Friday, July 27

The Plot Thickens

I still have no idea what a Beowulf really is, but at least some clues are on the way. The latest piece of the puzzle:


Kicking ass literature-style.

Saturday, July 21

High School Selection

Ben, what a topic. And it's quite fitting, as I've also been giving some thought to what I read and learned as a little lady.

A quick side-note that Mike and I met in Judy McWhirter's English class. I hated him so much, because he would tease me mercilessly and tell me not to, "get my dander up." Just ridiculous.

Although my memory has been rendered practically null by a friend named pot, I can still catch the little brain glimmer when recalling my favorites. They include:
-As I Lay Dying
-Crime and Punishment
-Cat and Mouse
-A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
-Cat's Cradle
-Atlas Shrugged
-Giants in the Earth
-Norwegian Wood

All lovely. The pick of the litter for me was Joyce. It simply seemed like he could take the happy feelings of being a youngster and say them properly.

Not to be a grouch, but I also find it interesting to note those books that I thoroughly detested. Most came from 9th grade Advanced English with Mrs. Grace, who left in the middle of the year after a 'death threat.' She was almost 80 years old and I was left to deal with the infamous Boo Yeah all alone.
-Ender's Game
-David Copperfield
-The Chosen
-The Bean Trees
-The House of Mirth
-The Heart of the Matter

Graham Greene as a raving God-fearer broke my heart. Dickens and I will never get along, either.

So how about books that high schoolers should read?

Tuesday, July 17

What did you read in high school?

So it's been just over eight years since I got out of high school. Funny, it actually seems a lot longer. For some reason today I got to thinking about what books I was assigned in high school. Perhaps it was an offshoot of the "good books" idea that has been floating around in my head. Anyway, here is everything that I remember reading for school:

Grade 9
Animal Farm
Fahrenheit 451
Of Mice and Men
Lord of the Flies
Black Like Me
A Raisin in the Sun

Grade 10
Seize the Day
Catcher in the Rye
A Separate Peace
Our Town
A Streetcar Named Desire

Grade 11
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Their Eyes Were Watching God
The Great Gatsby
Slaughterhouse Five
On the Road
Big scary textbook with stuff like Self-Reliance, Hawthorne short stories and orations from early America

Grade 12
Canterbury Tales
The Handmaid’s Tale
The House of the Spirits
Franny and Zooey*

How did I graduate high school having been assigned just two novels (Night and The House of the Spirits) written by authors born outside of North America or the United Kingdom? Is that normal? I know in the honors track the students read Flaubert and Tolstoy over the summer before their sophomore year but we intensive students seem to have been cheated. Hell, we were all cheated without at least a little Far East and a little Africa being introduced to our impressionable young minds.

The grade 9 reading list resembles a syllabus you would likely see again and again if you were to Google “high school freshman English,” but I remember those books all being pretty rewarding, so no complaints on the vanilla course design. I was not a good student my freshman year. I remember being worried about whether I would have strong enough grades to be able to play basketball. A low point came when I failed a quiz on basic plot details of Fahrenheit 451. I had read the chapters the quiz covered and yet I was unable to answer the questions correctly.

Grade 10 is noteworthy only because it introduced me to Bellow and Hesse. Well, I suppose it is also noteworthy for Brando's stellar performance in Streetcar, which we watched upon completing our reading of the play.

In Grade 11, I read what was probably my favorite novel to date, Their Eyes Were Watching God. On the Road was an interesting experience but meh overall, and after having it assigned to me twice more in college it remains meh. (Now Dharma Bums, that's a different story entirely.) I remember being transfixed by the characters in The Great Gatsby but not connecting with the novel as a whole so much. I really need to read that one again. Slaughterhouse Five was magical. I really enjoyed my time in that class, got a A+ for my efforts too. Before that year I was an average student who wasn't even giving a great deal of thought to the idea of college, but over the course of that year something happened and I really got rolling academically. Some of those books you see are largely responsible.

Grade 12 was a good time. The Handmaid's Tale blew my mind and I recall loathing The Canterbury Tales a great deal less than most of my classmates. I remember my nightly one page essays that I had to write on Hamlet being the most fun I'd ever had on homework assignments. I was really into that shit.

So what did you read? What did you love? What did you hate? What do you wish you read? What are some books you read later in life that you think more high school kids should be reading? Why? Do you approve of the new template?

*Selected myself for book review assignments.

Treasure Trove

Monday, July 16

For responding to Ben

Just easier to see responses here, rather than scrolling all the way down.

Saturday, July 14

Bloom, King, Hornby

I have some strands in my head that have the makings of an interesting post. I'm not going to make a a real go of it though. It's Saturday morning, the sun is shining, and I have a hankering for a bagel. I'm going for a walk. What I'll do for now is plop down the strands here for now and perhaps I shall return later in the day to assemble them into something resembling a thoughtful post. EDIT - No such luck.

From Dumbing down American readers, by Harold Bloom

"The Decision to give the National Book Foundation's annual award for "distinguished contribution" to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I've described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind . . . The publishing industry has stooped terribly low to bestow on King a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and to playwright Arthur Miller. By awarding it to King they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat.

. . .

Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down, and the causes are very complex. I'm 73 years old. In a lifetime of teaching English, I've seen the study of literature debased. There's very little authentic study of the humanities remaining.

. . .

Today there are four living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise. Thomas Pynchon is still writing. My friend Philip Roth, who will now share this "distinguished contribution" award with Stephen King, is a great comedian and would no doubt find something funny to say about it. There's Cormac McCarthy, whose novel "Blood Meridian" is worthy of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," and Don DeLillo, whose "Underworld" is a great book."

From Stephen King has a shining talent, by Sam Jordison

"It may be a testimony to my own idiocy, but I like plenty of penny dreadfuls and I also like Stephen King. As something of a snob myself, I too spent many years assuming that he was crap (even though I hadn't actually read any of his books). But I was eventually persuaded that the brain behind films as good and as varied as Misery, The Shawshank Redemption and (of course) The Shining had to have something going for it. Even if his prose was turgid. And when I got stuck into a copy of the The Shining, I was pleasantly surprised.

. . .

More important than such personal enjoyment of King's craftsmanship, is the fact that he's the bestselling adult novelist in the world. Please don't misinterpret me as saying that more is better. I simply mean that to dismiss Stephen King out of hand is to dismiss millions of readers and, crucially, millions of readers in the world's most powerful country, the US. It is to these fans that King speaks most intimately and about whom he therefore has the most to tell us.

. . .

In short, King's ability to reflect contemporary US society - and (thanks to his huge fan base) to affect it - is as powerful as any other writer around today. And if that isn't impressive literature... Well, you tell me."

From Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, by Nick Hornby

“...boredom, let’s face it, is a problem that many of us have come to associate with books. It’s one of the reasons why we choose to do almost anything else rather than read; very few of us pick up a book after the children are in bed and the dinner has been made and the dirty dishes cleared away. We’d rather turn on the television. Some evenings we’d rather go to all the trouble of getting into a car and driving to a cinema, or waiting for a bus that might take us somewhere near one. This is partly because reading appears to be more effortful than watching TV, and usually it is, although if you choose to watch HBO series, such as The Sopranos or The Wire, then it’s a close-run thing, because the plotting in these programs, the speed and the complexity of the dialogue, are as demanding as a lot of the very best fiction.

One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have gotten it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they’re hard work, they’re not doing us any good.

. . .

If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity——and there are statistics which show that this is by no means assured——then we have to promote the joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits. I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a TV program. You failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn’t mean you’re dim——you may find that Graham Greene is more your taste, or Stephen Hawking, or Iris Murdoch, or Ian Rankin. Dickens, Stephen King, whoever. It doesn’t matter.

. . .

In Britain, more than twelve million adults have a reading age of thirteen or under, and yet some clever-dick journalist still insists on telling us that unless we’re reading something proper, then we might as well not bother at all.

. . .

And please, please, please stop patronizing those who are reading books——The Da Vinci Code, maybe——because they are enjoying it. For a start, none of us knows what kind of an effort this represents for the individual reader. It could be his or her first full-length adult novel; it might be the book that finally reveals the purpose and joy of reading to someone who has hitherto been mystified by the attraction books exert on others. And anyway, reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing."

From What makes a book good? comment thread, by Ben

"When we ask, 'good for what,' why can't we simply answer, 'good for the enjoyment of the reader?' Would that defeat the entire purpose of this discussion? Perhaps, but that's what I believe it boils down to. What is any hobby good for? Escapism or edification, whatever the goal, reading is not unlike other hobbies, and just as with other hobbies the payoff for each individual is unique."

Thursday, July 12

The Library of Babel

I read my absolutely favoritest short story again last night, Borges' "The Library of Babel," from Ficciones, the themes of which are never far from my mind. Ben, Mike, others — I found the entire text online here, and if you have some time to read it, I'm sure you'd enjoy it.

It's been a long time

It cuts me up inside knowing that LTS didn't live to see the day he could share these pages with two illustrious women.

We miss him desperately.

Cat's Cradle


I have but one question, Book-Loopers: Are we a granfalloon or are we a karass? I fear it is terribly obvious that we are the former. No matter. Down with Proust, up with Vonnegut, get your Beowfulf opening night tickets, WHAT!?!!? Busy, busy, busy.

"What do you think of it?" I asked him.

black. What is it——hell?"

"It means whatever it means," said Newt.

"Then it's hell," snarled Castle.

"I was told a moment ago that it was a cat's cradle," I said.

"Inside information always helps," said Castle.

"I don't think it's very nice," Angela complained. "I think it's ugly, but I don't know anything about modern art. Sometimes I wish Newt would take some lessons, so he could know for sure if he was doing something or not."

"Self taught, are you?" Julian Castle asked Newt.

"Isn't everybody?" Newt answered.

"Very good answer." Castle was respectful.

I undertook to explain the deeper significance of the cat's cradle, since Newt seemed disinclined to go through that song and dance again.

And Castle nodded sagely. "So this is a picture of the meaninglessness of it all! I couldn't agree more."

Wednesday, July 11

An Open Letter To Marcel Proust

I must apologize. First, I’m sorry that you are dead — you would have loved the Internet.

Second, I’m sorry I couldn’t finish volume one (Swann’s Way) of your masterwork, In Search of Lost Time. I got 300 pages into the book, which is part one of what is considered possibly the greatest novel ever written. That’s two-thirds of the way through. But I just cannot finish it. It is probably my own loss, but I can accept that. I have moved on to Don DeLillo’s White Noise, something more contemporary and originally written in English. That will probably help. I just know that I had about 40 hours of flights/travel time and only mustered 100 pages of reading. There are many things that are hard that are worth doing, and reading your works is probably one of them for someone. For me, right now, it’s not. Though I did copy down some good quotes.

Third, I’m sorry about all that “Freedom Fries” bullshit from a few years back. Turns out you guys were right the whole time.

Your pal,


Wednesday, July 4

Falling Man

My mother gave me Don DeLillo’s Falling Man for my birthday, saying, “I know how much you like him so when I saw he had a new book out I was excited to get it for you.” A curious statement, seeing as I had not read a single DeLillo novel. Her confusion no doubt stemmed from a recent conversation the two of us shared in which we discussed a now forgotten title (perhaps her beloved Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy) and she said, “It’s a contemporary classic like…. like…” “Like White Noise,” I said. Never read it, but it’s got that reputation. And so she came to think I was a big fan.

Falling Man is yet another entry into the ever-growing sub-genre of 9/11 fiction. Because it is written by a man who is widely considered one of the top four or five active American writers its release was something of a literary event. As I had no intention of reading Falling Man I have yet to look at a single review of the novel. I do not know whether the critical response has generally positive, but I do know that I did not particularly care for the book.

For a crisp plot summary we turn to Wikipedia (forgive me, I’m lazy): “Falling Man concerns a survivor of the 9/11 attacks and the effect his experiences on that day have on his life thereafter. As the novel opens, Keith Neudecker, a 39 year-old lawyer who works in the World Trade Center, escapes from the building injured slightly and walks to the apartment he previously shared with his son Justin and estranged wife Lianne. After a period of convalescence recuperating from the physical and mental trauma experienced in the attack, Keith resumes his domestic routine with Lianne while at the same time broaching a romantic relationship with a woman named Florence, another survivor, whose briefcase Keith absently took with him from a stairwell upon exiting the tower.”

Falling Man wants very much to be a small, personal story about a epic, international event, but for the most part I found it rather cold. I believe it would have made a excellent novella (I recall enjoying the excerpt from the novel that appeared in The New Yorker) but at 246 pages it carries a significant amount of excess baggage. Most unfortunate, I think, are the three small sections that jump outside of the lives of the central characters to follow a 9/11 hijacker from Afghanistan, to Florida, to the moment his plane strikes Keith’s building. These sections seemed sloppy and incomplete, an afterthought.

Falling Man does contain a few moments that took my breath away, such as when we discover that three children’s vexing new hobby of staring outside an apartment window with binoculars began so that they could monitor the skies for rogue airplanes. Also, the two descriptions of exiting the crumbling tower, one of Florence’s experience and one of Keith’s of the escape, are pretty stunning. But, yeah, until further I'm not a big fan.