Monday, December 31, 2007

Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy

This was a fun book! Having read Fforde's clever The Eyre Affair some time ago, I was already familiar with his unique ouvre when the Biblioholics Anonymous chose this for our January, 2008 book. However, since I wasn't a huge fan of The Eyre Affair, I didn't exactly know what to expect with this book.

Much to my delight, it was better than I expected! The Big Over Easy is a crime thriller that involves nursery rhyme characters. Detective Jack Spratt and his sidekick, Mary Mary, are called upon to investigate the mysterious murder of Humpty Dumpty, a hard-drinking womanizer with a jail record and a penchant for getting involved in a variety of criminal activity. All the while Jack and Mary are conducting the investigation, Friedland Chymes -- dashing detective and darling of the media -- tries to wrest control of the Dumpty investigation to further his own career in the spotlight. With cameos by countless nursery rhyme characters, like Solomon Grundy (the richest man in the town of Reading), Mrs. Hubbard (a wacky landlady with a lot of dogs), Georgie Porgie (a.k.a. Giorgio Porgia, former mob kingpin), and dozens of others, it's an entertaining glimpse into the world of criminal investigation ... not to mention a brilliant satire on crime fiction, the role of the press, the problems facing federally funded programs, etc.

But the best part: the "crime solving" portion of the novel is downright gripping! Fforde throws in plenty of neat plot twists and just enough red herrings to make this an engaging piece of crime fiction ... one that just happens to use Mother Goose characters. While the whole book sparkles with charm and Brit wit, the second half of the novel will keep you turning pages to find out the killer's identity ... and to see how the various other conflicts are resolved.

This was a wonderful book with which to finish 2007. Enjoy, and see you next year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

You may recall that around this time each year I get together with the "Obscure Shakespeare Play Reading Group," consisting of a few former A.P. students of mine who are now out of college, pursuing their careers, and who simply want to gather for a lunch at a Brookfield pub, catch up on what's new in our lives, and chat about -- among various other things -- a Shakespeare play that few people ever read. In the past, we've discussed Coriolanus, The Two Noble Kinsmen, King John, and one year even branched out to read Dante's entire Divina Commedia. For this time around, we chose a play that I've read before, but one that was fun to re-visit: The Comedy of Errors.

The play itself is amusing from sort of a Three's Company point-of-view -- mistaken identities, bawdy humour related to the anatomy, slapstick, etc. There's nothing terribly cerebral about this particular play, which is based on a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus entitled The Brothers Menaechmus. Two sets of identical twins, each of a different social class, get mistaken for each other ... and chaos ensues! This is one of the earliest examples of Shakespeare's uncanny ability to take basic source material (i.e., the Plautus play) and make a silk purse of a sow's ear. He adds minor characters, plot twists, puns and wordplay galore, all the while maintaining the three Unities of Time, Place, and Action as a reverent nod to the ancients. An obscure play by Will, certainly, but hardly an inferior work.

As always, it will be a pleasure to see Al (cinephile extraordinaire who runs an English Department for a school within the CPS system), Mike (the mad Bohemian who travels cross-country Kerouacstyle and who, I learned, broke a finger recently ... gotta hear that story), and Ben (glorious jazzpunkman of academia who has lived and studied in China for the past year and a half)!

An impressive group, to which newcomers are always cordially welcomed. : )
"1000 Books You Must Read Before You Die"

Here's a pretty insane list of books that, as the title suggests, we all had better get to readin' before we give up the ghost.

Book lists always intrigue me. Rather than being a comprehensive representation of what they claim to list, they reveal more about the lister than the subject matter ... his/her interests and bibiobiases.

Anyways, this list has a few good titles on it. I've read quite a few ... I've begun and never finished quite a few ... some I've never even heard of ... and some are just plain silly. But hey, it's a list.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Erik Davis, Led Zeppelin IV (331/3 Series - Volume 17)

This is now the second book I've read that examines Zep's "four symbols" album, and in many ways this one is more enjoyable. Focusing specifically on an analysis of the songs in terms of their lyrics and arrangements, Davis enhances the impact of his analysis by relating the music to Led Zeppelin's place within 1970s rock as well as their supposed dabblings in the occult. Further, by identifying a persona within Plant's lyrics whom we can follow from song to song (a persona Davis names "Percy," Robert Plant's nickname), the author demonstrates (with varying degrees of persuasion) the physical and spiritual movement that takes the listener from the opening accapella verse of "Black Dog" to the concluding chords of "When The Levee Breaks."

One of Davis's early discussions in the book, however, addresses the modern movement toward digital music, which has been the death knell for the physicality of vinyl albums. Hence, the ways in which a listener approaches the sequencing of the music, not to mention the album art, the inner fold of the album design, and the sleeve of lyrics, are all examined and celebrated by Davis for their contributions to the overall mystique of this musical masterpiece.

And Davis devotes moments to the ephemera of the album as well: the ten-second odd musical strains that immediately preceed "Black Dog"; the sorts of "messages" that you hear when playing "Stairway to Heaven" backward; the use of Sandy Denny as backup vocalist on "The Battle For Evermore" and the band's nods to Joni Mitchell and Memphis Minnie throughout the album; "Rock and Roll" as punk Zeppelin, and the experimental nature of the performance and mix of "Four Sticks." And while Davis occasionally veers into the downright obscure when analyzing the songs (e.g., his examination of "Stairway To Heaven" is itself a 35-page piece of rock scholarship), his writing is always engaging.

This was a fun chance to re-visit -- again -- one of the greatest albums from the days of my youth.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Michael T. Fournier, Double Nickles on the Dime (331/3 Series - Volume 45)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I was in a band. I played bass, and occasionally drums. We fancied ourselves a band with a punk ethos. In retrospect, we were suburban dorks ... but we had fun. And during this time I accumulated an impressive collection of punk albums. One of my favorites, and the greatest album of all time (in my humble opinion), is Double Nickles on the Dime, a double album released in 1984 by the Minutemen, a punk trio out of San Pedro, California. Containing a vast forty-three songs (few of them exceeding 90 seconds) that span the genres of punk, jazz, funk, flamenco, country, and even avant garde, the album is unlike anything you've ever heard before -- and the band flat-out rocks!

Anyways, this small volume by Fournier is a song-by-song analysis of the album. Fournier draws upon interviews with bassist Mike Watt and countless others who worked with the Minutemen during their brief tenure in the early 'Eighties (before guitarist D. Boon was killed in an automobile accident around Christmas, 1985), weaving together stories of how the songs were sequenced for the album, the various literary and musical influences on the band at that time, and amusing anecdotes associated with the composition and recording of the music. More importantly, Fournier is obviously in love with the music, and the tenderness with which he analyzes the songs' lyrics, arrangements, etc. make this a fun read for anyone who is familiar with this album ... and a wonderful introduction to the Minutemen for those to whom this band remains unknown.

See more of the outstanding 331/3 series published by Continuum.

Visit the Minutemen's archives at Mike Watt's Hoot Page, or check out the Watt from Pedro Show podcasts (where the December 8, 2007 show was devoted to an interview with Fournier).

And a great documentary to check out is We Jam Ecomo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005), directed by Tim Irwin. It includes interview footage and archival concert footage of the Minutemen in action. Righteous stuff!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Larry Niven, Ringworld

I continue to work my way through some of the "classics" of sci-fi, and Larry Niven's Ringworld is often hailed as a monument of "hard" science-fiction, i.e. its central concepts are rooted in the exploration of scientific fact, like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (cf. my BiblioBlog entry from December, 2004) or Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity. This was a pretty solid book, most of which I knocked out while waiting for my van to get serviced.

Ringworld is the story of Louis Wu who, along with Teela Brown and two alien creatures (Nessus and Speaker-To-Animals, two species that are unique to Niven's Ringworld universe), travels to a distant star that is encircled by a string of enormous man-made panels -- a ringworld -- each one a populated piece of terrain (think of Saturn encircled by a series of ceramic tiles, each one facing the surface of the planet ... now picture the entire circle of tiles rotating around the planet, generating a gravitational force all its own). The panels of the ringworld are vast: they have mountains, deserts, bodies of water, forests, etc. and the novel recounts the voyage of Wu et al as they encounter the mysterious ringworld (and ponder: who built it? how? why?), crash-land on it, mull its dimensions, and engage in a series of adventures as they explore its various locales.

The build-up to the actual landing on ringworld is slow, and there is an underlying notion of "luck" being genetic that I found tiresome, but the descriptions of the ringworld itself were engaging. There was some meditation on the problem of overpopulation that I thought was handled well, and there was also a subtle theme dealing with racial prejudice (two humans and two aliens who need to get past their misconceptions of each other and work together to accomplish this mission) that, for 1970 (when the book was published), was undoubtedly timely. Today, however, having spent the last three decades with George Lucas's Star Wars universe, that theme seems pretty well picked-over at this point.

Ringworld is interesting. Not the best thing you'll ever read, but it'll help you kill a few hours at the Honda dealer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Miscellaneous Debris, 2007

Well, over the course of 2007 I've read and half-read a bunch of different things, whether it was a beach book or a volume I kept in the car to read in snatches at red lights. So here's my chance to list all the stuff I couldn't get to posting earlier in the year:

Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon -- I read this in late-June/early-July on the beaches of Puerto Villarta, around the same time I was reading Stephen King's The Stand. Both books are apocalyptic in nature, but The Stand has aged far better. I didn't care much for Alas, Babylon.

Joe Meno, Hairstyles of the Damned -- This was a fun little romp with some familiar faces, bringing me back to my old digs on the Southwest Side of Chicago ... mix tapes, punk rock, Haunted Trails, Evergreen Plaza, and adolescent angst. A fun read, especially for natives of the area!

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of Desire -- Part II of The Cairo Trilogy. I only got about halfway through this book before my interest waned and I moved on to more pressing reads ... like Dickens. Truth be told, I found Palace Walk (i.e., Part I of the trilogy) much more engaging.

Albert Camus, The Plague -- Here's another one of those books that has taken me far too long to get around to reading! And what a magnificent representation of modern man and his ongoing spiritual dilemma. Great stuff ... though it did make me want to shower more frequently than usual ...

Peter Gay, Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks -- This is a solid (and concise) piece of literary criticism that explores the ways in which each of the aforementioned novels contains a little world of Reality all its own, and how that Reality contrasts with the Realism of the 19th Century novel form. Now I just gotta read Buddenbrooks ...

Barry Miles, Hippie -- A glorious celebration of the '65 - '71 counterculture movement, focusing on the music, the fashions, the celebrities and public figures, the War, the Flower Power, etc. Tons of great interviews and photos make this a groovy volume for the coffee table!

Zak Smith, Gravity's Rainbow Illustrated -- Although it also goes by the more unwieldy title of Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, this is less a literary work and more a collection of Smith's artwork. Next time I read the Pynchon novel, I plan to keep the Smith artwork nearby to enhance the reading.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By -- This was an excellent book that identifies and examines the various ways in which metaphor is ingrained within our social consciousness, manifesting itself in verbal expressions on a daily basis. It reminded me of just how subtle the device of metaphor is/can be ... and why we ought to pay closer attention to its power.

Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours -- I scored a copy of this book and read it early in the fall, mainly in preparation for the next time I had to teach Hamlet. I'm strangely fascinated by medical practices of the past, and this is a compelling look at 2,500 years of medical treatment that essentially ended with the discovery of the germ.

Until next time!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Frederik Pohl, Gateway

As I've mentioned here before, it's always such a pleasant relief to immerse myself in some good ol' science fiction for a bit after spending months reading stuff because I have to, whether it be for school, for the Newberry, or for various other obligations. Gateway is one of those sci-fi books I acquired quite some time ago ... it sat on my shelf for ages, probably alongside A Canticle For Liebowitz ... and now that I've read it, I'm convinced it's one of the better books I've read this year!

Originally published in 1976 and a winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, Gateway is the story of Robinette Broadhead, a twenty-something young man who spends his days in therapy talking to Sigfrid von Shrink, his artificial intelligence analyst. In the course of Bob's sessions with Sigfrid, we learn that a race of beings called Heechees once populated an asteroid named Gateway, only to mysteriously vanish ... leaving behind hundreds of spacecraft that are pre-programmed to voyage throughout space. The problem is, humans don't know where the ships will go, when they'll return, or how to change the programming ... so all voyages on the Heechee crafts are an immense gamble with one's life -- drawing huge financial rewards for those lucky enough to return alive!

Enter Bob Broadhead, who escapes his lowly existence working in the food mines by winning a lottery, and with his winnings the chance to voyage on these Heechee spacecrafts to prospect for otherworldly riches. A series of such trips leaves him miraculously spared from certain death, and his sessions with Sigfrid reveal his deepest psychological fears, urges, and the profound guilt surrounding his last mission!

Told in chapters that alternate between Bob's therapy sessions and his experiences on Gateway, and sprinkled throughout with glimpses at pop culture from the future (via classified ads, data readouts, spacecraft manifests, letters, interviews, Heechee-related poems, etc.), Pohl's novel is a meditation on social and psychological behavior and the things that make us "human": the need to love, the need to cry, the need to manipulate, and the need to risk everything we know for the thrill of what we don't!

This was a cool book with which to begin my holiday "fun reading." Check it out!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

This was never my favorite Dickens novel, mainly because it isn't a good representation of what makes Dickens such a fun author. Madame DeFarge aside, the characters lack the twisty, quirky pneumonicisms that make such creations as Uriah Heep, Daniel Quilp, and Sam Weller so memorable. The fact that so much of the novel takes place in Paris, and London is relinquished to a mere backdrop, doesn't give the reader a sense of the truly "Victorian" feel of a Dickensian work.

But re-reading this last month -- for the first time since high school (where, admittedly, I probably relied more on MasterPlots than the actual novel) -- was such a great reintroduction to the book! What's not to love!? The love-triangle story is engaging, the French Revolution provides the action, and the spectre of La Guillotine appeals to our morbidity. The whole time I read this, I couldn't help but think of Rick and Ilsa and Victor Laslo in Casablanca! Great stuff!

This is one of the two Dickens novels I will be teaching in the spring at the Newberry. The other is Great Expectations.

Monday, October 08, 2007

"My Date with Dostoyevsky" - Part II

Well, the best laid plans o' mice and men oft' go awry ... My original plans to read The Brothers Karamazov one chapter per day (and thus finish it by Halloween) have slowed considerably, not only due to reading a dozen other things simultaneously for school, the Newberry, the Biblioholics A, and pure fun, but also because The Brothers K simply cannot be rushed at such a daily pace. In two months' time I have managed to finish the first four books ... roughly just short of a third of the novel ... and while I will not achieve my "goal" in terms of time, I have come to appreciate just why this novel is considered a masterpiece!

Talk about a novel that is totally character-driven! What is interesting is that Dostoyevsky was a huge fan of Dickens's novels, but there is little similarity between the two. The Brothers K has a plot that crawls, but that's fine ... He pauses on each character, whether major or minor, and allows each one to philosophically interact with others. So while an entire section of the novel (say, Book II) has very little in the way of action, the philosophical complexity and characterization fuel the reading experience!

For several years now, I've been intrigued by the ways in which certain authors demand a particular method (or style) of reading. Milton seeks a "fit reader," but the way you read Joyce is different from the way you read Pynchon, and the way you read Dickens is clearly not the way you read Dostoyevsky. So as I read and teach Paradise Lost and Little Dorrit, and enjoy Naguib Mahfouz and David Foster Wallace, I must shift into fourth for evenings with Dostoyevsky! : )

Great stuff so far!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia

Just finished this book, having read a chapter a night with my ten-year-old son. This is also our November selection for the Biblioholics Anonymous. Either way, it's a great book, but it's not at all what I expected.

For some inexplicable reason, I expected a fantasy novel along the lines of C.S.Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I have absolutely no justification for expecting that ... maybe it was something about the title. Nevertheless, I was surprise to find that it was essentially the story of a ten-year-old boy named Jess Aarons, a loner who aspires to be the "fastest runner in the fifth grade" until he befriends Leslie Burke, a free-spirit who introduces him to confidence, compassion, and the value of occasionally visiting a "secret place" that only they can go to in the nearby forest -- a place without adults and rules, a place of pure escape: Terabithia. While their visits are initially punctuated by brief episodes of individual growth, it's not until tragedy strikes that Jess is able to see the true value of Terabithia.

This is a powerful book! Check it out!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Kathy Acker, Great Expectations

Truth be told, the jury's still out on this one ...

Recently, one of the folks on Pynchon-L mentioned the works of Acker (whom I had never heard of) and said that fans of Pynchon would like her work. After searching a bit at the local bookstores, I was able to special order a copy of Great Expectations, which the lister recommended was a good book to start with.

Part surrealistic cut-up method a la William S. Burroughs; part plagiarized text which draws heavily from Dickens's Great Expectations, The Story of O, Keats poetry, and a wild assortment of other traditional and contemporary works; part confessional memoir of a punk-ethos author; part compellingly poetic but obscenity-charged erotica -- Acker's work is not a "novel" in the conventional sense. Told through a PoMo collection of fragmented narratives that weave together other literary works with Acker's own reflections on (among other things) her mother's suicide, I found myself likening the reading experience to that of Burroughs's Naked Lunch with a touch of Gertrude Stein's experimental punctuation and sentence structures. And while many passages might have been shocking back when the work was published in 1983, I found much of the obscenity quaintly reminiscent of the Beats.

But what I thought most compelling here was the plagiarism, apparently a "technique" that Acker was known for -- lifting passages almost verbatim from a wide variety of texts and somehow weaving them together with her own narrative to create an entirely new work of art -- sort of the literary equivalent to "sampling." And since sampling music gained popularity in the Eighties through such bands as 2 Live Crew and Big Audio Dynamite (anyone remember those bands? LOL!), it would make sense that her compositional method ran concurrent with underground (and emerging mainstream) music at the time.

I'm not entirely convinced that a fan of Pynchon will enjoy the writing of Kathy Acker ... but I would be willing to check out one or two other novels by her to see if there is depth and breadth to her narrative technique. Other novels by Acker can be found here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins

As I continue to look for good novels that I can read with my freshman students, I find that this one is pretty good. Based loosely on a true event, the protagonist is Karana, a native Polynesian girl in the village of Ghalas-at whose life is remarkably altered when a shipful of Russian sailors descend upon her island to hunt sea otters and, when forced to pay for the skins, brutally murder many of the villagers. When a ship of allies later comes to transport her people to a safer location (and forgets to bring her brother), Karana leaps from the ship and returns to the island in the hopes of living with her brother until another ship arrives. But a pack of wild dogs quickly changes those plans.

Forced to live alone on the island, the majority of the novel traces Karana's years on the island as she builds a shelter, hunts devilfish, domesticates wild dogs, survives an earthquake, and learns the value of balancing survival with a respect for the natural order of animal life.

But what I especially liked about this little book is that it departs from the typical "protagonist-changes-for-the-better-over-the-course-of-the-novel" formula that seems to dominate so much of current YA literature (or at least the works I've read ... see my February 4, 2007 blogspurt re: Fever). Karana is a strong and independent character from the start, and her isolation on the island merely affords additional ways through which she can exhibit that strength and independence. And it's SO nice to finally have a female POV that isn't cluttered with whininess and a nauseating obsession with boys!

This is a good book, especially for younger readers. Check it out.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Hard Times is the closest Dickens ever came to writing poetry. Despite his difficulties working within the medium of a weekly periodical (something he hadn't done since Barnaby Rudge, written some dozen years earlier), the prose sings with metaphor and imagery, puns and parallelism. It's his least "happy" novel, but stylistically it shimmers like a blade in the sun.

The novel is Dickens's examination of various social concerns during the mid-1850s: Utilitarian educational practices, labor disputes, marital conventions, social reform, etc. Coming on the heels of Bleak House, Hard Times is bleaker. Marriages end, "villains" go unpunished, and innocents die. But somehow the notion of "hope" is rendered plausible within the stark, gray landscape of Coketown, thanks in no small part to a young girl and the circus from which she comes. And Dickens's prose -- magical and musical in its melancholy -- seems perfectly suited to a story "for these times."

It was fun re-reading this novel for my upcoming Newberry class!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"My Date with Dostoyevsky"

I've had a taste for Dostoyevsky lately ... Haven't read any of his works in a long time. So I decided to read The Brothers Karamazov, one chapter per day. The chapters average about ten pages in length each, and with 93 chapters and reading one chapter per day I'll finish it by Halloween.

I started this past Sunday night. Wish me luck! : )

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Valerie Browne Lester, Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens

It's been a fairly productive year of reading non-fiction for me so far, and I can add this one to the list. Having taught Dickens now for about three years at the NL, it is to each novel's illustrations that I find myself increasingly drawn, and this "family biography" of Dickens's principle illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne (a.k.a. "Phiz"), is an enjoyable introduction to a study of his life and work.

The author is the great-great granddaughter of Phiz, and in the book's epilogue and acknowledgements she details the lengths to which she had to dig for information on the famous illustrator, unearthing along the way some fascinating facts heretofore unknown to H.K. Browne scholars (e.g., Phiz was an illegitimate child, fathered by a visiting soldier in Napoleon's army). While Lester does a mediocre job of handling Phiz's youth and years leading up to his collaboration with Dickens in 1837, she does a fine job of analyzing the development of his artistic style over his years with (and after) Dickens. Perhaps the best part of this book is the abundance of illustrations, sketches, oil paintings, doodles, and watercolors that are reproduced throughout, giving the reader a wonderful view of Phiz's artistic range. And since I have only ever seen his illustrations for Dickens, this was well worth the price of the book.

Capturing a time when books were painstakingly illustrated and printed with care and affection, the book also portrays nicely the intricate relationship between author and illustrator. The relationship between "Boz" and "Phiz" illustrates the ways in which both author and artist depended upon each other for the success of a book's sales, and by contrasting that working relationship with the other authors for whom Phiz contributed works throughout the years, you gain a better appreciation for this archaism of the publishing world.

Though it's hardly an exhaustive study of Phiz's life and works, Lester's book is a good start if you're interested in this sort of thing.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I was fortunate this month to enjoy two excellent reads: first, Stephen King's The Stand ... and now, the latest and last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And what a great piece of fiction this one is!

Set in Harry's seventh and final year at Hogwarts, surprisingly little actually takes place at the renowned School of Wizardry as Harry, Ron, and Hermione engage in a series of adventures to fulfill Dumbledore's final directive: locate each remaining Horcrux hidden by Voldemort in his attempts to scatter his power and, in so doing, defeat him. Although the school itself becomes the setting for a final showdown, the reader is gratefully spared the boring class projects and Quiddich matches that encumber the previous six books; instead, the reader is here treated to adventure after edge-of-your-seat adventure ... the magic is darker, death is a realistic threat (as several characters we've come to know and enjoy actually perish), and the stakes are at their highest!

Among Pott-heads, however, I'm going to guess that this book is the most fulfilling of the series. For me, I especially enjoy the ways in which Rowling alters her style with each successive book, and Deathly Hallows is simply a piece of expert storytelling, bringing the reader through each adventure with superb pacing. For my money, "The Muggle-Born Registration Commission" and "Gringotts" are two chapters that best exemplify the way in which Rowling has developed as a writer of suspense.

And in addition to the subtlety of the humor, I also enjoy the social commentary that Rowling has made a staple of the series, addressing such topics as racism, sexism, education (both in terms of effective teaching strategies and the perils of politicized educational systems), war propaganda, the media, and (most directly in this book) the functions of fear within a society. As a good author of fantasy or sci-fi must, Rowling avoids becoming didactic and merely leaves the characters themselves to work thru the issues, permitting the reader to form judgments within the comfort of the "wizardry" context.

And like Stephen King's The Stand, Rowling likewise gives us a mammoth narrative that in so many ways is indebted to both Tolkien and Dickens. Like the best of Dickensian fiction, Deathly Hallows brings together many different characters and components of the earlier novels (e.g., the various spells, the Sorting Hat, the Chamber of Secrets, the Whomping Tree, Dobby and Grawp, etc.) to make its resolution all the more satifying. And anyone who has ever read The Lord of the Rings will detect elements of the Lady Galadriel's "gifts," the Grey Havens, the siege of Gondor, and any number of other Tolkien influences.

But ... when everything is said and done ... this was a fun and thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the Potter series, and (in my opinion) it solidifies the entire saga within our literary canon. A great, great book!

* For the record, I am one of the few readers I know who chose to not read the whole darned thing in the 24-hours immediately following its release. I wanted to savor this last drop of Potter vintage. ; )

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Stephen King, The Stand

Back in high school and my early college years, Stephen King was one of my favorite authors. I read Carrie, Cujo, Firestarter, The Shining, and (my personal fave) Misery in two- or three-day marathon sessions, savoring all those wonderful pop culture references and page-turner suspense sequences, not to mention the occasional literary allusion or two (he was, after all, a former English teacher!). But The Stand -- most likely due to its length -- didn't interest me.

For this month's Biblioholics Anonymous group read, we chose The Stand ... and I must admit, I should have read this book years ago. One of the best pieces of fiction I've read so far this year, the novel is gargantuan in length and scope, yet based on a simple premise: the end of the world.

Set in the United States in 1990, the novel recounts the effects of an accidental outbreak of a man-made plague -- later called the superflu -- which essentially wipes out 99.8 percent of the world's population. Those who are mysteriously immune to the superflu find themselves first wandering to make sense of the desolation, then later inspired by strange dreams to journey west, eventually gathering in Boulder, Colorado (those who dream of the saintly Mother Abagail) or Las Vegas (those who dream of and are drawn to the villainous Randall Flagg). The novel focuses on several characters from different parts of the country as they make their way to their respective locations.

Once gathered in Boulder, this group comes to realize that Flagg's evil forces are gathering in Las Vegas and are planning to wipe them out. Mother Abagail instructs four of the main characters to travel to Flagg and engage in what will ostensibly become the final cosmic stand between Good and Evil!

This is a fun and engaging piece of post-apocalyptic literature that has its roots in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but is likewise Dickensian in its ability to begin with several narrative trajectories that are seemingly disconnected and, as the story progresses, those storylines merge brilliantly and bring perfect resolution to the narrative. It's a long book (the "complete and uncut" edition is 1,141 pages), and some of the pop culture references may strike you as antiquated, but the story is phenomenal!

It took me almost three weeks to read this (begun in Mexico, finished in Kentucky), but it's well worth it. Enjoy!

And now ... on to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows! : )

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

Of all the Dickens novels I've read thus far (and I've now read twelve of 'em), this was, without a doubt, the roughest one to get through. Maybe it was the timing: I had just finished teaching a ten-week course on David Copperfield and Bleak House -- which is the equivalent of eating a seven-course meal at a German shmorgasbord -- and I was either too Boz'ed out to attempt another one of his 900-page tomes, or I was still reeling from the sublimity of Copperfield and Bleak. Regardless, I spent a good three months pluggin' away at this bugger, and I found Little Dorrit extremely difficult to get into, let alone enjoy at any level whatsoever.

The title character is the daughter of William Dorrit, an insolvent who has been long imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debts unpaid. His daughter Amy is born and raised within the confines of the prison, and the first half of the novel focuses on numerous characters as their trajectories weave in and out of that of Dorrit, the "Father of the Marshalsea." Due to a mysterious and coincidental stroke of fortune, Dorrit falls into wealth ... and the second half of the novel follows the same peripheral characters as they move in and out of Dorrit's newfound circumstances outside the walls of the debtors' prison.

In a way, Dickens is at his subtlest here, working with a fairly simple theme -- imprisonment -- but exploring carefully the nuances of that theme as they affect the lives of the wealthy, the destitute, the young and old, the villainous and innocent. Unfortunately (for me, at least), I found few characters who were likeable (except for the one everyone seems to delight in, Flora Finching), I thought the plot was too plodding and convoluted, and there were far too many instances of Dickens "telling" us what to think rather than "showing" us -- as if, late in his literary career, he had developed the neophyte's habit of beating the reader over the head with his social commentary.

In Dickens's defense, I also get the disinct impression that I simply didn't give this book a fair shake ... that for whatever reason I just wasn't ready to read this novel and gluttonously forced it down before I'd let the previous two digest properly. Now I'm suffering for it in the bathroom. Make of that metaphor what you will ...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bill "Spaceman" Lee and Jim Prime, Baseball Eccentrics

As those who know me know, we're a baseball-lovin' family here, we are. So it was completely in-character for my wife to get me the Spaceman's Baseball Eccentrics as a Father's Day gift. I read the whole thing in about one day!

Baseball is a sport that lends itself beautifully to storytelling, and here the wacky Lee doesn't disappoint! Focusing on the various "flakes" and eccentrics who have populated baseball over the decades, Lee provides generous helpings of old standards like Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, Leo Durocher, and my personal fave: Mark "The Bird" Fidrych (I can still remember my father laughing at the TV when I was a kid back in 1976, watching Fidrych "talk" to the baseball!). But Lee also describes the eccentricities of more revered players (e.g., Satchel Paige, Barry Zito), players who delighted in practical jokes (Moe Drabowsky, Jay Johnstone), those who observed strange superstitions (like Kevin Rhomberg who, during his three years with the Cleveland Indians back in the early Eighties, superstitiously believed that every time he was touched by another human being, he had to touch that person back -- often with hilarious results!), and a wide variety of jokesters, irate managers (Earl Weaver, anyone?) and, of course, Bob Uecher! And while some of the stories may be familiar to you, Lee maintains a nice, conversational style that enhances the witty storytelling.

This was pure, mindless entertainment. If you or a friend/family enjoy baseball lore, this is a fun book!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Harriet Rubin, Dante in Love: The World's Greatest Poem and How It Made History

This is a pretty good supplement to any reading of Dante, whether it be just reading Inferno or the entire Divina Commedia for the first time. While I'm not too crazy about the title (which suggests a focus on Italian poet Dante Alighieri's love for his Beatrice a la Shakespeare in Love), the scholarship is well done and, like the Peter Ackroyd biography of Shakespeare I read earlier, it provides an excellent portrait of the poet, his times, and his writing method.

Rubin begins by putting Dante within his political context, detailing the circumstances surrounding his exile and the nineteen years of wandering he was subjected to as a result. She adds to this a solid analysis of each of the Commedia's three canticles, discussing Dante's compositional methods and influences (whether real or literary), all the while linking Dante's development as poet and man to his developing sense of "love" -- love for Beatrice, love for country, and love for God. Ideally, I would have liked to read Inferno in its entirety, followed by Rubin's section on it; then read Purgatorio in its entirety, followed by Rubin; followed by Paradiso and Rubin. As I said, for students of Dante this is a good book ... maybe not the best, but a good starting point for putting the Commedia within some authorial and historical context.

If you have a chance, check it out.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Literature of Hell

This summer, I'm teaching an eight-week seminar at the Newberry Library called "A Gathering of Shades: Exploring the Literature of Hell," a class I developed and taught there a few years ago based essentially on many of the literary works we read in A.P. English. In this seminar, we read exerpts from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of Job, Homer's Odyssey (Book 11), Virgil's Aeneid (Book 6), and Books I and II of John Milton's Paradise Lost. In terms of complete texts, in the seminar we read Aristophanes's The Frogs, Dante's Inferno, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus," and Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. It's hell ... but it's fun stuff!

Over these next two and a half months, however, I have several books that I've collected over the years as desk references for a course such as this, and as I teach each weekly session these are the books I have open on my desk and find myself re-reading in snatches:

Alice K. Turner, The History of Hell -- This is an easy-to-read and entertaining survey of all things Hell-related throughout literature, and includes some fabulous photos and artwork to enhance the reader's understanding of how Hell is reflected in the arts (later chapters draw upon how film and music are influenced by literary visions of Hell).

Edward J. Ingebretsen, Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King -- Given the literary works I teach in the seminar, Ingebretsen's text is not really useful. But his discussions of early American "terror" and how it influenced the writings of Emerson, Hawthorne, Frost, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King serve more as reference than anything. I think this book is currently out-of-print. I scored a copy at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon!

I.P. Couliano, Out of This World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein -- Another well-written survey text, it helps the reader understand aspects of the afterlife as they pertain to Buddhism, Judaism, and Shamanism. Very accessible!

Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds -- Probably the most comprehensive and scholarly of the texts here, its focus is limited to the eras mentioned in the title, but the depth of analysis is staggering! This was another gem I found at Powell's Books in Portland. I seem to remember its being hard to find elsewhere.

Ronnie H. Terpening, Charon and the Crossing: Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance Transformations of a Myth -- This one was perhaps the most difficult to obtain. Its been in and out of print in the last few years, and appears to be the sort of text that is printed in limited editions solely for university library collections. The focus is on the ancient boatman who traverses a river to bring souls to the underworld - a myth that can be traced through numerous religions and takes on various forms. It's a fascinating study and definitely a book worth getting for the serious Hell scholar in your family.

Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife -- Roach is a wonderfully amusing writer whose examination of the uses for corpses in Stiff I mentioned some time ago on this blog. In Spook, she tackles various scientific methods that have been used throughout history in an attempt to "prove" the existence of the human soul and an afterlife ... and while I found this book somewhat less interesting than Stiff, her tongue-in-cheek humor keeps the whole thing moving nicely!

So if the study of Hell is your thing, you can do one of two things: spend a day at your local DMV or, better yet, check out these books!
And if you like Hell-related music, click here. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Philip Freeman, Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis

While I lack the expertise and foundation in musical theory to fully understand when jazz critics discuss such things as time signatures and "polarity of rhythm" and "artificiality of methodology" and such abstractions, I knows what I likes when it comes to jazz ... and I've always liked Miles Davis. And the nice thing about Freeman's book is that he doesn't burden the reader with abstractions.

Focusing on Davis's fusion period from 1967 thru 1974, Freeman offers a series of extended essays that explore the various ways in which Miles stretched the boundaries of what was considered "acceptable" (or even listenable, for that matter) both within and without the jazz community. By experimenting with personnel lineups, drawing from such influences as Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone in terms of sound and song structures, fostering oft times vitriolic relationships with fellow musicians and his producer, Teo Macero, and continually searching for new ways to push the limits of both the musician and the listener, Miles Davis was able to create a body of work within that short period that would immediately influence his peers within the jazz community (like Herbie Hancock or John McLaughlin) and artists within the prog rock community (Yes, King Crimson, etc.), and influence the likes of pop, rap, hip-hop, ambient, and rock artists in decades to come.

By the way, another book I've read that handles this era well is Paul Tingen's Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967 - 1991. Do check that one out as well.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography

The end of the school year always brings with it the promise of catching up on some "fun" reading over the summer, and here's a book that's been sitting on my home stack of Books-To-Read since February.

My first encounter with Peter Ackroyd's work was a few years ago, when I began reading his biography of Charles Dickens piecemeal to supplement my research for the Dickens seminars. His prose is beautiful and engaging, and writes biography like a novelist (which he is, too). In Shakespeare: The Biography he does an excellent job of capturing not only the Elizabethan zietgeist, but also handles well the facts and fictions surrounding the life of the Bard, from his humble beginnings as a country schoolboy to his astonishing rise to prominance as the leading London playwright of his time. Along the way, Ackroyd peppers his narrative with interesting anecdotes on Will's writing process, his financial affairs, his personal relationships with actors and rival playwrights, and the ways in which his life's details found their way into his dramatic art.

I especially appreciate the way in which Ackroyd handles the more "controversial" aspects of Shakespeare scholarship. When discussing such things as the authorship question, or Shakespeare's religious leanings, or even the question of to whom the sonnets are dedicated -- all hot topics that Bard scholars have debated ad nauseum for years -- Ackroyd merely puts forth the facts surrounding each topic and avoids turning his biography into a platform from which to espouse yet another "theory." If anything, Ackroyd shuns conspiracy theory for the simple contention that Shakespeare was a gifted literary artist who was financially savvy, politically conservative, and merely one of countless playwrights at the time who worked hard to write, stage, and perform their work within the entertainment districts of London in spite of monarchal censorship and constant outbreaks of the plague.

This was interesting and accessible! I highly recommend it!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

R.I.P. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A sad day in the literary world ...

Here is the Associated Press article:

NEW YORK - In books such as "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Cat's Cradle," and "Hocus Pocus," Kurt Vonnegut mixed the bitter and funny with a touch of the profound.

Vonnegut, regarded by many critics as a key influence in shaping 20th-century American literature, died Wednesday at 84. He had suffered brain injuries after a recent fall at his Manhattan home, said his wife, photographer Jill Krementz.

Vonnegut's more than a dozen books, short stories, essays and plays contained elements of social commentary, science fiction and autobiography.

"He was sort of like nobody else," said fellow author Gore Vidal. "Kurt was never dull."

A self-described religious skeptic and freethinking humanist, Vonnegut used protagonists such as Billy Pilgrim and Eliot Rosewater as transparent vehicles for his points of view.


Vonnegut once said that of all the ways to die, he'd prefer to go out in an airplane crash on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. He often joked about the difficulties of old age.

"When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon," Vonnegut told the AP.

One of the best quotations from Vonnegut comes from this article from the New York Times:

[...] To Mr. Vonnegut, the only possible redemption for the madness and apparent meaninglessness of existence was human kindness. The title character in his 1965 novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," summed up his philosophy:

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies - 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' " [...]

Monday, April 09, 2007

David Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess

When my son Matthew was six years old, I taught him how to play chess.

Today, as a ten-year-old chess player, he's pretty good and has competed in a few tournaments. Like bowling and baseball, I hope that chess will become a lifelong interest for him and, some day, be one of the things he'll teach his own children.

This past fall he participated in his school's chess club, which prompted me to look into a few books related to chess strategy, openings, endgames, and -- most interesting to me, personally -- the history of the game.

Shenk's The Immortal Game is an excellent read for anyone who is not only intrigued by the game's centuries of development, but also interested in the pragmatic tactics of specific matches. Shenk provides a readable account of the game's development, from its origins in Persia and Egypt through its growth in medieval Europe to its metaphorical significance throughout modern history, all the while exploring the game's unique hold on the human mind at particular points in history: the significance of how the pieces developed over time (e.g., the "Bishop" was once the "Fool"), the ways in which the game came to represent the human condition at certain historical moments (e.g., the Enlightenment's distaste for monarchy led to the development of Pawn importance), and a variety of such innovations to a game that has captured the hearts and minds of players for centuries.

Interspersing the history, Shenk focuses on the play-by-play action of the "Immortal Game," an actual match that took place in London on June 21, 1851 between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, two of the world's top chess players at the time. By giving the reader an actual competition to follow, the author maintains two narratives simultaneously: the "big picture" history of the game, and the "personal" account of how the game is opened, developed, and won (or lost) via its manipulation of time, space, and simple human skill.

If you dig chess, this is a great read! The Immortal Game comes with an accompanying website (and I'm hoping to beat my esteemed colleague after over a month of play action!). Check them both out!

Um ... and for a quick chess fix, go here.



P.S. It's spring break and, between re-reading both Beloved and Bleak House, I'm hoping to squeeze in a Philip K. Dick novel and a Miles Davis biography. Wish me luck!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Simply put: haunting and gut-wrenching.

A man and his young son traverse the ashen wastelands of what was once America. Nuclear holocaust has devastated everything save a few roads and the occasional farm or abandoned city, and the two nameless protagonists move relentlessly westward in the hopes of reaching the ocean coast, all the while scavanging for food and shelter, or avoiding cannibalistic marauders.

Unlike McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian, there is no cast of colorful characters, no gruesome episodes of seemingly senseless violence, and no satanic Judge Holden from which to ascertain a moral (?) center. The Road is richly poetic despite its simplicity of style, and the "adventures" (such as they are) show a noticeable depth of character in both man and son as the narrative progresses. And while this is hardly the "feel good" book of the year, it remains surprisingly hopeful in the face of all that you, as a reader, suspect will happen by novel's end.

It took me about one full day to read this novel. It will grip you firmly about the neck during the reading, and linger with you long afterwards ...

Most powerful thing I've read so far in 2007, quite frankly! Check it out.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk

Here's a book that I finished last week for February's Biblioholics Anonymous gathering. It was quite an enjoyable read!

Palace Walk may seem like an antiquated throw-back to the great Victorian novels of old, with its brilliant evocation of a faraway setting and its exotic characters. Yet it tells a compelling story -- that of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, respected middle-class merchant to friends and acquaintances, but fiery-tempered patriarch to his own family. The novel, which is actually Book One of Mahfouz's "Cairo Trilogy" and is set in Egypt just after WWI, centers around al-Jawad, a highly traditional husband and father who maintains strict control over his family by way of the Qur'an while joyously seeking the pleasures of nightly trysts and carousing with friends. When his subserviant wife Amina dares to leave the house one day during his absence to visit a local shrine, she is involved in an accident that she cannot hide from her husband (and his fierce temper). One by one, wife and children must cope with the father's temper and hypocrisy as the novel takes us through marriage ceremonies, British occupation, and even family tragedy.

It is often said that Mahfouz does with Cairo in his fiction what Dickens did with London or Dostoyevsky did with St. Petersburg in their respective works. He offers an objective glimpse into the minds and hearts of his characters, and in the process exposes the universality of their culture, religious beliefs, and overall value system -- things which may seem remote and alien to Westerners, especially in these times.

If you are looking for a multi-cultural novel that shows just how dysfunctional all families can be, Palace Walk is a good pick. In fact, I place this book on the same "family dysfunction" shelf as Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.

(I plan to read Book Two of the Cairo Trilogy -- Palace of Desire -- later this year.)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Rachel Cohn & David Levithan, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

A colleague recommended this book to me.

Said colleague mentioned that it's a book which has received many accolades since its publication last year, and it epitomizes what "young readers really look for in a good book."

Apparently, young readers must look for pseudo-hip dialogue that ridiculously drops the f-bomb like a comma; emotionally needy narrators who dwell on their insecurities and continuously wonder if they're homosexual; a storyline that takes place over the course of one night (James Joyce, anyone?) and is told through the alternate-chapter points-of-view of the two protagonists (William Faulkner, anyone?); and fiction that succeeds in doing little more than capture the ranting zietgeist prattlevoice of the typical adolescent boy and girl as it whines about music, parents, sex, substances, sex, insecurities, and sex.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist tells of one night in the life of the title characters, two Manhattan high school seniors who have just emerged from failed relationships and come to meet at a performance of their favorite band. Complete strangers when they hook-up in an effort to make Nick's ex jealous, they begin a long night of conversations and meanderings through the streets of New York City, confronting their own obsessions, insecurities, and issues as their relationship develops.

It's an entertaining premise for a story, and the authors execute the storytelling in a back-and-forth manner which would seem clever and innovative to less erudite readers. If anything, each of the two narrators has a distinctive voice, and their musings are sprinkled with pop culture references galore, and enough obscenities to pass as a realistic slice-of-life of the average adolescent: Charles W. Chestnut capturing 2007 teen angst, if you will.

But "good" books do more than merely entertain you with a slice-of-life. They do more than offer what you already know. They teach. They inspire. They affirm. They challenge. One would hope that they make you a slightly ... oh so slightly ... "better" person by the end of the reading because they've taught ... or inspired ... or affirmed ... or challenged. And here is where Nick & Norah fails: it panders precisely to what young readers know already (and the more insecure ones will want vindicated), but it doesn't transcend beyond that. Even by the time the couple come to learn the Jewish concept of tikkan olam, it's too little too late.

Sadly, reading this book was one of the most misspent two hours of my week.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!

. . . born on this day in 1812.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever 1793

Here's a pretty good book for YA girls. It follows the story of fourteen-year-old Matilda Cook, whose mother owns Cook's Coffeehouse in 1793 Philadelphia just as the yellow fever epidemic strikes the city. Spreading quickly from the ports into the city itself, the fever forces residents to take to the roads, and when her mother begins to exhibit symptoms and is whisked away to the country residence of family friends, Mattie and her elderly Grandfather are left to their own devices to seek shelter and medical attention as soon as possible.

Fever has a solid story with plenty of page-turning episodes to keep young readers engaged, including the appearance of two murderous burglers, the acquisition of a young waif named Nell, and even a little romance with (sigh!) Nathaniel Benson! What I liked best here, however, was the story's basis in historical fact: its descriptions of the cruel treatment of fever victims by the common people, how doctors both here and in Europe treated the disease differently, and Anderson's use of enough Appendix-laden material to qualify this novel as clearly a piece of YA historical fiction.

Predictably, of course, we have the young protagonist who begins the novel with a certain set of values and, because of a life-altering experience, is now a much more "grown-up" individual by novel's end. It's fine to offer younger readers that sort of life-affirming storyline, but it's becoming so formulaic to me this year (after having read Soldier's Heart, Under the Same Sky, and Touching Spirit Bear) that I'm actually on a search at this point for something ... I don't know ... different.

Nevertheless, Fever is a good book, especially for young female readers. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Good article came my way this morning. Thought I'd share it:

Please, I want some more Dickens
A fruitless search for the author at schools and on teen reading lists inspires a parent's literary crusade.
By Janine Wood

Do you know any seventh graders reading "Great Expectations"? If not, maybe you should. In his book, "The Educated Child," former Education Secretary William Bennett suggests the Charles Dickens novel be part of a seventh- and eighth-grade reading list. I referred to Mr. Bennett's list recently while helping my 12-year-old son choose a book.

"Great Expectations!?" Now that's expecting a lot, I thought. I remembered picking it up on my own in eighth grade. But would adolescents today read Dickens in their leisure time? Maybe Mr. Bennett's book, written seven years ago, had made an impression. I called a local librarian. No, she said, "Great Expectations" is not a hit.

Next I polled my neighbors' children. Seventh graders on my block weren't reading "Great Expectations." They weren't reading "A Tale of Two Cities," "David Copperfield," or the "Pickwick Papers" either.

"Classics are stupid," said one 13-year-old girl, whose desperate mother had tried paying her to read Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." "I'd have to buy my son 17 North Face jackets before he'd look at a classic," said another mother.

Why did Bennett's recommendation seem so far-fetched? Yes, television, iPods, and computer games interfere with reading, but was that the only explanation? Maybe the Dickens novel was simply too hard to find. I wanted an answer.

First, I visited the children's section of the library. The books displayed most prominently in the center of the room addressed contemporary social issues such as anorexia, homelessness, divorce, and poverty. I finally found some by Dickens tucked away toward the back of the room.
I left the library and wandered over to the local bookstore. While I relaxed with a book by the 19th-century essayist Thomas De Quincey, a middle-aged woman entered and asked a saleswoman for a book recommendation.

"Do you want chick lit, a page-turner, or a romance?" the saleswoman asked. Oh, how I wish she had asked, "Do you want Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, or the latest translation of 'The Iliad'?" I felt as though I were at Wal-Mart instead of the bookstore, and that prompted me to wonder what other adults were reading. I asked around at the bookstore's cafe. Nobody had read Dickens since college and even then it was a chore. "I hated all that detail," one woman complained.

Then I scoped out the bookstore's teen section. Risqué images graced the covers of books with titles such as "Skinny Dipping" (second in the "Au Pairs" series) and "Gossip Girl." For boys, there were paperbacks that looked more like computer games than books – glossy covers depicting space ships and intergalactic battles.

"It's all teen trash," said the mom who had tried bribing her daughter to read "Little Women." "I might as well buy her a 'Harlequin Romance.' " How could the little black and white sketches of chubby men smoking pipes that appear in the older editions of Dickens compete with sexy girls romping on beaches?

"The answer is obvious," said a local father of two high school girls. "Teachers don't read Dickens, so they don't assign him." And sure enough, I looked at my son's past summer reading list and Dickens wasn't there. Neither were Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, or Stephen Crane. It seemed clear: For students in junior high, Dickens doesn't exist – not in book groups, not in schools, not at the library, and not at home. "Bah, humbug," I growled, and went off on a search for Mark Twain.

Parents, start a revolution! Unplug all electronic gadgets and get your children reading great books again. Here are a few tips:

• If "Great Expectations" seems too difficult, read the first few chapters aloud. Ask your child to read the rest.

• Ask your child to read at least 75 pages before giving up.

• Listen to classics on tape.

• Ask librarians to make the classics more visible to children.

• Start a children's book group. Gather a few children together. Meet at a local bookstore. The discussion doesn't need to be long – 10 minutes will do.

• Get in touch with the Great Books Foundation, which offers a list of age-appropriate books and instructions for guiding discussions.

Together, we can save Dickens – and others like him – from extinction!

• Janine Wood is a homemaker and writer.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Henry Hitchings, Defining The World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary

Back in 1988 at Saint Xavier University, I took a class taught by Dr. John Buck (a visiting professor from Penn State University) on Reformation and 18th Century literature, which introduced me to the writings of Swift, Pope, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Defoe ... and Dr. Samuel Johnson. Since then, I've always had a fondness for the well-balanced turn-of-phrase and satirical wit of those 18th Century writers.

Hitchings's Defining The World is a pure celebration of all things Dr. Johnson. The opening chapters are devoted to a thumbnail sketch of his biography (mostly via Boswell); the majority of the book focuses on Johnson's planning, writing, researching, and building of the Dictionary, and the final chapters discuss its publication, subsequent editions, and overall impact on lexicography. Throughout, Hitchings sprinkles an abundance of sample words and their definitions from the Dictionary as he discusses Johnson's method of composition, professional relationships, personal demons, etc. And the author does a solid job of documenting the various ways in which Johnson's methodology set the standard by which all later dictionaries would be made (for example, the hierarchy of definitions per word and the use of literary passages to illustrate differences in meaning were Johnsonian innovations).

What I enjoyed most here was how much Hitchings obviously relishes the Dictionary despite its many flaws (which Hitchings is pretty upfront about). To undertake the writing of a reference work of this magnitude is a challenge for a committee, let alone one man. But Johnson devoted seven years to its composition, and flaws are inevitable (some of the definitions he wrote were ridiculously obtuse, others just plain wrong, and still others were amusingly snide). But Johnson's Dictionary, for all its imperfections, was an impressive feat at the time and, until the OED came along in the late nineteenth century, was the foremost reference of its kind in English (recall that Becky Sharp even reacts against it in Thackeray's Vanity Fair).

A few years ago I read Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was excellent! If you're interested in the stories behind these two English dictionaries (which, I'll admit, might not seem to be all that "interesting" until you see for yourself!), I'd recommend the Winchester and Hitchings books.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Five Biographies of Charles Dickens

I might as well include these books on this list because for the past two years I've been in the slow process of reading five different biographies of Charles Dickens:

1. K. J. Fielding, Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction (1965)

2. Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography (1988)

3. Stephen Leacock, Charles Dickens (1933)

4. Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (two volumes, 1952)

5. Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (1990)

As I continue reading and teaching the complete novels of Dickens with my ongoing Newberry project, I find that I've settled into a pretty solid routine when writing my lecture notes on Dickens's biography.

For each pair of novels I teach (e.g., the 1849 - 1853 period that comprises the publications of David Copperfield and Bleak House), I read the appropriate sections of each biography in turn and take notes as I go. I then organize those notes into the appropriate number of sessions devoted to each book, and type up the notes accordingly. At the moment, I'm about halfway through each biography.

I usually begin with the Ackroyd and Johnson biographies because of their abundance of detail. I'm able to get most of my lecture material from those two, followed by the Kaplan bio (which is actually getting better now with the mid-point in Dickens's career). I then fill in the details by reading the Fielding and Leacock biographies which, though they aren't very engaging and are mostly cursory, provide a few anecdotes here and there. If time permits, I might return to scan each book in the weeks prior to the start of a seminar to ensure I have all the biographical info I need.

Of the five, I'd recommend the Peter Ackroyd biography to anyone who's interested in reading an entertaining and informative account of the life of Charles Dickens. It's the best of the five.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

It's been a long time since I've read any Jane Austen. I read this for our January book group selection.

Catherine Morland is a plain, average young lady who takes it upon herself to read lots and lots of Ann Radcliffe which, in itself, is pretty unfortunate. Like Don Quixote before her and Emma Bovary later, Catherine is so consumed with the images and circumstances of the fiction she reads (in particular, Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho) that when she has an opportunity to stay with friends at Northanger Abbey, she imagines all sorts of gothic-inspired mysteries and labyrinthian secrets that cloud her sense of reality. While the first half of the novel centers around her travails with the Allens, Thorpes, and Tilneys in Bath (offering the reader the typically Janite meditations on dances, manners, and fabrics in all their ironic glories), the latter section of the novel deals with her visit to the eponymous abbey and, eventually, her return home (and subsequent marriage).

I had forgotten just how much fun a Jane Austen novel can be, with her exquisitely fashioned sentences and subtle observations of just how ludicrous we human beings are. I had also forgotten how wonderfully she is able to extract the universal truths of human nature from such pedestrian activities as choosing a dancing partner, setting a table, or riding in a carriage.

Holden Caulfield speculates on the worth of an author, suggesting that the "good" ones are those which you want to meet after you've finished their book. Methinks Miss Austen would be a delightful author to meet!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We

This was recommended to me a few months back by a colleague. I scored a copy over the holidays and just finished it.

Published in 1920 (but suppressed for over sixty years in Russia), here is the Ol' Granddaddy of Twentieth Century dystopian literature. We is the first-person account of D-503, builder of the aeroship Integral in the futuristic One State controlled by the Benefactor. In the One State, all human emotion and imagination have been suppressed, and all thoughts and efforts are aimed at forcing the individual to act for the betterment of the collective. Everything from romantic encounters to elections are highly controlled and monitored, and D-503's aeroship will soon embark on its sole mission: to "subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficient yoke of freedom [...] and to compel them to be happy."
Everything is going smoothly for D-503 until he meets I-330, a beautiful young woman who inspires his imagination, awakens his passions, and introduces him to that most irrational of human possessions -- the Soul.

Long suppressed because of its commentary on Stalinism, We offers revolutionary ideas that even in today's political milieu might seem somewhat inciting. Nevertheless, it's pretty easy to see how this novel offered a template for Orwell's 1984, and it is said that it likewise inspired Huxley's Brave New World (which I haven't read since my own sophomore year of high school) and Ayn Rand's Anthem (and, having once read The Fountainhead, will likely remain the only Rand novel I read). We is a good read, and the final half of the novel is pretty riveting! Do check it out.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Rick Kogan, A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, A Curse, and the American Dream

The Billy Goat Tavern is one of the staples of Chicago tourism and cuisine, and this little book celebrates all that is the early life and heyday of a genuine Chicago landmark. From its humble beginnings as the Billy Goat Inn across from old Chicago Stadium to its current digs along lower Michigan Avenue and Hubbard Street, this book recounts the endless newspaper reporters, pols, entertainers, and goats who shared a late-night/early morning beverage and "cheezboorger" (not the least of whom was Pulitzer Prize-winner author Mike Royko).

Kogan's book reminds you of all the ways in which the Billy Goat Tavern has become interwoven with Chicago history over the past eighty years, from the famed "curse" placed on the Chicago Cubs to the Belushi-inspired Saturday Night Live skits. The interviews with owner Sam Sianis capture the immigrant-tinged dialect of so many Chicago bar owners, and Kogan's relaxed style makes you feel like you're sharing stories with an old friend over a beer and bowl of pretzels.

A Chicago Tavern is one of several books published by Lake Claremont Press, which specializes in books about Chicago history. Thanks to my wife for getting it for me for Christmas!