Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Remainders of the Day

Some time ago I read a post on Alison Bechdel's blog where she referenced the Clive James poem 'The Book of my Enemy has Been Remaindered.' It's a great poem, a lot of fun. I tried to find the post on her blog, but my 1337 search skills failed.

This is on my mind because today I finally picked up a copy of Bechdel's memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The paperback has just come out, so the hardcover was remaindered. The result was that I picked it up for an exceedingly affordable amount at Shakespeare & Co. my favorite local bookstore chain. It's proving to be just as good as I thought.

I'm happy to have my hardcover copy, because graphic novels are strangely the one type of book that I really prefer in hardcover. It's probably not really that strange. Still, my best wishes for Alison that the paperbacks sell astonishingly well.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Interview with Alaa Al Aswany

Salon has posted an excellent brief interview with Alaa Al Aswany explaining something of his craft, and his life as a writer in the Arab world. It's not very long, and very much worth a glimpse. Also, if you haven't read The Yacoubian Building, you should.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Driving Mr. Paterniti

Michael Paterniti, the strange man who decided to drive across country with Einstein's brain, does a brief interview with the NYTimes Book Blog. In it he mentions that he's working on a new book about a small village in Spain that seems to be about cheese and murder. I'm looking forward to it. You should to, also you should read Driving Mr. Albert, his book about driving cross country with Einstein's brain. That book was the first thing that made me really want to drive across country.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Late to the Party: Man Booker Edition

I just finished The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that, when the prize was announced, I recall seeing a great deal of anger and disapproval of the choice. Perhaps, for those who read all of the books on the short list, there were other, better books. Still, The White Tiger was a powerful and fascinating story.

I've previously mentioned my fondness for first person narration, and the narrator of this book is an excellent example. He is not entirely trustworthy, but at the same time his story contains enough elements to point this out, while he insists otherwise. I'm also a fan of epistolography, or in smaller words, the study of letters. I got into this by reading Ancient Roman Letters, particularly Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and Fronto. Fronto is the best, he mainly writes letters about how his stomach is bothering him, but he's writing these letters to a Roman Emperor. Hilarious.

Anyway, the narration in The White Tiger takes the form of letters being written to the Premier of China, to teach him about India and entrepreneurship. The didactic, self-important tone brings the narrator immediately to life.

This was the first Booker winner that I've read, and I probably wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't heard of it through it's nomination for the prize. I've read other books by Booker-winners, but not the books of theirs that won. This makes me hesitant to say too much about the prize as a whole, and Adiga's place within it. I do have The Siege of Krishnapur sitting on my shelf waiting for me though. Once I've read a few more maybe I'll change my mind about Adiga's relative merit, but I doubt it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Holiday Reading

I've seen a few lists out there for holiday specific reading. It's a strange idea to me. I don't really pick what I read based around the holiday season, I don't really do summer specific reading either.

Does anyone out there do holiday specific reading? What kind?

Monday, December 1, 2008

December Reading

As someone who maintains yearly lists of what he reads, December is an interesting month. You notice how many you've read so far (a career low 108), and think about how many you feel you need to read to reach an acceptable total. 2006 is my lowest total so far, at 118, and I feel a strong desire to at least match that, which means that I would have to finish the two books that I am currently reading as I write this, and read 8 others, to tie 2006. I think I can do that at least, but we'll see.

Of course, I've only been keeping track of what I read in such a detailed manner since 2005, so I'm sure there were years when I read less. Physics isn't the only place were the act of observation changes the nature of the thing being observed.

Being this close to the end of the year though causes me to really anticipate one of my favorite recent New Years Day traditions, looking through my most recent book list to remember what was going on in my life that lead me from book to book, and generally noticing what my reading habits were like at the time. Then I compare it to the earlier lists. It may not be your idea of a great time, but I enjoy it.

I also like remembering books. For example, in just skimming the 2005 list, I'm reminded that I promised myself I would read more Plimpton after I read The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair, I still have to get on that. Of course, there are hundreds of things I have told myself I'd read, and still need to get to. Still, it's nice to stroll down memory lane.

Also from 2005, I have a wonderful memory of sitting at my desk on a particularly sunny day, reading A Room With A View and remembering my own experience in Italy.

Another great thing about December, and books, is contemplating books as presents. The one thing I like better than getting books from people, is giving people the right book. I have some shopping to do.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Well, it's now officially Thanksgiving day, and I hope all of you Americans out there are going to have a great one, all of you Canadians had a great one, and all of the rest of you out there enjoy hearing about our quaint North American celebrations. Alternatively, you could give thanks too, it's not a bad idea to take a moment to think about the positive things you're grateful for in the past year.

I have one thing I'm particularly thankful for every year, and I thought I'd share it with you.

Everyone has their little traditions, mine is listening to Arlo Guthrie every year around this time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Year of Readers

There's a great idea over at The Year of Readers. Reading for charity, specifically you get people to sponsor your reading, and the money goes to a reading related charity. This sounds like a great idea to me, so I've signed up with them. Now I just need to pick my charity. I have some thoughts, but I'll want to write about it in more detail later. This is just a basic statement of intent.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I'm in the middle of some complicated writing, which is taking up some of my blogging time and a lot of my blogging brain. That being said, I encountered this widget and wanted to share.

blog readability test

Movie Reviews

Apparently I write at a high level of difficulty, although it is possible that run on sentences have confused the analyzer. It's not clear how it works.

Still, I should try to avoid that. If I remember correctl, the ideal for readability is supposed to be something like a fourth or fifth grade reading level. I'll try to simplify my language a bit.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Mood Captured

At present, one of the books that I'm reading is The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. There was a passage that I just had to share. He perfectly captures the mood and physical sensation, of lazing in the sun on a bench in the right kind of summer weather, with or without a book.

"The benches were white iron, roomy enough for three or four old gaffers to snooze on in the swamp-tasting sweet warmth that made the redwing blackbirds fierce and quick, and the flowers frill, but other living things slow and lazy-blooded. I soaked in the heavy nourishing air and this befriending atmosphere like rich life-cake, the kind that encourages love and brings on a mild pain of emotions. A state that lets you rest in your own specific gravity, and where you are not subject matter but sit in your own nature, tasting original tastes as good as the first man, and are outside of the busy human tamper, left free even of your own habits. Which only lie on your illusory in the sunshine, in the usual relation of your feet or fingers or the knot of your shoestrings and are without power. No more than the comb or shadow of your hair has power on your brain."

And a side note. Read that passage thinking about your 6th grade English class, and think about how many things he does that your teacher told you you couldn't do. Don't think about being the smart mouthed little kid who points out to them that Bellow did it, and he won a Nobel Prize. All they'd have done is say to you "Well, when you win the Nobel Prize, you can do it too." Unless they were really good, then they might have told you that you have to learn the rules before you can break them.

Read like Ike!

In the course of surfing the web this morning, I came across the following quote from the great folks over at The Big Read.

“Don’t join the book burners. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.”
–Dwight D. Eisenhower

It's a great quote, and it's always nice to see such encouragement coming from a former President of the United States (or POTUS, as the cool kids say).

It got me thinking though, that it addresses a real fear. We, as a society, seem to be afraid of reading books with which we disagree, because they might convince us. This despite the fact that anyone who has gotten involved in a flame war of one kind or another on the internet should well know that the written word isn't very convincing when you're confident in your opinion. Heck, even indisputable facts can be easily ignored by those who have adopted a philosophy that contradicts them. Even when we're not afraid of a books effect on us, we are still often concerned about their effect on others. Often wrongfully. Certainly, there is room for concern about books being age appropriate for children, but beyond that, I think we should encourage ourselves, and others to read books that we don't necessarily agree with. An opinion unchallenged is hardly a strong opinion, however, if you have examined the idea, looking at it from different sides, you can be much more confident in your view. Nothing forces us to think about our ideas, why we hold them, and what they are exactly, than reading something we disagree with. A book you agree with is safe, you don't have to confront yourself, the author is doing all of the hard work. When you read something further from your attitudes, it's more work. Certainly, you can just toss the book away and call it stupid, but if you read it through and try to argue it out with the wall of text in front of you, it tightens your opinions. It can also show you were you may 'know' something, but you don't have the facts to prove it. This can result in sending you off on tangents of excellent research, learning more about the things you already agree with.

The point being, I agree with Ike. Don't be afraid. I would add, be fierce, read aggressively.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Where History Comes From

The NY Times had a really interesting article on the use of Special Collections libraries in teaching. The author followed John Pollack, UPenn Rare Book Specialist, as he taught a class using 500 year old books. He explains that this kind of teaching is a growing trend, and I think fairly effectively explains why it's important.

Still, I wanted to add my two cents. I took a couple of classes like this in college, and it really is a moving experience. It's also more than that, as John Pollack says "these materials also are wonderful teaching tools that pose questions about how we know what we know." When I first had the opportunity to really viscerally interact with a book printed by the Gutenberg Press, the tenuousness of some of our knowledge about the past really hit home. There are great classical authors whose works we have only because of one surviving book, or even less than that. Further the awareness that this information comes from real people, with just as many foibles, mistakes, and biases as people have today, really hits home. We live in a world where we are too likely to give instant credence to the authority of the written (or typed) word, and any lesson that reminds us that the authors were only human, is a good one.

Beyond that, there is also just something beautiful about the immediate connection to the world of generations ago. To hold a book in your hands, and see the notes in the margins made by someone else 400 years before you were born, can be an intimidating experience. Humanity really isn't the neatly organized succession of eras and periods that history often makes it out to be. Instead it's one long continuous stream, constantly reacting to what has come before it, and what it thinks is coming up ahead.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election Over

So as you might have noticed, we had an election recently in the United States. I was off volunteering for the past few days, and while I got back yesterday afternoon, I almost immediately went to sleep. I'm not going to go into it too much, because this blog isn't about politics. However, I will say this, if there is a political race that matters to you, volunteering for it is an incredibly fulfilling experience. We have a participatory democracy, and there is nothing like participating in it. I brought books with me to read, but spent all of my time either working or sleeping. I finally got an hours worth of reading done today, it was refreshing.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Wislawa Szymborska

Over at Paper Cuts, Barry Gewen's post 'A Poem for the Pentagon' reminded me of one of my favorite poets, Wislawa Szymborska.

He mentions comparing notes with a friend, and finding they both loved Szymborska's work. I'm not going to go into his comment about contemporary poetry in general, because entire books could be written defending or criticizing his statement, and I want to focus on Szymborska.

It was interesting to me that she was the poet that came up with the conversation, because the same thing has happened to me several times. I am an inveterate bookshelf examiner, when I go somewhere with a bookshelf, I will look to see what is on it. One or another of Szymborska's books appeared surprisingly frequently on my friends shelves. This is hardly scientific evidence of her popularity, but I think among the group of people likely to read poetry, her popularity is pretty real. I've had great conversations with a number of my friends about our fondness for Szymborska's work. Even more surprising to me was the number of people I know who all independently acquired a love not only of her poetry, but also of her truly marvelous collection of short essays Nonrequired Reading. At the same time, I was speaking to a Polish woman who's mother taught Polish Literature in Poland, and she was quite surprised at my fondness for Szymborska. Not because she didn't like her, but because she didn't expect Americans to like her. This was partly from having seen the typical American lack of interest in writing from other countries.

Somehow or other, I have ended up with a bookshelf full of Polish poets, at present the collections outnumber the American poetry books on my shelf. This is partly because I have so many books by Zbigniew Herbert. Still, it's a lot. Polish poets were one of my earliest claims to reading things that weren't originally written in English. While Herbert is my hands down favorite, I think that if I were to recommend any one poet as an introduction to the beauty of Polish poetry, it would probably be Szymborska. Further, in Polish poetry we seem to be blessed with some particularly excellent translators. Even the much criticized Alissa Valles translation of Herbert's poems still allows the beauty of his poetry to really shine. I quite like the fact too that with these poets, from collection to collection they've been translated by one or the other of this small group of excellent translators. Reading the different translators work gives a great opportunity for those of us who don't read Polish, to try to observe where the difference between the poets and the different translators are.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Election Reading

So, as the election for US President gets closer, and boy is it getting close, I'm finding my reading of books going down, and my consumption of news, which is generally pretty high, going up very high. In an average day I probably couldn't tell you the number of times I visit the following sites, in no particular order:

The Daily Beast (which gets to be first because it's a literary reference too)
The New York Times
CNN (more on TV than on their rather shallow website)
MSNBC (ditto to CNN.)
The Daily Kos
Politico (fast becoming my favorite)
Salon (
The Albany Project
and of course, Metsblog, because never mind who might run the country, I want to know who's going to be playing for the Mets.

So I think I may have revealed a bit of a bias in my choice of reading. The bigger bias is of course that I can't wait for election day, and books just don't carry any recent news and opinion about the election, and I want to know what's happening now now now, because I want the election to happen now now now. So my book reading has suffered, but I'm probably reading more in general than usual.

What about you, are you following the election closely? What's your election news source of choice? Beyond that, are you doing anything about it? I am, and I highly recommend volunteering for your candidate, it's a really rewarding experience.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Translation Revisited

I mentioned Daniel Hahn's translation blog in an earlier post. I sent him some questions about translation, and he has thoughtfully answered my, and some other readers', questions in his most recent post.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Editing is good

Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of editing. This is the idea where, after something has been written, it is gone over to improve the grammar. If done well it improves the content. Arguments and ideas are clarified, extraneous ideas, sentences, and words are removed with surgical precision.

Sometimes it seems that the value placed on editing is decreasing. I was reminded of this with the latest, hilarious vloging by Sam of Audience of Two. He's reading a book on camera, which is very exciting. It's Jack Kerouac's On The Road which I have no trouble with. I read it, and enjoyed it a couple of years ago, though I don't think I would put him all that high on my list, it was a good book, and certainly is an important one. However, it looks like Sam was reading the "Original Scroll" version. This would be the version that is, according to taken from the 'first full draft' that Kerouac was happy with. It is notable for being apparently raunchier, with "heightened linguistic virtuosity". I don't want to meet the person who used the term 'heightened linguistic virtuosity,' but based on their own 'word choice' I don't think I would trust their opinion. It's hard to imagine Kerouac saying "Hey man, you should read the original scroll, rather than my final published version, because it has heightened linguistic virtuosity!"

This is probably a very useful work for academics, or for huge Kerouac fans, but I think it does a disservice to those who want to read On the Road because of its wide spread influence on our language and culture. The 'Original Scroll' isn't the book that shocked America, it's not the book that a million young idealists read while traveling across country, and it's not the book that inspired everyone else who read and reacted to the book in the last fifty years. I suspect it's a good book, and it is worth reading, but I don't think it should replace what I call 'the original published work'. I also would suggest reading the book before you read the scroll, it may be too late for Sam, but it's not too late for you. It's like when in museums they have a great painting, and what is called the 'study' for that painting. You may even like the 'study' better, but you should look at the finished work too.

Also, anyone in NYC on November 6 should go to the People's Improv Theater to support Sam and his contubernal Ben, of Audience of Two, in the 2nd Annual Sketchprov festival. Tickets and information can be found here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Public Intellectuals

Reading Norman Mailer's Presidential Papers, I've been thinking about the role of intellectuals in public life. It certainly seems clear that Mailer was a public intellectual, and I was thinking that his was really the last generation to produce them. Most Americans who are referred to as public intellectuals, are really political pundits of one flavor of another whose careers are focused around politics.

Before picking up this book, my opinion on this lack had been largely negative. I felt, and still feel, that it would be a positive to have a few well-known intellectuals from outside political circles who are looked to for opinions on public affairs. The closest we have now are comedians and late-night hosts, who do a pretty good job at commenting on current events. However, they are forced by nature of their professions, to be funny. Funny is great, I love a good laugh, but it would be nice to have a few people who take it seriously but don't spend all of their time in that world.

Of course, after reading most of Mailer's book (I'm still reading it), my opinion has changed slightly. I still think it would be good to have more public intellectuals, but I can't say my passion is as strong. I recognize that Mailer's attitudes are partly a matter of his time, but I find myself spending a great deal of time admiring his prose, and disliking his ideas. Obviously, anyone who knows Mailer at all, knows about his problems with women, including stabbing his wife, but it is amazing and often disturbing to see it in action. The lowest point so far is his article on Jackie Kennedy. The complicated melange of negative attitudes towards women that exist in Mailer's mind is surprising. There are so many of them that they actually seem to compete with each other.

Now, he's also a brilliant writer, that is very clear from his powerful prose. He has some very interesting ideas about the structure of society, and the underlying attitudes that drive the public, but they are always mixed up with his ambivalent, and occasionally hostile feelings. It is really hard to find a subject for him to discuss where a bubbling stew of mixed emotions doesn't make itself evident. At the same time, his ability to make that evident is remarkable.

He is really at his best when he simply describes events, or explains himself, rather than when he tries to talk about larger ideas, or explain others. There is too much of him in his mind for him to successfully describe another person's motivations.

I have described some of my issues with him, but I cannot say enough too about my respect for his ability. Superman Comes to the Supermarket truly is a remarkable piece of reporting, and we are very lucky that the entire article is available on Esquire Magazine's website. So here it is.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Today, I spotted this blog post by Lindesay Irvine over at the Guardian, on translation. He asks the excellent question "Can you even remember the name of the translator of the last foreign language book you read?" Now, I couldn't do so, but I knew where to check, and it wasn't by finding the book and looking it up. I keep a list. So I looked it up, and felt silly because I should have remembered it. It was Robert Haas, who worked with Czeslaw Milosz to translate Milosz' Treatise on Poetry which is an excellent poem in itself. I may not remember the name of every translator I read, but I do try to keep track of them, and I particularly try to remember when I find a translator who's taste seems to run with mine. For example, I have read a number of works translated from Italian by William Weaver. Now, if I see that he has translated something, it becomes a point in that works favor. I don't actively seek out his translations, but if I'm trying to decide on a book, and it has been translated by him, that's a point in its favor.

I mentioned in my last post my desire to read more works from different countries, and originally written in different languages. This necessitates reading works in translation, something which seems to be a difficult subject for many people.

I suppose there is a sense that there is something dishonest about reading work in translation, because it's not quite the original. Certainly it's not quite the original, but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. I am fluent in English, and can muddle my way through a newspaper in French, usually pulling enough detail to follow what's being said, I also studied Latin and Ancient Greek in college, and could at the time read them well enough to explore works in the original, albeit slowly, with a dictionary, a grammar book, and a good commentary. However, I have to accept that there are many other languages out there, in which important writing appears, that I will not be able to learn. I studied just enough Sanskrit to get a sense of the unbelievable elegance of that language,and I've seen Beowulf performed in the original language (with superscript translations so that I could follow the story).

All of this has made me very aware of what we miss in translation. English is a wonderful language, but it's not the only one. Each language has its strengths and its weaknesses, and it's almost untranslatable words and concepts. Some, like Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, have very different types of sentence structure, because the words tell you how they relate to each other. In English we rely largely on the order of the words to structure our sentences. This isn't the case in all other languages. When I first picked up Latin the decreased importance of word order on the direct meaning of a sentence was an incredibly alien concept to me. The ability to use a more flexible word order to create stress and nuance remains one of the most beautiful things about that language. It can make proper translation difficult, especially of poetry. There are levels of symmetry and interconnectedness that are very difficult to replicate in English. But that's not to say one shouldn't try.

Even if you can't read Greek, Homer is still a worthwhile read. The poet Catullus can seem more familiar than many of today's academic poets. Of course, when translated badly, Homer can be one of the most boring and unpleasant experiences available to a reader, and Victorians were so uncomfortable with Catullus, that they basically translated him out of his own work. Heck, if Catullus was reading his poetry aloud on CD, it would have one of those big scary 'M's on it, warning parents that he was only for mature audiences. That would probably boost his sales.

I would love to speak about translation of contemporary works, but I've never tried that, so I can only show the conclusions about translation that my slight familiarity with ancient works has given me.

First, translating is hard work. It's a lot harder than simply being able to read and appreciate the other language. There are many tough questions to ask oneself. I would try to frame them myself, but fortunately, Lindesay Irvine's blog post at the Guardian gives me a little help. He links to Booktrust Translated Fiction, where translator Daniel Hahn is blogging the process of his latest translation. Daniel Hahn has a great statement on the big questions a translator needs to consider.
"And there are more macro-scale linguistic issues too, broad questions of tone, of cadence, of how the sentences read in English, how the whole things will be made to feel like a piece of writing in English – and yet still attached to its former self in Portuguese – and not some odd hybrid… Getting that quite right is always tricky (and particularly hard to define and describe), always a worry and potentially a problem. On the whole I find Agualusa’s sentences sit very well in English, but is that because I’m venturing too far away from the original cadences, and creating a piece of English writing no longer properly moored to its original?"

That gives you a taste, but go read the rest of it.

Second, translations are important, and can be beautiful. I like reading in translation, even as I long to be able to read the original.

Third, translations are alive. What do I mean by this? Well, it's the curse of the Victorians for those who study antiquity. Victorian language, to us, typically seems old-fashioned, and most of these old English translators of the classics translated them into even more archaic speech, so one has Romans and Greeks using 'Thee' and 'Thou' and other bits of silly Arthurian language. Maybe this was okay for them, they liked it, but to modern readers it feels stilted, and unnecessarily so.

The great Classic writers weren't writing in archaic English, they were writing in what was for them, very modern Latin or Greek. Just like Shakespeare did for English, many of them coined fresh new words. As a result, the older the translation, by and large, the less useful it is for a modern audience. Alexander Pope's translations of Homer are of far more use now to those studying Pope than those who wish to be familiar with Homer. What this means, for me, is that there is a constant market for more translators, and for updated translations. Dorothy Sayers wrote great detective stories, and made important contributions to the scholarship of Dante, but I don't think that her translations of his work are the best option for a contemporary audience. Certainly, when I decided to read Dante, and consulted a former professor of mine for a recommendation, I was told to go with Mark Musa. It was a good choice, and I recommend his editions.

Fourth, their are many different ways to translate the same work. From Classics, I've seen what I would call two major schools, literal translation, and poetic translation. This represents the constant struggle between translating every word, and attempting to capture the 'feel' of the original. Ideally, there should be some balance between the two, but it can be a good idea to determine which end of the pendulum you put more priority on, and to look for translators who agree with you.

Now, the problem with these ideas of mine is that they come from probably the only type of literature where many classic works have multiple translations some contemporaneous, and some not. Homer is the king of that hill, because he's so important, but even many lesser known classical authors have two or three translations available. The more recent a work is, the greater the possibility that there will be only one translation available.

What this means though, is that when one finds a work in translation that really resonates, not only might you want to read more by that author, but you should look at the translator. I mentioned William Weaver for me, but he's a really easy one, I would say that a sizable percentage of the works translated from Italian and available in book stores, have been translated by him. I wouldn't say most, but certainly many. Apparently many people agree with me about the quality of his work.

So there's my two cents on the value of translation (HIGH). Any particular favorite works in translation that you want to share with me? or countries from which you like to read translations?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reading Sisyphus

So here it is, October, I'm recovered from my illness, and completed enough of the things that were taking up time in my life that I can once again blog regularly.

I was reading the travails of Joe, the new literary publicity guy at, and feeling a great deal of sympathy. Under the fully appropriate title, "How does everyone here read so quickly?" he writes of his struggles to keep up with how well read everyone at Penguin is.

It often feels like a Sisyphean task, trying to be well read. It sounds that way for Joe, and it certainly seems that way for me. It's not quite like Sisyphus of course, he would reach the top of his mountain, and the boulder would roll right down to the bottom again for him to push it back up. My boulder only goes up, but the top of the mountain is climbing a lot faster than I am.

I type about as quickly as if I were simply speaking quickly, and I read a bit faster than that, but I'm not the fastest reader out there. I am diligent, but not in that I sit down for three hours and push my way through a single book. That happens, but when it does, it's a matter of the book, more than of me. Some books will pull me through them so fast that I have to force myself to read every paragraph, others, that I like just as much, I read so slowly it's like I'm crawling physically across the page. One of the reasons that I read more than one book at a time is to capitalize on momentum. At different times I have different moods as a reader, and different books suck me in.

For example, for the past few weeks, I have been reading The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Richard D. Polenberg, a really wonderful examination of F.D.R's presidency, largely through the lens of contemporary documents, at the same time though, I've read and completed about ten other books. Some of these books I've read in just one or two sittings (for example, I've already mentioned my terrible Nero Wolfe habit), and others have been read in and around those, like James Hamilton-Paterson's excellent Cooking with Fernet Branca from Europa Editions. Reading like this can be a bit chaotic I suppose, but it works for me.

Still, no matter how often I set specific goals, saying, "oh, when I read X, I will have climbed a step higher in being well-read" I get there, and it seems I've hardly moved, or worse, I've moved backwards.

There are a couple of directions I'm always trying to move in from the most focused, there is movement within an author's work, when I was young, if I liked an author, I read everything of theirs that I could get my hands on. Now, as I've gotten older, this happens less often, still, if I really like an author, I try to make it a point to read more than one of their books, and work my way to a complete set later.

The second direction is the list of authors of whom I've heard, but haven't read. I have a list as long as my arm of authors like that, and I try to find at least one of their books to read. Sometimes this moves them into the above mentioned category, sometimes not. Right now for example I'm also reading The Presidential Papers of Norman Mailer (Is there a theme in my current reading? maybe a little...), I may decide that this meets the initial criteria of having read some Mailer, I might not though, as it seems to be out of print and lesser known.

The third direction is the most vague, being for larger categories in which I would like to have read. This includes my desire to read one book by an author of each country out there. Almost certainly an impossible task, but a worthy direction. There is also my desire to read works of different periods or stylistic movements, modern, post-modern, Victorian, etc. Many of these categories expand the more I learn. As a tangent to reading from different countries in general, I also want to read more contemporary international fiction. (nota bene: I came to this desire before the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize for Literature went off on his high horse.) I've been helped in this goal by the discovery of Europa Editions, who make it their goal to provide good English translations of contemporary European fiction.

It's so commonly discussed, that the observation is almost trite, but I strongly agree with the statement that the more one knows, the more one knows that one doesn't know. It's been said a million times, in many different ways, and it's still true. Every time I learn something knew, it opens up new realms of things that I should know, and I really enjoy that. I don't think ignorance is half as blissful as the opening up of new realms for discovery.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Watch this space

Due to illness and busyness, it seems unlikely that I will have the time to post properly until October. But don't go away, because I will return.

Until then, here are a few interesting links.

The 'Real Reason' that Rushdie was snubbed for the Booker short list.

The MAGIC of Alan Carr

Bookmarks on FIRE!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Congrats Tony Kushner!

This is just a note to say
that Tony Kushner won the inaugural
Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award.

It couldn't have happened to a better playwright.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Brooklyn Book Festival

I had a great time wandering around the Brooklyn Book Festival yesterday. I would have had an even better time if it had not been hellishly hot and humid. I do not sunburn easily, and I picked up my first real sunburn of 2008.

The talks were interesting, but I found it difficult, with the heat to sit in one place, in direct sunlight, for very long. Still, I did catch a sizable chunk of the conversation between Adrian Tomine and John Wray. I hadn't heard of Wray before, but am interested in reading some of his work after hearing him talk. I already knew that I liked Tomine's work. It was a great conversation, full of interesting information about international influences, particularly in comics.

My favorite part of the festival was all of the representation by small publishers. I found some interesting things and people over at the Verso Books table. They will soon be publishing a graphic novel biography of Che Guevara, written and drawn by Spain Rodriguez, and I got my hands on a copy. It's excellent, and I'm enjoying watching graphic novels expand in the direction of history and biography of historical figures.

On the subject of books as beautiful objects, I loved the booth for Chin Music Press, who describe themselves quite accurately as 'publishers of beautiful and engaging books and media.'

Both of these publishers, and a number of other groups, had information on upcoming readings and events, and I have to sort through them all, because I want to go to all of them and many occur at the same time in disparate parts of the city.

Also, in a bit of silliness, I wore this shirt. It clearly proved to be the right choice, and helped start a number of interesting conversations. If you're in the area next year, I highly recommend the Brooklyn Book Festival.

David Foster Wallace

I've never read any of his books, but his loss still seems quite sad. One day I plan to read Infinite Jest, which sounds like something I'd enjoy. To learn more about Wallace, try just about any newspaper book section, and at least half of the links on my Blog Roll.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Brooklyn Book Festival

This Sunday in Brooklyn Borough Hall, is the Brooklyn Book Festival. I'm really looking forward to it.

As a quick preview, Gothamist has a great interview with one of the organizers, Johnny Temple, reader, publisher, and bassist in the band Girls Against Boys.

Beyond the Cover

I'm all for liking books as physical objects as well as containers of stories and information, but dressing to match your book? That seems a little much to me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Should They Stay, or Should They Go?

Your old books that is.

If they stay, there will be trouble (you'll drown in books), if they go it will be double (you might run out of things to read).

I think I'll stop committing crimes against the Clash now. What I'm really asking is, what do you do with books when you're done with them.

Aside from books you take out from the library, if you're a heavy library user then good for you!

I'm talking about the books you own. Do you hang on to everything you've enjoyed, or just a few that are extra special? And what do you do with the ones you don't save?

I hang on to far too many books, and need to start getting rid of them. I have a sizable pile of books to get rid of, but they've been there for months. I've gotten rid of a few by offering them to friends. They'll go through them, consider a few, and then decide they don't want them. I don't blame them, I didn't want them either.

When I lived closer to a used book store, the answer was easy, I would periodically bag up a bunch of books and take them over. I ended up with store credit, but store credit at a bookstore is useful for me. Now I have to take a real trip if I want to take these books to the used book store, I can't do it on a whim, I need to carefully plan a part of my day around it. Maybe I'll do it this weekend, but I've said that before.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Closing Tabs

I have way too many tabs open right now. Very interesting things that I wanted to post about. Instead I'm just going to list them all here.

Tyler Bender Book Co. are the makers of the coolest notebooks out there. Each one is unique because they're made from old hardcover books. has an incredible range of poetry available. One of the best parts is all of the audio recordings. I listened to Langston Hughes talk about and then read The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and was thrilled.

Driving across the country to promote reading sounds like a lot of fun, and a great idea. David Kipen of The Big Read, is doing it, and blogging about it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Books are more than just entertainment

To quote Richard Wright, "books are weapons." I really need to read some of his books.

I think that we as a culture know this. It can lead us to love books, or to fear them. Books can help us fight against injustice, and remind us that we are not alone when we struggle. They can educate us and give us the tools we need to advance ourselves and our ideas. They also enable authors like Richard Wright to be heard long after they're physical presence is gone.

In that regard, there are two links I wanted to pass on.

First, is this brief tribute to Richard Wright, who would be 100 years old today.

Second is this longer article about Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, publisher of 'The Little Blue Books.' Haldeman-Julius believed strongly in making books available and affordable to everyone. He was referred to as the Henry Ford of literature, and like Henry Ford, he was fairly eccentric, though not in the same ways.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Recommended Reading

I like book recommendations, particularly when the person doing the recommending feels strongly about the book. I also think that knowing a few books that mean a lot to someone is a good way to get a sense of who they are.

To that end, I've recently discovered two new sources of such recommendations. Over at the Penguin UK blog they've started a nice series called "Five in Mind" that seeks to let readers get to know the staff at Penguin UK by having them each give a list of five books. I've been enjoying that quite a lot.

Then there's also NPR's series "You Must Read This". I feel terribly guilty that I've fallen behind on almost all of my regular NPR podcasts, because I'm such a big fan of their programing. This is a great example. Authors are asked to tell us why we must read a certain book. I particularly liked Michael Chabon's, which I found very convincing. I also loved Charles Baxter's recommendation of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, which is one of my favorite books. You must read it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Literary Coincidence

It's interesting how once you become aware of something, it keeps popping up. At the moment, I'm referring to The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. Here's the little chain that's brought up what seems to be a fairly obscure (for English speakers) Portuguese novel.

As you know, I've been reading The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine. Last night I finished it. Tonight or tomorrow I will begin to write my review of it for the VQR contest.

Early this afternoon, I discovered The Drawbridge, which looks like a very interesting literary journal. In browsing the current issue, I saw Rabih Alameddine had written an article for them, so I read it. In it he told me yet another story, the beautiful intricacy that is Fernando Pessoa. I'll let him tell you, since I couldn't do it justice.

Then, just now, I learned that Philip Pullman has provided a list of 40 favorite books to the Timesonline for the Waterstone's Writer's Table. We already know that I'm fond of book lists, so I went over his. I haven't read that many items on it, but I agree with him on the ones I have read. What else did I see on his list, but Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. That's two recommendations in one day. And from authors I like. So that has decided me, I want to read this book. Now I just have to find a copy, I hope to fit it into my to read pile sometime next year.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Nearing the Finish Line

About 50 pages left to go in The Hakawati. I finally realized why it's been taking me so long. It's so good that I don't want it to end. This happens to me occasionally, though only with certain really good books. I have to become really fond of the characters, in addition to really enjoying the story.

I've also become completely obsessed with Georges Simenon. I've read four of his books so far in the last month or two, and I want more. Fortunately, there are a lot more out there, unfortunately, books cost money. I know, it's a terrible and complicated formula. There are two types of Simenon books out there at the moment, both excellent, though different. The Inspector Maigret mysteries, being published by Penguin in cute, oddly shaped little books. And the New York Review of Books is republishing a lot of his excellent, more literary character studies. Both make for attractive books.

Any new author obsessions out there for you?

UPDATE: Apparently, an interest in Simenon is particularly appropriate on Labor Day weekend. David L. Ulin explains over at the LA Times.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Inspiring Readers

One person can make a huge difference in the lives of others. When it comes to fostering reading in children, a good librarian can make a huge difference. Queens librarian Sueli Zaqem is a good librarian. She inspired the kids in her summer reading program to read more than twice the number of books this summer as last summer, and donated her hair to Locks of Love. It's always nice to see a situation where everyone wins. The kids read more, and some sick kids will get to have hair. Also, the library gets some positive press in the news, which will hopefully encourage other parents to involve their children in their local libraries summer reading program.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Experiment in Literacy

A small group of NYC public schools are embarking on an experiment in developing early literacy, the New York City Core Knowledge Early Literacy Project. This NYTimes article describes it.

I'm curious. I'm deeply concerned with encouraging literacy, and this idea sounds good to me from the rough description given in the article. Of course, the current program 'balanced literacy' also appeals to me. On a philosophical basis, 'balanced literacy' appeals to me more.

But I'm not the target audience. I've been a lifelong passionate reader, and I can thank my parents for that. I don't instinctively know how to make reading appeal to someone who is resistant to it, or struggling with it. Also, my understanding of 'cultural literacy,' that there are some things in our culture that one should know, and this will make it easier to function within our culture, makes sense to me. Certain common experiences are an important part of our culture, and they make our language richer, but if you don't have them, they can leave you confused. I really like how the Core Knowledge Foundation explains the theory in their FAQ.

"There is no incompatibility between teaching a core curriculum and adapting instruction to the needs of individual students. Moreover, even as we look to teachers to bring out the best in each child as a learner, we also ask them to recognize the needs of each child as part of a larger community. All communities require some common ground. The community of the classroom requires, in particular, that its members share some common knowledge, because this knowledge makes communication and progress in learning possible."

Still, I'm nervous about trying a new tack like this. If it's a success, then it's great for the kids who are doing it, but what if it's not? Those children will be further hampered in developing their reading skills. There are many people, from teachers and parents, up to principals and the schools chancellor, people far more qualified than I am on the subject, who will be devoting themselves to making sure that it works. I admire them. The risks are there, minimized, but if it works... If it works the benefits could be outstanding.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Author Labels, take 2

After my earlier post on what it means to label authors based on one aspect of who they are, I found this excellent post on the Guardian Book Blog, by 'lesbian author' Josey Henley-Einion.

She very effectively sums up the complex issues behind labeling authors. She is both a lesbian, and an author, so she says she will accept being labeled a 'lesbian author.' She backs it up with an excellent principle.

I won't be shoved into a box, shelved on a section, categorised and pinned to a board like a dead moth. I will flit and fly and occasionally land on a flower or a carcass. I will disguise myself as a butterfly and then trick you by coming out at night to hang around your lamp and disturb you with my fluttering. I am a flowing river marking the divide between two states in this split society of ours, a tsunami crashing through your preconceptions and obliterating the gender/genre notices in the bookshop. OK, maybe that last one was a bit much, but you get the picture. I am a lesbian author but I am so much more. In the words of the main character of my novel: I am not a cardboard cutout.

Of course, it does help get books published, and an argument can be made that it helps to sell them too. Almost anything else I could say about her post would simply be quoting her, so just go and read it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Cairo meets Chicago

I have previously mentioned Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building. Now I am pleased to learn that he has a new book coming out September 1, Chicago, about members of the Egyptian community in Chicago. It's all described in this interview in The Guardian. It's a great interview, and I can't wait to read the new book.

Hardcore Writers

Gerrit over at the 2log, has challenged me to blog about the Guys Lit Wire post about the five most hardcore writers. And of course, I will.

First though, I wanted to mention the blog Guys Lit Wire. I had never heard of it before, and I am grateful to Gerrit for linking me to it, because it is a great blog. One of my concerns, as a guy who reads, is how rare that seems to be among my peers, particularly as I get older. Here I'll quote their excellent mission statement.

Guys Lit Wire exists solely to bring literary news and reviews to the attention of teenage boys and the people who care about them. We are more than happy to welcome female readers - but our main goal is to bring the attention of good books to guys who might have missed them. The titles will be new or old and on every subject imaginable. We guarantee new posts every Monday through Friday and have a list of twenty-three individual scheduled contributors plus several additional occasional posters all of whom have different literary likes and dislikes. We hope to provide something for everyone and will strive to accomplish that goal.

That is definitely admirable, and what's more they succeed. I read through a number of their short reviews, and they've been excellent. If you need to find a good book recommendation for a teenage boy, I think they should be one of your first stops.

Now to the top five list. I like lists of five, it's a good criteria to create discussion. It will almost never be accurate, there's too many excellent and terrible authors out there to ever be able to get a universally agreed upon top five on any subject.

It's even better when you throw in the term 'hardcore'. Check out those definitions. Do any of them capture the current colloquial use of the word? Not really. You don't say, "Hemingway went all over the world reporting on war and hunting animals, that dude is unswervingly committed!" Ok, you can, but it doesn't mean the same thing.

The Urban Dictionary is better. Their definitions are closer. I particularly like #2. Most of their definitions are about the hardcore music scene, which I would argue is the origin of the usage we're looking at. The desire to say that something is 'hardcore' in similar situations to words like 'kick ass,' 'bad ass,' definitely comes from the musical genre which, for long, is known as 'hardcore punk rock and roll.' Boy that's a mouthful isn't it? That's because 'rock and roll' gets shortened to 'rock' when attached to 'punk' and gets chopped off when attached to 'hardcore punk', and then 'hardcore punk' is so hardcore that it chopped its 'punk' off, and became just 'hardcore.' Of course, 'punk' also was so punk that it chopped its 'rock' off, and 'rock' ditched 'and roll' because extra syllables are lame. But enough about that.

Right, so 'hardcore' writers. I've been writing for seven paragraphs, and I haven't made any suggestions of my own. I found the Guys Lit Wire list pretty interesting, but I can't say I agreed with any of their suggestions. I'm sure Hemingway would make a lot of people's lists, but not mine. I find him kind of sad. He's a great writer, but that doesn't make his life particularly admirable, and I'm not a fan of big game hunting. I don't think that killing animals for the fun of it makes you cool or tough. Though I do think that driving an ambulance, in or out of war, does.

Xenophon was an interesting choice, but I think when you get to classical authors, the question becomes, compared to what? Almost all of them are more hardcore than any of us. Xenophon was pretty tough, but I think Julius Caesar has him beat. This guy everyone thought of in his youth as a bit of a pansy, became governor of southern Gaul, where he shared the same hardships as his soldiers, and conquered what amounts to all of modern France, as well as Switzerland, parts of Germany, and England. For the technology they had then, that's pretty good. He then went home and conquered Italy, fighting the guy who was supposedly the greatest military mind of the day. Oh yeah, and he wrote about it all, in the third person, because that was more modest.

There's also Thucydides. He was, as far as I can tell, Zbigniew Herbert's pick for most hardcore. I'll let Herbert argue it for me with his poem, Why the Classics?*.

In the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition

among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of political endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest

the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief

for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile

exiles of all times
know what price that is

generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence

they accuse their subordinates
envious colleagues
unfavourable winds

Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter
and he sailed quickly

if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self pity

what will remain after us
will be like lovers’ weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns

Hardcore, right? Herbert is one of my favorite poets, and that is my favorite poem of his.

Now if we're looking at the military as hardcore, then we're talking B.H. Liddell Hart, the military theorist/historian, and author of Strategy among others. To understand just how many people died because of who had and hadn't read this book, I will give you one quote.

The British would have been able to prevent the greatest parts of their defeats if they had paid attention to the modern theories expounded by Liddell Hart before the war.

Which war? and who said that? That would be WWII and the speaker? Field Marshall Rommell. Basically, after WWI, Liddell Hart, having witnessed the shocking capabilities of the new technology (tanks, planes, etc.) wrote a number of books trying to warn his country of what could be done, and what they would have to do. The British didn't read it. The Germans did. I consider this to be a great tragedy, and can only imagine how it affected Liddell Hart when Rommell admitted it. Still, I believe that qualifies Liddell Hart as hardcore.

I think Liddell Hart is hardcore partly because he failed. If the right people had listened to him, we might not have noticed him. I've read the book, and some other writings, and he's also a good read.

So I'm at three right? Julius Caesar, Thucydides, and B.H. Liddell Hart. Let's try to be a little less old dead guy, huh? Well, maybe one more.

Surviving against impossible odds is pretty hardcore, don't you think? For that I would recommend author and holocaust survivor, Primo Levi. Levi wrote all sorts of books, in addition to his survival of the holocaust. To my mind that's the most hardcore thing about him. He's really a stand-in for all holocaust survivors here. They made their way through one of the most horrific experiences in known history, such that no adjective can do it justice, saw the things they saw, and came out of it. Most like Levi managed to hold on to their compassion and humanity, if anything they became more human, and more humane. How do you do that? That is hardcore.

And one to go. I'm not ranking these authors within my five, so this one isn't any more or less than any of the others.

Salman Rushdie. One word, fatwa. Seriously, that is some mind destroying stuff. A powerful religious group, with fanatical followers has demanded your death, and some of your translators and publishers have actually been killed. He not only doesn't give up, he continues to say what he believes. That's pretty hardcore.

*from Selected Poems by Zbigniew Herbert, trans. Czeslaw Milosz, and Peter Dale Scott.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Perhaps you have already encountered Amazon's Kindle. I have, and I'm distinctly ambivalent about it. While I read a tremendous amount on the internet, I like books as physical objects, and the experience of reading a book is one that I doubt I could do without.

My ideal use of the kindle would be as a research tool. I think that there are very few academics who would turn down a small device that contained up to 200 different books relevant to their work. It would certainly make it easier to go to the coffee shop to write a paper, if you don't have to carry 15 books with you, let alone 200.

I don't like the idea of reading for fun on the thing. There was an article, ages ago now, about how the Kindle will only succeed when it can do all the things a book can do, including survive being ripped in half or accidentally dipped in the bathtub. Books can survive that, but the pages will get a little wrinkly, and it's best if you get at them with a hair dryer almost immediately. No, of course I'm not speaking from experience. I would add a few other problems. I like to read on the subway, and occasionally walking down the street. This is easy to do with a book. Few people are liable to attempt to grab the book out of my hand and run off. Books rarely have particularly high resale values. On the other hand, grabbing a Kindle would approach the profit margin of grabbing an iPhone.

But now there's an additional host of things to worry about the Kindle thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I remember the early days of the MP3 revolution, and while I am content to purchase music in CD form and upload it, or purchase the odd track from iTunes, I certainly agree that the music industry did not, and still has not, handled the whole thing well.

Should the eBook movement takes over, I'll probably stick with real books. Even if it means I become like those guys who still buy their music on vinyl. "It just sounds better," they say. "It just looks better," I'll say. And kids everywhere will think we're all crazy.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Our Continuing Story

I haven't disappeared, just been reading. I meant to advance write some posts this weekend, but have fallen to the deadly blogger's block.*

The Hakawati is definitely proving to be an interesting book, and I look forward to writing a review when I've finished it. I'll put some of my thoughts here too. I'm currently about 250 pages into it, and would probably have finished it already but for a few things. One, since I want to write a review for the VQR competition, I'm only reading it when I can REALLY focus on it, and take notes as needed. Two, it's an enormous hardcover book, so I'm not carrying it around with me. I'm only reading it at home. The unwieldiness has long been my problem with hardcovers, and this one is the size of a small dictionary. Not too small a dictionary though, still a pretty big one. It's about the size of the Cryptonomicon hardcover, for those of you familiar with Neal Stephenson.

This has resulted in a slight variation on my typical, two-four books at once reading habit. Right now I have a traveling book, and the home book. There have been several traveling books, all slim paperback volumes suitable for tucking into a pocket and whipping out when the situation calls for words in a line. There's also the half-finished poetry book sitting on my coffee table, staring at me, and the recently started short story collection telling me that if I finish it, or am seen reading it in public, I will be magically transformed into a PBR drinking hipster (yuck!). Still, I can't resist its siren song because of my deep and abiding love for anything written/drawn by Art Spiegelman. I saw him speak in 2002 and will never forget it. My eternal regret is that: one, I didn't talk to him personally and two, I did not have anything on me for him to sign.

*Note: Blogger's block should not be confused with Tetris. I've only played a little bit of Tetris this week.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Go Out and See Something

No one can live on books alone, I have friends in the performing arts and as a result their are two different live performances that I recommend you go see.

First, Sam and Ben of Audience of Two fame will be performing their sketch comedy show Fantasy Airlines at The Peoples Improv Theater(the Pit). Tickets can be purchased here. I saw the first performance of this show and it is hilarious. Sam and Ben are an excellent comedy team.
There are only two performances left, August 23, and August 30th, so buy your tickets before they run out.

Second, and just as important, my friends at Theatre of the Expendable(TotE) have a play in the 12th Annual New York City International Fringe Festival. The play is called Mare Cognitum and I saw it last night. It is a superb play by young playwright David McGee. David has a way with language that makes listening to his characters converse a distinctly rewarding experience. It's a fun, wacky, and moving piece of theater, but I'm not a theater reviewer, so I'm not going to go into too much detail, just check it out. All of the information you need about the show can be found at the TotE website. Because it's the fringe festival, the number of performances are limited, with four remaining.

And of course, if you arrive early for either of these shows you can always be that cool person sitting in the corner with a book until the show starts. I know I was.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bored at Work

Try Read At Work, from the NZ Book Council.

It's a fake window's desk top that lets you look at "PowerPoint" slide shows that are actually poems and stories.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Finding Forster

I was going to write about reviews today, but that will have to wait. My attention has been drawn in a different direction.

I fell for Forster's writing in the first summer after college when I read Maurice and A Room of One's Own. I'd read and enjoyed A Passage to India in school, and liked it, but it fostered no great passion for him. Someday I plan to reread it.

When I develop a passion for an author, I always like to know that there is a lot out there to read. With Forster, that's not really the case. There are a number of books out there, but it's not a vast quantity. Because of this, I am even more excited that a new book of his writings has been released. The BBC Talks of E.M. Forster, 1929–1960 which is reviewed here by Zadie Smith for the New York Review of Books.

It is of course the NYRB that makes me a hypocrite, and timing that helps me avoid hypocrisy. I was going to write about my general dislike and disinterest in reviews. For books and movies, I do not go to published reviews for my recommendations. However, here I am, having read a review and very enthusiastic about acquiring the book. Thank god I didn't use particularly harsh language to criticize reviews, a good inspiration just at the time when I am planning on writing one myself.

But back to Forster. Here is Zadie Smith's explanation of him.

He didn't lean rightward with the years, or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the Pope or the Queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin, or Mao; he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after the age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a hand-basket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum, or foreigners swamping the cities.

I don't know about you, but I was struck by how rare and admirable this makes him even today. The flaws he lacked are still very common.

I was also struck by his goals for his radio show, which strongly resemble mine for this blog. Of course as he is Forster, I can't pounce upon a single, quotable marching cry. Of course, there is an easy way to get the sense of it. You can scroll back up and read the article. I recommend it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Orwell Diaries

For those who don't already know, The Orwell Prize is publishing George Orwell's diaries as a blog, each entry posted 70 years to the day after it was written. Similar to the Pepys blog I mentioned earlier.

I'm going to be following along, and thought you might like to as well. If you've never read anything by Orwell, I highly recommend him. Animal Farm and 1984 are the ones everyone reads in school, but there are lots of others. I recommend Down and Out in Paris and London which comes with the Anthony Bourdain seal of approval.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

More Reading Passions

As I mentioned previously, it makes a difference when writers feel strongly about what they're writing.

For that, I think Sherman Alexie's "Sixty-One Things I learned During the Sonics Trial." Is one of the most powerful essays I've seen in ages. I'm not really a basketball fan, but I was quickly drawn in. I do follow baseball, and can certainly understand feeling very strongly about your team.

Go read it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

VQR Young Reviewer Contest, Part the First

I mentioned the VQR Young Reviewer Contest in my post Old Fashioned Novels. I've decided both to enter the contest, and to track my progress on this blog.

First step was to pick a book to read and review. I went to the excellent independent book store, BookCourt. Unfortunately I was distracted by their 'buy 2 get one free' sale on NYRB books. I left with more books, but not a qualifying book.

Still, I have high hopes that I will enjoy the books I got.

Anyway, finding a book to review, take two.

I was trying to pass some time near Lincoln Center earlier today, and went into the B&N to browse. I prefer independent book stores, but in a pinch any book store will do. I went to their extensive new fiction selection, and almost immediately (or, after 15 minutes of careful browsing) I found it.

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine!

It drew me in immediately. I have previously mentioned that, up to a point, I am willing to judge a book by it's cover, and this one is great. Also when I opened it up to read the description on the inside flap of the dust jacket I saw strong praise from Junot Diaz. Diaz' recommendation certainly means a lot.

I'd also previously blogged about first lines, and I think I have a new favorite of the moment. It's not really a first sentence but a first paragraph that would drown inside the first sentence of Tristram Shandy.

Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.

I had failed to mention, in my post about opening lines, my love of the openings of epic poetry, like The Aeneid's "Arma Viremque Cano."*

I love when authors reference this style and open with some similar exhortation to the gods, the muses, or the readers. Alameddine's is perfect.

*I will not here discuss my desire to persuade Yankees Second Baseman Robinson Cano to name a child 'Arma Viremque'. That would be undignified, and he certainly wouldn't do it.**

**Still, it would be awesome...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Reading Passions

I like non-fiction, although, unlike most men out of college, I read more fiction than non-fiction.

One of the things that I like about non-fiction is when someone is really passionate about their subject matter. When they really care, it comes through. In Ta-Nehisi Coates' playlist on Papercuts, I have found that. I'm far from an expert in rap music, though I like a lot of what I've heard. His descriptions of the ten songs he selected really makes me want to go out and listen to those songs, and read his book.

This is the first of their playlist series that I've really enjoyed, and it's specifically because of Coates' passionate, and deeply personal relationship with these songs.


As I have mentioned previously, I am a big fan of the New York Review of Books Classics. Every book I've read that's been published by them has ranged from enjoyable to excellent, an honor shared only with Hesperus Press and The Dalkey Archive. Maybe it's a small press thing.

But here's the important news, and another example of why I shouldn't visit their site. They are having a summer sale. They've put together a number of different collections with some fairly impressive discounts.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Old Fashioned Novels

"I have a theory about Mr. Kates. He talks the way people talked before he was born, therefore he must read old-fashioned novels."
Phoebe Gunther, in The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout

That's always been one of those quotes that stuck with me. All of my life, but particularly as a teenager, others have commented on the way I speak. Whether it was the kid in my history class asking how long it had been since I came to NYC from the south, or the random people who have thought I was English. This despite the fact that I am a native New Yorker. They didn't ask me these things because I had the accent for one place or the other, but because I used words, and methods of speech that seemed unusual to them. The strange becomes the foreign. And I do speak differently than a lot of people. I use big words, often anachronistic ones, and I use old fashioned turns of phrase.

I have this on my mind because I recently learned about the Virginia Quarterly Review young reviewer contest. I was tempted by it, and I thought I might try to write up a quick review. This in spite of the fact that I don't really like book reviews. Then I ran into a snag. They require that the book have been published after January 1, 2008. I have finished 72 books so far this year, and I am currently reading four more. None of them meets that qualification.

Even so, I have been making an effort to bring myself more up-to-date with my reading choice. I've been reading Murakami, Chabon, Junot Diaz, and Ha Jin. All of whom have written fairly recently, but I've not read anything by them that qualifies. I'm handicapped by my dislike of carrying bulky hardbacks around. I prefer trades. I was excited about Yiddish Policeman's Union from the moment that I first learned about it, but I only read it this year, because I waited for it to come out in paperback.

Of course, I've also backslid into my comfort zone, I've read a bunch of Graham Greene, with G.K. Chesterton, John Buchan, and Isaac Bashevis Singer mixed in*. Not to mention reread a number of Rex Stout novels, including the one quoted above.

Realizing that I haven't even read anything that qualifies for this contest, I'm now determined to do so. The question is, what will I read?

This is made even more difficult by the further stipulation in the contest rules:

Please keep in mind the readership of VQR and the type of reviews we publish. We will be looking not only to see if the style of the writing will appeal to our readers but also whether the book reviewed will appeal.

So now I've skimmed the descriptions of the last few issues, this seems even tougher. I shall have to do some real bookstore browsing to come up with something good. Any recommendations?

*one of these things is not like the other...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I'm Reading on a Jet Plane

Ok, so I'm not actually reading on a plane. But I was, in July. I meant to post about how much I enjoy reading on planes before I left on my trip, but with all of the things I had to do to prepare for my trip, I didn't have time. Of course one of the things I had to do was decide which books to travel with. I changed my mind on that one constantly, right up to the moment that I got in the car to the airport.

Still, now that reading on a plane is fresh in my mind, I can say a few things about it. First off, I love reading while traveling. Planes, buses, trains and the like are all excellent places to fit in a few hours of reading. I only wish I could read in cars, and I often try to, but eventually I start to get a little bit carsick, and stop. Buses are fine, but cars get to me.

Before my flight I'd been thinking that planes were the best place for intensive reading, if just because they take the longest, by and large this is true, but having just flown, I think that trains are the best. This has to do largely with space and light.

Other than riding the subway, or piling too many people into a friends' car, planes are the most cramped method of travel. Being too cramped can make things quite difficult. The other problem is light. At a certain point on most international flights, they decide to create an enforced nighttime, you can use your seat light, but all the other lights go dark. Some seat lights are better than others, but this can be quite difficult if you didn't bring a book light. Even if you did one it can be hard to shake the feeling that you are keeping your fellow passengers awake.

Trains on the other hand, and here I don't mean subway cars, but trains where everyone sits down, are usually much less full, and even when they are, there is more room. Also while it can get dark, it's not the same encouraged bedtime kind of dark that you get on planes. Also, because the travel time is shorter, they are less fatiguing, which is also a real positive.

As far as the comforts of reading go, trains are one of my real favorites. But my reading agenda for the summer includes one simple requirement, a hammock. Before the summer is out I intend to spend at least one day reading in a hammock in the shade.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Favorite Opening Line

Over at the Telegraph's book blog, James Higgs, spurred on by a colleague, creates what I think is one of the best potential memes out there. Favorite opening line to a novel.

His comes from Anthony Burgess' Earthly Powers a book that I now need to read.

Mine is a tough call. Rex Stout is always good for a quick, evocative opening line, like this one from If Death Ever Slept:

It would not be strictly true to say that Wolfe and I were not speaking that Monday morning in May.

He's got a number of good ones like that, but I can't say any one of them is my favorite. Of course, mystery writers are almost required to have enticing opening sentences, it's a genre thing.

Then there's Camus' famous opening to The Stranger:

Maman died today.

Although perhaps that needs the whole opening paragraph to really qualify.

Either way, my favorite of the moment is probably from Tristram Shandy:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;-that not only the production of a rational Being was concern'd in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;-and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:- Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,-I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

Technically, that is one sentence, and I love it. Yes, I like my language a tad more Ciceronian than most people these days. However, it's not just the achievement of that monstrous sentence. It's also hilarious. Shandy lets his readers know precisely what they are in for, a long, digressive, bawdy piece of narration, all concerned in the history and origins of his main character.

So that's my favorite, what are yours?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cover story

Books are trying to find their audience. Anyone who works in publishing knows that 'you can't judge a book by its cover' is not all that widely followed. If anything, you can take a good shot at judging a book by its cover. Covers after all are designed with an audience in mind. This is why 'Chick Lit' which doesn't ever seem to have a section in book stores, unless it's the table labeled 'Beach Reads', always has covers that are virtually interchangeable. They contain some bright pink, a part of, but rarely all of, a woman's body in silhouette, and perhaps a cocktail. Don't tell me that this is designed to be picked up by the hipster guy who's got a used copy of Naked Lunch conspicuously sticking out of his back pocket. This is just the most blatant example. Everyone knows it who buys many books. I know that I can often stand in front of a bookshelf at random, eyes unfocused, and from color, shape, and pattern, pick out a book that I have either read, or would like to read.

Now, I'm not protesting against this. It can be very helpful. It can also be very wrong. One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett, but as I've gotten older I've become less and less fond of the covers of his books, the same holds true for a lot of Speculative Fiction. In England, they had a great idea. For certain authors, with a wider following, they do different covers. You can by Harry Potter with the 'juvenile' or 'adult' covers. The 'adult' covers are a little more elegant, a little less colorful and cartoon-y. The same is true for Terry Pratchett. When I was in Scotland, one of the first things I did was purchase a few of these adult cover Pratchett's, I love his writing, and reread one or another of his books almost every year, now I have a few that I also think look pretty good on my shelf. I encourage American publishers to follow the Brits' lead.

It's also important to remember that sometimes, unthinkable as it seems, the publishers get the audience completely wrong. Every so often it doesn't hurt to pick up a book who's cover doesn't thrill you, and actually look at the writing. You might end up finding something special that would otherwise have escaped you.

Update: I'm not the only one talking about book covers today. For a much more in depth examination of 'Chick Lit' covers, check out Diane Shipley's latest piece at The Guardian.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Author Labels

I've been doing some thinking about author labels. By this I mean the terms used to describe authors as being within a subgroup, like 'Gay Author, Jewish Author, African American Author."

This started when I was reading The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White. White discusses this labeling while talking about the history of American authors from minority groups coming to Paris to write. He described how they, and certain gay, French authors, avoided being labeled in this fashion, and objected to the idea of being so labeled. He doesn't agree with this and proudly labels himself as a 'gay author'.

Before I read his thesis, I was firmly on the side against such labeling. I saw it as a means of limiting an author's audience, relegating their work to a small specialty shelf in the corner of the book store or library, where it won't encounter those not already interested in that community. Further, it has a history of being used to intentionally limit those books to a specific audience. The shelf I see most in bookstores is the 'African American Literature' section. How many white people do you see browsing that section? How many great books are hiding in there, waiting for a wider audience? A very few, and a lot.

White softened my view but I don't think he quite changed it. I liked The Flaneur a lot, and his pride in his identity helped to create the book. If all being labeled a 'gay author' meant was that he was not hiding the fact that he was gay, then I'm all for it. But I don't think that's what it means. It means he has given them an excuse to put his book in the special interest section, 'gay literature' or 'queer literature' or whatever label a bookstore uses to indicate that a book is for people who are interested in the genre. And then, people who are interested in, let's say Paris, the main subject of the book, won't find it.

In this interview, Tony Kushner handles the problem in an interesting way. He identifies as an 'American author' a 'Jewish author' and a 'gay author'. I like this. No one is just one thing. In my opinion Kushner is also a 'moved-to-New-York-and-it-will-always-be-with-him author' but that doesn't work well when typed.

By encouraging several different labels, Kushner makes it harder to relegate him to the specialty shelves. Kushner also points out that, when writers like Roth and Bellow were avoiding the label 'Jewish author', they were doing so because prejudice at the time was stronger, and to be a 'Jewish author' or some other author with a qualification applied to 'author' made them less of an 'American author' and thus to be taken less seriously. Perhaps it's still true, though I think less so.

The real problem these days isn't the authors labeling themselves. That's fine and positive. The problem is when the genre gets printed on the book, on the spine or near the bar code, and then the author gets stuck in their special section. Edmund White would respond that the author shouldn't try to hide who they are on account of this, and I agree. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Authors should describe themselves however they want, and the more authors produce quality writing within a given 'section' the more their work will stand out. In this day and age, with bookstores struggling, it's hard to tell the bookstores to take a step away from a practice that has long helped them stay profitable, but it'd be nice if they let the 'specialty' books out to play more often.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The New York Review of Books, plus Yeats

Well, after a longish trip to Scotland (leaving me with the desire to write a post about reading and traveling, after all, EVERYONE else is doing it), I'm back.

This is just a quick note to self, and a caution for the rest of you. If you feel that there are already too many books that you want to read, stay away from the New York Review of Books blog. Every time I look at their site, my list expands.

They only make it harder by publishing books that are physically quite appealing. So far, I have not picked up a book of theirs that I didn't like, or love.

Also, while I'm linking things. Bookslut comments on a NYTimes article about the Yeats exhibit at The National Library of Ireland. I saw that exhibit earlier this year, and it was wonderful. Everyone should take Bookslut up on their suggestion, and listen to the free readings online. I'm excited about the possibility of this exhibition traveling to the US, here's hoping they come to NYC.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Becoming a Reader

Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic novel, Fun Home, a Family Tragicomic put together a great short piece on how she developed as a reader. It's a lot of fun.

Bechdel has been on my list of authors whose books I need to get my hands on for some time.

In this story she includes the advice that, if you really want your kids to read something, the best way to do it is to hide it on the higher shelves, and not tell them about it. I'm not sure this works for all kids, but for the more voracious reader it makes some sense.

This tails in nicely with the debate that's been going on in England over the age-stamping of books. Someone suggested that no one knows what book is most appropriate for any given kid more than the kid themselves, and that typically they won't read the books they're not ready for. This worked pretty well for me.

The question lies in what one does if their child is not already a reader. How do you then determine if a book is right for them before you make them read it?

There's a problem in that question. Can you see it?

Yeah, MAKE. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink. Trite, but true. The same is equally true for people of all ages and books. If you want to suggest a book to your child, but you're not sure if it will be appropriate, read it!

If you won't take the time to read a book, why should your child?

Of course, I don't know any guaranteed way to turn a kid into a reader, but if their parents don't read, and yet they try to make their kid read... well, it doesn't sound very successful does it.

I don't mind general age stamping. Children's, Young Adult (YA), and the like, but I don't think they need to be more carefully defined than that. As an early teen I read a mix of adult novels and more YA fiction, and as an adult, I know people who still read a sizable amount of YA fiction. If you're reading for pleasure, read what you enjoy. But for kids, well, they will already have the books they have to read, that's what school is for. For parents, you don't need to make your child read important works, just make sure they're comfortable reading. If they enjoy it, their reading will sort itself out. You're never going to be able to force them to like a specific type of literature, any more than you can force them to like the same music as you.

That just gave me a great image. A parent forcing a preteen to sit down and really contemplate Rubber Soul. It doesn't seem like the best way to produce a fan of the Beatles.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Candidates Read

I'm late in learning about this, but apparently presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama, was spotted holding a book. And not just holding it, he was carrying it with one finger between the pages marking his place, indicating that...

Hang on, this is just tough to say about a politician...

...indicating that he was ACTUALLY reading it!

I'm so used to the occasional press release from the current occupant, in which he describes himself as a 'reader' or a list of his summer reading without any opinion, that I'm not sure how to take it.

Oh wait, I am sure. It's awesome!

Anyway, you can see for yourself here.

Apparently he's reading Fareed Zakaria. I've never read him myself, but I've enjoyed his Daily Show appearances.