Monday, December 6, 2010

Hummingbirds ~ by Joshua Gaylord, 2009

Helen said about the characters in Joshua Gaylord's Hummingbirds:
"I had a difficult time getting into this book, but I think I just wasn't in the right space because once I started reading it during the Dewey Read-a-Thon I plowed right through it. As a teacher this was an interesting book to read and, I must confess, at times it made me really uncomfortable to read the parts  about the sexual tension between the students and the teachers. I know that exists in real life for some teachers and some students, but it just seems so wrong."
She also said, about the students, "It's all about posturing..." I'd add that it isn't just the students who are posturing.  I got really annoyed with the writing style, long about page 104, and these snips are ALL from that page:
"Instead, he just sits for a few minutes inside the rattling sound of his wife's fingers on the keyboard and thinks about dry, weightless things -- dead leaves, insect legs, empty aluminum cans rolling down street gutters in hot desert winds. ... It's the face of an angel, the face of an infant, the face of a cartoon dog, the face of a total stranger, the face of a carnivorous cat, the face of laughing Buddha.  He knows that face. ... Sarah's face -- a face like clarity, like decency, like home fronts."
It's his wife's face, for Pete's sake!  Enough, already!  Maybe the author intends for me to hate the protagonist.  If so, he is succeeding.  Maybe the problem is that this semester I'm technically an English teacher myself.  I could SO relate to this long passage from pages 119-120:
Of all his responsibilities as a teacher of English -- the report cards and the faculty meetings, the roll-taking and the conferences with irate parents -- there is no duty more objectionable to Binhammer than the grading of papers.  The thing about papers is that they accumulate in the most tyrannical of ways.  They stack up in unruly piles with torn corners and awkwardly stapled edges hanging out everywhere.  They are always too many to carry around as a single quantity, and so it is necessary to break them into smaller piles -- knowing as you finish grading each pile that this is only one small part of the whole.  And most of them, in Binhammer's experience, offer little more than plagiaristic sentiments by the paragraphful.  All in neat little trains of black letters on endless leaves of white.

He always thinks about the plural quantity of papers as a "brick of papers," and uses it in the same way that you might talk about a brace of fowl or a herd of buffalo.

"What have you got there?" Walter asks this morning, leaning over the table in the teachers' lounge where Binhammer is holding a ballpoint pen -- in frozen potentiality -- over one such brick of papers.  He has read the same line five times.  He has memorized the words, but he can't seem to make them stick together or make sense in any way -- and down they plummet through the gutter of his consciousness.

"Papers," he replies.

"Papers, sure."  Then, after a pause:  "That's a lot of papers you've got there."

Walter takes a unique pleasure in Binhammer's suffering.  If he were an old soldier, he would be the kind to want new recruits hammered and humiliated into shape just as he once was.

Binhammer reads the line again.  He underlines it to help him focus.  But now he has to write something beside it to justify the underline.

"Are they good?" Walter asks as he sits down in a chair across the table and leans back.

Binhammer looks up.  "Not particularly."

"That's a shame."   Walter is glowing.

The other thing about this odious task is that it feels like work being dropped down a well.  The comments are made, the grade is given -- and the student's next paper might as well be a photocopy of the previous assignment with the title of one book whited out and another scrawled in.  It seems to make no difference what he writes -- whether it is thoughtful, articulated criticism or half-conscious nonsense.  Everything, he sometimes thinks, sounds like nonsense to teenage girls.  The whole world is nonsense.

He kicks himself awake and, even though his eyes have been concentrating on it for a long time now, looks at the paper before him with renewed vigor.  He has managed to get that line lodged securely in his head, now that he has underlined and starred it.  The next few lines he reads at a breakneck speed to the end of the paragraph, where he lets out a sign of relief.  Nothing.  The girl is saying nothing.  Nonsense piled on top of nonsense.  He circles a misplaced comma and moves on.
Pardon me while I get back to grading my latest brick of papers. Here's a link to my teaser, written the day the book arrived.  And here's an interview with the author that Helen posted. I rate this book 6 of 10, above average.

1 comment:

Helen's Book Blog said...

This book wasn't all I had hoped either. And, as I said, parts really made me squirm!