Grit versus silt

Grit or silt. For some people, their own bad experience, or even that of their ancestors, becomes fuel for their own effort to achieve their goals. For others, that personal or inherited trouble stops all progress and even introduces more. What is the difference between these people? Can you choose to be one and not the other? Can you teach it? Two pieces do a nice job of looking at such questions. In Angela Duckworth’s TED talk, she pursues how to teach grit. In Grandma’s experiences leave epigenetic mark on your genes, Dan Hurley looks at the reverse idea, that your great grandparents’ holocaust or potato famine lives on in you, possibly making you react as anxiously as if it were your own crisis.

This is fascinating to me when considering not just the students I teach, but the literary characters I am drawn to. Which side will they land on when crisis hits? Grit or silt?


One thing I want my students to know

Chalkboard - Facts And Myths

I woke up this morning with a very clear memory of the dream I was just having. That is uncommon for me.

I dreamed I was lecturing to my English-major students. I had fifteen minutes left in class and wanted to use it to tell them something real about the kind of jobs they would have after graduation.

As I prepared to do this, a couple students asked if they could leave early. I said yes. Two more asked if they could move their desks. I said yes. The class began chatting and moving and leaving. I felt desperate.

I started talking loud, telling them gossip about the English Department, sharing stories about who was angry with whom and what for. I started getting their attention so I kept going. I started lying. They were finally paying attention because I was entertaining them. With lies.

When I woke up, I was trying to figure out if, now that I had their attention, I could switch directions and tell them the truth. Tell them that their intelligence was fine. It was lovely. But that it didn’t matter one little bit as compared to their habits.

Was it too late to tell them that they had to get to work (whether at a keyboard or at a garden row or at a patient’s bedside) and spend enough time practicing that when inspiration showed up, they would be there to benefit.

I am beginning class with that message tomorrow. Not saving it for last.

For your banned book club: The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for adult and political authority, and sexually explicit or emotionally disturbing scenes, including war-time violence, death and cruelty. This book provoked a lot of discussion for us about the rightness of fighting or deserting in war-time.

“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”  — Tim O’Brien

Who is this Tim O’Brien?

  • Tim O’Brien, was born in 1946, in Austin, Minnesota and grew up in Worthington, the “Turkey Capital of the World.”
  • At Macalester College in St. Paul in the ’60s, he was part of the anti-war movement, graduating in 1968 with a degree in political science and a draft notice.
  • He ended up in the infantry in what has been called the “unlucky” U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry Division (AMERICAL) because of its involvement in the My Lai massacre, about which O’Brien writes in his novel In the Lake of the Woods.
  • After his tour of duty ended in 1970, O’Brien entered graduate school at Harvard but left to do an internship with the Washington Post.
  • With the publication of his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home, he deserted journalism to devote himself full time to fiction.  Since then, he has published seven novels, most dealing with Vietnam.
  • Most of his books, including The Things They Carried, are loosely based on events that actually happened to him.
  • Teaches creative writing at Southwest Texas State University in Austin, Texas.
  • The Things They Carried was challenged in 2006 in Arlington Heights-based Township High School District by parents objecting to explicit sexual images, graphic violence and vulgar language.

What do you think about The Things They Carried?

  1. What kinds of things do soldiers carry? What does O’Brien imply by listing these things?  What are some things you believe you carry, literally and figuratively, that would affect or reflect your reaction in war time?  Why does O’Brien use this as the book’s title?
  2. Why does O’Brien call this book fiction when so many of the stories seem autobiographical? What is the relationship between fact and truth for O’Brien? Do you agree?
  3. What is the role of humor among the soldiers? How do you feel about their humor?  Why is it different to you or to a soldier new to war than it is to those who have been in country a while?
  4. Why does Norman Bowker have a difficult time returning to the life he had left behind in the United States? What knowledge does he find impossible to express to people back home? Do you believe friends and family would be capable of understanding the viewpoint of someone like Bowker, just home from Vietnam, if only he would try to talk to them?
  5. The average age in O’Brien’s fictional platoon is 18 or 19. Describe the “exotic reform school” playfulness that this age group may demonstrate in wartime. Why would this age group react in ways older soldiers would not? Why are soldiers drafted at this age?
  6. Why does O’Brien retell incidents several times and why are his “recollections” different each time? Does this mirror anything in your own experience of storytelling?
  7. In “On the Rainy River,” the narrator writes that he was a “coward” because he went to war. Why doesn’t he cross into Canada?  Why does he think that makes him a coward?  How do you think you would have reacted to the possibility of being drafted for the Vietnam War and why? What if you were drafted for the war in Iraq?  Does it matter which war one is drafted into?
  8. Why is the old man, Elroy Berdahl, so significant in this story?  What does he do for the narrator?
  9. O’Brien says: “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever.” Why does he say this? Do you agree? Is this true historically?  What is the role of a patriotic citizen during wartime?
  10. The American Library Association recently reported that “twenty-five years after the first observance of Banned Books Week, more than 1,000 people stayed past 1 a.m. debating a request to remove nine books – including “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien …. The books were ultimately retained.”  Why are so many people concerned about adolescents reading this book?  Are they right to worry?  Why or why not?

For your banned book club: Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for political authority, and sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes and themes, including war, death and deprivation. As recently as 2000, it was removed as required reading for sophomores at a Coventry, Rhode Island High School after a parent complained it contained vulgar language, violent imagery and sexual content.  A few members of our group loved this book best, for Vonnegut’s weird and provocative philosophical tangents.

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.

— Kurt Vonnegut

Who is this Kurt Vonnegut?

  • American novelist, satirist, graphic artist.
  • Born November 11, 1922, Indianapolis, setting for many of his novels.
  • New York State Author for 2001-2003.
  • Attended Cornell University 1941-1943, writing column for student newspaper.
  • Trained as chemist; worked as journalist before joining U.S. Army in WWII.
  • After war, attended University of Chicago as graduate student in anthropology.
  • Worked as police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago.
  • Worked in public relations for General Electric.
  • Unadorned writing style attributed to reporting work.
  • Experiences as advance scout in the Battle of the Bulge, witnessing bombing of Dresden, Germany as a prisoner of war, influenced Slaughterhouse-Five.
  • Self-proclaimed humanist and socialist.

What do you think about Slaughterhouse Five?

  1. Describe the alien Tralfamadorian philosophy of life. How do the Tralfamadorians describe the fate of the universe? How do they react to this vision of the future? Does this seem like a promising outlook for responding to your world?  Can you see your own time and experience as one part of a larger picture, or is that a skill that comes later in life?
  2. Billy thinks of himself as a prophet. How is he or is he not?
  3. What is the relationship between Billy and Vonnegut?
  4. At the beginning of the novel, why does the writer-narrator compare himself to Lot’s wife, who defied God by looking back at Sodom and for doing so was turned into a pillar of salt? How does he feel about this looking back?  How do you feel about it?
  5. Has Billy lost touch with reality; is his time travel just a function of his madness?  If so, why?  If not, why not?
  6. Billy is an optometrist. Does his profession imply anything about his attempts to see the world?
  7. What does it mean to these characters, or to real people, to feel “unstuck in time”?
  8. These characters are alienated and lonely.  Do you recognize these emotions in the people in your world? Under what circumstances?
  9. What do you think about Billy’s apathy and passivity?  What about people you know?  Do you believe he chooses his outlook?
  10. This novel has been cited for “containing foul language [and] promoting deviant sexual behavior,” called “vulgar and offensive,” and considered “dangerous” because of violent, irreverent, profane, and sexually explicit content.  Is this true?  And if it is true, is this kind of content a problem for teenagers? Why or why not?

For your banned book club: The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

This book has been challenged or banned historically by people who object to its sexual implications, disrespect for religious and political authority and emotionally disturbing scenes, including unfair punishment, social ostracizing, and implications of the occult. The author’s relative was a judge at the Salem witch trials; we figure he must have felt some inherited guilt.

“… the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

Who is this Nathaniel Hawthorne?
• Novelist and short story writer, central figure in American Renaissance.
• Best-known works include The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).
• Like Edgar Allan Poe, took a dark view of human nature.
• Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804.
• Father, also Nathaniel, sea captain and descendent of John Hawthorne, judge in Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.
• Father died when young Nathaniel was four year old.
• Grew up in seclusion with widowed mother Elizabeth.
• Educated at Bowdoin College (1821-24). In school, friends included poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, 14th president of the U.S.
• Between 1825 and 1836 worked as writer.
• Published first novel, Fanshawe, at his own expense in 1828.
• In 1842 became friends with Concord Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
• In 1842 married artist Sophia Peabody, an active Transcendentalist, settling together in Concord.
• With growing family and debts, returned to Salem, where Hawthorne earned living as writer and in 1846 was appointed surveyor of the Port of Salem, working there for three years until fired.
• The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, was critical and popular success.
• Hawthorne was one of first American writers to explore characters’ hidden motivations.
• In 1853, when Franklin Pierce became President, Hawthorne, who had written his campaign biography, was appointed consul in Liverpool, England for four years, and then spent a year and half in Italy writing The Marble Faun (1860).
• Died May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, N.H. on a trip to the mountains with Franklin Pierce.
• The Scarlet Letter has been challenged and banned on social and religious grounds and under claims that it is “pornographic and obscene.”

What do you think about The Scarlet Letter?
1. Some critics think the story of Hester and Dimmesdale echoes the story of Adam and Eve – that they are expelled from the Garden for eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In what ways do you see this theme in the story? Expulsion from society? Knowledge? Good and evil? What is the result of all this on these characters?
2. How do characters in the novel define evil? The “Black Man in the forest”? Chillingworth? Mistress Hibbins? Pearl? What do puritans see as evil? What do you see as evil?
3. What is Hester’s reaction to her punishment? Why does she react as she does? Why doesn’t she take off the letter when she is allowed to? Why does she return to Boston rather than staying in Europe with Pearl?
4. How do you explain Dimmesdale’s reaction to Hester’s punishment? Why doesn’t he come forward sooner? Does he have more to lose? How is he affected by this decision? What is the effect on him of his guilt? Can you imagine a modern-day Dimmesdale?
5. What do you make of the difference between civilization and wilderness in the novel? What takes place where and what does it mean? What can you say about civilized society, as compared to untamed nature?
6. What do you notice about the characters’ feelings about night and day? What does that suggest? Why?
7. What does the Scarlet Letter symbolize? What does it represent to Hester, as well as to the rest of her society? Where might you see a modern-day Scarlet Letter?
8. What should we think about Pearl’s characterization? What do you notice about her behavior, or about the things she says?
9. In what way is Scarlet Letter a story about American Puritanism? Do you see evidence of Puritan values – good or ill – in your world today?
10. Why would this book be banned?

For your banned book club: Ordinary People

Ordinary People, by Judith Guest

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for adult authority, sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including a suicide attempt, death and divorce.  The kids in the group who liked this book best were the ones who also liked The Catcher in the Rye.  We also loved the 1980 Robert Redford film version.

It’s always obvious to me when someone is looking at me with an idea of who I am and hoping that that’s the person I’m going to be. No matter how subtle it is, it’s there, and you want to give them who they really want. But it ain’t me. — Judith Guest 

Who is this Judith Guest?

  • Born 1936, in Detroit, Michigan, grew up and was educated there.
  • Great-niece of Edgar A. Guest, former Poet Laureate of Michigan who wrote a poem a day for the Detroit Free Press for forty years.
  • Studied English and psychology at University of Michigan, graduating with BA in Education in 1958.
  • Married college boyfriend, taught first grade, and had a baby boy all within fourteen months.
  • Sent Ordinary People to several publishers before finding one who saw potential in the novel.
  • Ordinary People became one of the great bestsellers of the late 20th century.
  • Adapted into a Robert Redford film winning several Oscars, including Best Picture award,1980.
  • Currently married with three sons and seven grandchildren in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

What do you think about Ordinary People?

  1. Why is this novel called Ordinary People?  Are the parents and teenagers and teachers like the people you know in real life?  Why or why not?
  2. Why is Conrad so sensitive to Stillman’s teasing?  What do you think about Stillman’s personality?  Why does Conrad fight him?  Is it wrong to fight him?  Does he have any options?  What do adults think teenagers should do in circumstances like this?  Are they right?
  3. The psychologists Erik Erikson and Abraham Maslow say that the teenage years are all about the desire to belong, and that through the attempt to belong, teenagers discover who they really are.  Do you agree?  Why or why not?
  4. How are teachers portrayed in this novel?
  5. What behaviors in the book tell you something relevant about Beth?  About Cal? What is the main thing we need to know about them?
  6. How do Conrad, Cal and Beth feel about Buck?  What role does he play in this novel?
  7. Why can’t this family talk to each other?  Does this difficulty ring true in your experience?  Why or why not?
  8. Why does Cal decide to see Dr. Berger?  What does Dr. Berger do for Conrad?
  9. What is the relationship between chance and choice in Ordinary People?
  10. This book has been challenged and banned in school districts.  What about it is challenge-worthy?  Why are some adults troubled by this content?  Would you feel uncomfortable discussing this book in school?  Why or why not?

For your banned book club: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for religious and political authority, and sexually explicit, emotionally disturbing scenes and themes, including war, death, incest and implications of the occult. In 1986, it was purged from Wasco, California’s Union High School book list because the Nobel Prize winning author’s book was seen as “garbage being passed off as literature.”  Our nickname for this book:  One Hundred Years of Reading.

What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it. – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Who is this Gabriel Garcia Marquez?

  • Gabriel José Garcia Márquez was born on March 6, 1928 in Aracataca, Northern Colombia. Lived in house of maternal grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejía, for eight years. Several superstitious aunts lived with him; later he credited storytelling inspiration to grandmother.
  • 1936–1946, primary and secondary schooling in Colombian highlands; studied law; began writing for El Espectador, Bogotá newspaper.
  • 1950–1955 wrote for several newspapers; novelized and serialized account of Colombian sailor who survived ten days at sea; went on assignment in Europe, while friends published his novella, Leaf Storm.
  • 1956–1957 General Pinilla shut down presses of El Espectador; without income, Márquez stayed in Paris, writing No One Writes to the Colonel; on tour through socialist Europe, wrote 90 Days behind the Iron Curtain; after Pinilla stepped down in 1957, Marquez relocated in Caracas and wrote for Momento.
  • 1958, married Mercedes Barcha in Barranquilla.
  • 1959–1961, sent to Havana to report on Operación Verdad trials. In Bogotá, sets up Prensa Latina, Cuban press agency.
  • 1961-65, moved to Mexico City and published No One Writes to the Colonel; edited; worked in advertising and on film scripts; In Evil Hour awarded prize in Colombia, but published version was heavily edited and he repudiated it; published Big Mama’s Funeral; began work on One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • 1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude published to global acclaim, winning several international awards.
  • 1967–1975, moved to Barcelona; awarded honorary degree from Columbia University in New York; published Innocent Eréndira; founded Alternativa, leftist newspaper in Bogotá.
  • 1975–present, spent time between Bogotá and Mexico City, working on diverse political causes, film scripts, weekly columns for international papers; published Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Love in the Time of Cholera, among several other works; awarded French Legion of Honor and Nobel Prize for Literature (1982).
  • 1999, diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.
  • 2001, published first volume of biography as Vivir Para Contarla, or To Live to Tell It, best selling book ever in Spanish-speaking world. Currently at work on Volume II, focusing on the writing of his major works, including One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • The Simpsons citing – Lisa Simpson sits reading Love in the Time of Coloring Books

What do you think about One Hundred Years of Solitude?

  1. How does Marquez see religion, magic and spirituality in the novel?  Who is magical or spiritual? Who is not?  How are they portrayed? What can they accomplish and under what circumstances?
  2. What is the role of science and invention in the novel?  What do you think of the differences between the scientific and the magical and the religious in this novel?  In your world?
  3. Why does Marquez write about incest in the novel?  Who commits incest?  Why?  What are the repercussions? What does this have to do with the overall story? With Marquez’ apparent world view?
  4. What is the role of marriage in the novel?
  5. What does this novel suggest to you about Columbia generally?
  6. Why name the book 100 Years of Solitude?  What should we think about the different kinds of solitude in the novel?
  7. What about the Buendia family dynamics are specific to them? Which reflect family life everywhere and at any time? How do the Buendias relate to your experience and understanding of family life?
  8. What varieties of love occur in the novel? Does any kind of love transcend or transform daily life, politics, warfare, history, or time itself?
  9. Why does Marquez repeat the phrase “Many years later”? What is cyclic time? What expectations does it provoke? Does a teenager’s experience of time relate at all to the cyclic time of this book?
  10. Given the very long list of objectionable passages from 100 Years of Solitude quoted on the Parents Against Bad Books in Schools website, adults have a lot to worry about when kids pick up this novel.  How will an intelligent teenager be affected by the many mature themes of the novel?  What would happen if a less-than-mature reader picked up the book?

For your banned book club: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language and sexually explicit, emotionally disturbing scenes, including violence and murder. We think that in the past, it was also challenged when people in power did not like Steinbeck’s political message. As recently as 2003, it was challenged in the Normal, Illinois Community High Schools for “racial slurs, profanity, violence, and [because it] does not represent traditional values.” Though Steinbeck’s The Pearl, was offered as a reading alternative, it was rejected by the challenging family.

“. . . the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication, nor any membership in literature.”

John Steinbeck

Who is this John Steinbeck?

  • Born in 1902 in Salinas, California, the setting for much of his fiction, including Of Mice and Men.
  • As teenager, spent summers working as hired hand on neighboring ranches, where he was seriously influenced by rural California and its people.
  • In 1919, enrolled at Stanford University, studying off and on for six years before leaving without degree.
  • For next five years, worked as reporter while completing first novel, Cup of Gold, published in 1929.
  • First critical and commercial success came with Tortilla Flat, published in 1935.
  • In Dubious Battle published 1936.
  • Of Mice and Men published 1937.
  • The Grapes of Wrath won 1940 Pulitzer Prize, becoming Steinbeck’s most famous novel.
  • Continued writing throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
  • Went to Europe during World War II, then worked in Hollywood as filmmaker and scriptwriter.
  • Important later works include East of Eden (1952) and Travels with Charley (1962).
  • Died in New York City in 1968.
  • Though Steinbeck was not locally supported during life, Salinas citizens recently established an important museum in his honor.
  • Of Mice and Men challenged and banned in school districts from time of publication until present.

What do you think about Of Mice And Men?

  1. Why do Lennie and George first stop at roadside hobo camp, rather than going straight to their new jobsite? Why do Lennie and George describe the dream they share here?  Where do they seem to feel safe and at ease?  Where do they seem insecure?  Why?
  2. Several characters are identified by their hands and what they do with their hands. Where does this happen? What do you think it means to Steinbeck?  What does it mean now, in the world you live in? Can you judge people by their hands?
  3. For Lennie, what is the relationship between mice, puppies and women?  Does it represent any other relationships in the novel?
  4. Why doesn’t Curley’s Wife have a name? How do the men in the story feel about her?
  5. Does your impression of her change after she tells Lennie about her history?
  6. What do Lennie and George need from each other?
  7. Who has power in this story?  Who does not?  What does Steinbeck want us to understand about power and weakness?
  8. Did George have to kill Lennie? Why or why not?  Why does he do it? What has he decided?
  9. Is Lennie and George’s dream possible? Why does the dream attract other workers who learn about it?  What does Steinbeck think any person wants?  Why is it so difficult to get?  Is it still difficult to attain this goal?  Why or why not?
  10. How would you argue in favor of banning this book?  What are its biggest dangers?  How would you argue against it?

For your banned book club: Lolita

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for moral authority, and sexually explicit, emotionally disturbing scenes, including pedophilia, violence, murder, drug and alcohol use. The novel was banned in France (1956-1959), in England (1955-59), in Argentina (1959), and in New Zealand (1960).

This was the book that challenged and disturbed us most.

On top of everything else, it is very complicated and difficult to read.

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. – Vladimir Nabokov

Who is this Vladimir Nabokov?

  • Born Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, on or about April 23, 1899, St. Petersburg, Russia.
  • Eldest of five children in wealthy, aristocratic family; moved between family’s home in St. Petersburg and countryside estate.
  • Father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was controversial, liberal politician imprisoned in 1908 for ninety days for signing political manifesto.
  • Mother, Elena Ivanova, raised three boys and two girls as aristocrats, with governesses and tutors to teach children French and English and Russian.
  • Wrote first poem at the age of 15 and privately published two books of poetry before leaving Tenishev school.
  • With Bolshevik revolution and abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, Nabokov family left Russia for England in 1919.
  • Father murdered in 1922 in trying to stop an assassination attempt on politician Pavel Miliukov.
  • Married Russian émigré Vera Slonim in 1925.
  • First Russian novel, “Mary,” was published that year, but received little attention.
  • Rise of the Nazi movement interrupted growing literary career and forced him to move to Paris, where he continued to write and publish.
  • Eruption of World War II caused him to flee Paris for New York in 1940, with his son, Dmitri, born in 1934, where he worked at the Museum of Natural History in New York in Lepidoptera studies.
  • While collecting butterflies in Rocky Mountains, in 1950s, composed masterpiece, Lolita, published in 1955.
  • Book was initially difficult to sell to publishers, but within a decade was such a success that the novel sales, movie rights and screenplay allowed Nabokov to focus exclusively on writing.
  • In 1961 moved to Montreux, Switzerland, to escape American publicity, spending his last years publishing several novels, including Pale Fire in 1962.
  • Died in 1977 of viral infection.
  • Before death, published eighteen novels, eight books of short stories, seven books of poetry and nine plays.
  • English editor John Gordon wrote that Lolita was “the filthiest book I have ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.” All copies of book entering the United Kingdom were seized and on December 20, 1956, Paris police followed suit, with Lolita remaining banned in France for two years.
  • Film versions have been challenged much more actively than the text, likely because the difficulty of the book prevents unsuitable readers from attempting to read it.
  • The Police song “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” refers to the Humbert-Lolita relationship in the line “It’s no use/He sees her/He starts to shake and cough/Just like the/Old man in/That book by Nabokov.”

What do you think about Lolita?

  1. Where do you see signs of comedy in Lolita? Why does Nabokov tell such a dark, disturbing tale in such a flippant voice? And what is its effect on you?
  2. Why does Nabokov give Humbert such strange, complicated, academic language? How does it affect you as you read it?  What do you think of Humbert’s confession as a result?
  3. Humbert Humbert is an émigré and an exile. Why does Nabokov send him traveling across America, with no home?
  4. We learn that Humbert has been committed to several mental institutions, where he enjoyed tricking his psychiatrists. Is Humbert’s madness part of his sexual deviance?  Part of his intelligence?  Part of his foreignness?  Can we trust any part of a story told by an insane narrator?
  5. What makes Charlotte Haze so disgusting to Humbert? What does Nabokov’s description tell us about her, or about Humbert?
  6. Does Humbert ever “love” Lolita? Does he ever see her as a real person? Is he capable of it? Why or why not?
  7. Humbert meets Lolita while she resides at 342 Lawn Street, seduces her in room 342 of The Enchanted Hunters, and in one year on the road the two of them check into 342 motels. Before Lolita begins her affair with Clare Quilty, her mother sends Lolita to summer at Camp Q (near Lake Climax). What is the role of all this coincidence? What is the role of coincidence in life?
  8. Humbert says Lolita seduces him after he has resisted violating her in her sleep. Yet later Humbert admits that Lolita sobbed in the night–“every night, every night–the moment I feigned sleep” [p. 176]. What has truly happened between them?  What do you think of this?  What does Humbert truly think about this?
  9. Is the strange, upsetting, immoral relationship between Humbert and Lolita at all related to the much more common phenomenon of older males choosing younger females? (and vice versa)  Why or why not?
  10. What is the effect on you as a teenager of reading material like this?  Why?

For your banned book club: In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for legal authority and sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes and themes, including violence and murder.  Some of us thought the 1967 film version and the 2005 Capote film about the writing of In Cold Blood were as good as this book.

I like to talk on TV about those things that aren’t worth writing about.

Truman Capote

Who is this Truman Capote?

  • American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, playwright, scriptwriter and celebrity.
  • Born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans,1924; died in Los Angeles, 1984.
  • Spent most of youth in US south in care of relatives.
  • Child Capote was basis of Harper Lee’s character Dill in To Kill a Mocking Bird.
  • Father was small-time con-man.
  • Initially wrote dark, mystical fiction but later shifted toward nonfiction.
  • Professional reputation established in 1966 with In Cold Blood, nonfiction novel about real-life brutal murder of Kansas family, the Clutters.
  • Innovative writing style (New Journalism) in groundbreaking In Cold Blood combines literature’s creative license and journalism’s reliance on fact.
  • In Cold Blood first commercially released film in US to use the word “shit”.
  • Film nominated for four Academy Awards in 1967.
  • Recent film, Capote, nominated for 5 Oscars, revolves around author’s research and writing of In Cold Blood.
  • Also wrote novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, from which Deep Blue Something borrows its same-named song title and refrain.

What do you think about In Cold Blood?

  1. What is the effect of reading the characters’ point of view, rather than an omniscient narrator’s interpretation?
  2. Capote wrote of Smith:  “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house.  One day, I went out the front door and he went out the back.”  How do you think the many personal similarities between Capote and Smith influence Capote’s interpretation of the murders?  Why does life turn out so differently for two people with so much in common?
  3. Does Smith’s painful life story explain his criminal behavior?  Does it excuse it?  Should it influence his punishment?
  4. The citizens of Holcomb, Kansas want to believe the killers are outsiders.  Why?
  5. Why is the imagery of the road so common in American books, movies, songs?  Can you think of other stories where it plays as big a role as it does here?  What about Fear and Loathing?
  6. What did the citizens of Kansas gain with Smith and Hickock’s execution?  What did they lose?
  7. What do you think about the Moral Penal Code, which states that a defendant is legally insane if he or she does not have the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong?
  8. How is this crime story like modern crime novels like Silence of the Lambs?  Or tv shows like CSI? How is it different?
  9. Diana Trilling wrote:  “An unpleasant critical charge leveled against In Cold Blood is that it is itself written in cold blood, exploiting tragedy for personal gain.” Do you agree?  Is an author’s use of real people and their stories as material morally justifiable?  How does this question apply outside the book?
  10. Like the book, the film of In Cold Blood generated controversy for its violence (in spite of the fact that the killings in the film occur outside the picture frame), its sympathy for the murderers, and its anti-capital-punishment stance. What do you make of these complaints and challenges?