The Story of my Life – Helen Keller

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - CIRCA 1980: a stamp printed in the United States of America shows Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, circa 1980

“The Story of my Life” – Helen Keller. 1902.

I had read stories about Helen Keller when I was a kid, and at some point I saw the movie “The Miracle Worker”. I wanted to read Helen’s biography though to read some of her writings, and also to learn more details of how she was taught to read and to understand words, and just basic life skills.

The book has four parts – the autobiography, letters written by Helen, letters written by her teacher, Annie Sullivan, and some editorial remarks by John Macy, who became Annie Sullivan’s husband.

In a way, the biography portion was a disappointment. I hadn’t realized she wrote it while she was still in college – it was published in 1902 when she was 22. I was more interested in her adult life but also the processes which she went through as a child in learning various skills. But, like most of us, I suppose, she did not remember much about learning to read, or in her case, read the manual alphabet(letters spelled into her hand) then learning to read raised print and later braille.

A lot of the biography is on her likes and dislikes, her work getting into college and her current college experiences. Its still interesting, but not really what I was interested in learning. I did like the beginning section on what she remembered from being a child, but it seemed a lot was focused on her “high school” and college prep years. She had private tutors most of the time, as regular high schools were not able to accommodate her. The biography does show however what an outgoing person she was and how her strong personality gave her the fortitude to overcome not only obstacles of her disability, but created by others. It also showed what a positive outlook she had on life, with a determination to find the beauty in everything.

The rest of the book consists of letters which are fascinating. Helen’s letters start from the time when she first starts being able to write : “Helen will write mother letter papa did give helen medicine mildred will sit in swing mildred did kiss helen”1. From there, you can see how she progresses to being a very skilled writer at the age of 22. And not only was she reading and writing in English, but in German, French, Greek and Latin!

“I used to wish that I could see pictures with my hands as I do statues, but now I do not often think about it because my dear Father has filled my mind with beautiful pictures, even of things I cannot see. If the light were not in your eyes, dear Mr. Brooks, you would understand better how happy your little Helen was when her teacher explained to her that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen nor even touched, but just felt in the heart.”2

Annie Sullivan’s letters are just as interesting. A lot of them are to her “mentor” at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, and she writes of her struggles and successes in teaching Helen, and describes day to day activities.

So if you read it, don’t just stop at the biography, the best part are the letters.

1. Keller, Helen; Sullivan, Annie; Macy, John Albert (2011-03-24). The Story of my life; with her letters (1887-1901) and a supplementary account of her education, including passages from the reports and letters of her … Mansfield Sullivan, by John Albert Macy . . Kindle Edition.
2. Ibid.

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The Odyssey

Odysseus and Sirens (Greece 1983)

“The Odyssey” – Homer. 800 BC

If you hadn’t already figured it out, the name of my blog is from one of the recurring lines in the Odyssey. Homer used a lot of little repetitious phrases in both the Odyssey and the Iliad. I read somewhere they were a memory aid for the bards that would recite the epics. One I particularly like is along the lines of “when Dawn, again, showed her rosy fingers” to indicate a new day was starting. I love that imagery, so that’s how I came up with the name for my blog. Apparently, though Odysseus and his fellow soldiers in the Odyssey never heard the adage “red sky at warning, sailors take warning” because they ran into no end of trouble getting home from Troy and in fact, only Odysseus made it home alive. Lucky for us, otherwise we would have missed out on a great story. Actually, it wasn’t Dawn that caused them trouble, but other gods that they angered.

The Odyssey really is a bunch of smaller stories woven together inside one long story. The long story is Odysseus coming home from the Trojan war, and reclaiming his home from the suitors/squatters that have taken up residence. He had left Ithaca twenty years previously; the war lasted ten years,and it has taken him ten years to get home.The main thread of the Odyssey is the story of Odysseus from the time he is released by Calypso thru his return to Ithaca and dealing with the suitors that have been pestering his wife and son. This parallels with the story of his son Telemachus who has gone in search of news of his father. As these two stories converge, other little stories are told: Odysseus relates the adventures he and his crew had between Troy and Calypso’s island Ogygia, Menelaus tells a visiting Telemachus what happened to his warriors after the war including the fate of Clytemnestra, a bard sings about the story of Hephaestus and Aphrodite and Ares, and many others.

I am sorry to admit that this was my first time through the Odyssey. I had read bits and pieces of it before, out of context and for reasons other than reading the entire work for itself.  I chose to listen to an audio version of the Fagel’s translation. I’m glad I did, because it let me put all my concentration into listening to the poetry.

The thing that surprised me with the Odyssey is how non-linear it is. I have already hinted at it that, explaining it consists of stories within a story. It starts with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, starting to look for news of his father. Then it switches to the last 2 islands Odysseus is on, and is followed by 4 chapters of Odysseus relating his adventures since leaving Troy to the Phaeacians who then take him back to Ithaca. Then Odysseus and Telemachus’s stories run in parallel, and finally merge for the last several books. I ran across something on epic poetry during the reading of this, that explained this non-linear story telling is one of the features of an epic poem.

I’m really glad this was on my 5 year list.

The Moonstone

King George VI

“The Moonstone” – Wilkie Collins, 1868.

I had put “The Moonstone” in my Classics Club 5-year reading list because I read “The Woman in White” a few years ago and really liked it. I love mysteries, so I was pretty happy when this ended up being my spin pick for spin #9.

“The Moonstone” is the story of a stolen diamond, and is told through several narrators. Even though they are tasked with describing events that they know relating to the theft of the diamond, their personalities show through and you get to know the characters very well in this way. And that is what I think I liked best about the book. Collins did such a good job in creating well developed characters, yet keeping a sense of mystery around some of them. For the most part, the characters you get to know best are really not central to the action, and maybe almost caricatures, while the main characters to the action are not as well defined. Two characters are particularly memorable to me – the house steward, Gabriel Betteredge, and the pious cousin, Drusilla Clack.

As far as mysteries go, I thought it was a good one. It ended up in a way I never imagined it would, regarding who stole the diamond, and how it was done. To me, “The Woman in White” was a more interesting mystery, however I liked this one better as I felt the characters were more interesting and it was a lot more entertaining to read. There is a lot of humor in it. One of my favorite passages was Mrs Ablewhite (moneyed) who is described as the laziest woman ever. So lazy, she has to get someone else to hire her servants for her. Anyway:

By-the-by, Mr. Bruff, I’m ordered to take exercise, and I don’t like it. That,” added Aunt Ablewhite, pointing out of window to an invalid going by in a chair on wheels, drawn by a man, “is my idea of exercise. If it’s air you want, you get it in your chair. And if it’s fatigue you want, I am sure it’s fatigue enough to look at the man.1

This is now one of my favorite books. I am sure I will be reading it again soon.

1. Collins, Wilkie (2006-01-12). The Moonstone (p. 176). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

The Mayor of Casterbridge

Postage stamp USA 1990 Thomas Hardy

“The Mayor of Casterbridge” – Thomas Hardy, 1886

– Spoiler alert –

I chose to read “The Mayor of Casterbridge” because I had read Hardy’s “The Return of the Native” years ago, and I wanted to read a few more of his books to get a better sense of his work.

“The Mayor of Casterbridge” is a character study about a man named Michael Henchard. Henchard has trouble keeping his emotions in check, and also has a bit of a drinking problem. He also has secrets – one that would hurt him, one that would hurt someone else, if they became known. Because of of his uncontrolled emotion, he does certain things that he later regrets. He tries to make amends, but usually this only makes things worse. An example of this is that he has letters sent to him by a woman he was involved with previously. They would ruin her if they got out and her new husband found out, so she pleads with him to return them. He wants to cause her pain, but relents and returns the letters. Unfortunately, he sends them to her via a man whom he has previously angered. So the letters end up at the bar being read aloud to the other townspeople at the bar.

Today I started “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins and in the preface he talked about books where events shape characters and books where characters shape events. The “Mayor of Casterbridge” falls into that latter category.

Actually there were TWO mayors of Casterbridge in the book. The first is Henchard who, during a self enforced period of sobriety has become a successful grain merchant and the mayor of the town. The second mayor is Donald Farfrae. He arrives in town, and at first becomes a friend and employee of Henchard. As Henchards fortunes fall, Farfraes rise, and Henchard becomes jealous and worried about losing things to Farfrae. He then acts on that jealousy, with the result that he does in fact lose everything to Farfrae – business, love interest, daughter, social status, etc. Throughout the book, you cant help but compare the two men to each other.

The book was a fun one to read, I like the way Hardy writes. I did not find the character of Henchard too believable, but it was an interesting sketch of his character. The book is quite sad throughout, however there are some very funny lines it it, which really surprised me. I dont know that I liked it well enough to read again, but it was definitely worth at least one reading. It was never boring, and I found myself looking for time to sit and read just a bit more. And I would still like to read more Thomas Hardy – “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” is also on my Classics Club 5-year list.

Classics Club Spin #9 pick

Yay!  The spin number picked today is 2. That means that I will be challenged to read the number 2 book on my spin list by May 15, which is : “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins. I read “The Woman in White” by him a few years back and really liked it so I’m totally looking forward to this one.

Classics Club Spin #9 List

Here’s is my list for the Classics Club Spin #9

  1. Cervantes – Don Quixote
  2. Collins – The Moonstone
  3. Conrad – Heart of Darkness
  4. Conrad – Lord Jim
  5. Dumas – Count of Monte Cristo
  6. Faulkner – Absalom, Absalom
  7. Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
  8. Gogol – Dead Souls
  9. Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
  10. Keller, Helen – The Story of my Life
  11. Kipling – The Jungle Book
  12. Kipling – Kim
  13. London – Call of the Wild
  14. Mailer – The Naked and the Dead
  15. O’Connor – A good man is hard to find
  16. Pushkin – Queen of Spades
  17. Shakespeare – King Lear
  18. Shakespeare – Merchant of Venice
  19. Steinbeck – Sweet Thursday
  20. Turgenev – First Love

The Secret History

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt, 1992
The aftermath of a murder –

Within the first few paragraphs, we learn that , five college friends, Richard, Henry, Francis and twins Charles and Camilla murder another friend and student, Bunny Corcoran. The half of the book explains why and the the rest of the book deals with the aftermath – how it affects the students and their relationships with each other.

Its a book that engages you immediately and doesnt let you go util the last pages. The characters, for the most part, are very well draw, and sympathetic.

I picked this up as I had read Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” a few moths ago and loved it. Amazon reviews had indiated this was an even better book.

One thing Tartt does that I love is make the story rich with references to atiquity. In this book, the students are classics students and there are frequent references to Greek and Roman authors, Greek and Latin lessons. In the Goldfinch, two major charactors refinished and sold antiques and she ably described their work in the shop so that you felt like you had learned a bit about antiques as well.

A great book.