Wednesday, December 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until about a month ago.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Robert J. Sawyer, Hominids

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

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

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

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

Enjoy reading Olive Kitteridge!

Friday, July 23, 2010

David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

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

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

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

I enjoyed this!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 18, 2010

David Grann, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

In 1925, British Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, along with his son and his son's best friend, led an expedition into the Amazon jungle in search of what Fawcett called the "City of Z," an ancient lost city once thought to be in the depths of Brazil. Despite being hailed as one of the leading explorers of the Amazon jungle, Fawcett and his party were never heard from again. In this book, which was expanded from a 2005 article in The New Yorker, journalist David Grann recounts his attempts to trace the Fawcett party's expedition into the wilderness in the hopes of learning (a) whatever happened to them, and (b) did they ever find the city they sought.

This is an outstanding piece of non-fiction that will keep you riveted throughout the reading. Not only does Grann keep the narrative of the expedition itself well-paced, but he gives the reader of solid sense of what Fawcett was like, flaws and all. His accounts of some of Fawcett's earlier expeditions are as amusing as they are gripping, especially when less-than-capable explorers were faced with the harsh conditions of the jungle and the demands that Fawcett put on anyone willing to join his party. Additionally, Grann's descriptions of the Amazon jungle -- its geography, its animals and insects, its various tribes (both friendly and deadly ones) -- make for a fascinating glimpse into a tropical world that is indeed a false Paradise.

Strongly recommended if you are looking for some good non-fiction!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Samuel Beckett, Endgame

For years, I've taught Beckett's Waiting for Godot in my A.P. English class and I've used it in my "Literature of Hell" class at the Newberry Library. I find Beckett stark yet hysterical. Before the school year ended in May, my friend and I went to see a performance of Endgame at the Steppenwolf. So in prepapration for the performance I read the play.

In typical Beckett fashion, it's impossible to summarize a "plot" here. Instead, in Endgame you are faced with four characters who embody the fears, enslavement, bombast, and futility of all that is Twentieth-Century Mankind. Hamm is a blind, regal character who sits atop his "throne" on a stack of skids; he cannot move or see. Clov is his manservant/slave who engages Hamm in most of the play's dialogue; he cannot stop moving, and much of his "action" involves looking at/for things. Nell and Nagg are the elderly parents of Hamm, both passive and relinguished to ashcans that take stage prominance. Nothing really "happens" in the play, and the dialogue presents us with conversations, monologues, bickerings, a story-within-a-story, and various other moments that collectively take up 90 minutes or so of stage time.

But isn't that much like what modern existence is like? Beckett creates four characters, each of whom are metaphors for the problems and frustrations and fears that come with modernity. And there is a post-apocalyptic starkness to what they see outside those windows, lending a sheltered futility to all conversations in which they engage. And, like Godot, Endgame concludes in a moment of crisis, a moment of choice, a moment of pause ...

How will it be resolved? WILL resolution come? Beckett asks us ... but doesn't answer.

Endgame is hardly a beach read and Beckett is certainly not everyone's cup of tea. But if you enjoy dark comedy, check out this play.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

I remember first reading this way back in college (when I was twenty-one). I remember finding the whole experience of this story extremely unsettling -- and for good reason: its distinctively nightmarish quality. Upon re-reading it today I was pleasantly surprised, and no less unsettled, by its timelessness.

We all know the story. Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic cockroach. The family (consisting of mother, father, and younger sister) is thrown into turmoil because Gregor, the primary breadwinner, cannot go to work. Everyone in the family struggles with how to cope with this revolting "thing" that was once a functioning member of the family. Shock, grief, resentment -- all the stages of coping with the transformation lead to the story's inevitable conclusion, yet the family endures.

Now in my forties, I find this tale even more unsettling in its depiction of a family coping with the disability of one of its family members. From the start, Gregor's physical condition deteriorates in various ways. Of course, the obvious theme of a person coping with the demands of a job, family, and financial distress infuses the story with its distinct modernity. And in many ways, is this story not really a metaphor ... for alcoholism?

The Metamorphosis is definitely a great story to read when you're an adolescent (I plan to add it to my A.P. curriculum this fall). But it's even more harrowing when you read it twenty-five years later!

Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz, Kafka

In addition to reading The Metamorphosis, I also snagged a copy of Mairowitz's comic "biography" of Franz Kafka, brilliantly illustrated by none other than Robert Crumb! I say "biography" because, in addition to providing a wonderfully insightful account of the author life and Jewish background, it also contains sizeable excerpts from Kafa's major and minor works, passages from his diaries, interpretations of his works in light of their historical significance, and even comments on Kafka and the "Kafkaesque" within pop culture. So, in truth, it's much more than a biography.

Yet the great attraction here (for me, at least) is the artwork of Crumb, himself the perfect artist to illustrate the absurdity, the angst, the alienation, the carnality, the subversion, and the twisted grotesque Vision of Kafka's tales! In typical counter-culture hallucinatory Crumb style, the manic pen moves in insane crosshatch shading as Crumb captures the grime of Kafka's Prague ghetto, or the climactic moments of In The Penal Colony, or finally the tubercular dissolution of the author himself. Even now in his mid-sixties, Crumb's artwork continues to dazzle!

This is a great educational resource for anyone interested in the life and fiction of Franz Kafka, or for anyone who just digs terrific graphics. Check it out.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Gravity's Rainbow!

On this day in 1973, Thomas Pynchon's third novel, Gravity's Rainbow, entered American bookstores and split the literary world [...]

Click here for the whole entry.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

James Kennedy, The Order of Odd Fish

Start with a healthy dose of grotesque Victorianism -- Charles Dickens or Lewis Carroll will do. Add splashes of Harry Potter and Franz Kafka with a cup of Monty Python and Edward Gorey. Season with pinches of William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, and the Book of Jonah ... and whatcha get is a deliciously absurd debut novel by Chicago author James Kennedy called The Order of Odd Fish.

Jo Larouche is a mild-mannered thirteen-year-old girl who, after visiting her Aunt Lily's Christmas costume party, finds herself journeying to the faraway land of Eldritch City, where she discovers a secret about her parents *and* herself that could topple the entire town. Befriending a bevy of cockroach butlers, engaging in a series of adventures involving insult guns, moving tapestries, and battling the evil Fiona Fuorlini atop armed ostriches in a climactic duel, Jo must come to terms with who she is in this highly original coming-of-age story for female readers.

What I found most enjoyable about the novel, however, was the author's sense of comic timing. In my opinion, he ranks among such writers as John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), Oscar Wilde, and Charles Dickens at his comic best -- The Pickwick Papers -- for creating dialogue and situations that bristle with humor and charm! And even when the elements of plot push the boundaries of plausibility, you find yourself enjoying the pure absurdity of the moment thanks to a writing style that remains engaging and original.

This is pure, unadulterated FUN! Enjoy!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Robin Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life of an American Original

For Christmas, Santa Claus gave me an Amazon Kindle. And the first book I downloaded and read via Kindle was this excellent biography of one of jazz's great pianists, Thelonious Monk.

First, let me discuss the book itself.

Kelley's pacing is impeccable as he recounts the early years of Monk's parents, the years growing up and starting out in the Harlem club scene, as well as the "un"-years, the bebop explosion, and the final years in seclusion. While sufficient time is spent analyzing the songs for which Monk became well-known, Kelley never allows the writing to become jargony or overwrought with obscure musical terminology. And his reverence for Monk is seen in his treatment of Monk's behavior over the years, erroneously attributed to mere eccentricity and irresponsibility; this may not be the first book to explore Monk's depression and how it affected his performance, creativity, and public perception, but it becomes quickly evident that the author loves and deeply respects his subject matter, making this all the more enjoyable to read.

If you like this era of jazz and you're looking for a biography that is a "good read," I highly recommend this book.

As for the Kindle itself, I love it! Never thought I'd say that, since I've always been a bibliophile who enjoys the aesthetics of a good book -- the smell of a used copy, the physicality of the pages, the book jacket or cover art, etc. But the Kindle is light and compact (much lighter than lugging around Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day, I tells ya!), and easily allows you to adjust the font size for a comfortable read. Combine that with the built-in New Oxford American Dictionary, highlighting and annotating features, and online access ... and you have a fun little device that actually enhances the reading experience! Now, it's not perfect, and I do have further observations about the reading experience that I'll explore here at another time, but I gotta admit: I am thoroughly enjoying my Kindle.

Now the big question: Which book do I download next?? Any suggestions??

Monday, January 18, 2010

Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century

For the past month or so, I've been working through a few different sources that will enhance my upcoming Dickens seminar in Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, and this is one of the books I found especially helpful.

Linebaugh's The London Hanged is an excellent examination of capital punishment in 18th Century England and how it related to an emerging awareness of personal property. The author draws from a wide variety of source material and spins a good yarn as chapter after chapter takes the reader through criminals and their crimes, class warfare, the slave trade, social uprisings -- all motivated by (and influencing) Britain's changing perceptions of socio-economic status within the 18th century. My primary focus while reading this book: the Gordon Riots of 1780, one of the worst social uprisings in English history and the subject of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge.

Very readable, very engaging!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Anthony Burgess, Shakespeare

Any biography of William Shakespeare is automatically hobbled by one inconvenient fact: there isn't very much known about the guy. Once you get past the dates of "birth" and death, his formative years in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the approximate order in which he wrote and performed most of his plays, the rest is pure conjecture. So the mark of a truly good biography of Will becomes a question of how the biographer fills in the gaps.

Burgess, himself the author of A Clockwork Orange as well as dozens of additional novels and scholarly works, does an excellent job of filling in the gaps in this well-researched and highly readable biography of the Bard. He handles nicely the placement of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson within the Jacobean milieu in relation to Shakespeare, and he examines convincingly the ways in which historical events -- both social and political -- likely influenced Shakespeare's subject matter as he wrote his sonnets and plays. But what I most appreciated in this was Burgess's control of his style: while some novelists who don the cloak of biographer often let themselves get carried away by their own Muse (I'm talkin' to you, Peter Ackroyd), Burgess seasons his writing with just enough anecdotes, speculation, and wit without overshadowing his subject.

If you read one biography of William shakespeare, this is it. If you are beginning the study of Shakespeare's life and works, start here. This is an excellent read.