Books in August

The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping our children thrive when the world overwhelms them by Elaine Aron. After Delphine decided she hated music class because the leader was too loud, a friend recommended I read this book. It is about the 15 to 20 percent of children who are apparently highly sensitive, and how to parent them effectively without making them miserable.

So is Delphine highly sensitive? Kind of... she's unusually sensitive to noises, and to the emotional state of others. Combine the two and logically you could determine that she is very sensitive to noisy expressions of emotion, as we saw at the music class and as Baba's friend Ann found out. (She had cause to gasp loudly in surprise in Delphine's presence once; Delphine cried a lot, and ever since then Delphine has periodically mentioned, "Ann shouted, and then I cried. Why did Ann shout?")

It does make her easy to discipline by shouting at her, but I'm not a big proponent of the "Discipline by Scaring the Shit out of your Child" method, so I try to avoid it. (Easier said than done, since shouting is what I do when I'm angry, and getting angry is what I do when I'm depressed, and depressed is what I get alarmingly easily, it seems. More about that later, though.)

Delphine's not sensitive to other things that the book discusses though; she doesn't care if her food touches, and she isn't bothered by tags on clothing or seams on socks or tactile annoyances of that nature. Thank goodness, because it seems like it would be irritating to have to work around those kinds of sensitivities. I am quite sympathetic to Delphine's sensitivities because I think I share them (I will read the adult version of the book sometime and see) and so I can quite easily understand her and figure out what is going to upset her, especially now that I have read this book and know what patterns and situations to watch for.

I wouldn't read this book if you don't think you have a sensitive child, because that would be borrowing trouble — if you don't have to worry about this stuff I would strongly recommend you don't. But if you think your child might be sensitive, or seems to react disproportionately to certain situations, this book is probably worth a look.

Vices of My Blood by Maureen Jennings is a murder mystery set in Victorian Toronto, which is just brilliant. I love getting a picture of what Toronto was like in the past, and Jennings does a great job painting that picture. The characters are appealing and the mystery was good; what more can you ask?

How To Read Literature Like A Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide To Reading Between The Lines by Thomas C. Foster. I am frankly a little pissed off that I haven't read this book before. I have been hinting around needing a book like this for ages — when I read How To Read and Why by Harold Bloom, I thought it really failed to discuss the How part. This book does.

The book is a high-level discussion of the symbolism found in literature: every trip is a quest; eating is always significant, usually of communion or trust among the eaters; weather is usually about something other than weather; and so on. Foster also discusses sonnets, and briefly (one chapter each) touches on Shakespeare, the Bible, Children's Literature, and mythology (mainly Greek) as precursors or fodder for allusions or roots or — there must be a word for this but I can't think of it — anyway, stuff that writers allude or refer to in order to enrich their text. Foster discusses intentionality (did the author really mean that to be a symbol/allusion/pattern? Answer: yes.) and irony, and then caps the whole thing off with a short story to practice your newfound skills on.

I love this book. I might buy a copy. It makes me wish I had read it before I read Cat's Eye because I am sure I missed a whole lot in that book by just reading for plot. But I have the rest of my life to try and read more deeply.

It made me think, though. First, reading like a professor seems like a lot of work; you have to keep track of symbols, you have to look for patterns, you have to try and figure out where you have seen this story or this character before, you are always looking for the next layer or layers of meaning below the simple action and dialogue in the story. And is it worth it? Do you really get that much more out of the book? I guess you do, or else no-one would bother.

And then, after you have been doing that for a few years and get good at it and do it automatically, mustn't it be horribly disappointing when you pick up a normal book, a potboiler someone left at the cottage or something, and you keep trying to find depths of meaning that just aren't there?

Like when you are used to watching Buffy and Firefly, and you watch a regular show and you realize that the enticing hints being dropped will never be picked up on, that the characters really are as one-dimentional as they seem, that the really obvious foreshadowing is actually just plain foreshadowing and not the clever misdirect you assumed it would be.

It must be like when you drink Manischewitz kosher wine and at first it tastes like sweet grape juice and you are waiting for the hit of spiciness or mellowness or depth that you would get if it were a good wine, like maybe ice wine... but instead it just turns sour and flat.

And another thing. The short story he gives as an example to practice on. It's a lovely story and being the simple-minded lass I am, I enjoyed it for the characters and the plot and the setting. Then I re-read it and tried to find the symbolism and allusions and the meaning, and I came up with a couple of pretty good insights. Then I read the professor's interpretation, and as it turns out the end of the story is a big huge, kind-of-obvious reference to Persephone's journey into Hades which I entirely missed, not surprisingly because I know nothing about Greek mythology (although Foster did helpfully present the myth earlier in the book, so I can't entirely plead ignorance.)

But now I have this idea that reading like a professor is like solving a riddle, and that in this case I have failed. I know that isn't entirely true; I'm sure that having been able to see that allusion contributes to one's appreciation of the story and therefore it is valuable, but I enjoyed the story for what I got out of it without making that connection. But I can't help but feel like I got it wrong, somehow, and that I have to "solve" each piece of literature as if it were a mathematical problem.

Thus I conjure up an image of myself poring through heaps of classics trying to figure out the hidden meaning, and triumphantly snapping each one closed and setting it aside as I "decode" it. "Figured out that one! Next!" Which I am sure is not the point.

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