite read.  There are two options below for what my students should read entirely next semester.  Let me know what you think.

44 comments so far.

44 responses to “How Much Power Is In Light”

  1. “Of Mice and Men” always gets my vote. Yes, blubbering (me, too) but there are so many THINGS to be gleaned from it. Love and loyalty and racism and sexism and how we treat the people we’ve discarded from society and history and and and…

    I might be a little bit in love with the book.

    Plus then you can show them the amazing John Malkovich/Gary Busey film version, which made me cry so hard I had to hide in the bathroom to compose myself when it was done.

    I’m going to read two very short books right now to start my new year reading off right and then get back to the longer book which has yet to hook me. Sorry, longer book!

    Happy New Year!

    • Cassie says:

      BAH! I know. I agree completely. One of the fellow teachers recommended The Old Man and the Sea and while I get its worth and my students only have to really handle one character in that one, OF MICE AND MEN IS SO GOOD. I could read it every semester ever. There’s so much to talk about on the topic of “how we treat the people we’ve discarded from society and history…and and and…” I almost can’t change books. I did To Kill a Mockingbird for two semesters, that was interesting, but far too dense for a semester when my students don’t read at home. It’s just a hot bed for debate though. So is Of Mice and Men if I can hit it right, though.

  2. Darn! I just got “We, the Drowned”. You didn’t like it at all? I had been thinking of reading Transatlantic, now I think I’ll take it off my list. I’d go with Mice and Men too.

    • Cassie says:

      Oh no, I REALLY like We, The Drowned. It’s got a great story line, it’s just a long, long book. The characters are wonderful though. Definitely read that. I will keep going with it too. I think a ton of people liked TransAtlantic so don’t just take my word. Claire and Word by Word blog really loved it and wrote an awesome review.

  3. grainsifter says:

    I love Colum McCann’s writing nook. Have you seen it?
    (Happy New Year, Cassie!)

  4. Oh please do not make them read Old Man and the Sea, that book nearly put me off reading for life – it was the first book in my then short life that weighed me down and removed from prose all that I loved (only I was too young to understand why or how it succeeded to do that). And I never read another Hemingway until about 30 years later as a result! I hadn’t read any Steinbeck until recently, but when I did, I was happy to discover that his way with words is the opposite, one strips it back, the other fires the imagination and allows for an emotional experience.

    Great review of Transatlantic, I agree the women carry the story – I was fascinated by the historical figures as well, since I didn’t really know them and also the setting, as I had recently been to Northern Ireland before reading and could imagine those Irish landscapes, especially at the end.

    I think what you experienced, is particular to McCann, as with Let the Great World Spin, it’s not a regular story line, he brings things together and it can unnerve the reader, as we start on a narrative path only for it to shift, some even ask of that book if they are series of short stories.

    I liked the portrayal of the character Frederick Douglass, though admit I had no knowledge of him, I didn’t feel him to be judged (though if he were one of my national heroes I may have seen his portrayal differently), but I loved how McCann, made him see poverty and desperation as another form of bondage, developing in him a layer of compassion for a situation, he could not have imagined. The only thing I didn’t like was a feeling about Lily, as if there may have been something insinuated there, it threatened to undermine his aura.

    He’s also an interesting and engaging writer to listen to, which always makes me all the more forgiving of flaws, than I might be for a complete unknown. so a little bit of reader bias 🙂

    • Cassie says:

      I love Steinbeck. I think he’s brilliant and I think Of Mice and Men is a great piece as it relates to history and the American Great Depression and race relations and what’s expected of humans in different generations. I’m not sure I can give him up just yet for Old Man and the Sea. And everyone is saying Steinbeck so I think he’s the clear winner, I wouldn’t want to put any child off prose. Ah!

      I liked the way Douglass changed throughout his visit to Ireland when he did see the mass poverty, but then I didn’t think he really changed enough. I had to kind of realize that in Ireland he was actually a chosen one. I’m going to have to look more into that specific moment in his history. I was just unnerved by his fictional attitude to things. I think I should have seen the barbells as more of a symbol of his thinking all that he’s seen over, but at the time of reading I was a bit frustrated.

      I’m going to watch some McCann videos on YouTube today and hear him read and talk. I think I may have the wrong impression of him. Bah! I hate when this happens.

      You’re right about the format. Usually I love stories like this that are fragmented and have a short story feel, but I hated being bogged down to a few of those characters at times.

  5. Brianna Soloski says:

    Colum McCann is speaking and workshopping at my alma mater next weekend as part of the residency for the MFA program. I’ve never read any of his books and likely won’t, but I am still sad to be missing the chance to meet an author. I voted in your poll for Of Mice and Men, having never read The Old Man and the Sea.

    • Cassie says:

      That’s awesome. I wish I loved closer to a college with a speaking program. Maybe next move. I think Of Mice and Men is the clear winner.

      • Brianna Soloski says:

        I read Of Mice and Men in 9th grade. It should be required life reading, along with Night by Elie Weisel.

        • Cassie says:

          I have taught both of those. : )

          • Brianna Soloski says:

            Good. Keep doing that. The world will be better for it.

          • Cassie says:

            I agree, dear.

          • Brianna Soloski says:

            :). Off topic, I didn’t set a Goodreads goal this year. It feels like too much pressure. I’d rather just read and see what happens, ya know?

          • Cassie says:

            Good for you. I did because it just keeps me reading even when I’ve read four bad books in a row, haha. Are you doing other challenges or reading certain things?

          • Brianna Soloski says:

            I’m not doing any challenges this year. I have a feeling school is going to be nuts and I’ll be doing well if I can read a magazine on the weekends. I would like to read at least six books in the journalism/PR/marketing field, though. I read a statistic the other day that if you read in your field for an hour each day you’ll be an informational expert within seven years. And since I’m obsessed with all that stuff lately, I do a fair bit of reading.

          • Cassie says:

            I think that’s probably true. Lucky, I read in my field every single day! Woo!!!!

          • Brianna Soloski says:


          • Brianna Soloski says:

            Also, four bad books in a row? That is no joke. 🙁

  6. My vote is for Of Mice and Men. There’s nothing wrong with depressing. But then again, my school forced us to read lots of Canadian Lit and most of that is depressing. Cold, windy, despairing and depressing. Sad literature makes us stronger after the blubbering subsides.

    I read Let the Great World Spin and found that slow at times too. McCann likes to beat around the bush a lot but he writes well enough to keep you reading.

    • Cassie says:

      Haha you’re preaching to the choir, I love sad literature. I’ve taught Of Mice and Men before and my students were shocked by the ending. I’m hoping to bring more of the historical perspective and the lack of equality this semester though. It’s the clear winner.

      I kept reading because by the time I didn’t really love it, I was over halfway through. I just thought surely it was going to speed up. It didn’t, but that didn’t make it bad, just not the best.

      • What grades do you teach? I felt the same way about Let the Great World Spin. Not our cup of tea I suppose.

        • Cassie says:

          Right now, I teach every high school grade, but true literature only to ninth grade. The rest are in creative writing and newspaper. It’s the best job and really, all my school has to pick from is sad literature. I feel like any of the ninth grade novels could break a person. I was thinking of reading Let The Great World Spin, but now I don’t think I will. I don’t want to read another slow story at the moment. Sometimes those are just what you need though.

          • That sounds like such a fun job! I bet it can be pretty hard too — but it sounds like you get to talk about good books all day. Wish my school had a newspaper class. I ended up in PR so that would have been useful.

            We should start a genre called “Slow Books” for good and slow books — kinda like the Slow Food Movement.

          • Cassie says:

            I just started teaching newspaper this semester and it actually has been really fun.

            Let’s do that. The one slow book that comes to mind that I really liked was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. How about you?

          • Cassie says:

            PS. I’m about to sound really lame, but PR looks like so much fun on television. Do you like it?

          • I really liked Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay. It was one of my first blog posts: http://brokenpenguins.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/the-sweet-sinister-lullaby-of-alone-in-the-classroom/

            I really enjoy working in PR! It’s nowhere as glam as television makes it out to be. For one, I work in healthcare PR so there are no celebrities, restaurant openings and brand name clothing lol. But I did get to shadow a nurse once and thought was beyond awesome. I get to write all day and I wouldn’t trade that for anything 🙂

          • Cassie says:

            Love it! That sounds like an ideal job for a writer 🙂 I would be freaking out to shadow a nurse, all those sick people and paperwork, ah! I’m going to add that to my to reads on Goodreads an try to find it at the library. Right now, the book I’m reading is disgustingly weird.

          • So disgusting that you don’t want to finish it?

            I shadowed a mental health nurse so at least it wasn’t gory. But there were other issues. I have even more more respect for nurses and doctors after that experience.

          • Cassie says:

            Oh I bet! I’m amazed that they can take two different organic chems in college, let alone their actual job. Talk about stress management.

            And no, I’m going to finish it. I’m one of those people that almost has to knish anything. So far, there’s been an apocalypse where a family eats each other, neighbors hang themselves and grown women dream about kissing nine year olds boys. It’s pretty…disturbing.

          • Wow, that sounds crazy. That’s not Don’t Kiss Me is it? My coworker was recently telling me about a Murakami book where a man decapitates cats and keeps their heads in his fridge.

          • Cassie says:

            That is Don’t Kiss Me, very shock factor. That’s insane about the cats. I’m such a cat lady, I’m not sure I could read that.

          • I’m not a cat person and I’m not sure I can read it! Woah, the cover of Don’t Kiss Me makes it look like chick lit.

          • Cassie says:

            I should have had a warning when the author of Tampa (if you haven’t seen that cover, you have to go to a bookstore and feel it, it feels like sexual tension…seriously…it’s like short fur…) wrote a blurb on the back of it. The interesting thing is that almost every story in the collection was published in a literary magazine before it became this collection. They’re all SUPER short as well, definitely flash, so it will be a quick and easy read, one of those between doing something reads. Maybe I should keep it in the bathroom for guests after I finish it, hm?

            Unfortunately, for my boyfriend who is allergic, I have two cats. A boy and a girl and the boy had to have been an Egyptian pharaoh cat because he’s very snarky, sleek, sophisticated and full of himself. My girl cat on the other hand is just a ridiculous little happy thing. She’s just happy to be alive everyday which is awesome to have when I have a bad day at work. Do you have any pets, now that we’re having a full convo in the comments section of this post, haha!

  7. paulaacton says:

    I picked of Mice and Men if it has to be a choice between the two as Hemingway is a little harder to relate to for most people and I am not really sure what your criteria is for the choice. Two books I would suggest worth considering at some point are both more modern and by Geraldine Brooks, the first March which as you know is written as a ‘prequel’ to Little women and opens up possibilities for discussion both around the topics contained but also the aspects of writing related to famous works and her other book The Year of Wonders which offers a fascinating insight historically and in terms of human abilities to adapt. or not as the case may be and the way confinement alters peoples rational functions.

    • Cassie says:

      Paula, there are SO MANY other books I would love to read with my students, but I don’t have that luxury. I won’t go into details here, but my choices are limited. If you’ve read any posts about my particular school, you would understand. I don’t think any of them have even heard of Little Woman, even though I personally loved March and need to read it again with Little Woman. I definitely want to read The Year of Wonders. I think it’s actually in my book room. I will pick that up based on your recommendation and maybe I can teach an excerpt of it to my students in one unit or another of it fits. I did excerpts of The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao this past semester and my students loved it.

  8. christinasr says:

    So did you go back to We, the Drowned? It’s Carsten Jensen’s novel about Marstal, right? I actually think there’s a sequel too… I never read it – my boyfriend dislikes Jensen so much that it must have rubbed off a bit…

    • Cassie says:

      I’m reading it among other books. It’s not a book (I feel) that you can continually read and not metaphorically drown in. It’s not the fastest read and it can bog you down. Is there seriously a sequel? That’s insane. I started reading it because I randomly loved the cover on the bottom shelf of the bookstore and then on goodreads someone I trust said they cried a good sob after they finished the last page so then I wanted to see what made them cry.

      Why does your boyfriend dislike him so much? I wasn’t aware that he had written a lot more than We, the Drowned. I haven’t really researched. I definitely have authors I hate for irrational reasons though (Jodi Picoult) so I understand. : )

      • christinasr says:

        He has written a lot but mostly travel writing and I don’t think much of it has been translated. I think I misspoke about a sequel. There’s a book about a painter from Marstal but it’s not a sequel.
        My boyfriend has read a couple of his travel books and I think what he dislikes is that these books are more about the author than the travels. I don’t know. I have a book he wrote about life after having children and I really should get around to reading that!

        • Cassie says:

          That’s interesting because We, The Drowned is like one giant fictional travel book. It’s on ships mostly, but I do feel like I know these towns as fictional as they are even if they’re in real places. It would be incredibly annoying to read a travel book more about the person. I can understand why your boyfriend doesn’t like him.

  9. stim says:

    One reason I’m glad to have stumbled onto your site is that we, as far as I can tell, come from different reading histories (if that’s a phrase; if not, it is now), i.e. we haven’t read many of the same books. When you came to a section of drudgery in Transatlantic, did the drudgery reflect the events of the story at that moment?

    • Cassie says:

      I think the drudgery reflected the language. He writes at a slow pace I think as in the story moved slow because he over described things that maybe I didn’t necessarily need. I love a beautiful description and in some ways I don’t even need a plot if the language is that beautiful, but in this book it seemed forced and overdone. I think it needed a bit more fine tuning by an editor.

      I love that we have different reading histories. I will be able to discover writers from your recommendations.

  10. Bea says:

    I am so glad that you get such good advice from your fellow bloggers. I recommend Of Mice and Men, because I can remember when you read it. You were truly moved, and it made for interesting conversations with you. I am sure that is what you will get from your students when they read it.

    As for the different reading histories, how wonderful is that! You can both glean from each other.

Leave a Reply

Hi, I’m Cass

I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,104 other subscribers


Videos I found beautiful on the interwebs this month

Subscribe to our mailing list: