Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas

This was an enjoyable little book that sat on my shelf for almost a year before I finally got around to reading it. Subtitled "How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits," the book describes precisely that. And although it didn't tell me much that I didn't already know (having read and taught Carol and having previously read Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent The Battle for Christmas a few years ago), The Man Who Invented Christmas is a light, breezy read that will satisfy your yearnings for Yule.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Here's a wonderful poem to commemorate today, the first day we had snow.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Theodore Taylor, The Cay

One of the delights of having a twelve-year-old son (other than having someone else who can now collect the household trash and put away the laundry) is that it exposes me to some literary gems that have heretofore escaped my own reading. The Cay is one such book.

Set in the Caribbean during WWII, The Cay tells the story of Phillip Enright, a twelve-year-old boy who is torn from his mother and suddenly blinded when their boat is torpedoed off the coast of Curacao. He finds himself aboard a raft with Timothy, an old Jamaican man who serves as a father figure and Phillip's protector. When the two happen across a small island in the Caymans, it is Phillip who learns important life lessons about racism, sacrifice, and personal responsibility as they battle starvation and a hurricane, awaiting rescue all the while.

Beautifully written in a simple style, with action a-plenty told at a brisk pacing, The Cay is obviously an excellent novel for middle-schoolers. And there's just enough symbolism and social commentary to make this a wonderful introduction to the realm of literary analysis for youngsters.

My son just finished reading this novel in his Language Arts class and, with me reading it concurrently, it has given the two of us some opportunities for wonderful literary discussion! = )

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

This novel is pure, unadulterated fun! Guilty pleasure fun!

Set along the beachfronts of Los Angeles in 1969-70, our author gives us yet another Pynchonesque schlemiel, Larry "Doc" Sportello, a sandel-wearing private investigator cut from the familiar cloth of Tyrone Slothrop (Gravity's Rainbow), Oedipa Maas (The Crying of Lot 49), and Zoyd Wheeler (Vineland). Doc is confronted by old flame Shasta Fey Hepworth, who hires him to find her new lover, Mickey Wolfmann, who has recently disappeared. The ensuing investigation, which is a fun send-up of the traditional noir plot, sends Doc on a complex investigation that involves everything from Vegas lounges to port schooners to an underground organization (or is it?) called the Golden Fang. With its femme fatale, network of seedy minor characters, and seemingly endless smoking (tho what Doc smokes is a bit more ... um ... pungent), Pynchon channels Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler brilliantly in this homage to all things noir!

And for Pynchon fans, all the usual images and motifs and themes are there: the wacky song lyrics; the silly names; the really, really bad puns and doper humor; green and magenta; lightbulbs; mayonnaise; photography and film; paranoia -- it's all there! This is a veritable treasure trove for fans of The Man's works. A-and what struck me most was how long it's taken an author, whose fiction typically centers around the investigation of a mystery wherein the investigation becomes more and more complex, to finally come around to writing a work of noir fiction!

Maybe that's what makes the book "work" so well ... Pynchon (and his characters) were made for noir fiction!


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Desperately seeking a literary work to get me out of my recent reading rut, I turned to a novel suggested by one of the listers on the College Board listserv for A.P. English instructors ... and the novel turned out to be one of the best things I've read all year.

Set in Istanbul in the early 1990s, Snow tells the story of an exiled Turkish poet, Ka, who returns to his homeland posing as a journalist who is reporting on a recent series of suicides by young girls (these "Suicide Girls" have been struggling with the social and religious implications of covering their hair with the traditional headscarves). Ka is suffering from a profound writer's block -- and a blizzard is just beginning that will eventually seal off the residents of Kars for the next few days -- but Ka's return creates a sensation as he encounters members of a local theater troupe, fundamentalist radicals, Turkish law enforcement, and Ipek -- a beautiful woman who exposes Ka to love *and* the ability to once again compose poetry.

A simple summary, of course, doesn't give you much of a feel for the power of the prose, achieved through compelling conversations between characters that explore the various interpretations of words and actions that make up the belief system of Islam. For me, some of the most fascinating passages involved characters as they discussed the actions within a publicly televised play, and what social and religious implications those actions held for viewers. Pamuk's portrayal of both liberal and conservative Islamic mindsets remains compassionate throughout the narrative, offering the reader a rare glimpse of the impetus behind the tensions that continue to exist between Middle Eastern and Western lifestyles.

There is also a subtle complexity to the storytelling that I found enjoyable. Part of that subtlty comes from Pamuk himself, who is ultimately a character within the story (and who, it is revealed, is telling us this story four years hence). Additionally, I found delightful Pamuk's descriptions of the nineteen poems Ka comes to compose while in Kars; as readers, we are given vague sketches of each poem -- its composition, its style, its themes and images -- yet never given the actual poems ... which somehow heightens the overall effect and power of each poem.

A thoroughly enjoyable book that I highly recommend! Check it out.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Rudderless Ship of Reading: Summer/Fall, 2009

It's been an odd few months of reading, and very unlike me to be this haphazard in my literary choices over a period of months. So although I've written nothing here since early June about what I've read, I have actually read quite a bit -- it's just been "all over the place."

Over most of the summer months, my reading consisted of four books: rereading Paradise Lost, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop for my two Newberry classes, and tackling David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. While my interest was piqued early on in the reading of Wallace's "masterpiece" -- and certain passages were by turns hysterical, brilliant, or incomprehensible -- I was having a tough time keeping any sort of Big Picture in mind during the reading. Since Wallace is often compared to Pynchon and Delillo, I found myself noticing various parallels in style, motif, theme, etc. But, to be frank, a thousand pages is still a thousand pages, and although a friend of mine and I met up one evening for pizza to discuss our readings of the book (she was reading it too, and totally digging it!), it became more and more difficult for me to continue. Finally in early August, just as I was around page 600 in Infinite Jest ...

... Thomas Pynchon's new novel Inherent Vice came out! YES! So I took a week or so to slowly, savoringly enjoy the wackiness of this beautifully written work (which I have yet to write about here, but I will soon). Afterward, I found it impossible to return to the Wallace tome. And it was the start of the school year anyways by that time, so ... Infinite Jest remains, sadly, unfinished.

Overlapping much of this time period, however, was the prep time I needed for a fall seminar I was scheduled to co-teach with a Newberry colleague of mine. We were planning to collaborate on a seminar whose focus was Thomas Pynchon's thousand-page Against The Day, and so a portion of my summer months was additionally occupied with rereading that novel and doing some preliminary research. Unfortunately, low enrollment and some unforeseen school obligations led me to bow out of teaching the seminar, leaving Against the Day only partially reread and researched.

By late August school had begun and I was in the mode of rereading the usual books I have to teach during the early months of school -- The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, Macbeth, Letters From Wolfie. During this time I "tried on" several books, just to jump-start a reading pattern that would kinda get me back to normal: I reread some passages from Lord of the Rings, a few chapters from some random Dostoyevsky, toyed with reading a Philip K. Dick novel, and even read a beautiful book by Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (which I have yet to also write about here, but I will soon). Nothing was grabbing me ...

... Until I started reading Orhan Pamuk's Snow. This was one of the most captivating books I've read all year, and I simply stumbled across the title via the College Board's listserv for A.P. English teachers. I'll finish the book in the next few days, and I look forward to writing about it here (as well as catching up on my other book reflections).

So, while I haven't read much ... I have read a lot ... much of it a strange collection of rereadings, incomplete readings, and two or three gems. I'll catch you up on the gems shortly. = )

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader
Published: May 29, 2009

I’ve always admired my friends who are wide readers. A few even pride themselves on never reading a book a second time. I’ve been a wide reader at times. When I was much younger, I spent nearly a year in the old Reading Room of the British Museum, discovering in the book I was currently reading the title of the next I would read.

But at heart, I’m a re-reader. The point of reading outward, widely, has always been to find the books I want to re-read and then to re-read them. In part, that’s an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that no matter how long and how widely I read, I will only ever make my way through a tiny portion of the world’s literature. (The British Museum was a great place to learn that lesson.) And in part, it’s a concession to the limits of my memory. I forget a lot, which makes the pleasure of re-reading all the greater.

The love of repetition seems to be ingrained in children. And it is certainly ingrained in the way children learn to read — witness the joyous and maddening love of hearing that same bedtime book read aloud all over again, word for word, inflection for inflection. Childhood is an oasis of repetitive acts, so much so that there is something shocking about the first time a young reader reads a book only once and moves on to the next. There’s a hunger in that act but also a kind of forsaking, a glimpse of adulthood to come.

The work I chose in adulthood — to study literature — required the childish pleasure of re-reading. When I was in graduate school, once through Pope’s “Dunciad” or Berryman’s “The Dream Songs” was not going to cut it. A grasp of the poem was presumed to lie on the far side of many re-readings, none of which were really repetitions. The same is true of being a writer, which requires obsessive re-reading. But the real re-reading I mean is the savory re-reading, the books I have to be careful not to re-read too often so I can read them again with pleasure.

It’s a miscellaneous library, always shifting. It has included a book of the north woods: John J. Rowlands’s “Cache Lake Country,” which I have re-read annually for many years. It may still include Raymond Chandler, though I won’t know for sure till the next time I re-read him. It includes Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” and lots of A.J. Liebling and a surprising amount of George Eliot. It once included nearly all of Dickens, but that has been boiled down to “The Pickwick Papers” and “Great Expectations.” There are many more titles, of course. This is not a canon. This is a refuge.

Part of the fun of re-reading is that you are no longer bothered by the business of finding out what happens. Re-reading “Middlemarch,” for instance, or even “The Great Gatsby,” I’m able to pay attention to what’s really happening in the language itself — a pleasure surely as great as discovering who marries whom, and who dies and who does not.

The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger.

I look at the books on my library shelves. They certainly seem dormant. But what if the characters are quietly rearranging themselves? What if Emma Woodhouse doesn’t learn from her mistakes? What if Tom Jones descends into a sodden life of poaching and outlawry? What if Eve resists Satan, remembering God’s injunction and Adam’s loving advice? I imagine all the characters bustling to get back into their places as they feel me taking the book down from the shelf. “Hurry,” they say, “he’ll expect to find us exactly where he left us, never mind how much his life has changed in the meantime.”

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Infinite Summer

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest has been on my bookshelf for about a decade, unread. I've wanted to read it, but never had the ambition to tackle all 1,079 pages. And then Wallace dies last year, thereby ruining my hopes of ever running in to him in a local Appleby's and asking him if reading his novel is really worth my time ...

Enter "Infinite Summer," an online group read project that divides the novel into approximately 15 weeks of reading (75 pages or so per week), which is very do-able for me (given all the other stuff I'm currently reading). Coupled with a website, a message board, a Facebook page, and an XML feed, it's the perfect opportunity to read this book within an online community and discuss accordingly. Plus, a few colleagues and friends are thinking about joining in on the reading, too.

Many thanks to my friend Ilene for sharing this with me! I look forward to starting this in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dan Simmons, Drood

On June 9th, 1865, Charles Dickens was involved in a railway accident near Staplehurst in Kent, what would become known as one of the worst railway accidents to occur in England. The train on which Dickens, his mistress Ellen Ternan, and her mother were traveling derailed on a bridge, and most of the cars plunged into the river below. Dickens and his two companions were in one of only two cars spared the plunge and, although he was shaken, the famous author ministered to the sick and dying until help arrived. But the accident left him weakened, nervous, paranoid of railway travel, and -- coupled with the physical and emotional demands of his reading tours over the next few years -- pretty much led to the stroke that killed him five years (to the day) later.

Drood is Dan Simmons's re-imagining of those final five years of Dickens's life as told from the viewpoint of Wilkie Collins, his fellow author and sometime collaborator. In a sprawling narrative, Simmons gives us a laudenum-addicted Wilkie Collins who is obsessed with a shadowy figure named Edwin Drood, whom Dickens claims to have encountered during the Staplehurst carnage. As Wilkie, author of The Moonstone, bemoans his life in the constant shadow of Dickens, he fixates more and more on the perceived threat presented by this Drood figure unless he can murder Dickens -- often echoing the Mozart - Salieri relationship in Amadeus.

The research that went into this novel is impressive, to say the least. Simmons does an excellent job of presenting a period of Dickens's life that has fascinated scholars for well over a century, what with the vaguery surrounding his relationship with Ellen Ternan at this time as well as the questions left with his unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Simmons wonderfully captures the paradoxical qualities of Dickens: his compassion and his arrogance, his literary artistry and his blatant materialism. But the better achievement here is his characterization of Wilkie Collins, a nuanced narrator who undergoes subtleties of development over the course of the narrative while remaining stubbornly fixed in his hallucinations and self-import. And, if nothing else, there are laugh-out-loud moments of hilarity as Wilkie takes liberties with the establishment of writers and publishers of Victorian England that hold true today!

This is a long book (771 pages in my hardcover edition), but a pretty light and easy read -- especially in the last half of the novel, which really slips along at a rapid pace. Of course, I'd recommend that one first read Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood to "get" some of the things Simmons ties into the narrative, but it certainly isn't essential. Either way, Drood is a cool book that will give you your Dickens/Victorian England fix, along with some compelling murder-mystery entertainment!


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Pejudice and Zombies

"Parallel fiction" (a name which I abhor) is a relative newbie in terms of literary genres. It takes many forms, anything from telling the "backstory" of a minor character from a major work of literature (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Wide Sargasso Sea, or basically anything by Gregory Maguire) to telling the possible life of an author (Dan Simmons's recent Drood is a good example). But Grahame Smith puts a slightly different spin on this genre: Why not simply reprint the original literary masterpiece ... and weave zombies and ninjas into the existing storyline?

Thus, Netherfield and Pemberley remain the same as always, with the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr. Darcy doing their usual cat-and-mouse against the swirl of Lady Catherine's haughtiness, Mrs. Bennett's peevishness, Mr. Wickham's deceitfulness, and the typical Regency background of Jane Austen's novel. But a recent "plague" has apparently rendered the English countryside aswarm with zombies -- delicately referred to as "unmentionables" in Grahame-Smith's world -- and scene after scene in the novel is interrupted by mayhem from the undead, whereupon various characters must draw upon their ninja skills to slay the attacking unmentionables before returning to the latest ball or afternoon tea.

I must admit, it was curiosity more than anything else that drew me to get this book. But the result is a weird "two great tastes that taste great together" approach that -- somehow -- works! As you might imagine, the Austen/Ninja contrast is amusing at first. But in this re-imagined Janite world, one's ninja training and skills become a mark of status (or lack thereof) in much the same way money and being landed function in the original. And the ubiquitous zombies become a metaphor for the faceless social norms that continually push and pull against the characters of Netherfield. And the book is funny, especially when we see Elizabeth Bennett remove an ankle dagger and proceed to take out two or three zombies feeding on servants.

Additionally, with so much of the original novel intact and untouched here, I could see a young reader engaging with this book for the pure fun or it and, in the process, reading all of Pride and Prejudice.

This is a delightfully wicked little book. Enjoy!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reading ....... for Pleasure??

This has been a very odd Spring.

Normally, I'm able to juggle the demands of reading for school with the demands of the Newberry Library, plus adding in a few "fun" reads per month. But this Spring has not afforded me much of a chance to do that. Somehow, I feel like I've been running in place for a long, long time without gaining any distance ... plenty of stuff read, but little of it new.

With having a student teacher these past four months, I was able to read prodigious amounts of literary criticism and biographical material on Charles Dickens, not to mention re-read both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. At the same time, I re-read The Importance of Being Earnest, Gulliver's Travels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Waiting for Godot, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Streetcar Named Desire with my Argo classes (as well as countless poems and a ton of student essays). So, everything considered, I accomplished a LOT of reading in four-and-a-half months!

But not as much supplementary reading -- reading just for ME -- was accomplished during that time. I have several different books under way to varying degrees and for different purposes -- and my hope is that I'll get to talking about them here over the course of the summer as I finish them -- but I feel as if I've somehow short-shrifted myself of quality reading time ...

Life is too short, right?

Anyways, I'm now in the process of re-reading Nicholas Nickleby for one of my summer Newberry seminars, as well as re-reading Paradise Lost for the other summer seminar. And in the Fall I hope to co-teach a seminar at the NL with a friend on Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, so I've begun doing some reading there as well.

The ol' cliche: Too many books, too little time ...

Sunday, April 19, 2009


So far this year, most of my "fun" reading has been devoted to Dickens. My seminar series on the novels of Charles Dickens started at the Newberry Library last month, wherein we are once again reading The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. But this time around, it's more than merely reading the novels and keeping up with my students.

As I read the novels this time, I find myself fascinated by the circumstances under which each novel was written, and the publishing history behind each novel. Doing research for my lessons on The Pickwick Papers, for example, I stumbled onto some interesting information on how the serial was marketed back in 1837-38 and how advertizing was done, leading me to explore some early examples of what today we'd call "product placement" in the monthly installments of the novel. And while reading up on the New Poor Laws of 1834 as I prepared notes on Oliver Twist, some of the nuances of English law and economics became the subject of further research!

Yeah ... I'm geeking out on Dickens these days. : )

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Philip Nel, The Annotated Cat: Under The Hats of Seuss and His Cats

As kids, most of us cut our young reader's teeth on Seuss classics The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Philip Nel expertly collects everything you'd ever want to know about the writing, illustrating, and publishing of these two children's books, and then some!

The Annotated Cat breaks down each of the Cat books page-by-page, examining how Theo "Seuss" Geisel developed each story, worked and re-worked the rhymes, and created the corresponding artwork. We see glimpses of early drafts and rough sketches of the artwork, and Nel's notes do a great job of noting the poetic patterns, symbols, and improvements that famously took Seuss over a year and a half as he wrote the first book!

But for the true aficionados, Nel includes a biography of Geisel that highlights his achievements as an animator of political cartoons and marketing ads ("Quick, Henry, the Flit!"), all of which functioned as an influence on his art and story development for the Cat books. With rare photos (Seuss's drawing table, for example) and facsimiles of the Cats in manuscript form, as well as tons of Seussian trivia, The Annotated Cat is a fun book to explore.

Check it out!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

It's been a long time since I've read these two works, but our monthly Biblioholics Anonymous meeting is next week and this is our first selection for 2009.

The first time I read Lewis Carroll was my first year teaching A.P. English, about twelve years ago. At that time it was merely a book that some of my students were going to do a presentation on, and I didn't think much of Alice and Looking-Glass at the time. They were quaintly absurdist and clever, yet frankly I found myself more smitten with John Tenniel's illustrations than with the "story" itself.

But it's amazing how years and reading experience can change your opinion of a book.

Having immersed myself in more mainstream Victorian literature for the past four years thru my Newberry classes, I can only imagine how innovative the Alice books must have been upon their publication. Although they were considered children's books at the time, each book is replete with social commentary on Victorian-era education, social values and mores, taboos, and authority figures. The puns and wordplay -- not to mention the poems and illustrations -- must have made for fantastic fun amongst readers who were used to the likes of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope.

I don't know too much about the development of children's literature, so I am unfamiliar with the extent to which the Alice books maintained or introduced conventions of children's literature. But the matter-of-fact tone Carroll conveys when introducing absurd situations is something I've noticed in Tolkien's The Hobbit or the stories of A.A. Milne, and I wonder if that is a convention of children's literature that started with Alice. I'll have to look into that.

It was fun re-reading this twelve years and dozens of 19th century novels later. Very enjoyable!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

This is the 2009 selection for our "Obscure Shakespeare Play" reading group, which celebrates its sixth year on Saturday. As you know by now, a few former A.P.ers and I started this tradition in an effort to explore the least-read Shakespeare plays, and we generally meet on the first Saturday of the new year for lunch and discussion. This year, we may have a few more folks at the discussion.

According to scholars, Timon of Athens is possibly one of those plays in which Shakespeare collaborated with a fellow playwright, similar to The Two Noble Kinsmen. It tells a story that is simple enough: Timon is generous with his wealth -- too generous -- doling out loans that he cares not to collect on, and lavishing gifts and feasts upon everyone in Athens until he is literally penniless ... and when he tries to collect on the loans or call upon "friends" to help him out financially, he realizes the hard way that suddenly his friends aren't as quick to reciprocate with generosity. Timon is driven to misanthropy, madness, and death.

Certain aspects of the play remind me of the great tragedies. There is the narrative simplicity of Othello with the self-delusion of Macbeth, coupled with the misanthropic invectives of King Lear in its final acts. At the same time, however, there is a noticeably incomplete quality to the story itself, and even some of the lines break off in mid-meter, left unresolved. Nevertheless, in typical Shakespearean fashion there are plenty of motifs to follow (references abound to "gold," "dogs," "prostitution," and "use" to correspond to the themes of philanthropy and feasting off of others' offerings), and the banquet scenes anchor the symbolism of the story in much the same way the scaffold scenes do in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Although it is rarely performed, I did learn of a musical score for a production of Timon of Athens that was composed by Duke Ellington, which is kind of intriguing to me.

As far as Shakespeare goes, Timon of Athens is pretty good ... even if few people read it any more.