The decision of which book to read first in the new year is one I weigh carefully. For 2021, listening to a Close Reads podcast series with Karen Swallow Prior, in preparation for her new introduction and annotation of the 1818 edition, decided me: I would start the year with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’d make it my beach read.
I had read Frankenstein long ago, before I had children. Back then I was impressed that Shelly wrote a story, not just a monster.
But this time I was in despair even before reaching Victor. How could I read this story generously when all I felt was revulsion?
In the last twenty-five years I’ve had children and helped them pack and move away. I’ve buried both parents. I’ve spent many sleepless nights in worry over those I love. Where is the tenderness in this book, outside of the longing in the monster’s heart? A longing that is not fulfilled.
Then I read a post about Twelfth Night, in which Callie Feyen asked us to sit with stories that challenge us. So I plowed on through Frankenstein, as Walton plows on toward the North Pole, listening to Victor’s tale.
I found myself walking in sympathy alongside Victor’s father, Alphonse. The man is certainly not blameless, but I don’t blame him for Victor’s descent. I don’t hold the father responsible for the monster. Many things conspired to create him.
This month Tania Runyan has encouraged us to “Read a Classic, Write a Poem,” first for The Great Gatsby and then for To Kill A Mockingbird. I’ve often written poems when a book moves or inspires me (I have dozens on Kristin Lavransdatter), but I have not written a poem for a novel I am wrestling with — until now.
I decided to write a poem for Alphonse. Because toward him I feel a generosity I did not feel before I became a parent. If I read Frankenstein again, twenty-five years from now, my generosity may find another path.
When springs of existence suddenly give way
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
—Victor Frankenstein, chapter 23, Frankenstein
Like the change in you, my son—
my flesh, my blood,
the one I guided with a silken cord—
when you became a monster.
What is there to say when you return
emaciated with care?
What is there to do but bail you out
I thought—truly, earnestly thought—
all you needed was a wedding. She—
the delight of my eyes—she
could be that for you. True, she
is your sister, sorta.
That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t do you good.
When a parent’s mind cannot absorb
blow after blow after yet another blow
then the body gives way.
Memories strangle as surely as any fiend.
Conversations with a River, by Dianne Grammer
The Hidden Meaning of Birds: a spiritual field guide, by Arin Murphy-Hiscock (not a poetry book, but it has inspired a lot of poetry-writing)
Don’t Ask Why, by Michelle Ortega
Picture Books and Early Readers
Hello Numbers! What Can You Do?: An Adventure Beyond Counting, by Edmund Harris and Houston Hughes, illus. Brian Rea (Join us for Children’s Book Club next Friday, February 12!)
That New Animal, by Emily Jenkins, illus. Pierre Pratt (my go-to book for brand-new moms)
Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, by Emily Jenkins, illus. Paul O. Zelinsky (short chapter book)
Middle Grade and YA
Girls Running: All You Need to Strive, Thrive, and Run Your Best, by Melody Fairchild and Elizabeth Carey (the most body-positive how-to book I’ve ever read)
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
1. Has a book struck you differently on a reread?
2. What do you do when you don’t feel generous toward a story?
3. Share your January pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game. I abandoned Spirits in bondage; a cycle of lyrics, by C.S. Lewis.
Browse more Reading Generously
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro