Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Jon Clinch, Finn

When it comes to film sequels, few approach the pure brilliance of films like The Godfather, Part II and Toy Story 2. Each of these films does what, in my opinion, makes a sequel excellent: it not only continues the narrative from the preceeding film, but it also enhances our understanding of the characters we met in the original by providing a riveting backstory to show us who and why they are the way they are. Most typical sequels do the former, but only the best ones can pull off the latter effectively.

Like a great sequel, Jon Clinch's Finn fleshes out the villainous Pap Finn for readers, and it's a job well done! Using a handful of chapters found early in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a basis for this novel, specifically Chapter 9 (in which Huck and Jim happen upon a naked corpse in a dilapidated house floating down the river, only to discover by novel's end that it was the body of Pap), Finn is an outstanding piece of parallel fiction that retells the Huck chapters through a third-person omniscent POV, *and* it provides readers with a glimpse of Pap's earlier years, including his relationship with his own harrowing father (the Judge), his relationship with a Negro girl which leads to the birth of Huckleberry, and the circumstances surrounding Huck's eventual life with the Widow Douglas.

As a writer, Clinch does an outstanding job of handling the source material from Twain, never playing loose with the details that readers for over a century have come to know. At the same time, he maintains a sense of the time period with details that never veer into anachronism, all the while telling a story replete with episodes that illustrate Pap's cruelty and recklessness and irresponsibility, tempered with brief moments of affection, and often seasoned with unflinching backwoods justice. You may not grow to love Pap Finn by novel's end, but there's no denying you come to understand him -- his actions, his values, his demons -- much better.

For anyone who has read and enjoyed Twain's masterpiece, Jon Clinch's Finn is an absorbing and rewarding read. Check it out!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time)

This was technically a re-read for me, since I first read Swann's Way with the Biblioholics Anonymous back in 1999, I believe. At that time, I thought this was one of the worst books I had ever read ... a colossel waste of time, six hundred pages of absolutely nothing happening, and all that silly French stuff. For years I carried around within me that embarrassing reductionist attitude, claiming ridiculously that "all the [book] is about is dipping cookies in tea."

My, how a decade of reading can change one's attitude.

Du Cote de chez Swann (trans. Swann's Way) is the first of seven volumes that together comprise Proust's masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu (trans. In Search of Lost Time). It serves as both an introduction to the entire work and it functions as a novel in itself, consisting of three parts ("Combray," "Swann in Love," and "Place Names - The Name"). "Combray" is a beautifully written meditation on the early childhood memories of the narrator (who at the moment is unnamed, but will eventually be revealed as "Marcel") as he describes his parents, his extended family, the small town of Combray where they lived, and memories of his parents' friend, Charles Swann. "Swann in Love" is primarily a third-person account of Swann in his younger years when he met and fell in love with Odette, a local courtesan who gradually becomes his obsession. Finally, "Place Names - The Name" is a brief conclusion to the entire volume, further delineating the setting while giving the reader a glimpse of the narrator, slightly older now and obsessing in his own way over Gilberte, the beautiful daughter of Charles and Odette Swann. That's it, in a nutshell.

But that summary does no justice to the beauty of the prose, something that escaped me the first time I read the book. Constructed of long, labyrinthian sentences that dip in and out of time periods and narrative consciousness, Proust's prose itself reflects one of the major themes of the novel -- time -- and forces the reader to meander and reconstruct as the narrator drifts from one event to the next, occasionally stopping to show us an epiphany or recount an amusing anecdote or offer a delightful observation about French society or time or memory or love.

What I especially enjoyed, however, was way in which Proust maintains subtle balances of motifs and images throughout the work: Swann's obsession over Odette -- detailed over almost half the book in episodes that are alternately poignant, infuriating, and hilarious -- parallels the obsession young Marcel later develops over Gilberte; flowers of various kinds become a recurring image fraught with symbolic meaning; Marcel and Swann have moments of "awakening" from dreams at different points in the novel, leading the narrator to speculate on memory and how it impacts our perception of time. Like a giant wheel, the narrative cycles gently around to give the reader glimpses of moments, places, objects that continue to develop with meaning as the narrative gently circles once more.

There's SO much more to say about this volume; a simple blog entry is insufficient. Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Swann's Way and have begun the next volume, Within a Budding Grove.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: A Re-Emergence

This is perhaps the longest stretch of time I've ever gone without writing about some of the things I've read. To be honest, I've not read all that much. Yet, I have been reading the whole summer and fall ... just not blogging it. But everything's been very scattershot and, coupled with all sorts of detours and such, it's been hard to document.

Most of my reading time since mid-August has been spent on a lot of school-related material. I've had to re-read the usual fall texts: The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter (for American Literature), The Maltese Falcon (for Film Study), and Ethan Frome (a new addition to a new class I'm teaching: Studies in American Literature). In A.P. English, we read Oedipus Rex, Lysistrata, The Inferno, and Hamlet ... but I added two new texts this year: Kafka's The Metamorphosis (which we read in a week) and Dickens's Bleak House (which we devoted all semester to, three/four chapters per week for eighteen weeks). Coupled with the selected readings, poetry, and other stuff we had to read in each of those classes, my nose has been in a book of some sort most of this semester.

Then there was the fall seminar course at the Newberry Library, where I re-read Dickens's Dombey and Son, A Christmas Carol, and three other Christmas tales: "The Cricket on the Hearth," "The Chimes," and "The Haunted Man." Additionally, there were supplemental readings for that class.

Of course, all work and no play makes Tim a dull boy ... so amid all of this I read Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus and Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, both via my Kindle. And based on a friend's recommendation I read Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward L. Deci ... a somewhat dated text, but still relevant in its more universal scope of how to motivate groups.

So as you can see, I have indeed been reading ...

Yet it all has left me feeling inexplicably unfulfilled ...

Until about a month ago.

It was early November when I realized that I was tired. Tired of reading quickly. Tired of reading for the sake of reading over 200 pages each week for classes! I needed something slower, something to savor. So much of my life has always been consumed with reading for a classroom audience that really reading for me ... for ME ... wasn't happening much any more.

Partly inspired by a literature conference I attended at Eastern Illinois University in early November, I found myself being reacquainted with the writings of Emerson and Thoreau ... the importance of reflection ... the need to simplify one's life ... the terrifying notion that, when you come to die, you discover you have not lived. All of these sentiments came bubbling back to the surface of my consciousness, just as they had twenty-five years ago when I was studying Transcendentalism in college.

And suddenly, strangely, as I sat on my couch downstairs, waiting for the rest of my family to finish getting ready so's we could all go out to dinner on a Friday evening, I scanned my bookshelves and realized the book I am finally ready to read, given this point in my life:

A 'la recherche du temps purdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Robert J. Sawyer, Hominids

Anyone who's read my blog for any stretch of time knows that one of my guilty pleasures in reading is a good sci-fi novel (that, and noir fiction, are my biggest guilty pleasures!). Sawyer's Hominids is a Hugo Award winner and Part One of the "Neanderthal Parallax," a trilogy that envisions a parallel universe in which Neanderthals became the dominant species on Earth.

Ponter Boddit is a Neanderthal physicist who, with the help of his partner Adikor, accidentally breaks into a parallel universe: ours. He fortunately befriends a small group of human physicists who work furiously to first communicate with him, then help him fight off his first bout of disease from human contact, and finally reconnect with his Neanderthal world. In alternating chapters we see Adikor as he is mistakenly accused of murdering Ponter (since Ponter's disappearance cannot be explained any other way in their world), and how he fights to establish his innocence within their legal system while also trying to reconnect with Ponter.

The pacing of this story is excellent thanks to Sawyer's use of alternating chapters to tell the parallel narratives, and (as good science fiction always does) it offers a certain amount of social commentary. Sawyer does this in two ways, by (a) providing a character from outside our world who comments on our way of life, and (b) providing a glimpse of how our world could have turned out under different circumstances, with less-than-satisfying results. Many science-fiction authors choose to use one narrative method or the other, but here Sawyer deftly juxtaposes the two, making for a gripping story that also has a lot to say.

If you are looking for some good sci-fi, look for further. Check out Hominids!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

I read this on the recommendation of a fellow A.P. English teacher who likened it to a modern-day version of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. I remember enjoying Anderson back in college, so I figured I'd give this book a whirl. It did NOT disappoint!

Strout's book is a collection of basically thirteen short stories, all pertaining to various residents of the small town of Crosby, Maine and all connected somehow by the titular character. Olive is a retired middle-school mathematics teacher, a big woman who loves her Dunkin' Donuts and speaking her mind plainly, and throughout the collection of stories we see Olive and a cast of others going about the activities of life: attending weddings and funerals, working unfulfilling jobs, engaging with soul mates, fretting over in-laws, fending regrets. Olive is the unifying element within each story, since most of the stories focus on other characters or families ... but by book's end you get a poignant portrait of this woman as she -- like all of us -- attempts to make sense of this thing called Life.

Olive Kitteridge is in beautifully written prose, yet I cannot help but wonder if a high school kid will really "get" what makes these characters work. In much the same way I tried to teach Dickens's A Christmas Carol a few years ago and learned, by the end, that the reason why I was the only one with tears in his eyes was because I, unlike the average seventeen-year-old, had actually lived life long enough to have regrets -- in this way, I doubt my students will really understand what makes these characters work. Nevertheless, each story is an outstanding exercise in characterization, so it's definitely worth a try.

Enjoy reading Olive Kitteridge!

Friday, July 23, 2010

David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Imagine what it must feel like to have your last wish granted: to be reincarnated into, say, a horse. And as your body metamorphoses into this majestic beast, you realize the error of your choice as you lose forever that last glimmer of recognition of your humanness.

Better yet: What if God were an entity whose favorite activity is rereading Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein? Or what if "God" were, in reality, a population of dim-witted creatures and, upon our death, we learn that we are a population of Super Computers designed by them to provide answers to the cosmic questions ... but we don't know what they're asking, and they can't fathom what we're saying to them.

These are just some of the fascinating scenarios Eagleman puts forth in this thin volume of tales. Drawing from a divergent collection of disciplines like molecular biology, neuroscience, chemistry, mathematics -- and viewed through the prisms of theology, literature, and philosophical speculation -- Eagleman's Forty Tales offers the reader, in forty two- to three-page "tales," an entertaining and thought-provoking glimpse of what may await us in the Hereafter.

I enjoyed this!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Zev Chafets, Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame

For anyone who enjoys baseball, you know that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York is the ultimate shrine to the nation's pastime (other than Fenway Park, of course ... but that's another story).

Cooperstown is synonymous with baseball -- its origins, its memorabilia, its timelessness. It's a small, quiet town in the middle of upstate New York, surrounded by mountains and gorgeous greenery, and its folksy homes and Main Street seem frozen as an Eisenhower-era Mayberry photo. This book rubs the gilded edges and soft focus off of all that, revealing the politics and manipulation that go into an MLB player getting his name and record immortalized on a gold plaque. The owners, the players, the media, and even the civic leaders of the town itself are exposed for their contributions to this grand manipulation.

Chafets has a candid, easy-to-read journalistic style. Bringing this along on our trip to Cooperstown Dreams Park this summer, I found the book a pleasant read that went down smoothly. Some of the material I was familiar with already from having seen the Ken Burns documentary Baseball (1994), but Cooperstown Confidential is enjoyable for anyone who digs the sport and isn't afraid to see his or her baseball "heroes" with some egg on their face, warts and all.