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.