Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Bit of Stealing on Sunday

Ok, so I’m not really stealing or plagiarizing, but I was just over at A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook and saw this great post. Matt discusses the following quote:

To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or one’s orientation toward it. (Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age)

I had to respond as well because one of my most vivid childhood memories is of reading – anything. In the summertime, Mom would take us to the library, and I would pile up as many books as I was allowed to check out. For Christmases and birthdays, I can remember opening books and stacking them next to me, salivating over all the great journeys I would take. I have always loved to read. Yes, there were moments when I was assigned certain texts I wasn’t thrilled about – A Tale of Two Cities, for one. Overall, though, I would delight in reading assignments and summer reading.

Why do I like to read? First and foremost, because I can’t help myself. I recently told a friend that the best way to torture me would be to leave me somewhere I had to wait without a book, like a doctor’s office or my classroom during a quiz. And well, to be perfectly honest, I think it is a wonderful way to be lazy without actually being lazy. Let me explain. I tend to be a bit of a Type A personality and have never been one to relax easily. But when I read, I feel as though it is a worthwhile pursuit, but I am sitting on my arse doing absolutely nothing physical. I love that! More than that, though, is the involvement in someone else’s life. I don’t like the word ‘escape’ when discussing reading. I “escape” when I go to the movies and physically and visually leave my life for a bit. When I read, I feel like I’m right there, next to the detective investigating the crime, sitting on the sofa beside one of Raymond Carver’s characters, a fly on the wall in Hemingway’s fiction. It is a way for me to participate without actually participating. As the Greeks enjoyed drama as a purging of one’s emotion and desire, so too do I enjoy reading for similar reasons.

In the past couple of years, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about books. I just read, moved on to the next text and shelved it away. Right now, though, I am teaching a literature and writing class at the local university and forgot how much I love to discuss literature. It isn’t just a solitary pursuit. I love making the connections in my own life and seeing how certain themes play out differently in different authors’ hands. I enjoy seeing others do the same thing. I love when my students come in and with faces quite surprised, tell me how much they enjoyed Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Last week, we discussed Watchmen and I relayed my own background as a Nancy Drew/Babysitters Club reader and how shocked I was when I realized graphic novels were not at all comic books, but that many comic books weren’t simply “comic” either. My students came up with all sorts of intriguing ways to look at Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, characters in the book.

For me, literature is not simply a hobby or pleasure. It is a bridge across my own inexperience and naive perspective, a lens focusing on periods of time I will never know, people I will never meet, and terrains I will never traverse. I do not view reading as a dissatisfaction with my life (I quite like my life, for the most part), but more, my constant dissatisfaction with ever fully knowing life in the way others do. Simple, I suppose.

What about you? Why do you read?

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Wednesday’s Child by Peter Robinson

Oh mysteries, how do I love thee? For those that know me, mysteries are my guilty pleasure. When I finished my Master’s degree and accompanying thesis in 2007, I was so sick of theory and academic reading and writing, I could not see straight. Thankfully, my love of reading didn’t abandon me completely but took on the form of what I refer to as quick reads and more specifically, Ian Rankin detective novels. If you’ve never picked them up, I highly recommend his Inspector Rebus series. To me, he is the best of the best. His Inspector Rebus is dark, complex, a bit of a loose cannon, and very, very sexy (in my mind). I read everything he had written in about a 2-3 month time period. Since, I have definitely felt the absence.

Over the Christmas holiday, however, I was sick, the kind of sick where you can barely lift your head off the pillow. Living alone has its advantages, but living alone when sick is awful. Terrible. Soul killing. Yes, my sweet mom offered to take care of me, but how do you send someone to the bookstore to browse for you? I downloaded Kindle for iPhone instead and began to read Peter Robinson. Having read quite a few mysteries in my lifetime, I must say he is the closest to Rankin in terms of character and story.

Typically, Robinson has dual story lines that parallel in some fashion. Often, they are connected as in Rankin’s books. Often, they simply have parallel themes. Wednesday’s Child is one of Robinson’s earlier books.

The story begins with the abduction of a child named Gemma who lives in one of the poorer estates. A couple comes to the door saying they are with social services and takes the child with them. Her mother, Brenda, is slatternly and not very intelligent and lives with a local petty criminal, Les Poole, who seems to know something but has an alibi for the crime.  Brenda doesn’t put up a fight when they take her child, and of course the reader wonders why the woman would freely give her child to strangers.

Kidnapping alone is out of the picture as Brenda has no money for ransom. It is unusual for pedophiles to work in pairs, particularly in male/female pairs, so psychologist Jenny Fuller is brought in to profile the case. The investigation moves along with no major leads until a body is found. However, it is not Gemma, and this crime is particularly heinous. In Eastvale, heavy crime is unusual, so the teams are split, and Inspector Banks and Detective Superintendent Gristhorpe, leading each team, seem to hit dead ends. It is not long, though, before the police hit on connections between the two crimes, and Banks and Gristhorpe come face to face with true psychopathy.

Even though this is an early Banks novel, I really enjoyed it. Particularly, I liked Robinson’s willingness to give dimension to characters who, in other author’s novels, may have been written off as poor, unintelligent, criminal, etc. Instead, Robinson fleshes out Les Poole and Brenda, explaining her guilt and simultaneous relief that her child is gone. Brenda never wanted a child, but once Gemma is taken, she realizes she misses certain things about her and understands that she gave her child up so easily because she has neglected her child and feels guilty. Robinson places no judgment on Brenda, though, saying:

“She had a fear of authority, probably bred into her, that meant she would believe just about anything that someone in a suit with a card, a nice haircut and an educated accent told her. She wasn’t unique in that.”

Because he allows her to speak beyond Banks’s first interview with her, the reader is free to sympathize with her instead of demonizing her.

Although not my favorite of Robinson’s because of some lagging in the middle, it was still overall better than much of the other mysteries out there and an entertaining read.


Amazon.com is dangerous

Ok, so this afternoon I had to do some work on the computer for my classes and just thought I’d go have some fun playing on amazon.com. I added all these books to my cart, trying to find the lowest price in combo with the lowest shipping rate. Of course, right now, super saver shipping is free on orders over $25, so this is quite a feat. Sometimes it pays to go with the free shipping; sometimes it’s cheaper to go for the low rate book and pay the shipping. So I was hopping along to see what the cost would be and went to click “Update” and accidentally clicked “Purchase.” Thank goodness I had weeded through the cart significantly. I knew I should not have gone to Barnes & Noble last night and gotten booklust. I really should not be spending money on books, but I am so so so excited I made such a mistake. Freudian slip, I’m sure. Oh well. Since I’m broke, I need reading material. 🙂

So what’s on the list? Thanks to the reviews and recommendations of bookgirl’s nightstand, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, and Dolce Belleza, I had quite a few good recommendations. Thankfully, most of the books were $6 and less. Please save the lecture on buying from big, bad corporate Amazon. A. There are no indie booksellers in southeast Texas and B. I can’t afford full-price books right now. C. I will get a library membership as soon as I have time to wait in line at the DMV and get my address changed. Without further ado…

A Reliable Wife/Goolrick

The Women’s Room/French

When You Reach Me/Stead (Newberry Medal Winner)

The Help/Stockett

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie/Bradley

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling/King

Fun House/Bechdel

Color me excited.


Paper Clips and Shakespeare

One has to be in a certain mood for a documentary. I love my Netflix account for this very reason. I don’t necessarily want to sit and watch a documentary on a Friday evening, but a rainy afternoon… eh, sure. I pair these two because they both have to do with education. That being said, they are both documentaries, so don’t expect action sequences or amazing cinematography.

The first, Paper Clips, I saw some months ago. It was really incredibly moving. The synopsis is this, a small town teacher teaches the Holocaust to middle school kids, but they cannot fathom the numbers killed by Hitler and his ilk. So they decide to collect a few thousand paper clips to represent the dead. The students write letters to different community people and a couple celebrities asking for donations. What follows is a monumental story of the curiosity and motivation of students and the desire of regular people to help wherever possible. Individuals begin sending paper clips in with stories of family members who died in the Holocaust. Celebrities send letters of encouragement. The project continues through several years of students who have to document the touching letters that survivors’ family members send in as well as photos and always, paper clips. The news of the Tennessee middle school’s project reaches the desk of a couple journalists at the Washington Post, both of German descent. They visit the school and publish a story, and the paper clips roll in to the tune of 30 million. The school erects a permanent memorial to Holocaust survivors (I won’t spoil this part), and it includes many of the letters and mementos sent in alongside paper clips. The journey from teacher to project leader to, really, facilitator of such a project was really interesting, but above all, this is an emotional film. The students are affected; the community was affected. People around the world were affected. One drop….

The second documentary, The Hobart Shakespeareans, I actually watched this afternoon. It was another film about non-traditional education. Rafe Esquith is a teacher in inner-city L.A. in a school comprised mostly of Latinos and Asian students. The neighborhood is rough, but the kids are kids. The school is year round, July to April, and he teaches all subjects. His class motto is “work hard, and do your best.” He introduces his students, 10-year-old, to advanced education, including Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, and Of Mice and Men in his curriculum. He says his goal is to make sure his students care for one another and that since many are first or second generation Americans, to make them feel whole and included in American culture. He has Halloween parties and plays baseball with them to teach teamwork and good sportsmanship. However, Shakespeare is his true love, as you see early on. The kids who want to participate in the Shakespeare program take extra time after the school to learn it. And learn it they do. To see a child of 10 not only read Shakespeare but to also understand it, was phenomenal. Ian McKellen, famed Shakespearean actor, visits the class and says how each time he visits the class, he wants to tear up to see students understanding the spirit of Shakespeare when some actors do not. Some of my students (college age) moan and groan about discussing literature. These kids ate it up and wanted more. When they read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and read Huck’s moment of anguish in determining whether to do the right thing by Miss Watson’s perspective of what he feels is right, several students were tearing up. (Skip to 4:06). It really makes you see how great a child’s capacity for learning is, but it also made me desire that space as a child where inhibitions didn’t matter and you were free to love a story about a young boy trying to find himself. Shakespeare, to me, was simply tangential to the type of learning Esquith creates in his classroom. The irony? I teach Hamlet to a group of high school seniors beginning tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. Somehow, I don’t think the experience will be quite the same.

I struggle with teaching not because I don’t love it, I do. Completely. I struggle because students these days don’t know how to think. It’s unbelievable the number that sit in my class staring under desks at cell phones, communicating without communicating. Plugged into everything but nothing important. My goal is to reach them. If I have to stand on my head to make them learn, I’m willing to do it. I have an awesome outside reading list of contemporary reads and late and great works. They have to choose two from the list and read them over the course of the semester and then turn what they take from those texts into a creative project. I’m hoping it won’t backfire. Class makeup is just a funny thing, and you never know what you’ll get. If you teach or are a student, I’d love to hear what, to you, makes a memorable learning experience. I don’t particularly care if they remember me, but I do want them to remember talking about literature, about life – not about text messages and tweets.

UPDATE:

Oh, I should learn to be more positive. Hamlet went much better than expected this morning. We will continue this unit for the next several class periods. Yea!


Winter Study by Nevada Barr

A friend and I were talking about how we don’t quite trust anyone writing under the name “Nevada.” There is just something slightly off about that (sorry if that is your real name). I was also a bit put off by the southwest look and howling wolf on the front of the book. In fact, I was embarrassed to pull it out lest anyone see and judge. (I know, I’m weird.) Plus, the first 10 to 20 pages were not that gripping.

See? Wolf howling, purples and blues. I don't know, the cover bugs me.

The premise: Anna Pigeon, park ranger in the Rockies, is invited to Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior to join a wolf/moose study. She arrives in the middle of nowhere in several-degree-below-zero weather in new, uncomfortable gear around new and awkward people, a mix of scientists, an old guide and pilot, and government people bent on opening the Isle for tourism in winter. The story is highly character driven, and Barr does an excellent job making you wary of each of them – entirely necessary for the plot. Strange events occur on the Isle. Wolves are not behaving like wolves; there are prints of something wolf-like but much, much larger. In many ways, this book reminds me of The Terror by Dan Simmons. Something not quite human but not quite animal seems to be tracking the island’s inhabitants. The brutality of nature is ever present and chilling (no pun intended); however, as the book progresses, something even more sinister is at play. A wolf is found brutalized. One of the members of the team disappears, and Pigeon learns she can trust no one.

I was quite wary of this book when I first got it. I was turned off by the name, the cover (see comments re: southwest howling wolf above), so I headed on over to Shelfari to see if I could find out more. Barr certainly has a nice little following over there, and those that enjoy the Pigeon series really enjoyed this book. The technical aspect of the book is not distracting, although it does take quite a bit of explanation, but all in all, by the time I got midway through, I did not want to put it down. Thankfully, my students took a relatively long quiz today, so I read while they wrote.  I got in the car to drive home and immediately pulled it out of my bookbag, devouring the last 30-40 pages while sitting idly. That, to me, is always the sign of a good book.

I still need to go back to the Huston book discussed last week, and of course, I’ve got Mosley’s as well but am saving it, hoarding it away. I took the GRE literature practice test yesterday. It had questions regarding Old English, Middle English, literary theory, transcendentalism…you name it, it was on the test (although, of course, you can’t possibly name them because Old English, really?) It was quite defeating and simply made me realize how little I have actually read. I need to pick up the Norton anthologies and just – dive in. In the meantime, I hope you are reading something interesting. Suggestions are always welcome. 🙂


From Bad to Worse to Poetry

So this hasn’t been the greatest of days. No, no. Nothing happened. It was just one of those wake up on the wrong side of the bed kind of days. It only got worse. However, unlike the title may seem to infer, it was not an entire downward slope. I went to a poetry reading this evening by Alan Michael Parker. He read from his latest book, Elephants and Butterflies. Yes, that’s him below. Yep, right there. It’s a portrait his wife painted. I like it.

Now, I have to admit that I am extremely picky when it comes to poetry. As a teacher of literature, it is by far my most difficult subject because I lack enthusiasm. There’s just not a whole lot I like. I do like Billy Collins. And this guy, AMP, was just the right amount of clever, witty, and achingly sad to make me sit up and pay attention. I went because I lecture my students about not partaking in university events that are FOR THEM.  I came out thinking maybe I should take a look at his book when I’ve got some money lying around this old house. He also read from his novel in progress, and it was a mix between Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and another story I couldn’t quite place. Suffice it to say, it was a nice evening. Not enough to suddenly lift me to soaring heights, but enough to allow me to come home and write a little something.

So here I sit at the computer. I’ve got a stack of three mysteries:

I began The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs by Charlie Huston today. There is only one other book, The New York Trilogy, to which I have taken such an immediate dislike. Ugh. I don’t like it. I am not one to not finish books. I always finish books (ok, I didn’t finish that other book either). First, the language is awful. I’m not a prude in any sense of the word, and I can normally handle language. Hell, I read hardboiled detective novels. This, though, just doesn’t quite seem to fit.

I haven’t related to the characters at all, and the dialogue – oh, the dialogue! Huston apparently thinks he is Evelyn Waugh or Dashiell Hammett and so there is no need for him to identify his speakers. Not so. Huston, you just ain’t there. I need to know who’s talking. Plus, the way it is punctuated is really irritating. Here’s a sample:

–Ouch. That looks painful.

–And if that’s what it felt like to look at it, imagine how it feels to actually have it happen to you.

–Yeah, I’d imagine that sucks.

–So?

–Uh-huh?

–Someone called for maid service?

See? It’s very disconcerting. I’m not a punctuation Nazi or queen of dialogue, but STOP. IT. NOW. It’s not cute. It’s not funny. It’s not artistic. It’s just plain annoying. I like my dialogue to look like dialogue. When you haven’t developed the characters well, I want you to tell me who is speaking. It’s that simple. I will give it another try when I am not in an insanely bad mood, but I am not hopeful about this book. We shall see. I may have to delve back into the pile. For now, bed. Good night, and happy reading!




Whew!

Today has been a bit busy, to say the least. No reading has been done. I have scheduled library classes for four different classes, coordinated a meeting for the Academic Lecture Series my university is hosting (stay tuned – Sarah Vowell will be here April 6 at 7:30 p.m.), designed several baby shower invitations from scratch, and managed to make homemade hot sauce for a quick bite or two. All of this prior to teaching a 2 hour, 45 minute night class this evening. Thus, the title of the post. However, it will all be better when I get takeout for dinner and come home to this:

Yea for Travel + Leisure! I ordered it months ago from a neighborhood kid who was selling subscriptions for a school fundraiser. I was just thinking to myself yesterday that I thought the magazine was never coming. And I get home from class today, and it’s here, it’s really here! Yes, I’m a little excited because on top of loving food, film, and fiction, I absolutely loooove traveling. Of course, as an underpaid adjunct instructor, I cannot afford a big trip this year, but one can always dream, dear reader. Here’s to beachy thoughts, sun-filled pages, and luscious photos of exotic places.


“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (short story)

Teaching Composition II is one of my absolute dream jobs. It mixes literature with writing, but not only that – since it is not a specific literature course, I can span genre, time period, region, etc. I really enjoy it, and I try to ensure my students do as well. Every once in a while, you hit on something pure gold in the classroom, and today was one of those days.

If you haven’t read this story and aren’t really sure about the short story as genre, I would really recommend it. At the end of this post, I’ll recommend a couple other short story collections. “Cathedral” is a first-person narrative about a man whose wife was once a reader for a blind man, Robert. One of the most meaningful points in her life was at the end of her employ with him, when he asked to learn her face by putting his hands on it. The reader can tell that, for the wife, this was a transformative experience. The narrator (who remains nameless) even says she tried to write a poem about it, but as is often the case with him, he just doesn’t get it.

The blind man is coming for a visit, and the narrator is threatened and jealous. He isn’t sure what blindness is all about, which is more and more evident in his generalizations and poor attitude toward the man. He expects him to have a seeing eye dog and use a cane. He is disconcerted because the man does not wear glasses, AND he smokes and drinks. He never calls him by his name but refers to him, in his thoughts, as the blind man. He resents the man in his home; he and his wife do not communicate that well, and he makes no concerted effort to do so with Robert. However, by the end of this relatively quiet experience, our narrator has arguably had a transformative experience himself when he tries and fails to explain to Robert, the blind man, what a cathedral is.  This last scene is one of the most compelling, and I urge you to read it.

This story, for me, is beautiful on a number of levels. Personally, I always try to remain open to other individuals’ life experiences and backgrounds, even though I will never quite know where anyone, outside of myself, is “coming from.” The collision of perception and actual experience is an enormous theme here. The narrator anticipates Robert to behave a certain way, but Robert’s actions circumvent these preconceptions. Carver also has an excellent way of portraying his characters and imbuing the smallest gestures and comments with great meaning. Full of imagery and spare sentences, “Cathedral” is one of my favorite Carver stories, depicting the breakdown of language and explaining what real communication looks like.

I was so pleased my students “got it” and actually enjoyed the story. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the characters smoke pot in one scene, but hey – I’ll take what I can get.

Other Short Story collections:

John Cheever

Andre Dubus

Eudora Welty

Flannery O’Connor

Oscar Casares

Ernest Hemingway

Ann Packer

David Sedaris – any and all (although these are more personal narrative)


The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

Whew. This novel is like biting into the hottest pepper and sweating it out, drinking as much cold water as you can before hours later the heat wears off bit by bit. I picked this mystery up last night at about 8 p.m. intending to read about 100 pages before bed. Now, let me tell you first, that I should have known better. I am a notorious one-sitting reader. So once I began this marathon mystery, I was in deep trouble. The premise is based on a character, Jack McEvoy, a news reporter who, at the start of the book, finds out he has been laid off from the L.A. Times and has two weeks left if he will train his replacement, the younger, technologically-savvy Angela Cook. He begrudgingly agrees and is coming to terms with his new life when he gets a random phone call.

Wanda Sessums calls about a one-inch column McEvoy had written days before about a young gangbanger arrested for the brutal assault and murder of a stripper. The woman claims her son is innocent, but the cynical McEvoy doesn’t quite believe it. However, he sees a way to go out with a bang, writing a story about a 16-year-old murderer. However, there is more than meets the eye. Told from first person, McEvoy’s narrator is every bit as gritty as any hard-boiled detective I’ve come across. He quickly realizes, through Cook’s help, that there is something more sinister going on than a simple drug deal gone wrong, as the police believe.

The disconcerting part of the story and the part that had me breaking out in a cold sweat is the third-person narration of the “farmer,” Carver, a digital security specialist who the reader quickly finds to be disturbing, cold, and calculating. He is called “the farmer” because he is in charge of the digital “farm” or colocation center, collecting data and security information for a number of businesses. Quite honestly, the ease in which Carver hacks into government websites, bank accounts, and email accounts, was petrifying and made me want to quit the digital world entirely. Ha.

Combining murder, sadism, fetishes, digital tracking, and identity theft, Connelly had me racing to the finish line in order to be able to fall asleep. Of course, I had to watch That Touch of Mink, a lighthearted Cary Grant/Doris Day movie before finally drifting off. Personally, I like my detectives/protagonists to be dark and complex, which McEvoy certainly is. However, for obvious reasons, the torture, sexual assault, and murder of women can be a bit difficult for me to read and can keep me up at night.

The Cary Grant was a nice finish for such a night and really the only way I finally washed the hot pepper taste out of my mouth…


Hello World!

Well hello there. I’m sure no one will read this first post, but I’m writing anyway (or typing, as it were). After following several blogs for years and taking a stab at one very short-lived blog, I now have a working computer, Internet, and some free time. This combination will hopefully work quite well in terms of blogging. I hope to inspire others to pick up a book, watch a classic movie or two and eat good food. Welcome, and make yourself comfortable.