Wednesday, December 31, 2008

50 Book Challenge & Reading Resolutions

At the beginning of the year, I joined a challenge on the Reading is Sexy Facebook group to read fifty books in one year. I didn't include anything much shorter than the shortest play I read (about seventy pages, I think) or anything I didn't read completely (which is too bad because the Encyclopedia of New York State would have looked amazing on here).

Yesterday, I finished the challenge. Here, purely because I want to see them all together, is my list. Yellow is YA/juvenile/children's lit. Green is fiction. Salmon is poetry. Purple is nonfiction. Blue is drama. The two in black are crossovers (A Book of Ireland is a compilation of Irish writing and Eugene Onegin lives somewhere between poetry and fiction.)

  1. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  3. Dubliners by James Joyce

  4. Yiddish with Dick and Jane by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman

  5. Earthly Astonishments by Marthe Jocelyn

  6. From Fatigued to Fantastic by Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum

  7. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

  8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  9. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

  10. Some Writers Deserve to Starve: 31 Brutal Truths about the Publishing Industry by Elaura Niles

  11. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

  12. The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

  13. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

  14. Ireland (LIFE World Library) by Joe McCarthy

  15. Healing Stones by Nancy Rue

  16. Saints Behaving Badly by Thomas J. Craughwell

  17. Villette by Charlotte Bronte

  18. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

  19. The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins

  20. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake

  21. Irish Saints by Robert Reilly

  22. The Coal Tattoo by Silas House

  23. A Book of Ireland edited by Frank O'Connor

  24. The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky

  25. The Pearl by John Steinbeck

  26. The Chosen by Chaim Potok

  27. Terpin by Tor Seidler

  28. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster

  29. World War I and Nationalist Politics in County Louth, 1914-1920 by Donal Hall

  30. Carlingford Town by P.F. Gosling

  31. The Autobiography of S.S. McClure by S.S. McClure and Willa Cather

  32. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

  33. Master Harold... and the "Boys" by Athol Fugard

  34. Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith

  35. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

  36. The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland by R. F. Foster

  37. In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore

  38. Who Let the Blogs Out? A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs by Biz Stone

  39. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

  40. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

  41. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

  42. King Lear by William Shakespeare

  43. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

  44. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

  45. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

  46. Woman's World by Graham Rawle

  47. West Wind: Poetry and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver

  48. Praying in Color by Sybil MacBeth

  49. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

  50. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

  51. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang by Mordecai Richler

(If I didn't feel so lazy, I'd have more hyperlinks here.)

About 20 of these come from my favorite Greatest Literature list. About 10 were directly related to research for my book (several more were indirectly related). Perhaps what surprises me the most about this list is the amount of nonfiction I read.

I'm starting the challenge again for 2009, but I don't think I'll be very particular about whether or not I get to fifty next year. I already know I can do it, and right now I'm much more interested in finishing the book I'm writing. I would, however, like to read more poetry and drama this coming year, particularly poetry.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Pictures of Books on My Shelves

My brain works in strange ways when I'm sick. I woke up this morning and thought, My books are so pretty! I love them! Also, I like looking at pictures of other people bookshelves (though perhaps in a somewhat covetous way). So here are pointless pictures of my books.

My "borrowed" books:

The bookshelf I see first thing in the morning:

The bookshelf in the closet:

The bookshelf built between the air-duct and the wall (and another bookshelf):

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Woman's World by Graham Rawle

I received Woman's World as birthday present from a fellow English major. I have mixed feelings as I write about this novel. On the one hand, Graham Rawle's Woman's World is an incredible work: satirical, visually appealing, carefully structured, etc. On the other hand, I'm having trouble thinking of people I could recommend it to without repercussions.

Without giving anything away, I think it's fair to say that that some of the explorations of gender in this novel are unsettling, and without Rawle's light touch they could have been even more so. Also, (like a lot of satire) this book is at least as tragic as it is funny.

That said, Woman's World is brilliant.

First, you have a novel that's been created entirely from words clipped from 1960s women's magazines. That idea alone made me want to love it: the collage of different typefaces; the bizarre, materialistic language of advertising put into everyday life; the questions of femininity and how its image is shaped...

Second, Rawle does not skimp on plot structure. Woman's World is not merely an interesting gimmick, but a well-spun tale. The pacing is slow for a novel that plays off the rhythm of the mystery and romance genres, but this didn't bother me because it became a stylistic foreshadowing that the story and characters were going to become more complicated than initially suggested. (Afterwards, I kept trying to think of ways he could have changed the novel, and nothing I came up with in my head was as believable, satisfying, or appropriate to the tone of the book as what Rawle had already done.)

Third, Rawle plays with language in hilarious ways. The characters become straight (wo)men to his comic brilliance:
I sat perfectly still, going over and over everything in my mind, thinking about what I should and shouldn't have done, and wondering what was going to happen to me. [...]Not killed Mr. Hands--that's what I should have done.
Also, Rawle's toying with the language of women's advertising makes Woman's World full of images like
I threw back my head and with closed eyes let the words of admiration flood over me like a family-size can of Carnation evaporated milk.
I felt very vulnerable there, facing the double-edged sword of being spotted by Mrs. Price and having Mary open the living-room door and see me with my coat on. Life is a bowl full of pickles, and here I was, a butterfly trapped in the stuff.

Finally, although the novel is full of strange situations and satiric language, the responses of the characters are psychologically believable. I ended up feeling a great deal of sympathy for the main characters, even as I giggled at Rawle's expressions.

I'm sure I must know some people who are strange enough to enjoy this book too. Which reminds me... thank you, Cara, for the birthday gift.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Red Pony and "Junius Maltby"

Even when I don't like Steinbeck, I like him. I prefer The Red Pony to The Pearl, but neither of them are really favorites of mine. (I'm more of an East of Eden and Of Mice and Men fan.)

However, Steinbeck does "straightforward yet subtle" better than any writer I know. The action doesn't exactly build in this collection; each story has it's own moment of crisis, but I loved how Steinbeck's theme of violence and its relationship to "becoming a man" wandered through the stories and sat down at the simple conclusion (though I still felt like I wanted more out of the last story in The Red Pony).

My copy of The Red Pony tacked the short story "Junius Maltby" (part of the Pastures of Heaven collection) to the end: an unusual addition. "Junius Maltby" is a fine story, but it has parable quality that seems at odds with The Red Pony's more realistic style. But both of the stories play with the elements of boyhood, and The Red Pony is so short that few publishers seem willing to print it alone. (You'll find copies of the The Red Pony with The Pearl or Tortilla Flat on Amazon, but very few of just The Red Pony.)

I'm surprised that this novella/collection is so frequently assigned in early high school (perhaps because of length and the age of the protagonist?)--I think the ending would have been frustratingly anti-climatic for me at that age. But maybe I'm not giving high schoolers enough credit.

Side Note: Apparently, Aaron Copland did the music for the 1949 movie version of The Red Pony. I don't have much desire to see the movie, but I'd love to hear the soundtrack.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yes, This is a Real Company

Sorry for the long silence. I've been itching to get back on here, but lately my internet access has been sketchy at best.

However, consider this an early Christmas present.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

I thought I would try to find what sort of connections my birthday had to important literary events. Today in Literature tells me that Aphra Behn was baptized on this date (most of her early life is unknown). The Writer's Almanac says I share my birthday with Shirley Jackson and Amy Hempel. Also, Charles Schulz retires and quantum theory is born.

Not too bad a day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Introducing the Book

Because I had other things I wanted (needed) to do today and I love this.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ethan Frome

Just a few paragraphs into Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, I couldn't help thinking, I've read this before, only then it was called The Age of Innocence and it was longer.

That turned out to be a fairly accurate assessment of Wharton's novel (novella). The main difference is the setting and the "twist" ending (which felt a bit cheap and expected to me). Beyond that, both of Wharton's novels deal with an adulterous passion (which can never be completely fulfilled) and an overwhelming sense of (tragic) fate. Ultimately, I preferred Age of Innocence, with its more subtle sense of fate and more realistic ending. Ethan Frome seemed a bit like an experiment in authorial cruelty. (The ending of Ethan Frome is so exaggerated that it seemed almost humorous.)

Also, everything I read implies that Zeena should be viewed as a tyrannical, selfish being, but she was so caricatured that I started to feel sorry for her. I started to think, Well, of course she acts all mean and suspicious; she thinks you want to have an affair with her cousin. Oh wait--you do! Her doubtful illnesses started to seem like desperate attempts to get some kind of attention from her husband. It wasn't difficult to see why Ethan liked the sweet, inadept Mattie Silver in contrast to his wife. But I had a hard time feeling he had a good reason to cheat. Not that I ever feel there's a really good reason for someone to cheat on his or her spouse, so maybe that sums up my problem with the novel right there. In Age of Innocence, however, I didn't feel as annoyed about Countess Olenska cheating on her husband (he was cheating on her already and she was continually talked out of divorcing him for the sake of her family--which sounds a lot like Wharton's own marriage).

I guess I'm not on quite the same page as the young woman who said, "I love Edith Wharton. Her stories are so depressing!"

Monday, December 8, 2008

On (Not) Using Characters as Moral Centers, Part 2

So just a couple days after I blogged about using characters as moral centers in fiction, I was brushing my teeth (Have you noticed that all epiphanies come during personal hygiene moments?), and I thought, What on earth were you talking about? Not that I suddenly dislike using characters as moral centers, but I realized that the character I'd been thinking about using as a moral center wasn't going to work at all. In the back of my brain, I guess I've kind of known she wasn't supposed to be that sort of character for a while now.

There are several reasons the character I had in mind can't be my moral center--most too difficult to explain here. But I think it can't be a coincidence that most of the characters who fulfil the role of moral center in literature are generally secondary characters (a notable exception would be Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, but we see him through the memories of his daughter, Scout, so there's still a bit of distance between him and the reader). Moral centers may have amazing personal histories, but generally, they just pop in and pop out of the story as needed: like an occasional angelic visitation. Somehow, the more you know about a person's past, the harder it is to accept his or her moral authority. (Jesus' problem when he went back to his hometown of Nazareth. "Look who's the big shot now. Ha! I used to change his diapers!")

It's the skillful writer who can create believable moral authority in a well-detailed character. An example of this might be Bishop Myriel in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The Bishop may still technically be a secondary character (Hugo's "brief" character sketches are chapters long), but before his scene with the protagonist, Jean Valjean, the reader already knows how many chairs the Bishop has in his house, that he is generous to a fault, the sort of notes he makes in the margins of his books, his thoughts on politics, and that he has given up his house for use as a hospital. This not only makes the later scene with the candlesticks believable, but somehow the sincerity of the Bishop's portrayal allows the reader to accept the sincerity of the change he triggers in Valjean.

Even the best writers seem to struggle with using a moral center as a primary character. A few months ago, I tackled The Brothers Karamazov. The young novice Alyosha is obviously Dostoevsky's moral center, and the reader gets to spend a good deal of time with him. Dostoevsky wrote some marvelous scenes with Alyosha, but after a while, Alyosha's goodness becomes annoyingly dull. I tired of following him because there was little question about how Alyosha would respond to situations.

I'm still trying to decide what I'm going to do in my novel. Since I'm playing with multiple narrations, I actually have a choice to make with each storyline, which is both exciting and scary. I realized that in at least one of my storylines I already have an obvious moral center character who I've been ignoring. I may do something completely different with my other storylines. Of course, the acceptance of a character (moral center or not) as "believable" depends on the specific reader, but right now I'd be happy if I could just please the writer.

Side Note: The image above is Olin Levi Warner's Truth with a mirror and serpent from the Library of Congress because... well, just because I got tired of searching for images in the public domain.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Catcher in the Rye

I recently finished The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger--the iconic novel of adolescence that everyone read in high school, except me.

I enjoyed Catcher in the Rye a lot more than I expected to: great style, hits every basic literary theme, a believable narrator, etc. But I seem to feel more ambivalent about the book than most readers. Ed. Williamson on notes that from its publication date, Catcher in the Rye slammed "into the American consciousness with all the subtlety of a herd of bulls in a china shop." Most of the comments I heard before reading were that it was a "whiny, emo book" loved only by people who were emotionally immature (which made me fearful) or that it was THE only Great American Novel (which made me sceptical). Possibly its only unargued position in the literary cannon is as both one of the most widely assigned, and the most widely banned, novels in U.S. high schools.

After A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham and Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich, Catcher in the Rye seemed fairly tame. In spite of his language, drinking, and nervous sexual endeavors, Holden strikes me as a bit of an innocent. Being far enough removed from high school, I feel a sort of maternal sympathy/concern for him (and, at times, a maternal desire to shake some sense into his head). But in high school, yes, Salinger's hero would have annoyed and disturbed me.

It's amusing/sad that this novel is now considered a "teen" book and almost exclusively assigned in high school (Huckleberry Finn suffers a similar fate). I actually find it more interesting (read: "less painful") to read about adolescence now that I'm done with it. When I was a teenager, I preferred books that explored (an exciting) adulthood.

Side Note: While we're on the topic, here's something wonderful: Catch Her in the Oatmeal.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cartoons on Writing, Or an Oddly Comic Depressing Look at the Writer's Struggles

It's late, and I'm still working off an unreliable internet connection. So here are some writers' issues as discovered by ANDERTOONS:

1. The Fear of Greatness
What I think every morning.

2. Social Issues/A Sense of Inadequacy
We know all writers (all good writers, anyway) are supposed to mingle at 1920s-style cocktail parties. This is why I can't.

3. Selling Out
He may be abandoning his tragic genius, but post-meaning poetry sells, apparently.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Gifts for the English Major in Your Life... Part Deux

Sorry for the long silence; my laptop is in the hospital, and I've had a little trouble finding a reliable internet connection.

To continue the last post...

A Cup of Creativitea by Tea Talk. Also available at Signals, Amazon, Expressions, etc. Tea and writing just seem to go together like, well, bookstores and coffee shops.

English Major Stereotypes sweatshirt. Similar shirt available from

Poetry Comics: An Animated Anthology by Dave Morice. This is a strange, strange little book. Sometimes, its interpretations are funny; often they are terrifyingly surreal. I find it delightful, without knowing exactly why.

Old Typewriter Key Jewelry from What's Your Type. Like we needed more pics of jewelry on here, but I really love typewriter key bracelets. I'm just too frugal (read: "poor") a writer to buy any.