Saturday, December 30, 2006

Wayward Readings & 2006 in Review:

As 2006 comes to a close, I realize that there are several books I read over the year that I never got around to commenting on. Whether I read them for my classes , for my book group, or for fun, here are a few others that occupied my time this year:

Michael Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White -- Follows the trials and tribulations of Sugar, a 19th Century prostitute in England ... sort of a contemporary Moll Flanders, in a way. Not terribly "literary," but it's good "fluff" reading.

Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac -- I read this for book group. Fun stuff, and the movie's just as good. Wonderful wordplay throughout the work, akin to a French Oscar Wilde.

Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz -- Introduced this in A.P. English in the spring; it went over like a lead balloon, but I liked it. A classic of magic realism.

David Yaffe, Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing -- Great series of essays that detail the influence of jazz on post-WWII writers like Mailer, Salinger, Ellison, et al.

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho -- Worst piece of gothic drivel I read all year (not that I read a lot of gothic drivel this year, mind you). I read it for book group in preparation for our January discussion of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. 'Supposed to have been very popular in its day. A real clinker, in my opinion.

Charles Dickens, The Christmas Stories (A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Haunted Man, and The Battle for Life) -- Read these and taught the first three for my fall Newberry seminar. Carol is by far the best!

Gary Paulsen, Soldier's Heart -- Began the year in my Dimensions in Reading class with this novel of a young man's coming of age as a foot soldier in the Civil War. My students enjoyed it!

Colin Higgins, Harold and Maude -- Technically, this is a re-read for me. But it's been years since I taught this book, and I used it in my Dimensions in Reading class. Brilliant dark humor with a liberal dose of Zen koans and irony make this book a winner for any reader!

In retrospect, I guess I've read about thirty-three separate books this year, not counting the various and sundry readings I've had to do in addition to those (e.g., literary criticisms, secondary sources, and biographical accounts for the Dickens novels, re-reading the books I normally teach in class, and the fact that many of the Dickens works I read this year I read twice -- once for content and basic plot, and once later for analysis each week with my students). Plus, that dern'd Pynchon novel was arguably the longest novel I've ever read: 1,085 pages! A-and my wife's Us! magazine keeps appearing in the bathroom each week, riveting me to the latest happenings in the lives of Paris, Britney, and Brangelina, so . . .

Ne'ertheless, already for 2007 I have some awesome old-school science fiction waiting to be read, as well as some much-needed non-fiction regarding Miles Davis, Samuel Johnson, and the Afterlife!

Who could want more?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man

Taking a much-needed break from novels that exceed three-hundred pages and require thought, on Christmas morning I returned to one of my guilty pleasures: science fiction.

This Hugo Award-winning novel takes place in 24th-Century New York City, where mind-reading Espers ("peepers") mix with "normals" and help to regulate law enforcement. Consequently, crime has become virtually non-existent. Enter Ben Reich, one of the wealthiest New Yorkers and one who is willing to do anything -- even commit the first premeditated murder in eighty years -- to acquire the wealth of his business rival, D'Courtney. Enlisting the help of a couple of peeper acquaintances, Reich gets his hands on an ancient weapon -- a gun -- and locates D'Courtney in the midst of an elaborate parlor game at one of Maria Beaumont's elegant parties, only to find himself subsequently pursued by Esper cop Lincoln Powell in the party's aftermath.

Part detective novel, part Dostoyevskean meditation on crime and guilt, part Law and Order, and lots of paranoia a la Philip K. Dick with a Freudian undercurrent, The Demolished Man is a fun and fast-paced book that'll satisfy your old school sci-fi jonesin'.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Over the years, my experiences with this novel -- the quintessential Dickensian bildungsroman -- have been as varied as the life experiences of the title character himself.

Let's begin in 1987, when I was assigned to read the book in the late Professor Tom Deegan's British Literature seminar during my BA years at Saint Xavier University. Being the cocky twenty-one year old English major I was back then, I didn't bother to read it -- much like I didn't read Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews in the previous semester's class taught by Professor Norm Boyer. In retrospect, I don't regret those decisions: I remember our class discussion of the Fielding novel lasting all of 15 minutes; I recall no discussion of the Dickens novel at all. So I didn't waste time reading a book that never got discussed at length anyways.

That copy of David Copperfield remained unread on my book shelf for years.

Fast forward to about ten years ago when, on a lark, I decided to read it ... and was hooked! It was by far the best book I'd read in years, and I still recall reading it in our old den -- the room that would eventually become my son's bedroom. My impressions of the book at that time were positive: it told a great story with passion and humor, yet also provided enough social commentary to remind you that you were reading a serious work of fiction. It was the perfect balance between the "fun" of early Dickens and the social critic of later Dickens.

And now I re-read it for my upcoming Newberry class, and yet another set of reactions.

As much as possible, I try to read the work in question during the preceeding term, assuming I'll then re-read it piecemeal with my students each week, thus bringing as close a reading of the text as I can in a short time span -- two full readings within several months. When I began Copperfield in the fall, it was pretty much what I remembered, but I wasn't exactly "enjoying" it. It lacked the "fun" I remembered from my reading a decade ago. So, having gotten about a third of the way through it, I set it aside and went directly to Bleak House -- a haunting and complex work. I toiled away for a month on it, and upon finishing I immediately started Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day -- a wacky and complex work. Upon finishing that book, I then resumed Copperfield.

Amazingly, now David Copperfield went down like a smooth glass of water. On the heels of two lengthy and difficult novels, David Copperfield read easily ... almost too easily ... and I'm most immediately struck by how our experiences with one text impact our experience with the next.

Regardless, David Copperfield remains a wonderful book! Enjoy it!

Happy holidays, by the way. I'm looking forward to acquiring lots of new books this holiday season!! May you do the same.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thomas Pynchon, Against The Day

I started this book on Tuesday, November 21st (the day it was released) and just finished it today. Whew!

Years ago I received a copy of Gravity's Rainbow as a Christmas gift, and I've been hooked on Pynchon's works ever since! By turns profound and hilarious, goofy and infuriating, beautifully eloquent and downright nauseating, his novels depict a world rooted in historical facts that are judiciously seasoned with hippie-era paranoia, jazz-inflected song lyrics, fetishisms, talking animals, quirky dialogue, and more pop culture references than a Chuck Klosterman essay. And despite publishing only six novels over a forty year writing career, the elusive Grandfather of Postmodernism has given us what may potentially be his final novel -- and it's a whopper!

Against the Day has an elaborate, rambling plot that goes something like this: Webb Traverse is a Colorado miner who moonlights as the Kieselguhr Kid, a dynamiting anarchist. When robber-baron capitalist Scarsdale Vibe puts a hit out on Webb, the Traverse kids -- sons Reef, Frank, Kit, and daughter Lake -- set out on their own narrative trajectories in part to avenge Webb's death. Along the way, each of Webb's kids gets involved in separate adventures that weave in and out of each other's lives as well as history itself, including the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Tunguska Event of 1908 in Siberia, the Mexican Revolution, World War I, and the early years of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, among others. We also get Skip the ball lightning, Thorvold the tornado, a young Groucho Marx, a Viennese operetta entitled The Burgher King, the walking dead, Chinese things, tarot cards, and lots of mayonnaise ... and peering down upon the action at all times are the wonderful Chums of Chance, a quintet of ballooning aeronauts who drift throughout the narrative with their lovable Henry James-reading skydog, Pugnax.

What I found most fulfilling here is the way in which Pynchon manages to link this novel with his previous five novels, tying together underground postal systems with the beginnings of modern weaponry with speculation about civilizations below the earth's surface with simple father-daughter and parent-child relationships, never once losing typical Pynchon themes and motifs like corporate greed, political conspiracy, labor issues, and harmonica marching bands (trust me on this). Had I not read his earlier novels, this work might seem like a rambling mass of 1,085 pages of jibberish; having read the other books, this is an elaborate "singl[ing] up all lines" of the massive ongoing novel that is "the works of Thomas Pynchon."

Which is not to suggest, however, that only veterans of Pynchon's works will enjoy Against The Day. Au contraire, this novel is much more accessible than his ever-daunting 1973 masterpiece, yet more enjoyably complex than, say, The Crying of Lot 49 or Vineland. If ever a reader wanted to experience the wacky world of Pynchon and follow the story to boot, s/he might reasonably opt for Lot 49 or Vineland before attempting the Rainbow -- or, dare I suggest it, cut his teeth on Against The Day.

Let the reader decide. Let the reader beware. ; )

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

This was actually a re-read for me, since I read it a few years ago for the Biblioholics Anonymous. Nevertheless, it is one of the next novels in my chronological reading of Dickens's canon: I spent about five weeks reading it, and finished it on the evening before Against The Day was released.

When you read Bleak House, you realize that you're in the presence of a masterpiece. It comes to you from the darkest corners of the novel, where even the minor characters wield significance; it comes to you from the two separative narrative points of view, at first a bit jarring but, eventually, quite necessary; it comes to you from the setting, which transports you from the mud and fog of London's streets to the sterile arrogance of Chesney Wold to the pox-ridden delapidations of Tom-All-Alone's; it comes to you from the mysteries heaped upon mysteries -- the Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that grinds on ad infinitum, the deaths of a solitary military man and a prominant lawyer, the spontaneous combustion of a rag-and-bones shop owner, the parentage of an innocent young girl, and the sufferings of My Lady Dedlock. Throughout, mysteries are steeped in curiosities wrapped in enigmas.

The fun of Bleak House comes, in part, from watching those mysteries unfold (it is said that this is the first "detective novel," and paved the way for Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and the fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). There is humor, but rather than the rambling, shambling slapstick of Pickwick, here you get the voice of Dickens the social satirist (via such unforgettable characters as Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveytop, among others). And it is pure pleasure to watch Dickens navigate our reading through a myriad of settings and characters and plotlines, fulfilling our expectations here and subverting them there, all the while in a prose that is well-paced and beautifully rendered.

This was even better the second time around! It's long, but well worth it!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Ben Mikaelsen, Touching Spirit Bear

Cole Matthews is a fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent who, in an attempt to avoid jail time for savagely beating a classmate, agrees to spend one year living alone on a remote island in southwest Alaska to complete a Native American healing process called "Circle Justice." At first, Cole is defiant. He attempts to escape, and in an ultimate act of poor judgment charges a white "spirit bear," which promptly mauls him and leaves him for dead.

So begins this outstanding novel by Ben Mikaelsen.

Like so many YA novels, this is a story about an adolescent's "growing up" and becoming a better person by novel's end. What makes this work truly enjoyable, however, is the author's forays into Native American spirituality as he details the difficulty with which Cole must overcome his demons to achieve inner peace. Also, Cole's experiences are drawn from the author's own troubled youth and exposure to Circle Justice, so there is a voice of authenticity behind the writing that makes Cole's characterization all the more poignant.

By turns a gripping adventure and a compelling meditation on Life's tranquil beauty, Touching Spirit Bear is a great read! I highly recommend it.

* * * * * *

These last two months have been insane. Although I've done a ton of reading and have lots to post here, I haven't had the time or energy to do so lately. I will do what I can this week to catch you up on the things I've been reading.

The biggest literary news, of course, is the release of Thomas Pynchon's 1,085-page tome Against The Day on November 21st. I'm trying to read about thirty pages a day in order to finish it by Christmas. As of today, I'm up to page 428. It's an incredible book. As I read the novel, I hope to contribute to the PynchonWiki as well as Pynchon-L's group reading of the novel starting in January, 2007. More to follow.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History

This book is essentially a history of the development of the library, from its earliest beginnings in Mesopotamia to the public library we use today. But it's much more. In elegant prose, Battles regales the reader not only with the "stories" of major developments in library sciences over the centuries, he also gives you loving descriptions of the ways in which books have been handled, bound, and catalogued as well as fascinating character studies of the many people who contibuted to developments in the library sciences: Aristotle and Cicero, John Harvard and Jonathan Swift, Melvil Dewey and Alfred Kazin, among others.

Library: An Unquiet History is further filled with trivia for the eager bibliophile, such as phony titles from Dickens's "false facade" collection, titles from books that exist only in literary works, descriptions of the personal libraries of famous writers and thinkers, even details on how the role of the librarian has changed over the centuries.

Interestingly, one thing that emerges from Battles's writing is an appreciation of the fragility of the library and the intellectualism for which it stands. In retrospect, the history of the library is really the history of its destruction and the suppression of its works, whether at the hands of a Julius Caesar or a Joseph Goebbels. But like a phoenix emerging from its own ashes, the library is testament to the endurance of intellectualism in the face of fundamentalism, demagoguery, and military might.

This is an interesting and well-written work of non-fiction that I enjoyed. You will, too.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

About four years ago I encountered a list of the top science fiction novels of all time, which included many I would have expected to see on the list (e.g., War of the Worlds, Stranger in a Strange Land, Brave New World) and several I had never even heard of (Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light and Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, for instance). A Canticle for Leibowitz fell into the latter category and, after scoring used copies of the novels on the list that I hadn't read, I set about reading them as time permitted. Only now have I gotten around to the Miller novel.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is flat-out one of the best things I've read this year, and I can't believe it languished on my shelf all this time.

In terms of setting, the novel focuses on post-nuclear holocaust civilization as it struggles its way through about 1,800 years of development. Divided into three sections, the first section takes place about 600 years after the "Flame Deluge" (i.e., the present-day's nuclear holocaust) as civilization works its way thru a new Dark Ages; the second section takes place 600 years after that, as civilization undergoes a new Renaissance and Enlightenment; the final section brings the novel full-circle as mankind once again enters a Space Era, bringing with it the renewed capability for nuclear annihilation.

The story itself follows a cloister of monks who have managed to base their entire belief system and way of life on the writings of the Blessed Martyr Leibowitz: a collection of blueprints, letters, and even a shopping list. Miller makes abundant use of Latin phrases and terminology to fashion the world of the monastary, and the novel -- while beginning with a humor that is dark and reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove -- steadily develops a vision that is altogether bleak.

Read the book and check out the soundtrack. Great stuff here!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Cynthia DeFelice, Under the Same Sky

Joe Pedersen is the fourteen-year-old son of a farming family in upstate New York. It's the start of summer and Joe has his eye on a motorbike, but his parents won't simply buy it for him. The alternative: he agrees to work for the summer on his family farm, laboring side-by-side with migrant farm hands, and as he experiences first-hand the prejudice against his fellow laborers it quickly becomes the most important -- and educational -- summer of his life.

DeFelice gives the reader an engaging and suspenseful story with characters that are well-drawn. The humor that she incorporates into the saga of Joe's development enhances his characterization nicely, making him a "typical" young man who is learning the value of money, the strain of peer relationships, and the agonies of that first adolescent infatuation.

I enjoyed this book. You will, too!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

For about the past forty years or so there has quietly developed a whole subgenre of literature that offers a "retelling" of an established literary work, but from the point of view of one of the minor characters. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea are good early examples of this genre, "retelling" Hamlet and Jane Eyre, respectively. This genre also describes the entire Gregory Maguire ouvre.

Which is one of the reasons why I feel somewhat disappointed by Atwood's latest novel, The Penelopiad. While I had hoped she'd give the Stoppard and Rhys treatment to the character of Penelope and the events of Homer's Odyssey, I was disappointed to find a novel that, well ... doesn't say much that I hadn't already heard before. Its "story" adheres closely to the Homeric epic for obvious reasons, but the voice of Penelope -- who laments her inferior position within the household, and comments on how little credit she is given in the "official" mythic accounts -- merely echoes that of Elpheba from Wicked (the catty competitiveness between Penelope and Helen even parallels that of Elpheba and Glinda). And having read Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale years ago (which I think is a masterpiece), Penelope doesn't seem to "say" much about man/woman relationships and society's perceptions of those relationships that hasn't been said already.

What I did enjoy about the book was the conversational approach Atwood took to giving the stories of the ancient Greek underworld and the myths, maintaining the spirit of the oral tradition from which all of these myths derive. Penelope peppers her narrative with countless sidebars involving characters we all know from Greek mythology, and these serve to season the narrative nicely with fresh qualities that a simple rehashing of The Odyssey wouldn't. All told, I was more interested in her observations of the underworld than her trite feminism and obvious characterization of a teenaged Telemachus.

Bottom line: Methinks Maguire's Wicked covered the same ground and did so more entertainingly and profoundly.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Philip K. Dick, The Man Who Japed

Here's a fun mind-bender of a novel!

The year is 2114. In post-nuclear holocaust America, Allen Purcell finds himself in a position of power as he quickly ascends the government ranks to the position of Director of Telemedia, soon to be solely in charge of all that society deems ethical and morally correct. The problem is, one night he sneaks into a public park and "japes" (i.e., vandalizes) a statue of Major Jules Streiter, the founder of Moral Reclamation and symbol of all that this society must hold in reverence. The other problem is, he doesn't remember doing it. Dick's novel follows Purcell as he tries to unravel the circumstances that made him jape the statue, all the while trying to elude the authorities, his business superiors, and a mysterious Doctor Malpardo and his lovely sister, Gretchen.

I'm a relative newcomer to the fiction of Philip K. Dick, but I can certainly understand the cult-like attraction to his work. Although he mostly wrote during the decades spanning the fifties thru the seventies (he died in 1982), his characters and worlds and situations seem amazingly contemporary: paranoic page-turners that offer a glimpse of what our future may (already) hold. I read this book in one sitting!

Check it out.

Friday, July 21, 2006

New Thomas Pynchon Novel Due on December 5th

There was great news on Yahoo! yesterday:

NEW YORK - Thomas Pynchon fans, the long wait is apparently over: His first novel in nearly a decade is coming out in December. But details, as with so much else about the mysterious author of such postmodern classics as "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow," have proved a puzzle.

Since the 1997 release of "Mason & Dixon," a characteristically broad novel about the 18th-century British explorers, new writings by Pynchon have been limited to the occasional review or essay, such as his introduction for a reissue of George Orwell's "1984." He has, of course, made no media appearances or allowed himself to be photographed, not counting a pair of cameos in "The Simpsons," for which he is sketched in one episode with a bag over his head.

This much is known about the new book: It's called "Against the Day" and will be published by Penguin Press. It will run at least 900 pages and the author will not be going on a promotional tour.

"That will not be happening, no," Penguin publicist Tracy Locke told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Like J.D. Salinger (who at one point Pynchon was rumored to be), the 69-year-old Pynchon is the rare author who inspires fascination by not talking to the press. Alleged Pynchon sightings, like so many UFOs, have been common over the years, and his new book has inspired another round of Pynchon-ology on Slate and other Internet sites.

Late last week, the book's description — allegedly written by Pynchon — was posted on It reads in part:

"Spanning the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

"With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred."

The description was soon pulled from the site, with Penguin denying any knowledge of its appearance. According to spokesman Sean Sundwall, Penguin requested the posting's removal "due to a late change in scheduling on their part. We expect the description to be reposted to the book's detail page in the next day or two."

Locke declined comment on why the description was taken down, but did reluctantly confirm two details provided by Sundwall, that the book is called "Against the Day" (no title is listed on and that Pynchon indeed wrote the blurb, which warns of more confusion to come.

"Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur," Pynchon writes. "If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction. Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck."

Watch for it on, foax!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Harald Weinrich, Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting

Since so much of a typical school year for me is devoted to reading (or re-reading) works of fiction, I like to immerse myself in some good non-fiction over the summer months, whether it be for pure entertainment or the enhancement of my classes. Here is a book that falls into the latter category. Literary works that offer depictions of an "underworld" or "hell" are staples of the A.P. English course I teach, and as one of the five rivers of the ancient Greek underworld, Lethe (translated in the Greek as "forgetfulness") is perhaps the most "literary" of the rivers (cropping up again and again in poetry and fiction as a metaphor for intoxication, for sleepiness, even for truth, etc.), and Weinrich's book traces the various ways in which memory and forgetting function throughout works ancient thru modern.

Admittedly, this book addresses a number of authors I've either never read (e.g., Simonides, Rousseau, Saul Bellow) or never even heard of (Themistocles? Chamisso? Kleist?), but the premise of tracing the notions of why memory is significant to, say, society's morals is a fascinating topic when Weinrich examines how memory (and, in turn, forgetting) functions within the works of Homer, Dante, Kant, Proust, Pirandello, and Weisel. Several years back, I read Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge, which similarly traces a common theme through the whole history of Western literature (starting with the Genesis myth and concluding with a reading of the works of the Marquis de Sade), and while I found Shattuck a much more engaging read, I thought Weinrich more focused in his analysis. Some of Weinrich's strongest points were perhaps reserved for addressing why memory is important to cultural literacy, what constitutes an event worthy of memory, and why forgetting serves social significance (beyond the society and time period in which its event occurred).

Make no mistake: this is hardly "beachside" reading for the average high school student. But it was something I found interesting and useful for classroom use, taken all in all.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Happy Bloomsday!

"Bloomsday is a holiday observed annually on June 16 to celebrate the life of Irish writer James Joyce and commemorate the events in his novel Ulysses, all of which took place on the same day in Dublin in 1904. The day is also a secular holiday in Ireland. The name derives from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist in Ulysses, and June 16 was the date of Joyce's first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, when they walked to the Dublin village of Ringsend." [...]

Read more about it here.

Check out The Brazen Head, an excellent James Joyce-related website at The Modern Word.

And here's The Onion 's take on it! : )


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible

Over the past seventeen years of teaching I've been on countless commttees -- none having ever gone smoothly, mind you -- and it is the mere fact that a committee of fifty-four well-educated but religiously biased and politically savvy individuals can somehow reach consensus on one definitive translation of the Holy Bible that makes the whole idea of consensus within a committee all the more astounding!

Nicolson offers plenty of good stuff here. He provides an interesting portrait of King James I, a walking paradox whose desire to prompt this all-inclusive translation project stems from his own religious biases and immense ego; he details the meticulous and ingenious methods used by the translators to arrive at a text that is at once readable and literary, yet ambiguous and accessible; he weaves within the narrative the "dirty laundry" of many of the key translators, continually reminding the reader of how such a majestic text derived from very human readers; and he affords an abundance of details about the Jacobean era to give one a solid sense of the zeitgeist in which the King James Version was created.

(For me, this book works well with the teaching of Shakespeare and Milton, as well as the early Puritans.)

This was recommended to me by one of the students in my summer Newberry seminar on Milton's Paradise Lost, and is a good book for anyone who wants to see just what goes into the translation of text, especially one rife with religious and political significance. Although I've read numerous books on the writing and translating of the Christian Old and New Testaments (and I'll list a few good recommendations below), God's Secretaries reminded me of just how much political importance was associated with a particular bible translation ... something which I suppose I'd forgotten about.

Rather than its dogma, I prefer the study of biblical text from a literary standpoint -- the stories, the mythologies, and the meanings we, as readers, have historically granted these stories. A few books I've read on the subject, which are quite good (some of which are Pultizer nominees), include:

Charles Panati, Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions

Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism

I also enjoy the works of Elaine Pagels, especially Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, The Origin of Satan, and The Gnostic Gospels

If you (like me) are intrigued by why many human beings seek religion and a belief in a deity of their choice, you may wish to check these out.


* BTW: I received as a Father's Day present a copy of Karen Armstrong's A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I'll let you know how it is. (6/19/06)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Calvin Trillin, Tepper Isn't Going Out

It's simple:

After a hard day at the office, Murray Tepper likes to park his car (always legally) along the streets of Manhattan and read the newspaper quietly. At first, no one other than drivers looking for parking spots (and who are much dismayed by the notion of anyone sitting in a parked car, reading) are bothered by this, but gradually Tepper garners the unsolicited attention of pedestrians who, inspired by this simple act of civil obedience, now crowd the streets in hopes of sitting on his passenger side, seeking advice and enlightenment from Tepper. Eventually the news media, a book agent, and City Hall itself become swept along in what turns into a hilarious legal battle for this Everyman and his right to park and read. And when questioned why he's sitting in his car reading, Tepper's answer is always simple: "There's seven minutes left on the meter."

Tepper Isn't Going Out is an entertaining and quick read. Aside from some mild satire involving city politics, media celebrity, and literary tastes, this is not a book to read for deep meanings ... and that's fine, too. In some respects, the novel does with/for New York City what A Confederacy of Dunces does with/for New Orleans (structurally, both novels are similar), and it made me notice something, albeit hard to describe, about a New York "style" of writing that is reminiscent of authors like J.D. Salinger and E.B. White -- an easy, crisp, and lightly witty prose style that, except for references to laptops and the internet, could have just as easily come from a 1956 issue of The New Yorker.

I'm not crazy about the cover of the book, for whatever that's worth. The pastel colors and Crayola-like drawing perhaps "work" with the prose style I just mentioned, but I don't know. Sometimes when I like a book but dislike its cover, I'll play a game with myself and try to "re-invent" the cover, and in this case a quirky Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post-like scene might work better. But again, for whatever that's worth.

This is yet another fun book with which I had the pleasure of starting the summer. I'm on a roll!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Frank Portman, King Dork

Every so often a book comes around that's just a fun read, and Portman's debut novel was just the ticket to kick off my summer reading. Recommended to me by a friend and colleague, the novel is, as its basis, young Tom Henderson's contemporary rant against what he calls the "Catcher Cult," the mindless belief amongst all Baby Boomers that somehow The Catcher in the Rye is the greatest book ever written. This he contends until one day discovering a stack of heavily annotated paperbacks once belonging to his father (who was a suicide when Tom was eight), and throughout the novel -- in between confrontations with his mom and stepdad, second-base hook-ups with girls, visits to a psychologist, and reveries about being in a band (and its hysterical revolving door of names and personnel) with his friend Sam -- "Chi Mo" (i.e., Tom) reads the various books in his father's collection in an attempt to learn more about the man he little knew (the stack includes, among others, Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, Graham Greene's Brighton Park, Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, etc.).

From a literary standpoint, this is a fun book. We get to hear Tom's reactions to each of the books from his father's collection, and whether he's giving each book an accurate reading or not becomes part of the fun of his character development. Also, he returns to The Catcher in the Rye periodically to denounce its dated language (the Holdenisms) and irrelevance to contemporary youth culture, but watching Tom's experiences in the first semester of his sophomore year parallel those of Holden over his weekend (the girl obssessions, the fights, the contemplations on religion, the conflicts with authority figures; at times, Tom even unknowingly lapsing into a few Holdenisms of his own) adds to the book's charm.

But for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like inside the hormone-addled brain of a sixteen-year-old boy, this is pretty much on the mark. Some things never change, regardless of your generation. And if you want a book that rocks (the author is the lead singer of the Mr. T. Experience), Chi Mo's observations on various genres of rock, not to mention the band name fixation, are absolutely hysterical. If you've ever been in a band, this is a must-read!

Looking for a fun summer read? Here it is!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Much-Needed Update!

Well, needless to say it's been a few months since I actually took the time to list anything I've read. The entire Spring got away from me, I must admit, and while I did a good amount of reading, I simply didn't have the time, patience, or inclination to log-on and write about it.

Here are a few of the books I have read since ... well, January 16th:

Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories -- I'd never read any Kipling before, and this was the first 2006 selection for our Saturday book group. I was impressed not only with how entertaining the stories were (despite their being quite politically dated), and how much they seemed ahead of their time in terms of style. (January)

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman at the Charge -- Hilarious stuff! Flashman is a recurring Fraser character who finds himself in various historical events and periods. Here he is involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Flashman is hailed as a hero in all his escapades, but he's a liar, a bawd, a coward, and it makes his adventures that much funnier! This is laugh-out-loud reading! (February)

Franz Kafka, The Trial -- Creepy and relevant! (March)

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son -- This was the next novel in my ongoing attempt to read all of Charles Dickens's novels. I began it on Wednesday, April 46th and finished it on Wednesday, May 31st. My goal was to finish its 948 pages before June 1st. This novel marks the start of Dickens's "Middle Period," wherein he tries to balance the humor and fun of his earlier novels with the socially conscious works of his later period. It was good. (April/May)

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair -- A cool little book that was recommended to me by one of the students in my spring Newberry Library seminar. For bibliophiles it is a must ... especially if you've read Jane Eyre recently! Tuesday Next is the protagonist: a time-travelling literary detective! Simple, fun reading! (May)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (as published in installments in Stanford University's monthly facsimile of The Strand Magazine) -- Each year, Stanford's Discovering Dickens project publishes a Dickens novel in facsimile installments. This year, they gave Boz a rest and selected Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories from The Strand Magazine (circa 1891), and the stories are compellingly fun! (January thru April)

Gregory Maguire, Son of a Witch -- Never finished it. I'd read Wicked last year and loved it. This book just didn't grab me . . .

I'll get back in the update groove, dearest Reader. Just you wait. : )

Monday, January 16, 2006

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

It feels like it has taken me almost a year to read this book. In truth, it's taken me since late-September to get through this thing, for various reasons. But part of the blame must rest with the book itself which, for as much as I love Dickens's work, is rough going.

In a nutshell, Dickens's fifth novel is the story behind the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, a sprawling week-long uprising that devastated portions of London and its neighboring countryside and led to a conflagration that destroyed most of the then newly built Newgate Prison. While it's considered a historical novel in the same way A Tale of Two Cities is "historical," Dickens focuses on mostly a variety of fictional characters who populate the tale, making this a work of historical fiction.

To be honest, the first half of the book is woefully dull and unhumorous, completely unlike any other Boz novel in that regard, and you read three hundred pages and it feels like a thousand because, try as you might, there are few characters you can grasp onto and enjoy -- even in their villainy. But the second half of the novel? It moves like gangbusters, and suddenly the reader is thrust into the heat of the riots, some humorous exchanges take place, a public execution is described beautifully (Dickens waxes poetic when it comes to blood and gore!), and you begin to care about the characters (as well as see how all that initial 300-page meanering falls into place!).

One Dickens scholar described this novel as akin to the "problem plays" of Shakespeare, which I can see. The character of Barnaby himself is an "idiot" (much like Faulkner's Benjy Compson) who occupies very little narrative space, all things considered. And while there are scattered examples of the stylistic flourishes Dickens will perfect in subsequent novels, the overall writing lacks that certain "flair" of excitement he invests in his other works. I suspect this is partly due to the circumstances under which this particular novel was written (i.e., it was planned a few years earlier to be his second novel, but became the reason for a battle with his publishers that, once settled, probably left Dickens with a bitter taste in his mouth anyways).

I recommend this book, but only to the die-hard Dickensians.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

William Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Knight's Tale" (from The Canterbury Tales)

Here is this year's selection for the "Obscure Shakespeare Play Reading Group," which will promptly meet tomorrow afternoon at the Irish Times to discuss the work.

The Two Noble Kinsmen -- which is Shakespeare's final play and a collaborative effort with his contemporary playwright, John Fletcher -- is a Jacobean retelling of Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale": Arcite and Palamon, the eponymous kinsmen and subjects of Thebean monarch Creon, are wounded in battle when Theseus, the Duke of Athens, battles Thebean forces to honor the dead to whom Creon refuses proper burial. Taken prisoner but mercifully nursed back to health, the two kinsmen cast eyes upon the lovely Emilia from afar and immediately voice their love for her, which results in a rift between the two and subsequent animosity. They fight (nobly, I might add) and, by play's conclusion, one gets the girl (though not who you might think) and one gets mourned. A gross over-simplification of the plot, admittedly, but that's it in a nutshell.

Like last year's selection of Coriolanus, this is in my opinion an incredibly underrated Shakespeare play. Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that this is one work that critics and scholars generally agree was a collaboration, and that is perhaps off-putting for the Shakespeare "purists" (of which I proudly assert that I, too, am). Nevertheless, it's a surprisingly well-paced and unified work of literature despite the fact that it is a collaboration between two authors of such differing ages and talents. I also get the impression that this play makes the most sense to a reader when s/he has read all the other plays and The Two Noble Kinsmen is the last to read, because so much of the play harkens back to previous plays and motifs within them: the Jailer's Daughter's madness over unrequited love reminded me of Ophelia in Hamlet; Emilia's contemplation of the two kinsmen via their "pictures" recalls Hamlet's bedroom discussion with Gertrude over the "counterfeit presentiment of two brothers" (Act III, Scene vi); the Schoolmaster's play-within-a-play is reminiscent of, among others, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream; the list goes on and on, and while reading the play I noticed momentary glimpses of characters and situations and scenes from Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, Love's Labor's Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus, and even Macbeth. Fittingly, this is a play often placed at the conclusion of Shakespeare anthologies (I also occasionally read from The Riverside Shakespeare).

I had never read Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" (or, if I did back in high school, I didn't remember it), but in this case I read it after having read the Shakespeare play to sort of fill in gaps for whatever I found confusing, or to help me get a sense of what Shakespeare (and Fletcher) added to the storyline. Who would have thought I could use Chaucer as Cliff's Notes?! Ha!!

I enjoyed the play, and look forward to discussing it with Al, Mike, and Ben tomorrow.

Happy New Year, dear reader!