Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reader Confessions: I Love (and still read) S.E. Hinton

You know those books that are a kind of cultural touchstone for young adults - those books it seems like everyone was either forced to read or found on their own? One of the prime examples of this kind of book is S.E. Hinton's famous young adult novel, The Outsiders. Although Hinton wrote it while still a teenager in the 1960s, it has managed to stay relevant and on reading lists for 12-14 year olds across the country. I was never assigned The Outsiders in school, but I read the book on my own in middle school and really liked it. Even as an adolescent, I realized it was a little emotionally manipulative and heavy-handed, but that didn't keep me from crying through the end and unintentionally falling in love with some of the characters (particularly moody and hyper-responsible big brother, Darry Curtis). I quickly devoured Hinton's other four young adult novels and found myself enjoying them as well.

Then a curious thing happened. I grew up, reread the books as an "adult," and realized I still liked them. Maybe even loved them. Now that I'm older (and hopefully wiser) and have seen examples of good and bad writing in every genre for every age, I can honestly say that Hinton's writing impresses me. The style is straightforward, and her first-person narration is handled very deftly, with protagonists seeing everything in a personal, distorted light, forming prejudices or attachments in places we readers might find trouble. Most of all, I am always surprised by the kind of "big ideas" Hinton tackles. Sure, coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. And sure, at least half of them involve death or injury in some way. But Hinton is much more interested in both the value and the tragedy of human relationships. Whether between friends, or romantic interests, or family members, her characters' relationships are always prickly and honest. Forget the death-shines-light-on-truth of The Outsiders. I'm talking about Hinton's later work, where the dissolution of a friendship is twice as heartbreaking and realistic as any death.

My favorite book by Hinton, and one that I return to every couple years because I love the characters so much, is Tex. The title character makes an amusing and heartbreaking narrator, and his relationships with his best friend, his possible girlfriend, his "father", and his older brother are extremely touching and true. It's Tex's relationship with his control-freak, stressed-out brother, Mason, that really gives the book it's heart. (Here, I will admit that I always loved Mason, much for the same reason I loved Darry in The Outsiders - because he's a protective older brother who has a hard time dealing with emotion. Let's just say I have a type.) The eventual reconciliation between the brothers reads wonderfully because it's full of imperfections, things unsaid, and promises that might get broken in the future. And that's why I love S.E. Hinton's work: Because she's not afraid to tear giant holes between her characters and force them to realize that even if you sew that hole back up, it's never going to be as seamless again. People and circumstances change, and all we can do is try to deal with those changes the best we can. It's a lesson everyone, not just teenagers, might need to be reminded of every once in awhile.

So why am I bringing S.E. Hinton up now? Because I am worried about the state of young adult literature. A fellow reader of mine recently blogged about her fear over the state of teenage readers in regards to the romantic obsessions of Twilight and its fans. I agree wholeheartedly with her that although it's nice to see teenagers reading, it's disheartening to know that that reading is largely concerned with overly-idealistic romantic entanglements and supernatural creatures, neither of which will probably be encountered in later life and literature. I understand the need for escapist reading - I read Nora Roberts and Stephen King like everyone else - but what happened to the hyper-realism of young adult novelists like Hinton? I know I sound like a crazy old person yelling for the kid to get off my lawn, but I'm worried. Because books like Twilight present relationships without complexity and create weak female characters that do little but act as stand-ins for the readers. (Another trait I like about Hinton: her female characters are usually as angry and troubled and willing to sever ties as their male counterparts). Reading about vampires for fun is fine. But when that's all you're reading, it's worrisome to literary snobs like myself. Because I worry the future is full of girls growing up to believe in idealistic and super-pure love, and that's just leading to disappointment for everyone. Take it from Hinton: people and their connections to each other can suck sometimes, and you have to be able to deal with that truth.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Scary Things

Up here in Northern Indiana, we are having a very windy day. Right now, outside the window to my left, the sky is darkening as wind chimes ring out anxiously. It's the perfect way to announce the real arrival of Autumn: that season of sweatshirts, football, and ghosts. I love Fall; it's my favorite season. The air is crisp and clear, and Fall means the arrival of old comforts: particuarly warm, homey food and great, long books. I am looking forward to diving into some epic poems and some of my mother's pot pie with equal abandon.

But Autumn is also a season for the strange and terrible, too. Something about a dark, windy day such as this always makes me thinks of the things that go bump in the night, the unexplainable. And for once, I'm quite looking forward to being scared. Next weekend, the very funny yet scary-looking movie, Zombieland, opens, which I am really excited about. On Thursday, my televised guilty pleasure, Supernatural, will feature zombies as well. For those of you who know me, zombies are my weakness. Just the thought of the diseased undead crawling around makes me itchy. Some people at night might hear a scratch at the window at night and think "Burglar!" I wake up to noises outside and think, "Zombies!" My zombie fear really took over a couple summers ago when I read Max Brook's wonderfully entertaining World War Z, which is set up as a fake nonfiction piece on a zombie war that enveloped the entire modern world. After reading the novel, I was a goner. Zombies are terrifying, and no one can tell me differently.

So when I woke up to this dangerous weather, I went straight to my library looking for a good, possibly frightenening read. Unfortunately, I could not find a single book about zombies. But I did go ahead and borrow Stephen King's Pet Sematary, which I'm admittedly afraid of starting. I read and liked Salem's Lot last winter (its disturbing vampires actually distracted me from my zombie fear for about a month afterwards), so I thought I'd give this one a try. Because it's the perfect time of year to be scared stupid!

And while mentioning scary things, I'd like to point out that it's Banned Books Week. If I get too frightened to finish Pet Sematary or get done with it quickly, I hope to peruse my personal favorite banned book, JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Censorship is a hundred times more terrifying than any zombie because it's already happened in America again and again. This week always makes me grateful for having had parents and teachers that allowed me to find my own reading material and never tried to take a book out of my hands because it might contain - oh no! - a swear word. I hope you all take time this week to think about the dangers of censorship and take time to thank those that encourage you to read whatever your heart desires. Even if your heart desires trashy horror novels...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Poem of the Week: "The Departure" by Guillaume Apollinaire

This edition of Poem of the Week was inspired by three things: 1) the autumn leaves beginning to fall, 2) the recent PBS DVD catalog, in which I was disappointed by the lack of World War I documentaries, and 3) my desire for a short post after the long Fitzgerald Week updates. This poem combines all three of these things!

Guillaume Apollinaire is one of my favorite World War I writers, which is really saying something because World War I is both my favorite war (yes, you can have such a thing) and one of my favorite literary topics. His absurd, often surreal, poetry tries to deal with the horrors of war in a new and interesting way. His famous book, Calligrammes: Poems of War and Peace 1913-1916, features poems that move into strange, fascinating places. Some of the poems take form in shapes; others throw random lines one after another to create a stirring, chilling effect. One of my favorite poems in the collection is also one of it's shortest. I think "The Departure" is both chilling in its depiction of the way war leaves everything broken - people, places, language - and lovely in its language, particularly the second stanza. Also, it's an easy poem to memorize and whip out to impress others.

"The Departure," by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Anne Hyde Greet

And their faces grew pale
And their sobs were broken

Like snow on pure petals
Or your hands on my kisses
Fell the autumn leaves

Have a lovely reading week, everyone!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Reading Week in Review: Fitzgerald Week Comes To an End

Well everyone, Fitzgerald Week is finally coming to a close. I really enjoyed chatting about my favorite writer with you all this week, but I look forward to taking on other subjects in the weeks ahead. Fitzgerald's Birthday was a smashing personal success for me this year. During the day, I got two calls for job interviews, and I had the chance to talk to some of my closest friends on the phone. The night ended with a cake my parents got for the occasion that proudly proclaimed "Happy Birthday, Fitz!" That's right. Even my parents play into my delusions now.

I read two Fitzgerald-related things this week: his short story "Winter Dreams," and the graphic novel The Left Bank Gang. The Left Bank Gang, written by my favorite graphic novelist, Jason (one-name only), pictures the Lost Generation bumming around Paris as animals/cartoonists who struggle with their art, their families, and their poverty. Tired of being poor, Hemingway cracks a plan with Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Fitzgerald to rob the purse of a prizefight. The whole thing falls apart as humanity's darker, jealous side takes over. It's a sad story that takes drastic liberties with these famous writers' lives, but it's a fun and breezy read nonetheless. The Hemingway character is very well-written, and Fitzgerald is in full-on tragedy mode here. I recommend it to anyone who's interested in the Lost Generation or just a really good, action-packed story.

"Winter Dreams," meanwhile, was also a good read. I hadn't read this story, one of Fitzgerald's most famous, in years. It meant a lot more to me now that I'm older. The famous Fitzgerald scholar, Matthew J. Bruccoli, introduces the story by claiming that it provided some of the inspiration/work for The Great Gatsby. Like most of Fitzgerald's short stories, it's about lost love, but the ending is quite poignant, and the fate of former-heartbreaker Judy Jones is sad indeed. Fitzgerald's stories are beautifully written, particuarly the stuff from this mid-1920s time period.

In non-Fitzgerald reading, I finished Ivan Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons, earlier this week. I was inspired to read the book after seeing Gary Shteyngart's awesome NPR piece about it. I can't compete with Shteyngart's views on the book, and I agree with him that it's awesome, so I suggest you look at his piece to see why. Turgenev was writing at the same time as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but he did it in a much smaller space. Fathers and Sons is about 1/6 the size of War and Peace. It was a fantasic read - entertaining and intelligent at once. The characters are put together very well, and I was pleased by Constance Garnett's translation. (For those of you who don't know, Constance Garnett is a fascinating figure, translating nineteenth century Russian novelists in the early twentieth century at amazing speed). This book would make a great jumping off point for anyone looking to get into nineteenth-century Russian literature, arguably the greatest literary period/place in history. It's an absolutely wonderful, and wonderfully quick, read.

Speaking of Turgenev, I learned an interesting fact about that man that links into my Tolstoy problem which you've all heard about here several times (the problem being his pomposity, of course). Apparently, Turgenev was always getting into political and literary fights with Dostoevksy and Tolstoy, despite being sometime friends with both. Once, Tolstoy became so angry with Turgenev that he challenged him to a duel, only to back off on it later. A duel! This is why I love Russian literature, people...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Happy Fitzgerald Day!

Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald!!!

As I am sure you are all aware by now, today is officially Fitzgerald Day, Beth's official holiday for celebrating reading and writing. The festivities today started off nicely with a shoutout to Fitzgerald on NPR's Writers Almanac, and I could have sworn my beloved framed Fitzgerald poster over my desk looked happier today also. I hope you all enjoy this glorious day where we celebrate 113 years of awesomeness from America's best (okay, one of America's best) novelists.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Favorite Passages: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I often cringe when giving my answer. "The Great Gatsby," I say sheepishly. It seems like such a cliche answer, the kind of answer someone gives when they're trying to sound impressive. Dumb people everywhere have given this answer, including people who have never read it. I think some people say it's their favorite book simply because it's the only book they remember reading and somewhat enjoying in high school. But I really do love The Great Gatsby. I think it's the most perfect novel ever written, and every time I read it I feel like it was created just for me. It has everything you could ever want from a good book: a sound structure and form, interesting characters, fascinating and twisty plot, and absolutely gorgeous writing.

Occasionally, Fitzgerald's writing bothers me. It feels too flashy sometimes, like he's trying to use big words just to prove he's smart despite being thrown out of Princeton. But this never happens in Gatsby. Every word is perfectly placed and correct. The dialogue is true to sound and very modern, and Fitzgerald's descriptions are like poetry - succinct, beautifully worded, and packed with thematic meaning. The novel is an absolute literary feat, an accomplishment that deserves all the respect it gets.

Unfortunately, it's also an extremely over-exposed book. Somehow, I got all the way through my entire education without having to read it, which didn't matter because I read it on my own when I was fifteen and was a Fitzgerald fanatic by the time I graduated high school. Because it is used in English classes so often, Gatsby becomes associated with the misery of school and structured reading lists. I challenge everyone, first-time Fitzgerald readers and authorities alike, to reread the book at least once every couple years. You won't believe how it transforms for you between each interval. I've read the book five or six times, about once every year or two, and every time I read it, I see it in a completely new and exciting light. I love this book so much that it's almost painful for me to read it. It's become a part of me, and the older I get, the more i understand it and its characters. It also helps to be a Midwesterner, too, being that this book is more about the Midwest than it is about the Long Island shore where it takes place.

I chose this favorite passage because it's a lesser known part of the book: the official "break-up" between Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway (see my List below to learn more about them). For me, this scene really captures the personal tragedy of the story. I am not necessarily sad about the break-up; it's actually quite inevitable. But Fitzgerald does such a great job of pinning all sorts of emotions below the surface of this scene that it really sparkles for me. I hope you enjoy it.

From The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction. So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.

There was one thing to be done before I left, an awkward, unpleasant thing that perhaps had better have been let alone. But I wanted to leave things in order and not just trust that obliging and indifferent sea to sweep my refuse away. I saw Jordan Baker and talked over and around what had happened to us together and what had happened afterward to me, and she lay perfectly still listening in a big chair.

She was dressed to play golf and I remember thinking she looked like a good illustration, her chin raised a little, jauntily, her hair the color of an autumn leaf, her face the same brown tint as the fingerless glove on her knee. When I had finished she told me without comment that she was engaged to another man. I doubted that though there were several she could have married at a nod of her head but I pretended to be surprised. For just a minute I wondered if I wasn't making a mistake, then I thought it all over again quickly and got up to say goodbye.

"Nevertheless, you did throw me over," said Jordan suddenly. "You threw me over on the telephone. I don't give a damn about you now but it was a new experience for me and I felt a little dizzy for a while."

We shook hands.

"Oh, and do you remember --" she added, "-- a conversation we had once about driving a car?"

"Why, -- not exactly."

"You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn't I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride."

"I'm thirty," I said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor."

She didn't answer. Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.

Thanks, for reading! Tomorrow is the offical deal: Fitzgerald's actual birthday!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

" 'Good Old Kerry' and All That Rot": Top Seven Favorite Fitzgerald Characters

To fit with the Fitzgerald theme, this week's list is all about my favorite Fitzgerald characters. Fitzgerald is responsible for creating some iconic American characters (Jay Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, Monroe Stahr, etc.), but he also gives life to charming secondary characters and over-earnest narrators as well. In this list, I will present my favorite Fitzgerald characters, the people with whom I'd love to party on someone's sloping green lawn. They're not necessarily his most complex or necessary creations, but they are all awesome in their own ways.

1. Kerry Holiday, from This Side of Paradise: Here's where this entry's title comes from. Kerry plays a very small role in this book as protagonist Amory Blaine's best friend at Princeton. The gray-eyed, humorous Kerry easily makes friends (all though its his "goodness" that keeps him from getting girls), but he is doomed from the very beginning. He only gets a handful of scenes and he's dead less than halfway through the book, but Kerry makes an impact on a lovelorn reader like myself. And he just so happens to be one of my biggest literary crushes.

2. Tom D'Invilliers, from This Side of Pardise: Tom is Amory's other best friend, and unlike Kerry, he actually gets to live through the entirety of the book. Tom's a lovesick, melodramatic poet when Amory first meets him, but by the end of the book, he's become a bit of a literary sell-out, more cynical and worldly than we ever could have imagined him at the novel's start. In my opinion, his character arc is as important as Amory's. And best of all, Tom is the author of the poem Fitzgerald quotes in the epigraph to The Great Gatsby. It's hilarious how often people mistake that poem and poet for reality.

3. Jordan Baker, from The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald's most famous novel has an impressively small cast of characters, and Jordan originally appears to be one of the least important. This female professional golfer isn't necessarily likeable - she's rumored to be a cheater, she's surprisingly cynical, and the fact that she's friends with Daisy doesn't do her any favors. But damn if I don't like her spunk! And even more importantly, her doomed relationship with narrator Nick Carraway reveals the levels of disillusionment both characters experience in the face of Gatsby and the Buchanans' wealth. I think Jordan and Nick's break-up scenes is one of Fitzgerald's most poignant, and you can expect to see it quoted here later this week.

4. Cecelia Brady, from The Last Tycoon: It's a little hard to include a character whose book isn't even finished (Fitzgerald died less than halfway through), but I really like Cecelia. She sees everything as the narrator of Tycoon, carefully watching the rise of movie producer Monroe Stahr, and witnessing the obvious trap her father, another rich and successful producer, is clearly planning for him. In some of his notes for the novel, Fitzgerald maps out a tragic path for Cecelia that is even sadder in the wake of the book being left undone. Plus, Cecelia is a huge departure for Fitzgerald: a female narrator.

5. Burne Holiday, from This Side of Paradise: That's right. Another Holiday. Burne is Kerry's brother, and one of the few extremely rebellious Fitzgerald characters. A hard-core socialist, Burne starts some big trouble at Princeton and makes a very interesting foil to the laidback politics of students like Amory, who are more interested in the social aspects of education. Later in the novel, we find out that Burne has been missing for years after school, having possibly gone underground as a communist. You can't help but feel bad for the poor Holiday parents: one son killed in war and another missing on purpose. That is a 20th century tragedy.

6. Nick Carraway, from The Great Gatsby: Nick always makes me ridiculously sad. His disillusionment at the end of the book always strikes me as 20 times more tragic than Gatsby's extravagant life and death. He's just an over-eager Midwestern boy who thinks he finds friends and social stature and even a girlfriend on the East Coast, only to end up going back home damaged and alone. Nick is also a perfect narrator, seeing everything and affected by everything. A great creation that never gets enough credit.

7. Charlie Wales, from "Babylon Revisited": Charlie is hands-down Gatsby's most depressing (yet deserving of redemption) character. A recovering alcoholic and widow, Charlie goes to Paris to talk his in-laws into giving him custody of his daughter again. Charlie wanders lost around a city where he used to be king, now wanting nothing but his family back. This is considered Fitzgerald's best and most famous story, and it's a wholly deserved mantle. Charlie and his tale are absolutely devastating.

Happy Reading, everyone, and enjoy the rest of Fitzgerald Week!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Shelley," by Galway Kinnell

Welcome, everyone, to a very special Poem of the Week in honor of Fitzgerald Week here at Not Your Mama's Bookshelf. As I mentioned in my last post, I view Fitzgerald's birthday as a way to celebrate my relationship with books and words and everything writers mean to me. Fitzgerald Week here will be all about celebrating F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it will also be about exploring one's relationship with reading in hopes you will all find a way to enjoy and think about your own love of reading.

Loving Fitzgerald as a writer has long been a tricky struggle. I can't really explain why I love him so much. I just do. One day, when I was fifteen, I opened to the first page of This Side of Paradise, and something strange happened. Something clicked with me very deeply, and I just knew that Fitzgerald and I were going to be bound in some way. It's weird to think that way about a book, but that's how it was. Take it for what you will. So I love Fitzgerald. I think he is underrated (with the exception of The Great Gatsby, which has become so homogenized in American society that it's almost tragic), and I think he is a much more complicated and compassionate writer than his reputation has claimed. Fitzgerald, in my opinion, is every bit as important to American literature as Hemingway, Faulkner, or Steinbeck. Even if he doesn't possess the Nobel Prize they all have.

But my relationship with Fitzgerald is also quite complicated because I think the truth is this: Fitzgerald was a great writer despite himself. I may be his biggest champion, but all my research into Fitzgerald makes me think that he often had to work like hell to beat his more ridiculous, hacky urges. His notebooks are full of strange and bizarre story ideas that would surprise most people. He was a little too into English romanticism. He tried to pretend he wasn't writing about himself when he so obviously was. But despite all his problems, he turned out to be a great writer with some absolutely wonderful insight into human nature and society.

Unfortunately, I have long come to the conclusion that, as people, Fitzgerald and I never could have been friends. I hate to say it, but I think he would have annoyed the shit out of me had I known him personally. He was clingy, constantly drunk, whiny, and never quite able to reckon his desire to be rich with his disdain for the rich. (Granted, that last bit was what made him such a great writer/social observer, but it must have perturbed his acquaintances). He had a wife and daughter he loved, but he often failed to understand them. His alcoholism was so bad it helped lead to an early death at only 44 years old.

But, God, the writing! It's so beautiful and full of heartache and humanity. I guess you could say I love Fitzgerald despite him being Fitzgerald.

And so, here is my poem of the week. I chose Galway Kinnell's "Shelley" because it explores the relationship between a reader and a writer, with the reader slowly realizing that a writer is not only just another human being, but a kind of terrible and tragic one at that. I think this poem gets to the disillusion and miracle that is a reader realizing that what he loves is written by someone who had to wrench every word out from his awful, cheating, hypocritical gut. It's an important step in the life of a reader: realizing writers are as mortal and stupid as the rest of us. And it accurately describes my relationship with Fitzgerald.

Shelley, by Galway Kinnell

When I was twenty the one true
free spirit I had heard of was Shelley,
Shelley, who wrote tracts advocating
atheism, free love, the emancipation
of women, the abolition of wealth and class,
and poems on the bliss of romantic love,
Shelley, who I learned later, perhaps
almost too late, remarried Harriet,
then pregnant with their second child,
and a few months later ran off with Mary,
with them Mary's stepsister Claire,
who very likely also became his lover,

and in this malaise a' trois, which Shelley
had imagined would be "a paradise of exiles,"
they lived, along with the spectre of Harriet,
who drowned herself in the Serpentine,
and of Mary's half sister Fanny,
who killed herself, maybe for unrequited
love of Shelley, and with the spirits
of adored but often neglected
children conceived incidentally
in the pursuit of Eros - Harriet's
Ianthe and Charles, denied to Shelley
and consigned to foster parents; Mary's
Clara, dead at one; her Willmouse,
Shelley's favorite, dead at three; Elena,
the baby in Naples, almost surely
Shelley's own, whom he "adopted"
and then left behind, dead and one and a half;
Allegra, Claire's daughter by Byron,
whom Byron sent off to the convent
at Bagnacavallo at four, dead at five --

and in those days, before I knew
any of this, I thought I followed Shelley,
who thought he was following radiant desire.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Reading Week in Review: Fail. But Next Week's Exciting!

So, I was a reading failure this week. I spent the whole first four days of the week picking through my bookshelf, distracted and disappointed. After the great books I read last week, I was in a post-good-book reading fog, unable to find anything to sate my thirst for a good story.

In good news, though, I am half-way through Ivan Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons, and I am loving it so far. I'll give you whole scoop on it when I finish it next week.

But, in the bestest news ever, next week is (da-da-da-DAH!) FITZGERALD WEEK! That's right, next Thursday is F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday, and I am celebrating it all week long with Fitzgerald-related posts for the entire week. I see Fitzgerald's birthday as a way to celebrate my hardcore geek love for all things reading and writing, so I always enjoy the holiday. See you all next week with some awesome posts!

Happy Reading, everyone!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Favorite Passages: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

You know those books you read when you're a young teenager that you fall in love with so quickly and recklessly that it sort of consumes your life? There is no book I can relate to this experience more than Dave Eggers's wonderful, bizarre, very post-modern memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I bought it a month after turning sixteen, a couple years after the book had sort of taken the literary world by storm, racking up awards and rave reviews like nobody's business. I knew the book had been widely acclaimed, but other than that, I had no idea what to expect. It was about five-hundred pages long, and I finished it in less than a week. And as soon as I finished it, I picked it right back up and read it again, a feat I have never accomplished since. I loved this book completely. I don't know why, exactly. It's the story of the years after Eggers parents died, when he was raising his much younger brother, Toph, in San Francisco. It's a tale of dealing with mortality and grief, a story about parenthood and brotherhood, a hilarious romp about being young and naive and overconfident. The book is everything you could ever want from a good memoir: candid, painful, sad, and very funny all at once. I couldn't get enough of Heartbreaking Work or Dave Eggers.

Unfortunately, as I've gotten older, the book has made less of an impression. I still enjoy reading it and still think it shows flashes of brilliance. But as I grow up and read more, the book's quirks seem more stilted and schtick-y than I remembered. I'm used to this; there are a handful of books I loved as a teenager and find harder to love the older I get. Yet, it still makes me sad that a book I lived and breathed for two years straight has sort of fallen out of favor a bit. Never fear, though. As much as the book has not lived up to its original impression, it's still a strong read. I'd recommend it to anyone who's willing to take a stylistic reading risk. It's full of weird, imagined conversations and moments that step out of reality, but it also deals with very real emotions and anxieties. Here is a passage that sums up quite nicely what I both worry over (the rushed style, the "what if" situations) and love (the topic of mortality and feelings of immortality, the brotherly relationship, the hilarious conversation at the end) about the book.

From A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers:

The cars flash around the turns of Highway 1, jump out from cliffs, all glass and light. Each one could kill us. All could kill us. The possibilities leap into my head - we could be driven off the cliff and down into the ocean. But fuck, we'd make it, Toph and I, given our cunning, our agility, our presence of mind. Yes, yes. If we collided with a car at sixty miles per hour on Highway 1, we could jump out in time. Yes, Toph and I could do that. We're quick-thinking, this is known, yes, yes. See, after the collision, as our red Civic arced through the sky, we would quickly plan out - no, no, we would instantly know the plan - what to do, the plan of course being ovious, so obvious: as the car arced downward, we would each, simultaneously, open our doors, car still descending, then each make our way to the outside of the car, car still descending, each one on each side of the car and then we would we would we would stand on the car's frame for a second, car still descending, each holding on to the open car door or the car roof, and then, ever so briefly, as the car was now only thirty feet or so above the water, seconds until impact, we would look at each other knowingly - "You know what to do"; "Roger that" (we wouldn't actually say these words, wouldn't need to) - and then we'd both, again simultaneously of course, push off the car, so as to allow the appropriate amount of space between our impact and the car's once we landed, and then, as the Civic crashed into the ocean's mulchy glass, we would, too, though in impeccable divers' form, having changed our trajectory mid-flight, positioning our hands first, forward and cupped properly, our bodies perpendicular to the water, our toes pointed - perfect! We'd plunge under, half-circle back to the surface and then break through, into the sun, whip our heads to shake the water from our hair and then swim to each other, as the car with bubbles quickly drowned.

ME: Whew, that was close!

HE: I'll say!

ME: You hungry?

HE: Hey, you read my mind.

Note: In random news, I recently found out that one of my favorite books is also one of President Obama's favorite books. That book? None other than the super-fantastic Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. How awesome is it to have a president that reads such great stuff?!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reader Confessions: I Don't Like the Beats

I think I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to literature. I have no huge prejudices against time periods or countries or anything like that. But I have one weakness, one literary area that I cannot seem to enjoy, no matter how hard I try: The Beats. Many of my lit and writing classes require reading writers who are considered the greats from the Beat era. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, etc: none of them have ever done anything for me. In fact, I downright despise most of them. The first time I read On the Road, I liked it much better than I expected; I even thought I might grow to love it. But every time I have looked at the book since, every little thing about it bothers me. And I won't even start in on how I think Howl is ridiculously overrated.

The Beats were important; there's no doubt about that. They paved the way for a more open form of poetry and prose that would prove significant for the future. I also understand why these writers appeal to so many people, including some of my friends. The language and style of the Beat Generation is electric. It shakes you up, makes you think. But personally, I just can't take it. I don't know if its because I'm a bigger lover of form than I think I am, that I want some basic sentence structure every once in a while. Maybe it has something to do with my love of using the exact precise word at the exact moment its needed (I most respect the poets and novelists who are able to do this), a thing the Beats seem to skim over in their tumbled, free-flowing voices. Most likely, it has to do with the major sexism I see all over Beat writing. In an American Lit class I had earlier this year, we read a section of Kerouac's Big Sir. Eventually, our class discussion turned into whether or not it was a misogynist text. And you know what, I think it is. I don't know if it's the sexism of the time or what, but so many women portrayed in Beat literature do little more than provide sex or have babies or hold their husbands back. Sure, lots of famous writers of all eras are guilty of this. But for some reason, so many of the Beats make it worse by not even attempting to write compelling female characters. You lose points by not even trying in my game book.

So there you go. I get why the Beats are important. But I'll probably go the rest of my life choosing to ignore them. Sorry.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Autumn Day" by Rainer Maria Rilke

In honor of Fall beginning to settle upon us (well, not officially, but it's starting to feel like Autumn nonetheless), I have decided to share a poem about the subject. Many of you may know that Rainer Maria Rilke is one of my absolute favorite writers, and the author of my favorite poems, the Duino Elegies. This particular poem, "Autumn Day" ("Herbsttag" in the original German) is one of my favorite Rilke pieces. I once had a friend who loved this poem so much that she memorized it within a day and could just drop it whenever she liked. This poem always reminds me of her and the autumn we spent together in a poetry class, collecting work we liked and chatting about Rilke once a week during an early lunch.

This poem is a bit of a downer, but the language is quite beautiful and honest. This particular translation is by Stephen Mitchell, who is personally my favorite translator of Rilke. I have seem some absolutely atrocious published translations of "Autumn Day," so I wanted to make sure I posted the one I liked best. Translation is a tricky business, and Rilke is considered one of the hardest poets to properly translate. Mitchell does a good job staying true enough to the source without losing the music or beauty. Also, he tries to keep some semblance of a rhyme scheme, although you can see it's not perfect. For those of you who'd like to see it in the original German, you can find it here.

Autumn Day, by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days.
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Reading Week in Review: Why I Read

This morning I saw a stand-up special on Comedy Central at the exact wrong moment. The comedian was talking about how much he hates books and reading, about how movies were made because the act of reading is so time-consuming and boring. I know it's just a schtick; this particular comedian plays the dumb redneck-type quite often. But it still managed to get me all riled up. Probably because I know too many people who actually do think this way. They don't understand hard-core readers because they find reading tedious. This always depresses me. I can't imagine going my whole life without books. I'd go insane! What do these non-readers do with their imaginations, their desires for entertainment? Do they even have imaginations? Yes, movies and TV shows tell stories. But they leave nothing to chance; there's no interaction. When I'm reading a book, I get the power to create the world the story inhabits. Not to mention all the beauties and intricacies of language that are missing from movies, and the fact that books are remarkable for being the vision of a single individual. Reading is important!

This week was full of great reminders about why I love books and reading, particularly fiction. I started off the week strong, with Marilynne Robinson's awesome wonderful fantastic novel, Home (which I won't go into since you can read about it below). Then I finished the week with Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief. Tinti's Dickensian novel did not have the striking style or potent language of Robinson, but it was extremely entertaining and completely wrapped me up in its story. The Good Thief centers around a one-handed orphan boy named Ren. Ren is "saved" from the orphanage by the mysterious and devious Benjamin Nab, who uses Ren to help him pull scams, including, eventually, grave robbery and body-stealing. They meet lots of interesting people along the way, and they have adventures both serious and hilarious. The book was a lot of fun to read and had a surprising emotional pay-off in the end. I'd easily recommend this to anyone who just wants to spend some hours immersed in a rousing tale.

That's why I read. Because I want to be inside a wonderful little world that both mirrors and distorts our own realities. Whether it's a world constructed of language, such as the one Robinson creates, or a world constructed of storytelling and tone, such as Tinti's, it doesn't matter. As long as it captivates me, makes me feel simultaneously inside and outside my actual world, and strikes some kind of honest emotional chord, I am extremely happy. Reading is my single greatest pleasure in life, and I hope you all often feel so enamored with it yourselves.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Marilynne Robinson is the Master

Okay. I am ready to declare myself a Marilynne Robinson fanatic. After the awesomeness that was Gilead, I was more than prepared to be disappointed by her follow-up, Home. Instead, I found Home to be as beautiful and insightful as its predecessor. Marilynne Robinson is truly a master of fiction. Home takes place at the exact same time as Gilead. This time around, we're catching up with the Boughton family, the patriarch of which is Gilead protagonist John Ames's best friend. This is the other side of the story, the story of the family that Ames tries to understand but often fails to see clearly.

It is my belief that there are occasions in our lives where what we read affects us solely based on the time that we read it. I think Home is a book that reads wonderfully at anytime, but my love of this first reading probably had more to do with how much I understood it at a certain moment in my own life. It's a book for anyone who's ever been a sibling, and even more so a book for anyone who's ever had a sibling to worry over, a sibling who you want so badly to understand but never quite can. It's a book about being able to simultaneously succeed and fail at reaching out to another. It's also a book for anyone who has been surprised by life, disappointed at how it's turned out or pleasantly amused by its small moments of grace. It's a book about coming home, about family, about faith. Home is a masterpiece of quiet observation, just as all of Robinson's novels are.

I am not a particularly religious sort. I don't always know how I feel about the idea of God's existence or His absence. But I understand belief, the certitude of some form of spirituality, and I have a deep appreciation for those moments our beliefs (whatever they may be) don't seem to be enough, or sometimes, when they seem to be too much. No matter how you feel about religion or spirituality, it's not okay to disclaim those that want the grace of it so badly. You can dislike religious hypocrites or those who use their beliefs to allow hatred, but you have to appreciate the quiet believer, the one who lets it guide him or her without intrusion towards others. These are the characters of Robinson's books: people who either feel or misunderstand or struggle with the idea of grace and love. She doesn't treat them with disdain, but she doesn't portray them as saints either. Robinson's characters are always good and bad, deeply faulted but trying so hard to do good. Just the way most of the people we meet are, religious or not. Robinson understands people and families and small towns in a way few writers can. I love her for it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Favorite Passages: Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich

A few weeks ago, I read Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich's first novel, and fell in love. Her writing is very straightforward and simple, with moments of beauty and elegance. The book is complicated, telling the stories of two modern Native American families whose lives intersect in a myriad of important ways. Erdrich continues to use characters from these families through the rest of her books, so I will be picking up the rest of her work in the coming year. (Luckily, Erdrich is one of the few contemporary writers of literary fiction my library carries.)

There were so many characters and scenes to love in the novel that I had a bit of a hard time picking a scene. I chose this one because of its subtle heartache. One of the characters given the smallest "screen time," Lyman Lamartine, was particularly interesing to me, so I chose to do a scene with him. Here, Lyman's beloved brother, Henry, has just returned from Vietnam. The boisterous Henry that Lyman remembers has been replaced by a silent, violent figure who sits in front of the television all day. In this scene, Lyman tries to get Henry into action again through the use of a car the brothers bought together before the war. Obviously, things get tragic for these two characters as the novel continues (most of the storylines drip with tragedy, although the book is surprisingly funny and Erdrich never lets it get too heavy). But here, we see the way Erdrich just allows things to happen in her understated style. Enjoy! Oh, and for reference, this is in Lyman's voice.

From Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich:

Henry had not even looked at the car since he'd gotten home, though like I said, it was in tip-top condition and ready to drive. I thought the car might bring the old Henry back somehow. So I bided my time and waited for my chance to interest him in the vehicle.

One night Henry was off somewhere. I took myself a hammer. I went out to that car and did a number on its underside. Whacked it up. Bent the tail pipe double. Ripped the muffler lose. By the time I was done with the car it looked worse than any typical Indian car that has been driven all its life on the reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises - full of holes. It just about hurt me, I'll tell you that! I threw dirt in the carburetor and I ripped all the electrical tape off the seats. I made it look just as beat up as I could. Then I sat back and waited for Henry to find it.

Still, it took him over a month. That was all right, because it was just getting warm enough, not melting, but warm enough to work outside.

"Lyman," he says, walking in one day, "that red car looks like shit."

"Well, it's old," I says. "You got to expect that."

"No way!" says Henry. "That car's a classic! But you went and ran the piss right out of it, Lyman, and you know it don't deserve that. I kept that car in A-one shape. You don't remember. You're too young. But when I left, that car was running like a watch. Now I don't even know if I can get it to start again, let alone get it anywhere near its old condition."

"Well you try," I said, like I was getting mad, "but I say it's a piece of junk."

Then I walked out before he could realize I knew he'd strung together more than six words at once.

Note: Another favorite thing of mine involving brothers and a classic car, the dumb but wonderful TV show Supernatural, premieres its new season tonight. It's techincally not a book, but its mythology and the personal histories it builds for its characters make it almost feel like an epic novel. Lots of exciting things going on this month!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tolstoy's Birthday!

Happy Birthday, Leo Tolstoy!

I know I promised you all a list by today, but I was so worn out from my Alabama trip, that I had hard time coming up with one. So instead of a list, today we will celebrate a man I consider the greatest novelist of all time. He may not be my favorite writer (see my Anna Karenina post from several months ago), but I can not deny that he did things with the novel that changed fiction forever. I still consider War and Peace one of the most important literary accomplishments of all time, and it is one of my favorite books to boot.

So today, let us raise a toast to Tolstoy. Let's forget his faults (his preachiness, his conservative social views on family and marriage, his occasional misogyny) and remember only good. He created some of my all-time favorite characters (Prince Andrei Bolkonski, who gets most of the best parts of War and Peace, in my opinion) and his ability to be constantly aware of every tiny detail in his created worlds always blows me away. Tolstoy is truly a master. So Happy 181st Birthday, big guy!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Advice for a Stegosaurus," by Jessica Goodheart

Welcome back for another Poem of the Week. In Alabama this weekend, I visited the Cathedral Caverns, a really awesome place. I had never been on a cave tour before, and this one made a great first impression. It was absolutely gorgeous, and I couldn't even begin to find the words to do it justice. While wandering the winding paths edged in foot lights through damp air, water so clear it looked like more cave beneath your feet, and many beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations, I thought of two things: 1) dinosaurs! and 2) The Lord of the Rings. Because I don't know many Lord of the Rings-related poetry outside of some Led Zeppelin songs (Did you know Robert Plant is an enormous Tolkien nerd?), I went with my first thought. I ran across this poem in an anthology a few years ago and fell in love with it. Probably because it's about my favorite dinosaur of all time, the most wonderful and ferocious stegosaurus. Enjoy!

Advice for a Stegosaurus, by Jessica Goodheart

Never mind the asteroid,
the hot throat of the volcano,
a sun that daily drips into the void.

Comb the drying riverbed for drink.
Strut your bird-hipped body.
Practice a lizard grin. Don't think.

Stretch out your tail. Walk, as you must,
in a slow deliberate gait.
Don't look back, Dinosaur. Dust is dust.

You'll leave your bones, your fossil feet
and armored eye-lids.
Put your chin to the wind. Eat what you eat.

Happy Reading, everyone!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Reading Week in Review: Two Awesome Stories

I have to admit that I did very little reading this week. I was busy applying for jobs, and I was in a weird, in-between-books mood of discontent. But I did re-discover a couple of kick-ass short stories that I haven't read in a long time. The first was "Lull," by Kelly Link, from her book, Magic for Beginners. The second came from Yann Martel's story collection, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, and is titled "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton."

Let's start with "Lull." This isn't a story I'd easily recommend. It's complicated, twisty, and VERY strange. But for some reason, I absolutely adore it. Set up as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, "Lull" begins as a story about sad-sack middle aged men who play cards together and evolves into a mess about the nature of narrative, the devil, aliens, and clones. It's weird and beautiful at once. The opening paragraphs are some of my all-time favorites. I really enjoyed going back to Link's story and becoming completely absorbed in it again.

Martel's "The Time I Heard..." was an even more rewarding reading experience. The first time I read this story was as a college freshmen. Back then, I had little to no interest in classical music. But as I made friends with musicians and became more introspective, I began to fall in love with classical music. This story was a million times better this time around because of that new musical understanding. The story itself is threadbare, the narrator a little too undercooked, and it might get just a tad melodramatic at the end, all evidence that Martel wrote these stories when he was quite young and before he had any kind of literary fame. But in the middle of the story are some absolutely breathtaking passages describing music. Here is one such passage:

What a strange, wonderous thing, music. At last the chattering mind is silenced. No past to regret, no future to worry about, no more frantic knitting of words and thoughts. Only a beautiful, soaring nonsense. Sound - made pleasing and intelligible through melody, rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint - becomes our thinking. The grunting of language and the drudgery of semiotics are left behind. Music is a bird's answer to the noise and heaviness of words. It puts the mind in a state of exhilarated speechlessness.

So even though I didn't read anything of significant heft this week, I enjoyed my short stories greatly.

Note:My regular schedule for next week will be upset a little, as I am heading to Alabama tomorrow morning and won't be back until Monday night. I will post my Poem of the Week on Tuesday, as well as creating a new list for you all. Best of all, I just bought two new books for the trip: Home, Marilynne Robinsons' semi-sequel to Gilead, and a Dickensian novel by Hannah Tinti entitled The Good Thief that just came out in paperback. You can expect to hear all about them next week!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Favorite Passages: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

For those of you who followed this blog over the summer, and for anyone who had contact with me in the month of July, you know all about my obsession with Marilynne Robinson's perfect novel, Gilead. I love this book with a fierceness I cannot fully explain. Beautifully written, carefully constructed, I honestly believe it to be one of the best books I have ever encountered. So, sorry for all of those who are sick of hearing about this book, but here it is again making an appearance.

This weekend while visiting some friends, I saw the book sitting in my former roommate's living room. She was reading it at my recommendation, and as usually happens when I see a book I love lying somewhere, I picked it up and began flipping through it. This was the first passage I came across. It automatically reminded me why I hold this novel so dear. In this little paragraph, the minister John Ames (who narrates the book as a deathbed letter to his small son) reflects on water and baptism. I hope you enjoy the passage, and pay close attention to the awesome in-voice transition that starts the last sentence.

From Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson:

You and Tobias are hopping around in the sprinkler. The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine. That does occur in nature, but it is rare. When I was in seminary I used to go sometimes to watch the Baptists down at the river. It was something to see the pastor lifting the one who was being baptized up out of the water and the water pouring off the garments and the hair. It did look like a birth or resurrection. For us the water just heightens the touch of the pastor's hand on the sweet bones of the head, sort of like making an electrical connection. I've always loved to baptize people, though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it. Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.

Happy Reading to all!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reader Confessions: My Addiction to Fanfiction

That's right. I read fanfiction. For you readers who are close friends or family members, you've heard me defend my actions repeatedly. But quite frankly, there is no excuse for the satisfaction I derive from a really good piece of fanfiction.

I find myself intrigued by the idea of fanfiction existing at all. It's a strange social structure in itself - a messy, complex system of readers, writers, and reviewers who feel a need to interact with their favorite pieces of art. I've read a few essays on the subject, and I am always interested in the ways scholars look at the phenomena of fanfiction through the eyes of sociology and psychology. I spend as much time trying to figure out why I read fanfiction as I spend reading it. I've been known to spend hours daydreaming about what happens next when I've finished a good book or movie or TV episode. But I've never put it down on paper, and I would certainly never want to share it with another human being. So why am I often so interested in these weird fantasy worlds others create?

Fanfiction is probably the lowest form of literature out there. It's the moody, strange ramblings of angsty teenagers and lonely middle-aged cat owners. I'd say about 99.7% of it is horrid, unreadable. But occasionally, something really good emerges out of all the piles of shear crap in the fanfiction world. I've been lucky enough to find a few splendid pieces of fanfiction that make even a serious reader like myself quite happy and hungry for more.

One is a Harry Potter series that picks up with the gang a decade after Book Seven. The series, We Belong, concentrates on George Weasley dealing with his brother's death and the way new friendships form after Voldemort is defeated. It's an extremely satisfying epilogue to the series, and both a good friend and I consider it the missing eighth book.

Then, there's a series I feel even guiltier about but love even more. The Brotherhood series explores the world of my favorite guilty-pleasure TV show, Supernatural. The Brotherhood series (which is primarily the work of two writers but also has a very long reach in the world of Supernatural fanfiction) adds extra characters to the series. And strangely enough, I often find this series to be more satisfactory and thematically deeper than the television show. I never confuse the distinct worlds of the show and the fanfiction, but I love exploring each separately. The Brotherhood's best author (whose oeuvre is the one I linked to above) is actually quite good. Her writing is strong and very subtle, her dialogue is practically perfect, and her plotting is complex and careful. I pretty much put everything on hold when I see an update for a Brotherhood story.

So there you go. Two examples of fantastic fanfiction that I read despite my heavy sense of guilt. I may not have figured out why I read fanfiction, but on a lonely or rainy afternoon in front of my computer, I'm often glad I do.