Sunday, August 28, 2005

From the Archives: High School Reading

I’ve been away on holiday, during which time most of my reading consisted of fun but forgettable mystery novels. Hence the dearth of recent posts. However, I did unearth some interesting fodder for future posts while mucking about in my archives a.k.a. the boxes of papers that I’ve left languishing in my parents’ basement for the last twenty years. It seems I’m a bit of a pack rat, particularly when it comes to belongings that I’ve stored in basements other than my own. As far as literary memorabilia goes, I found I’d saved everything from my sixth grade language arts notebook (in which I carefully noted the difference between flat and round characters, and drew a diagram depicting the key elements of plot), to my high school creative writing dossier, to my university English essays. It was quite illuminating to read through it all and see just how far back many of my current literary preoccupations extend.

In today's post, I’ll share some snippets from a trio of high school book reports. As I remember it, they were written in connection with a creative writing class. The assignment was to choose three works of Canadian fiction and to write a critical assessment of each one. My selections were: Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Man Descending, Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? (published under the title The Beggar Maid in the US), and Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle.

In the first book report, I opined that Guy Vanderhaeghe would win the Governor General’s Award that Man Descending had just been short-listed for, and that the book would “launch a brilliant career for him.” He did and it did. I’ve reread Man Descending a couple of times in the intervening years, and I’ve also read all of Vanderhaeghe’s subsequent books save his most recent novel. He has become so thoroughly ensconced in the pantheon of Canlit greats in my mind that I had forgotten that I first read him when he was young and largely unknown. In retrospect, I’m pleased to have been a fan of this talented writer from the beginning.

If I’m impressed with my teenage prescience as regards Vanderhaeghe, I’m a bit embarrassed at having damned Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? with faint praise. I had some interesting things to say about the book, noting in particular the deftness with which the final story ties the collection together. But in my concluding sentence I deemed it merely “fairly enjoyable.” I’ve reread Who Do You Think You Are? more than once since then and have come to think of it as the hallmark of story cycle excellence. But apparently I was not bowled over by it as a teenager. Or maybe I just wrote lousy concluding sentences.

I was much more enthusiastic about Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, pronouncing it “fascinating” and “one of the most interesting and entertaining books that I have ever read.” Oddly, though I seemed to be most impressed with this one on first reading, it’s the only one of the three to which I’ve never returned. Thus I can’t say how well my teenage assessment holds up. Perhaps now I’ll put it on my list of books to revisit.

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