Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Will You Sign My Kindle?

A few days ago a humor writer named David Sedaris was giving a reading at the Strand bookstore in New York (a monster-sized store to which every bibliophile should one day make a pilgrimage. Their motto: "18 miles of books").

As is customary after a reading, Sedaris offered to sign books, and his devotees lined up. Then, according to an article in The New York Times one reader presented not a book for Sedaris to sign, but a Kindle. On it, Sedaris wrote this:

Now, as my regular readers know, I'm not one of those elite literati who believe e-books will eventually destroy our love of books and bring about the complete ignorance of humankind. (After all, we're doing just fine developing complete ignorance without the e-book, thank you very much).

But I do believe e-books will transform our reading habits. I do believe they will transform book publishing in ways we can't yet predict. And let's face it. Once Apple gets in the e-book game (which I'm assuming/hoping will happen any day even though I have absolutely no reliable information on this whatsoever), all the rules will change. An Apple e-book (or . . . uh . . . i-book?) will likely do to the book industry what the i-pod did to the music industry.

Remember what happened? At first, when it became obvious they'd no longer be able to sell mountains of CDs, music industry executives griped and whined and used words like "extinction." Then, they calmed down, took a look at the world around them, realized people still wanted to listen to music, and adapted.

I think we'll see the same thing happen in book publishing in the coming years. Right now, we're hearing a lot of book publishers predicting doom (along with David Sedaris, half-jokingly on the back of a Kindle).

I believe, however, that the book publishing world will adapt. People love good stories, and book publishers will not serve themselves by hemming and hawing over the emergence of the e-book. Rather, they need to calm down, realize that people are excited about e-books because people love to read, and adapt.

The e-book is not the end of literacy. It could, if the book publishing industry makes the right choices in the coming years, be the next great step in advancing it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Writer of the Day: Anthony Doerr

As it's Friday, I should be blogging about this month's featured book, The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, but things have happened that have convinced me to change my plans for today's post.

Mainly, I had dinner on Wednesday with Anthony Doerr, Idaho's Writer-in-Residence. Doerr is not only a brilliant writer; he's also one of the most humble literary minds I've ever encountered.

Doerr: The Writer

Anthony Doerr is the author of three books, a memoir (Four Seasons in Rome), a collection of short stories (The Shell Collector), and a novel (About Grace).

All three have received wide critical acclaim. The Shell Collector was named a "Notable Book of 2002" in The New York Times. The Book-of-the-Month Club called About Grace one of the "Five Best Novels of 2004." Doerr has also earned a first prize in Barnes & Noble's "Discover Prize for Fiction." He's won an NEA fellowship, and he's a recipient of the Rome Prize (which comes with a year-long stay in a writing studio in Rome -- not bad).

Doerr: The Class Act

Doerr is also in incredibly kind and humble man.

When I first met him, I told him that I'd read a recent article he published in Smithsonian magazine, and he seemed genuinely moved. He thanked me, sincerely, for taking the time to read his work and answered, with apparent pleasure, all of my pestering questions about his writing.

He spent two days at the college where I teach, and even though we'd organized half-a-dozen events around his coming (in fact, we worked him pretty hard while he was here), he never grew frustrated in having to answer the same student questions again and again (all variations of "How can I become a famous writer?"), and what's more, he never lost a sliver of his sincerity.

What You Should Read

So, if you're interested in seeing some of Doerr's writing, where should you start?

Here are two possibilities:

My Idaho readers might be especially interested in checking out Doerr's recent piece in the Smithsonian. In it, Doerr writes a beautiful explanation of why he chooses to live in Idaho.

And since Father's Day is roughly a week away, another great place to start reading Doerr might be in a book that came out last month called The Book of Dads: Essays on the Joys, Perils, and Humiliations of Fatherhood. Doerr, who has twin boys, contributes one essay and other contributing authors include great writers like Charles Baxter, Rick Bass, and Richard Bausch.

(Hey, honey, am I dropping a big enough hint here?)

That's all for today. I'll pick up the discussion of The Yiddish Policemen's Union next Friday.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Attention Salinger Fans

If I don't turn in mid-term grades in the next 48 hours, I've been assured that terrible, unimaginable things will happen to me. Things like this:

Consequently, I've no time to write a proper post today, but if you're a J.D. Salinger fan, you should most definitely read this article about the secret books Salinger’s allegedly been writing for the last 45 years.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: First Impressions

My comments this week on The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon will be fairly brief as I've read only 53 pages. But please don't take my scant reading as a reflection on the book's quality. It's not. The book is, so far, a fast, enjoyable read.

Rather, my scant reading is a testament to how much busier English professors are when they have mid-term papers to grade. Sadly, my personal reading has been supplanted this week by a mountain of student essays.

Having said all that, here's what strikes me in the first 53 pages of The Yiddish Policemen's Union:
  • Meyer Landsman. This is the book's main character, and I like him. He's a homicide detective, and on the surface he's got a real Mickey Spillane thing going on. He fits all the hard-boiled detective stereotypes. He's tough talking, doesn't sleep, drinks too much, and has a failed marriage. In spite of all of this, though, he's still interesting. Chabon gives him just enough insecurities to make me like him. For example, he's literally afraid of the dark, and he even avoids investigating a dark, cramped crime scene because of this phobia. I've long believed that its characters weaknesses that make them interesting and not their strengths. Meyer Landsman is yet more proof of this.
  • The Alternate History. This book is set in Alaska in a fictional Jewish city that was established in the aftermath of WWII. The state of Israel doesn't exist, and Alaska is no longer a safe haven for Jews as they're being systematically deported. Usually, when I read books with alternate histories, I roll my eyes, but for some reason, I'm tolerating and even enjoying the alternate history in this book. I'm not sure why I like it, but I'll try to answer that question as I read.

That's all I've got time for now, as I still have a mountain of essays on my desk. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Read This Book: The Road

A few days ago, one of my students asked me what book he should definitely read before he dies, and can you guess which book came to mind first?

Hamlet by William Shakespeare?


The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway?


The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger?

Not even close.

Admittedly, I found myself a little suprised when without pausing to reflect, I blurted out, "Before you die, read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. When you finish it, read it again. Read it every few years. Read it. Read it. Read it. Better yet, memorize it." (I knew I loved this book, but I had no idea I was so fanatical about it.)

Now, some of you may be thinking, "What's The Road?" or "Cormac McWho?"

But trust me. The Road is, without a doubt, Cormac McCarthy's finest novel (and that's saying something). It's wonderfully minimalistic and painful, at times, in all the right ways. It offers a promise of beauty in a world full of horror and darkness, and it's absolutely gut-wrenching if you have children of your own.

Most of all, it's beautiful, and it's one of the few contemporary books that I'm 100% sure we'll still be reading centuries from now. This book's too important to let slide away into the draw of time. Humanity needs this story.

So read it.

And, incidentally, you should definitely read it before October 16th, 2009 because that's when the movie version starring Viggo Mortensen comes out. Who knows what Hollywood will do to this book? So you should read it before this story gets colored by the American cinematic machine.

Honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about the upcoming movie, but I do know that great stories exist to be told and told and told again. If the story is told well, then, I guess I should be pleased.

If you're interested, here's the movie trailer. Check it out.

Monday, June 1, 2009

June's Featured Book: The Yiddish Policeman's Union

I've long believed that one of the most delightful questions in the English language is this:

"What should I read next?"

What I love about this question is its vast openness. A graduate school professor once explained it to me this way:

Giving all of your attention to one good book is like sitting on a bench at a crowded street corner and gazing at a beautiful woman who walks by. For a few seconds, you study her every move. Maybe you're struck by the unusual shape of her eyes or the delicate line of her cheekbones, and so for a brief moment, even though the world is big and crowded, only those eyes or cheekbones exist and you sit there with no desire in the world but to study what it is that makes this woman beautiful. And then, before you're quite ready, she's obscured by the crowd and disappears.

But real beauty is in what happens next. Because at this point, you have a choice. At this point, with the beautiful eyes and cheekbones gone, you can choose to dwell on her, to re-live in your mind the moments of her appearance and disappearance again and again, or you can blink your eyes a few times, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and look once more into the crowd.

Choosing a new book is like this beautiful moment. It's choosing to look into the crowd.

Now, I'm fully aware that this analogy is more than a little voyeuristic and creepy, but I do understand my former professor's point. He was saying (I hope) that while beauty is often fleeting and temporary, our quest for it shouldn't be. Our quest for beauty should be ongoing and permanent. When one beautiful thing passes from us, we should blink, sigh, and look forward, because beauty exists neither in the past nor in the future, but in the eternal present.

So the question, "What should I read next?" is a good question. It's a mark of those who have chosen to permanently seek beauty. It's a question that's full of hope and anticipation. It's an optimistic question. It believes that beauty really exists and implies that we can find it if we will only seek.

And I like that.

So here's what I'll read next:

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon. I'll forego telling you much about it since I've written about Chabon on this site before, but before you choose to read along with me, you should know this is a work of science fiction. Don't, however, let that put you off. I've read some of Chabon's other work, and I trust him entirely. Beyond that, The Yiddish Policemen's Union has won a slew of prestigious awards.

You can read a review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union here, and if you'd like to get a copy and read along with me, I'll start posting about this book on Friday.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Just a Good Poem

Here's today's dilema:

I talked with my students this morning about how today's readers -- especially internet readers -- don't really read all that slowly or carefully. Instead, they skim and skip around. They click here and there, and they get easily distracted. They tend to have short attention spans. So, here's the dilema:

QUESTION: On this blog would it be better for me to write literary analysis which you'd likely skim or skip altogether or would it be better for me to link you to one good short poem you'd be more likely to read?

ANSWER: I think I'd rather have you read one good poem than anything I have to say.

And it just so happens that I have a new favorite poem. I love it so much I even copied it and hung it on my office door (which is a university professors ultimate tribute).

So today, feel free to skip and skim over anything I have to say (which you probably already have) -- but please read this carefully.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Featured Book Friday: A Poem by David Wagoner

Last night, for the first time this spring, the pieces finally all fell into place. The hurricane winds in Rexburg stopped. The cold disappeared. My children went strait to bed, and the sun powered out enough of a dusky, orange glow that I could read outside.

I grabbed a book, headed for the back porch, and plunked down in a lawn chair. After a few minutes, the two neighborhood teenagers on motorcycles who, for hours, had been terrorizing the late afternoon stillness called it a day. Then, a previously distracted parent realized it was his child screaming bloody murder in the backyard and tended to her. The workmen down the street finished re-shingling a roof and loaded up their air compressors, nail guns, and radio.

All at once, engines rested. Doors closed. The sun began to set. And the day-people vanished.

Then, I read this poem ten times over, stopping again and again to think, to listen, and to breathe it in.

Thank heavens for moments of stillness.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Slate and A Poem to Break Your Heart

I'm a big fan of Slate.

If you've never heard of it, Slate is an online magazine that manages to blend pop culture, politics, art, and science in quirky, random, and sometimes completely bizarre (but always fascinating) ways.

For example, headlines you can find at Slate today include "Politicians make lousy commencement speakers. Hire a celebrity instead", "How Obama is like Spock", and "What can reality TV teach us about clinical drug trials?"

Fun stuff.

Slate also has a pretty great section on the arts, and from time to time, they'll publish a book review, short story, or poem.

Today, they published a beautiful, heartbreaking poem, "Last Days" by Elise Partridge. In addition to the text of the poem, Slate also includes a recording of Elise Partridge reading it aloud. I've always been interested in how authors read their own work, so this is a nice inclusion (though I find most poets, including Partridge, to be pretty bad readers -- slow and boring and theatrically-cerebral, and they tend to take themselves and their work very seriously).

Anyway, check out the poem, which is good; and maybe ignore the reading, which is not.

I warn you, however, that the poem is absolutely tragic. Prepare to be broken.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Featured Book Friday: Two Good Poems

I've been a lousy blogger this week. I've been busy with work and home tasks, and I haven't, sadly, read as much of Good Poems as I'd like (though this "Featured Book Friday" post is showing up a few hours early, so that should count for something).

When I have read though, I've been glad I did. Good Poems is, I think, a true literary gem. Sure, there are probably much better collections of poetry in the world, and there are certainly smarter, more complex, more layered poems out there than the ones that appear in this book. In fact, if Good Poems has a flaw, it's that a lot of the poems in it are dangerously simple. Some of the poems are even downright coherent (gasp!).

But there's immense value in this simplicity. Too often, English professors and academics like me tend to value complexity and depth and even difficulty more than we value clarity and beauty. This is one reason, I think, I hear so many people complain about poetry and literature and English classes from their past.

You'd probably be surprised, incidentally, just how comfortable people are, after they find out I'm an English professor, throwing all of their literary angst in my direction -- "I hate poetry!", "You're not one of those professors who makes people agree with your interpretation, are you?", "You're an English professor? I'll be careful what I say around you" (conversation ends) .

Maybe there'd be less angst over literature in the world today if we taught more poems like the ones Garrison Keillor puts in this collection. Take this poem, for example, by Wendy Cope. It's so simple and easy to understand that I wouldn't hesitate teaching it to a class of children. It's got a playful, sing-songy meter and easy-to-listen-to, end-stopped rhymes. And yet, it's not mundane. It's important and captures the beauty that comes from simple pleasures.

Or consider this poem by Sheenagh Pugh. It's just a simple expression of well-wishing for the reader. People get this poetry. And yet, I could read this poem ten times, back-to-back, without getting bored. I could sit down to memorize it without growing tired of it.

These are the poems I most admire -- poems that are simple, but still beautiful; accessible, but still meaningful. Good Poems contains a host of these, and stumbling on one is like finding a twenty-dollar bill you'd forgotten about in your pants pocket.

"Oh," you think when you find it. "There's that wonderful little thing. I knew it had to be somewhere."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Featured Book Friday: Poems Are Short!

This month, as I'm reading Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor, I'm discovering yet another benefit of reading poetry, an obvious benefit that presumably everyone on earth already knows and I'm only just figuring out. It's this:

Poetry is short, and you can read a good poem in no time at all.

This is fortunate because I've had a remarkably busy week. My wife's birthday is this week. My anniversary is this week. Mothers' Day is this week. I'm in charge of a major community project this week. I've had meeting after meeting. I've been grading papers.

And yet, I've read a lot of poetry this week, but never in long, sustained stretches. Instead, I've read in snippets. I read a few poems in the 10-minute break between my classes. I read a bunch of poems while I was cycling at the gym. I read a poem while walking to class. I read a poem while waiting in line at the bank. I'm even contemplating reading poetry later today while I mow the lawn. I could just prop the book up of the lawnmower's handle and go at it. I'll bet it would work, and my neighbors already know I'm weird, so what would I lose?

In two minutes of down time -- in the time it takes to check your email or drop a bill in the mailbox or make yourself a sandwich -- you can read a good poem.

So, read this. It's one of the poems included in Good Poems. It'll take you about a minute to read, and it'll show you something beautiful.

And to those who say they're too busy to read, go get a copy of Good Poems and try carrying it around with you. If you do, you'll find a few minutes here and there to read -- maybe in the grocery store or at the dentist -- and before you know it, you'll have read dozens, maybe even hundreds, of beautiful poems.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Three Western Poets

There's something wonderful about poets from the American west.

I know this is a gross generalization, but it seems to me that poets from the west aren't trying as hard to impress anybody. They tend to shun obscure, intentionally difficult poetry in favor of clean, simple language.

Poets from the west seem to end up writing poems that are clear and definite and hard and rugged and gritty.

And I like it.

So today I'd like to tell you about three cool western poets and link you to some of their poetry. Here they are:

1. William Kloefkorn

Kloefkorn, who's from Nebraska, has written twelve books of poetry. He's said, "Poems should not be simplistic, nor should they be sermons. Poetry is for those who want to use their own minds to find answers. It can challenge without being elitist or obscure."

Kloefkorn's also a darn nice guy. I once went to a poetry reading he gave and loved his work. I approached him after the reading and asked where I could buy the book he'd been reading from. "You want to buy one of these books?" he said. "Why would you buy one when there's one right here?" Then he signed the book he'd been reading from and gave it to me. He's a class act.

You can read one of his shorter poems about a belated confession here.

2. Lucas Howell

Howell lives in Wyoming and studied creative writing in Idaho. He's a younger writer, and I'd never heard of him until yesterday when I encountered this poem in Slate. It's fantastic, and if this one poem ends up being the only thing Howell ever writes, I think he should count himself a success.

I've never understood men who relive their glory days through adult softball leagues, but Howell's poem brings these men and the conflict between their lives and wishes into clear, easy focus. He shows these men as likable, longing-filled creatures, and I like that.

I'll look for more Lucas Howell in the future.

3. David Lee

Lee was Utah's first poet laureate, and his poetry grows out of his eclectic background. Check out these resume lines:
  • He's raised pigs.
  • He's been a boxer.
  • He's a war veteren.
  • He's been a semiprofessional baseball player.
  • He's worked in a cotton mill.
  • He has a PhD in poetry.
The man's done an awful lot, and you can read one of his poems here.

I hope you enjoyed today's poetry. We start our discussion of Good Poems by Garrison Keillor on Friday, so get your copy soon.

Monday, May 4, 2009

New British Poet Laureate: Carol Ann Duffy

Did you know that the British have been appointing poet laureates for 341 years?

And did you know that poet laureates of Britian have included some top-notch classic poets, like John Dryden, Alfred Tennyson, and William Wordsworth?

And did you know that in 341 years, the poet laureate of Britian has never -- not once -- been a woman?

Until now.

On Friday, for the first time in history, a woman received the appointment to become the British poet laureate.

Her name is Carol Ann Duffy, and The New York Times has a nice write up about her life and poetry here.

If you'd like to learn more about her, you can read two of her poems here.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Book Thief: Final Review

SPOILER ALERT: If you've not yet finished The Book Thief and you're one of those people who hates it when people give away the ends of books, skip this review.

Human beings are a frightening and incomprehensible bunch.

This, at least, is Death's final assessment of humanity in Markus Zusack's The Book Thief. The Grim Reaper, having witnessed both the worst examples of hateful human behavior (in Hitler and Nazi Germany) and also the best that humanity has to offer (in the Hubermanns' sacrifices for Max), ends his story with the words, "I am haunted by humans."

This haunting (which is a wonderful reversal -- Death afraid of humans instead of the other way around) seems to stem from Death's recognizing the inconsistent and indefinable nature of humanity.

How can it be, Death implies in his tale, that a people so capable of nobility and kindness and sacrifice can also be so capable of absolute hatred and evil?

For example, consider this description Death gives us of Jews being murdered in gas chambers at Auschwitz:

"When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity's certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower" (349).

And then, on the next page, Death makes an important observation, directed at his readers:

"They were Jews, and they were you" (350).

They were human, Death says, and yet, other humans did this to them. Other humans caused this holocaust and let these murders happen.

All of this gives special meaning to one of Death's earlier statements:

"You want to know what I look like? I'll help you out. Find yourself a mirror" (307).

Death knows that at times he is simply an agent of humans, and the face of Death really is the face of mankind.

And yet, Death also knows that humans are so definitely capable of kindness.

For example, when Death comes to collect the soul of an Allied pilot whose plane has crashed, he witnesses this:

"[Rudy] reached into his toolbox again and searched through some picture frames to pull out a small, stuffed yellow toy."

"Carefully, he climbed to the dying man."

"He placed the smiling teddy bear cautiously onto the pilot's shoulder. The tip of its ear touched his throat."

"The dying man breathed it in. He spoke. In English, he said, 'Thank you.'"

And while Rudy's kindness should seem to soften Death's attitude towards humanity, it only makes humans even more incomprehensible. Death is haunted by humans because they are so immensely unpredictable. Humans are both noble and despicable, both giving and hateful, both great and selfish. What makes us either good or evil is a mystery, and nothing rings so hauntingly as an incomplete answer to the mystery of human nature. Are we good? Evil? Cruel? Kind? Pathetic? Divine? Not even Death knows.

But that's only half the brilliance of The Book Thief. The rest is this:

Death's final words -- "I am haunted by humans" -- are more than just a declaration. They're also an invitation. Because I've read Death's story, I've also seen the mystery of human nature. I've also seen both the god-like and the evil sides of humanity, and so in Death's final words, he invites me to recognize the mystery and be haunted with him.

And I am.

That's why The Book Thief is spectacular.

The Book Thief WWADY Rating = 9/10

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

May's Featured Book: Good Poems

Since April is National Poetry Month, I've been spending more time over the past few weeks reading poetry than I normally do. This has been good for me for a lot of reasons. Here are two of them:

1. I've slowed down.

What is it about poetry that's just so dang relaxing? Now, I know that some of you who were forced to analyze poetry in college or high school will question just how relaxing poetry really is, but hear me out.

I felt so relaxed reading poetry this month because I was reading it of my own choice. I wasn't ever going to take a quiz on what I read, and I certainly wasn't ever going to write an essay and submit it for a grade. I wasn't even going to teach any of the poetry I was reading in my college classes. I was just reading poetry for fun.

This means I didn't have to feel any pressure while I read. If a poem was obscure and difficult, so what? I didn't have to get it. I didn't even have to finish it (and I'll admit, I read more than a few first halves of poems this month). Sometimes I read poems this month that didn't do anything for me other than show me one clever phrase or one interesting image. But so what? Isn't that enough?

Kicking back and reading poetry with a total disregard for whether I was "getting it right" proved liberating, and let me tell you, it's the most restful thing I've done in ages.

2. I've been paying more attention to words.

This month, I started reading billboards again. I started reading junk mail. I even started reading the printing at the tops and bottoms of receipts. I did this not because I cared any more about advertising or junk mail or receipts than I used to, but because I wanted to see if there were any interesting phrases or images in the words I'd been ignoring.

And it turns our, there are. I even found the perfect title for a short story I've been working on in a letter from a lawn care company. Reading poetry this month awakened me once again to a world of everyday words.

So, I'd like the WWADY featured book for May to be a book of poetry. I'd like you to have the same experiences I've had this month with words and poetry and peace.

For the month of May, then, I'd like to feature a book titled Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor. Admittedly, I'm kind of cheating on this one, as not all of the poets in the collection are still alive (e.g., William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and others), but I'd say that roughly 85% of the collection is made up of contemporary poetry.

And to those who shiver at the thought of reading poetry, let me say this: Good Poems is easy to read. The poems are meant to be accessible and decipherable (even the one from Shakespeare is pretty manageable). Good Poems is also organized by topic, and a few topics include "Music," "Lovers," "Day's Work," "Sons and Daughters," "Failure," and my personal favorite, "Complaint."

If it's been a while since you've really given poetry any attention, I'd ask that you get a book and read along with me. You'll be glad you did.
I'll make my first post on Good Poems on May 8th, so get your copy soon.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Too Sick To Blog

I'd hoped to write my final review of The Book Thief today, but (and this will sound incredibly wimpy) I'm just too sick. My body is aching. My stomach is churning. My head is pounding. I haven't slept in two days. I can barely keep my eyes open. So, as soon as I can, I'm going home to bed.

It's just not a day for critical thinking. (See? Pretty wimpy, huh? And also a bit whiny.)

So, I'll post my final review of The Book Thief next friday, and for now, I'll leave you with this link to today's Writer's Almanac, which showcases a poem called "Autopsy in the Form of an Elegy" by John Stone. It's simple, sweet, tragic, and wonderful.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Winners Announced

Today the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes were announced at Columbia University. I think most readers have come to expect a lot from the Pulitzers as they have a pretty good track record.

Over the years, they've given awards to some of the best writers under the sun including Alice Walker, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Richard Ford, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, and the list goes on.

This year, the winning book in fiction is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (which was named, a few months ago, a National Books Critics Circle Award finalist). Olive Kitteridge tells the story of a seventh-grade math teacher, and in addition the these awards, it's received strong reviews like this one.

The poetry winner for this year is The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin. If you're interested in poetry (and April is National Poetry Month), you can read about Merwin here. Even better, you can check out one of his poems, "Yesterday," here. (Warning: It's terribly sad).

If you'd like to see a complete list of this year's winners, click here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Book Thief: Young Adult Literature?

For the past few years, I've subscribed to The ALAN Review, a journal published by The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents. As their name suggests, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents isn't really an organization for adolescents. After all, what thirteen-year-old would want to tell their friends they belong to an "assembly"? To do so would only conjure images of stodgy old British folks sitting around in leather chairs wearing black robes and pre-colonial wigs.

"No," our nation's teenagers would rightly say, "but thank you."

What's more, The ALAN Review includes articles with titles like these:
  • "From Basketball to Barney: Teen Fatherhood, Didacticism, and the Literary in Young Adult Fiction"
  • "Critiques and Controversies of Street Literature: A Formidable Literary Genre"
  • "Adding a Disability Perspective When Reading Adolescent Literature: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"

As you certainly already know, vocabulary words like "genre" and "didacticism" and "critique" scream to any adolescent, "STOP READING ME NOW AND GO TEXT SOMEBODY."

But, despite its academic snobbishness (ahem), The ALAN Review does provide a valuable service to parents and teachers. Other articles have titles like, "Reaching Reluctant Readers" and "Books for Boys." Overall, I've found The ALAN Review to be a fabulous resource in helping me find books for my students and children and, mostly, myself.

The one thing, however, I've never found in The ALAN Review (or anywhere else for that matter) is a decent definition of young adult literature, which brings me to the question The Book Thief (a supposedly young adult book) has me pondering today. Here it is:

Is The Book Thief really "young adult literature" and what does that term even mean anyway?

I've been exploring this question for a long time now, and through my study of young adult literature and through various conversations I've had with a good friend who's a professor of young adult literature, I've determined that there are two dominant and largely unstated definitions of young adult literature in the literary world today. Neither of them, however, seems to be very good. In fact, they both seem to be pretty belittling to young people.


The first definition I see of young adult literature looks something like this:

"Any literature we adults would like to read but don't necessarily want associated with us because, after all, grown-ups are grown-ups and a lot of this literature is just too short, too simple, or too trashy."

I think this definition is why books like Twilight end up getting the young adult label slapped on them despite the fact that their readership is made up primarily of adult women. A lot of adults are uncomfortable reading cheap, sloppily-written, lit-candy. But if they can call their lit-candy "young adult," they never really have to acknowledge that the book is part of their own world. They can see the book as a part of some other universe, one they explore, but never inhabit.

Practically speaking, the young adult label lets insecure adults say things like, "I'm only reading this to see if it would be appropriate for little Jennifer" or "I'm reading this to stay in touch with young people." To these folks, I'd say this:

Please. We see through you. So do book publishers, but they're quite happy slapping a young adult label on something if it'll make you more comfortable buying it.

TANGENT: I know by calling Twilight "cheap, sloppily-written lit-candy" I've invited the scorn of the masses. Bring it on. I'm ready for it, and I can take it.

The result of this definition is that a lot of the shorter or easier or trashier literature on the market ends up being sold as young adult literature, not because young adults enjoy short, easy trash any more than adults, but because adults (the people who buy books) want to read short, easy trash without having to claim it.

I should clarify here that I don't believe by any stretch that The Book Thief is trashy. It is, however, written in simple, accessible prose. It has pictures. It's full of breaks and white space. So, when deciding whether this book was an adult book or a young adult book, what impact might these details have had?


The second definition I see of young adult literature looks something like this:

"Literature in which a typically adolescent main character experiences a coming of age."

This definition seems flawed to me for two reasons. First, it's far too broad. Arguably, every story is a coming of age story. Characters grow and evolve. Without this growth, literature becomes stagnant, and stagnant stories are typically bad stories.

Second, because this definition is so broad, it also ignores content. The assumption that books about young adults are for young adults is silly.

After all, Romeo and Juliet is a story about asolescents, but I'd argue that it's not even remotely for adolescents. Romeo and Juliet isn't even a love story (sorry, Taylor Swift). Romeo and Juliet is a story about bad parenting, and Shakespeare has far more to teach parents in Romeo and Juliet, I'd argue, than he has to teach adolescents. Yet, we thrust Romeo and Juliet onto young people and tell them it's a love story simply because the main characters are young.

Which all brings me back to my original questions:

Why is The Book Thief being called a young adult novel? What is young adult literature? When is a book more appropriate for young people, and when is it more appropriate for adults?

Your thoughts?

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Book Thief: Opening Questions

In teaching college, I've learned that sometimes the best way to begin a book discussion is simply by throwing out a few genuine questions and seeing what comes of them. So, to begin our discussion of The Book Thief, that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Here are a couple of questions that have been banging around in my head as I've been reading this book. If you have any answers, please feel free to share. Even better, I'd love to see what questions about this book you have roaming around in your heads, so feel free to drop those in the comments.
Here goes:

QUESTION 1: Why would Zusak choose to make Death the narrator of this story? The most interesting narrators are, I think, narrators that evolve and change simply through telling their tales (think Nick from The Great Gatsby or Ishmael from Moby Dick).

For these storytellers, the very act of storytelling transforms them in some important way. It gives them heightened morality or answers to their own personal problems, so is it possible that Death could evolve through his telling of Leisel's story? Death is supposed to be constant and unchanging, and yet in this book, Death seems terribly sad (and bored). He longs for something. Perhaps this is coldhearted of me, but so far, I'm more interested in what's going to happen to Death and how he's going to change than I am interested in Leisel. Why make Death a storyteller? What is that achieving?

QUESTION 2: What am I supposed to make of the strange interludes? You know, these things:

* * * A QUESTION * * *
What's up with these things
in the middle of the story?

I'm not sure I like these things. True, they make the book easy to read. ("Hey, I cruised through that page in no time!) But they're kind of getting in the way. Each time I encounter one, I'm reminded that I'm reading a book. For just a moment, I see the page instead of the story (that probably makes no sense), and when I'm into a story, I don't like to be distracted. I'm not sure what to make of them yet.

QUESTION 3: Why is Death so interested in colors? I've always figured Death to be a very black and white kind of thing. Again, I'm more interested in Death so far than Leisel, and his fascination with colors intrigues me. What should I do with that? Do specific colors mean specific things?

Well, there they are - a few of the questions I've been working through so far. No answers yet. Just questions, but I think that's a good place to start.

So, as you're reading The Book Thief, what questions are you thinking about?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Guest Book Review: I Have Lived a Thousand Years

Today, I'm posting a book review written by a bright, hard working BYU-Idaho student named Spencer Holm. The book he reviews is I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson. It's a work of non-fiction, a harrowing account of a holocaust survivor, which seems fitting given that we're currently reading The Book Thief.

Thanks, Spencer, for this well-written review:

"I Have Lived a Thousand Years is not the diary of a victim of the holocaust published posthumously. It is not historical fiction either. I Have Lived a Thousand Years is the first-hand account of the horrors of the holocaust, told by someone who survived to know the injustice of what she experienced. Livia Bitton-Jackson, born Elli L. Freidmann, was thirteen when she, her mother, and her brother were taken to a concentration camp in Auschwitz, Germany. She is one of the few who survived their sentence there. In 1945, her family was released and eventually came to the United States. I Have Lived a Thousand Years is a descriptive memoir of Jackson’s harrowing experience.

"The book begins with Jackson describing her happy childhood, setting the reader up for the horrors to come. Jackson then describes the measured invasion of Hungary and how she and her family are systematically stripped of their pride and their possessions. The following chapters describe Elli and her family’s deportation to various concentration camps, she and her mother’s separation from her brother, and their arrival in Auschwitz. The bulk of the book is spent describing the horrors that she faced in these camps and she and her mother’s desperate struggle to stay together and to stay alive.

"Jackson’s thorough descriptions give the reader a personal view of these camps. She depicts the detestable food and living conditions, the harsh guards, and the rigorous labor that were forced upon her and her mother. Several times she and her mother are faced with death and, through sheer determination, miraculously survive. When she and her mother are finally liberated, Jackson tells of a German civilian who believes she is much older than fourteen:

'How old do you think I am?' She looks at me uncertainly.
'Sixty? Sixty-two?'
'Sixty? I am fourteen. Fourteen years old.'

"Elli’s has seemingly 'lived a thousand years' in her year of living in concentration camps. This is a sobering reminder of the inhuman treatment of the victims of the holocaust. Yet Elli is a survivor and this is what sets this book apart.

"Elli’s hopeful journey to America gives the reader a sense of optimism for the fate of the human spirit. Her ensuing education and normal family life (not described in the book) show that there is life after experiencing some of the most unimaginable physical and mental anguish ever inflicted on mankind. For anyone looking for a book that will lift and inspire, this book provides that and much more. Jackson delivers her story in a comprehensive, direct fashion, leaving readers with a sense of the triumph of human perseverance."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Writer of the Day: Michael Chabon

Last week I took a group of students to the National Undergraduate Literature Conference in Ogden, Utah. This conference, held at Weber State University annually, gives students the chance to read their own works of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and literary analysis to a large audience, and it lets them hear from and meet successful authors.

This year's keynote author was the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bon). I've been a fan of Chabon's since I read his book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay years ago.

I like Chabon for two reasons:

First, I like Chabon because he's hilarious. He has a dry, occasionally sarcastic wit, and he takes ordinary, mundane objects and uses them to point out the absurdity of life (which he did in his speech by observing that any Lego creation these days comes with an oppressive set of instructions that demands to be followed exactly. These instructions make putting together a Lego toy a non-creative, painful process that, when completed, renders the possibility of playing with a Lego creation and potentially dismantling it by accident unthinkable).

Second, and more importantly, I like Chabon because he's trying to reclaim literature for the common reader. He's doing so by arguing for the value of entertaining, plot-filled books. (Gasp!)He's even said, "I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period."

Heavily influenced by comic books and popular culture (his keynote address included extended references not just to Legos, but also to Doctor Who, the anatomical impossibility of comic book women, and The Fantastic Four) Chabon's writing is easily accessible.

Also, unlike other successful writers who tend to pooh-pooh genre fiction, Chabon vehemently defends it. He even won a Hugo award and a Nebula award (science fiction prizes) for his book The Yiddish Policemen's Union. He criticizes today's literary fiction as "plotless" and attacks what he calls the "contemporary, quotidian . . . moment-of-truth revelatory story."

Chabon's on a mission, trying to "annihilate" the academic bias against genre fiction by blending the best elements of literary fiction (attention to language and character) with the best elements of genre fiction (entertaining plots).

If you struggle with overly literary books and had a tough time plowing through Unaccustomed Earth, maybe you should check out Chabon. He's blending two worlds. He's literary and artistic, but he's also a firm believer in entertaining plots.

Learn more about his books here.

NOTE: We start discussing The Book Thief in four days, so get your copy soon.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A "Poem-A-Day" from the Academy of American Poets

April is right around the corner, and that can only mean one thing:

National. Poetry. Month.

Yep, that's right. We actually have a month in this country dedicated entirely to poetry, which is yet another testament to the awesomeness of this great nation. (America! Yesssss!)

National Poetry Month was started back in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, and this year their promotional poster is pretty sweet. The question in it, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" is from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, an obscure and challenging poem which I did NOT link to because I do NOT recommend reading it if you're hoping to enjoy poetry anytime soon.

Even so, it's a great quote for a poster, and what the Academy of American Poets is trying to accomplish with National Poetry Month is pretty cool. Here's what their website says about it:

"National Poetry Month is a month-long, national celebration of poetry established by the Academy of American Poets. The concept is to widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern. We hope to increase the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture while acknowledging and celebrating poetry’s ability to sustain itself in the many places where it is practiced and appreciated."

So right about now the questions you're probably asking yourself are these: "How, oh how, can I celebrate National Poetry Month, and what mere human event would be worthy of such a lofty occasion?"

The answer, of course, is that you should celebrate National Poetry Month by signing up for an email newsletter. (Seems kind of obvious now that I've mentioned it, right?)

If you go here and enter your email address, the Academy of American Poets will deliver a poem to your inbox everyday through the month of April. What's even better is that all the poems they send you will be from books coming out this spring.

Finally, to kick off National Poetry Month, here's a short quiz for those who'd like to expand their knowledge of contemporary poets.
  • Who's the current Poet Laureate of the United States?
  • Which poet most recently won the National Book Award?
  • Who were the last two poets to win Pulitzer Prizes?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth: Final Review

Judging by the comments (or lack of comments, rather) that I've seen so far on Unaccustomed Earth, I'm afraid I have to conclude one of two things:

Either 1) no one else has found the time to read Unaccustomed Earth with me, or 2) no one is reading this blog.

To preserve my vanity (a precious and fragile thing), I'm choosing to believe number 1. So I've decided to write this final review of Unaccustomed Earth under the assumption that you haven't read it and that you still could. This means I'll leave out details that could potentially spoil the book for you. This also means I'll use this space to hopefully convince you to dig up a copy of this book and read it.

Because it's brilliant. It's magnificent. It's literary manna from heaven.

Here are three reasons you should read Unaccustomed Earth.
  1. Lahiri is remarkably sensitive to the delicate nature of family relationships. Fathers, daughters, sons, mothers, spouses. You name the familial role, and chances are Jhumpa Lahiri examines how that role is delicate and oppressive and beautiful and important. Here's an example, one favorite passage in which a man, Amit, contemplates what he calls the "disappearance" of his marriage: "Wasn't it terrible that after all the work one put into finding a person to spend one's life with, after making a family with that person . . . that solitude was what one relished most" (113). This strikes me as a poignant observation - that solitude emerges as important only after we've committed our lives to others. And the book is full of just such observations.
  2. Lahiri is remarkably sensitive to the delicate nature of cultural assimilation. In Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri began exploring the implications of globalization and cultural clashes, and she continues that examination in Unaccustomed Earth. Those who've never experienced life in a foreign world should read Lahiri to gain a grasp of what these cultural clashes can do to individuals, and those who have experienced a foreign world should read Lahiri simply to see the cultural tensions they've experienced captured so powerfully.
  3. Finally, Lahiri accomplishes all of this through quiet, almost whispered prose. I've long believed that our modern obsession with constant noise is damaging today's writing. Too few emerging writers know how to slow down and really turn an idea over in their hands. Lahiri, on the other hand, writes stories that are meant to be digested in bits and pieces, slowly. Again and again as I read this book, I found myself encountering a sentence that made me stop, close the book with my finger still in it, and think. That's a rare thing, and it's a good thing.

So that's it for Unaccustomed Earth. If you'd like to read along with me in April, the book is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I'll post my first thoughts on it (and hopefully get some of yours) on April 10th.

Unaccustomed Earth WWADY Rating = 9/10

Monday, March 23, 2009

Announcing April's Featured Book

This Friday we'll wrap up our reading of March's featured book, Unaccustomed Earth, so it's time to announce the book we'll be featuring in April. (Drum roll, please.)

As April's a time for youth and all that energetic kind of stuff, I'd like to use April to make a foray into young adult literature.

But as I live in Idaho and it snowed last night and spring may still be weeks away, I'm not completely content reading a "springtime book" just yet. In fact, I'm kind of in the mood to read something unusual, something different, something narrated by the Grim Reaper -- by none other than Death himself.

So behold, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. (Cymbal crash!)

The Book Thief, which really is narrated by Death, tells the story of Leisel, an abandoned German girl in 1939. Leisel, surrounded by the horrors of a war-torn world, finds in books a temporary refuge.

The Book Thief has received much critical acclaim, including an award as a Printz Honor Book for 2007. It's also been on the Children's Best Seller list of The New York Times for more than 70 weeks. If you'd like to learn more, read Janet Maslin's review of The Book Thief in The New York Times here.

Zusak, an Australian author, has published six books including the critically acclaimed I Am the Messenger.

We'll begin discussing the book on Friday, April 10th, so dust off those library cards and track down your copy soon.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth: A Simple Question

It's "Featured Book Friday," which means it's time to talk about this month's featured book Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri.

So far, I'm loving this book. As I mentioned last week, I'm impressed with Lahiri's handling of strained and delicate family relationships. Her sensitivity to these kinds of relationships, whether they exist between husband and wife, parents and children, or even traditional and "adopted" family members (as is the case in "Hell-Heaven"), is acute and reveals Lahiri's gift as a careful observer of human relationships.

I'm hoping those who are reading along have finished the five stories in part one, because I'd like to ask a fairly generic question about them. Here it is:

Which of the stories in part one is your favorite and why?

As for me, I like "Hell-Heaven" because I think the narrator's mother is fascinating. She's desperately lonely (and we don't learn just how lonely she is until the very end), and yet she maintains her image of a dutiful wife. Her pent-up sadness is so endearing and so disturbingly real.

Anyone else?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Poem of the Day: Some Days

The other day I asked the students in one of my classes to name their favorite living poets. Sadly (but expectedly), they met my request with the same kind of terrified, blank stares I get when I announce a pop quiz. Eventually, most of them grudgingly acknowledged that they didn't know the name of a single living poet (and these were English majors). Even those who managed to come up with the name of a poet or two had to strain to pull them from their memories. ("Oh . . . oh . . . that one guy!) All of this reminded me why I started this blog.

I believe writers matter. I believe ideas matter. I believe art matters. And if this blog exposes even a few people to contemporary literature who wouldn't otherwise see it, I'll be perfectly content.

So to all my readers who struggle to name living poets, today I offer you this -- a beautifully read poem titled "Some Days" by Billy Collins.

Incidentally, Billy Collins served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. Collins doesn't try, as I suspect some poets do, to be intentionally abstract and weird. Instead, he's a populist, writing poetry for the common man and woman.

As always, your thoughts on poetry, Billy Collins, or the above poem are welcome in the comments.

Monday, March 16, 2009

NBCC Award Winners

Last week, the National Book Critics Circle announced its winners for 2008.

According to their website, the National Book Critics Circle "is a non-profit organization consisting of more than 900 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing and communicating with one another about common concerns."

So if you're looking for a good (and fairly serious) book to read, you might want to check out one of these:

Fiction - 2666 by Roberto BolaƱo.

General Nonfiction - The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.

Poetry (2 Awards) - Half the World in Light by Juan Felipe Herrera and Sleeping It Off in Rapid City by August Klienzahler.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth: First Impressions

To make discussing WWADY featured books simpler, I've decided to dedicate one day of the week (Friday) to our monthly featured books. I'll refer to future Friday posts as "Featured Book Fridays," and you can expect a post about WWADY featured books every week. This way, if you're reading along, you'll know when to get online and share your thoughts. I hope that this will make it easier for you follow along and share your ideas with the rest of us.

So, on with business. Here are my first thoughts about Unaccustomed Earth. I look forward to hearing yours. I'll limit my observations to the first story in the book to keep myself from spoiling any more of the book than I have to for those who haven't started yet.

The main point that's struck me so far is this:

Jhumpa Lahiri addresses the complexity of human relationships as well as anyone I've read.

I was particularly struck by two passages in "Unaccustomed Earth." The first is when Adam, Ruma's husband, is urging Ruma to see if her father would like to move in with them. Adam questions why it's hard for Ruma to approach her father by saying, "He's your father. You've known him all your life," which is followed by this truth:

"And yet, until now, she had not known certain things about him."

Lahiri understands just how difficult it is to communicate honestly and really get to know other people -- even family members. Most people, I think, are fiercely private, keeping their innermost fears and doubts and wishes and desires secret from even those they love the most. After all, how well do we really know our parents or children or friends or even our spouses, should we be lucky enough to have these people in our lives?

In Ruma and her father, Lahiri shows us two people who do, in fact, care for each other but who aren't really able to open up and communicate honestly. Ruma is unable to tell her father how she feels about her mother's death, her life in Seattle, her role as a stay-at-home mom, and most importantly, the care she has for him. Similarly, Ruma's father has his secrets. He can't tell his daughter he's fallen in love with Mrs. Bagchi even though he's had many chances to do so, and he takes great pains to hide the postcard he's written to Mrs. Bagchi. He even writes it in a foreign language just in case Ruma happens upon it (though it's contents are pretty mundane).

The second passage that struck me is on page 53. Speaking of Ruma's father, we read:

"He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it."

I'm struck here by what Lahiri is willing to say. True, families are beautiful, natural, good things. True, most people love their families and lest anyone doubt it, I love mine and trust that you love yours.

But having said that, I'd bet cold, hard cash that you've occasionally felt like Ruma's father. I'd bet virtually anything that you've had moments when you became tired of the baggage families sometimes bring. That Ruma's father decides to enjoy his family at a distance and on his own terms seems perfectly understandable. He's found an independence in being alone, and he's unwilling to give that up. This doesn't, however, make him at all unlikable. In fact, I think it makes him human.

That's all for this week. Next week, I'll include all of the stories in part one in my post (the first five), so if you want to avoid having any stories spoiled, read at least that far.

And now it's your turn. Please feel free to add a comment and chime in. I'd love to know what you're thinking.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Author Appearance: Greg Pape

Since most of my readers are in Eastern Idaho, I'd like to announce that Greg Pape, the Poet Laureate of Montana, will be at BYU-Idaho this week giving a poetry reading and holding a question and answer session. Details follow:

March 11th, 7:00pm
Smith Building, Room 240

March 12th, 2:00pm
Smith Building, Room 240

Greg Pape has published nine books of poetry for which he's received a host of awards, including two National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowships, the Richard Hugo Memorial Award from Cutbank, a Pushcart Prize, and a Robert Frost Fellowship in Poetry at Breadloaf. If you'd like to explore his poetry before attending his events, you can check out a sampling here.

You can also see a video of Greg Pape reading one of his poems, "Life Cycle," below:

NOTE: I'll be posting my first impressions of this month's featured book Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri on Friday the 13th. So far my thoughts are these: "Anything Jhumpa Lahiri touches turns to gold." She's that good. If you haven't yet tracked down a copy of the book, it's not too late. You can still get it and read along.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Writer of the Day: Joyce Carol Oates

As you know, this month's featured book is Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and I'll start blogging about the short stories in that book next week (which means that you still have time to get the book and read along -- nag, nag, nag).

Today, though, I'd like to blog about one of the most prolific writers of our time -- Joyce Carol Oates. She's published more than fifty novels (and no, that's not a typo - fifty novels!!!). Beyond her novels, she's also published more than a dozen volumes of short stories, nearly ten volumes of poetry (her tenth is forthcoming), and a fair number of nonfiction works, essays, and even a few children's books.

Her list of publications is, of course, pretty impressive by itself. But here's the real kicker. Joyce Carol Oates is an absolutely amazing writer. She's not cranking out formulaic garbage. She's a serious thinker, and her characters are powerful and unique.

Some of her best work (and let's be honest, I've only read a fraction of it), deals with pure evil and madness. A novel she published in 1995 titled Zombie, based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, is currently being made into a one-man play. You can see an interview with Oates about that stage play here.

And if you've never read a thing by Oates, I'd suggest you start with her most-widely read short story, a mind-bender titled, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" It's online here, and like Zombie, it takes a long, hard look at pure evil.

Curious? Then click the link, read the story, and brace yourself.

Friday, February 27, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome: Final Review

SPOILER ALERT: If you've not yet finished So Brave, Young, and Handsome, skip this review (unless you enjoy having books spoiled for you).

Those who read my last post about So Brave, Young and Handsome know I was starting to sour on Enger somewhat. In So Brave, Young, and Handsome, I was struggling to find a likable character to root for. I was craving the powerful prose about grace and redemption I enjoyed so much of in Peace Like a River.

And while I'm still not comfortable calling So Brave, Young, and Handsome a masterpiece, I will say this:

I'm pleasantly suprised with the second half of this book. Enger stepped up. The more I read, the more I started caring about Monte Beckett. Of course, his being kidnapped certainly earned him sympathy points, but it let me put those troubling questions about why Monte wouldn't go home to his loving wife and son out of my mind.

More significantly, the more I read of this book, the more I started caring about Glendon's quest for forgiveness and grace (which is also why I think it's too bad we had to leave Glendon's story behind for roughly a hundred pages while Monte gets pushed around by the increasing-decrepit Siringo).

Here are a few final thoughts:

Glendon's Quest for Redemption Saves This Book

Enger's obviously at his best when he explores redemption. For example, on page 271, we read:

Susannah said, "Glendon's different now, isn't he."

"He's quit that whiskey," I said.

"Not just that. There's grace in him. He's reached some settlement."

There's a simple purity in Glendon's making a cross-country journey to offer an apology for his sins against Blue. What's even more powerful, though, is that along the way, Glendon decides to do more than apologize -- he decides to pay penance for his sins. He becomes a servant to the wife he once betrayed. In a symbolic gesture of his repentance, he's baptized. Finally, he willingly walks away with Siringo and accepts a prison sentence without quarrel (beautiful because prison has been his greatest fear throughout the book).

This transformation is why I'm comfortable calling this book "good." To witness a character move from crime to penance to grace will be pleasurable no matter how many times I read it (in the hands of a decent storyteller anyway). And while I'm still annoyed that Enger took me away from Glendon for the middle chuck of the book, I'm glad he came back to it and did it justice in the end.

The American West = Grace:

Here's a question. Why is it that in American literature grace, reinvention, and redemption seem to be found again and again in the American west? By the end of this book, Monte Beckett has decided that his writing career is over and that he needs to choose a new life. He chooses to live this life in the west, sending for his wife and child rather than returning to them and scraping out a new life in the east.

And then, while Beckett's not even looking for it, the west heals him and gives him what he's lacked. Consider the end:

After a while, a long while, without writing a word, why, a sentence arrived from nowhere. Not a great sentence--actually sort of a ragged one, in need of paring. I searched around for a pencil and write it down, a sentence about a white-haired man rowing upstream through the parting mists of the Cannon River.

"What are you writing?" asked Susannah. She was painting something, I couldn't see what.

"Just a sentence."

"She lifted her head, a daub of orange below her lip. "Read it to me," she said.

Suddenly, Beckett's writing again -- almost accidentally. The west has restored and reinvented him. I'm not sure what to make of this, but even though the west was "conquered" long ago, I see again and again in contemporary American literature the west being presented as the "new" world, the place we can go to find peace and restoration.

So, while there's so much more I could say about So Brave, Young, and Handsome, that's all for this post. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

I hope you enjoyed your first WWADY featured book, and if you didn't read along with us, you can join us this month by reading along with Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome WWADY Rating = 7.5/10

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Kindle Review - And a Birthday Wish

At WWADY, we're celebrating a special birthday today -- mine.

And as many of my readers already know (because I've been talking about it pretty much non-stop), I want a Kindle 2.

I want one. I want one. I want one.

I want one so badly, in fact, that not since Ralphie pined endlessly over his Red Rider BB-Gun has man engaged in so much shameless coveting.

Alas, my birthday wish is not to be. Even with the $100 prize I collected today by taking first place in an essay contest, I'm still coming up desperately short of cash.

So while I won't be playing with a brand new Kindle 2 today, I did get the pleasure of reading a playfully-written review of the Kindle 2 on MSNBC (which is, of course, no consolation at all).

Check out the review here. It's by Helen A.S. Popkin. It's funny. It's informative. It's titled, "I have a Kindle 2: Jealous much?" (Clearly, dear Ms. Popkin was thinking of me when she wrote her review. So, yes, Ms. Popkin, I am jealous. Much.)

Finally, while I'm far too old to believe in such foolishness, as you read this review, please do me the favor of thinking these words:

"Birthday miracle . . . birthday miracle . . . birthday miracle."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome: A Few Random Thoughts

I'm well overdue for a post about this month's featured book. I'm just over half-way through So Brave, Young, and Handsome, and to this point I have two nagging questions about it. Both stem from criticisms I have of the book, so forgive me if I sound overly-critical. At any rate, here's what's on my mind:

1. Why is Monte Beckett acting like such a moron?

Monte Beckett is traveling with a fugitive. He's also been helping this fugitive by lying to law enforcement officers and creating an alias. He's been given chance after chance to stop his flight from the law and go home to his loving wife and son. Yet, he keeps choosing to travel with Glendon, and by doing so he's diminishing his chances of ever seeing his family again. Monte loves his family (I think), so I can't figure out why he's doing this. He's being imprudent and somewhat moronic, and this is starting to make me dislike him.

Clearly, Monte's searching for something his family environment isn't giving him (adventure? independence? a story worth telling?), but he seems willing to sacrifice an awful lot to fill this lack.

I think he's giving up too much, and I don't really understand what he's looking for (and I don't think he knows what he's looking for either), so I'm finding it tough to let his idiocy slide.

2. Why isn't this book as good as Peace Like a River?

My apologies to those who haven't read it and won't be able to chime in here, but in my opinion, Peace Like a River is a much better book than So Brave, Young, and Handsome. In fact, I was so drawn into Peace Like a River that I plowed through it in two sittings. I've been muddling through So Brave, Young, and Handsome now for three weeks, and while it's good, I'm just not being drawn in like I was with Enger's first book.

In thinking about why, I've decided that Peace Like a River has two things going for it that So Brave, Young, and Handsome doesn't. The first is a compelling, "savior-figure" readers generally like. The father in Peace Like a River is noble and kind, but he's also rough around the edges. I love the opening scene in which the father punches a doctor cold and then raises one of his children from the dead. So Brave, Young, and Handsome has yet to give me a character who's instantly interesting and likable. Don't get me wrong. I like Monte Becket. I hope he makes it home to his loving wife, but if he doesn't, I probably won't be heartbroken. After all, he is being kind of a doofus (see point 1). I also like Glendon. I admire his putting his freedom on the line simply so he can make a face-to-face apology, but should he get shot just before the fulfillment of his quest, I'll also be okay. So, I've yet to find a character I can really get behind and root for (though Hood has promise).

The second thing Peace Like a River has that So Brave, Young, and Handsome lacks is Enger's beautiful commentary on God, religion, and miracles. The insights about spirituality in Peace Like a River were fun to read. I loved Enger's idea that a miracle was something that forced you to reinvent your view of reality. Miracles, he wrote, should be disturbing and shocking (like raising a dead man from his grave), not soft and fluffy (like rainbows and sunsets). In So Brave, Young, and Handsome, there's nothing yet that equals that kind of discussion.

I'd love to hear a few responses to these criticisms. I'd especially love someone to point out what I'm missing in So Brave, Young and Handsome and show me the brilliance there that I'm not yet seeing, but unless something changes soon, I'm anticipating a final review of this book that ends up being pretty lukewarm.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

March's Featured Book: Unaccustomed Earth

It's been a while since I've posted about February's featured book So Brave, Young, and Handsome, so my next post (coming hopefully Friday or Saturday) will be dedicated to that.

Today, however, I need to announce the featured book for March so you'll have time to track it down and read along with us.

March's featured book will be (. . . drum roll, please) Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (big cymbal crash).

If you're not familiar with Jhumpa Lahiri, here's some background. Unaccustomed Earth was published in 2008, and it's Lahiri's third book. Her first, a collection of short stories titled Interpreter of Maladies, came out in 1999. It explores in sensitive and soft prose cultural assimilation and the impact globalization has on the individual. (Lahiri is a bit of a world traveler -- she's of Bengali Indian descent, was born in London, and currently lives in Brooklyn.) Interpreter of Maladies won a Pulitzer -- not bad for a debut book.

Her second book, a novel published in 2003 called The Namesake, was recently made into a movie. I've neither read the book, nor seen the movie, so I'll refrain from commenting on it here (but I will add it to my Netflix Queue).

The New York Times review of Unaccustomed Earth has this to say: "The fact that America is still a place where the rest of the world comes to reinvent itself — accepting with excitement and anxiety the necessity of leaving behind the constrictions and comforts of distant customs — is the underlying theme of Jhumpa Lahiri's sensitive new collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth.” (See the complete review here).

Lahiri is brilliant, and even a few non-readers I've known discovered Interpreter of Maladies and devoured it ravenously.

We'll begin our discussion of Unaccustomed Earth the first week in March, so get your book today.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AWP Report: Why Writers Matter

I just returned from Chicago where I attended The Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual conference (which is why I haven't posted in a week). According to their website, AWP aims to "foster literary talent and achievement, to advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and to serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing."

Obviously, these are my kind of people.

But the conference didn't initially make me feel what I thought it would with its keynote address by Art Speigelman, a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novelist; its featured reading by Charles Baxter, a brilliant short story writer; its panel with Ben Percy, a recent winner of the Pushcart Prize; and about a thousand other cool people.

Despite the masses of great artists at this conference, I was initially depressed by what was going on at the Chicago Hilton last week. At this conference, there were thousands of desperate fame-craving writers -- people who were there not to celebrate great writing, but to "be discovered."

There were masses of scraggly, unkempt poets. (In fact, I was told twice, "You must write fiction. You're too clean cut to be a poet.) There were hoards of turtelnecked short-story writers and mountains of mid-life-crisis-induced aspiring novelists. There was, to be honest, a component of this conference that was tragically sad. It reminded me of a poem by Charles Bukowski titled "poetry readings." It begins:

poetry readings have to be some of the saddest
things ever,
the gathering of the clansmen and clanladies,
week after week, month after month, year
after year,
getting old together,
reading on to tiny gatherings,
still hoping their genius will be

Even worse, part of this conference (albeit a small part) was about wealth and elevating the individual (a few panels even had titles like "From Publication to Promotion: Capturing the Attention of the Media" and "How to Make Money Writing Right Now.")

All of this made me question why we even need contemporary writers (and you'd have a hard time finding a bigger fan of contemporary writing than me). If today's writers are just as wealth-obsessed and egocentric and impure as everyone else, do they really have anything more to offer us than Lindsey Lohan? Is their literature merely an elaborate ruse in which they feign sincerity, dupe the masses, and stuff their pockets?

So with the question, "Why do we need writers?" blazing in my ears, I settled into a reading of six writers (Charles Baxter, Barrie Jean Borich, C.J. Hribel, Scott Russell Sanders, Sun Yung Shin, and Wang Ping), and let me tell you -- I got my answer to this question. We need writers. We need them desperately.

Here's why:

1) We Need Writers Because Great Writers Understand Grace.

Despite the miles of greasy hair, the racks of homeless-style clothing, and the ragged appearances of so many conference attendees, not one successful writer I saw in Chicago -- not one -- looked inelegant or shoddy. Each one, male or female, moved with a grace and poise that seemed to come from an earlier era. But these graceful appearances were merely an extension of their work. Whether they were writing about the sublime (birth, grief, the nobility of Chinese peasantry, isolation) or the ridiculous (a man who shoots a gun at a nuclear reactor as a form of protest, giant pumpkins that get swept up in a tornado and become vegetative wrecking balls, a couple who get wedding pictures taken at Sears), each writer achieved a simple grace in expression. They used language expertly. They built word upon word to create raw emotion, and they did it with elegance and beauty. We need writers because grace in expression is sorely lacking in contemporary society, and great writers implicitly argue for it's return.

2) We Need Writers Because Great Writers Give Grace.

Here's an example. For years I've been a fan of Charles Baxter, and I hoped somehow I could get him to sign my copy of his book Harmony of the World, but I didn't know how to approach him. I hated the idea of thrusting a book and pen roughly in his face, and when he walked into the lecture hall where I was waiting to hear him read, a mass of fans descended upon him, and I decided it would be impossible for me to get my book signed. I do have a little dignity (very little), and it demanded that I refrain from acting like a groupie.

So I took an aisle seat towards the back, set Harmony of the World onto my lap, and waited for the reading.

A moment later, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"You have that old, old book of mine," a voice said. Obviously, it was Charles Baxter, who must have noticed my eagerness to meet him as well as my withdrawal from the crowd. And then, he made the perfect gesture. He half held out his hand, letting me know he'd sign my book if I liked but that he also wasn't presuming anything. We spoke for a moment, he signed my book, and he moved onto the stage for his reading.

So what does this have to do with grace?

Great writers, I think, give us things we simply can't get on our own.

Isn't that grace?

Baxter gave me his signature, and while that's an obviously small, silly thing, Baxter knew what I wanted and knew that certain things prevented me from getting it. So, he gave it to me.

And isn't a great book similar? Don't great books give us things we want but can't get on our own? Things like hope, strength, power, virtue, and peace?

So, to sum up:

The best writers, I've decided, understand grace -- both how to act with it and how to give it. The worst writers, who are all too often unkempt and scraggly, who spout profanity as if it's truly original, and who crave their names on book jackets more than they crave good stories, never will.