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Happy Book Lovers Day!

img_0515According to my Twitter feed, today is Book Lovers Day! How can I pass up an opportunity to celebrate! <throws some confetti>

I wrote a whole post about books and why I love them so much, and it wasn’t quite hitting the right note. So here is the thing…

I am grateful for books. I am grateful that I grew up in a country and a house where I learned to read and it was encouraged. I am grateful that I am in a position to buy books, to get them from the library. I am grateful that I have time to spend reading.

Upon reflection, I take the fact that I can read anytime/anywhere/anything for granted. I don’t think twice about picking up a book and reading it.

Today, I am taking some time to appreciate the gift of books and reading.

 

 

 

 

 

On learning about the DFW Conference…

DFW logoPeople sometimes ask me “where do you find articles like that” and I am more than willing to reveal my sources.  One of them is Arts and Letters Daily, a website run by The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The site provides links to academic articles on a wide variety of topics in the humanities.  If you’re looking for something to read, it won’t let you down.  Right now, there are stories about denialism, Oscar Wilde’s US book tour, and whether learning French involves a period of hazing.

The next question is usually “where do you find the time to read all that” and the answer is I don’t.  I get their digest every week which points me to the top 5 articles.

Which is all a long way to let you know that this week the #1 article was Academics Explain David Foster Wallace to Me:  A report from the 5th-annual David Foster Wallace Conference.  It was published on The Outline and was written by Daniel Kolitz.

The reason it caught my attention is that Barb and I read Infinite Jest as part of our annual impossible book read, which you can read about here.  Let’s just say we weren’t  big fans.

There are literary qualities.  DFW was a magician with words and detail.  He was observant and prescient.  But, Dave Eggers called it “lexical diarrhea” when it came out and he’s right.  It’s self-indulgent and narcissistic and even with the “look ma no hands” style moments, the whole is vastly overrated.

I have enjoyed some of DFW’s non-fiction, especially when he goes to (wait for it) a trade show on adult films or on a cruise and reports back on the people he sees, employing his incredible power of observation to great comedic effect.

The first thing that struck me about this essay was that much of it actually read like the DFW coming back and writing an essay about visiting a conference about himself.  There’s observation and sympathy and some really good laughs.  Kolitz actually has a DFW-like command of detail when he describes something, as in:

Which is how a surprisingly accessible talk on the “synecdochic network of the Encyclopedic novel” — from Kathryne Metcalf, a neon-orange-haired graduate student in American Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State who’d driven through the night from Ohio to get there — wound up being delivered to me, and only me, while at regular intervals raucous, sold-out-crowd laughter erupted from the next room (this from a panel titled “Depression, Alienation, and the Medical Gaze in Infinite Jest”). Eventually another person did slink in, allowing me to tactfully flee next door, which sounds cruel but by this time Metcalf had ceded the floor to her Skyped-in co-panelist, an Italian named Marco who’d spent much of the talk darkly muttering to someone (or something) off-camera. (“Honestly I don’t really know what happened,” Metcalf told me, over make-your-own-tacos at lunch. “He defined the word ‘ouroboros’ over and over, and then he talked about programming for a while, and then he defined ouroboros a couple more times, and then it was over.”)

It’s like of a land-o-lakes-lady-holding-the-butter-with-her-picture-on-it moment.

Land-O-Lakes-Butter

Also: even at DFW-fest, BGSU always represents!  #ayziggy.

Beyond that, though, it raises some interesting questions.

First, why (or how) did this author get his own society?  I mean that both literally and rhetorically.  Importantly, the story notes that the international DFW society has 170 members, so that provides some perspective.  But, what is it about DFW that has inspired this kind of passion in anyone, even in small groups?

You do get an idea when you read the article.  I’m not sure I reached understanding, but there are notions in there.

More importantly was the chance to think (again) about the relationship between bad people and their art, the discussion of which Kolitz noted was ruining “first dates” across the US.

It’s a tough one.  I love Midnight in Paris.  Can you still watch it, knowing who Woody Allen is?  Can you really compartmentalize all that?  That’s a tough one.

My perspective has always been that you have to separate the creator and the art.  Caravaggio was a raving asshole.  Do you take him off the walls of the museum?

I also understand that my perspective might be a product of white (and male) privilege.

Having said that, as I read this article I did see the point.  You can’t separate the self-indulgence, lack of impulse control and narcissism of the man who slept with his students and abused his girlfriend with the self-indulgence, lack of impulse control and narcissism of the man who wrote a ten-page description of moving a mattress or all those footnotes or any of the diarrhea that is in much of Infinite Jest.

Even that’s kind of a chicken shit way out of the debate about whether it is right to read/watch these people.

In the #metoo world, it isn’t an academic debate.

Last note.  Even as an Infinite Jest critic, you have to note that this book will not go away.

The Shortest Way Home by Miriam Parker

shortestIn this story, Hannah is just finishing up graduate school in San Francisco. She and her boyfriend Ethan decide to take a few days and drive to Sonoma for a break. Hannah ends up being enchanted (not like in the magical way) with a winery they visit and she starts to question her choices and what she is going to do with her future.

This book had me at Sonoma. The husband and I went there for our honeymoon and we really had a lovely time. We actually were in Healdsburg not specifically Sonoma. But I digress…..

The author did a great job in capturing the essence and the feel of the area. You get the feeling when you are there that the families and winemakers are passionate about making wine and instilling that love of wine to others. And that makes up the essence of this story.

Hannah’s story is also about following your passion and making decisions that others may not agree with or even understand. This is also something I have some familiarity with (move from Toronto to Toledo?!?) I think this is captured well in the story. Sometimes you need to do things because they feel right and not because it’s the logical choice. And Hannah struggles with that.

Overall this was a delightful story that kept my interest and is great for a beach/cottage read but also has enough depth to it to make it thoughtful and meaty.

I gave it a 4/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

 

When you have an unpopular opinion on a book

img_0368I was fortunate to have the chance to review the book ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh. (You can find my review here.)

Here is the deal: I didn’t love the book. It did keep my attention, it was different but I just didn’t gel with it. Nothing wrong with that, right?

The book has received much buzz. Mostly about how awesome it is. There has been praise for its ‘dark humour’ and being ‘caustic and acute’.

A few weeks ago (yes, I am behind on the blog posts) when the review for the book was on the cover of the New York Times Book Review section. Obviously I was curious on what the reviewer had to say.

I will take a minute for an aside. One of the really cool things about this blog is that I (we, because my husband does it too) get access to books before they are published and can read them before there is any press or other reviews. It gives me a chance to make up my own mind on it. Not that I don’t when reading a book that is already out, but it’s a bit different.

Back to the New York Times…

The reviewer said of the book: “…darkly comic and ultimately profound new novel….” And went on to have positive things to say.

Huh. Maybe I missed something.

Here is the awesome thing about books – you don’t have to like every one. That’s why there are so many books in different genres.

I will say that the New York Times review did have some interesting takes on the book. The thing is, when I am reading it and then reviewing it I look mostly at the enjoyability factor. Did I like reading it and would I recommend it to my family and friends? I am not really into looking at the literary quality or the writing technique or all that other stuff (I leave that to my husband, who is way smarter about these things than I am).

I think that if I had read the review in the New York Times and then read the book, I would definitely have had a different reaction. Ok, maybe not definitely, but I think that I would have gone into it reading it with a different mindset.

The positive reviews don’t change the fact that I didn’t love the book. Also, just because I didn’t love the book, doesn’t mean it’s not a good book. So if you are interested in it, a fan of her writing or are just curious, go and get yourself a copy. Let me know how you like it!

 

Why libraries are important

img_0362I saw a disturbing trend on Twitter on the weekend, people were talking…”talking” about how Amazon should replace libraries. The good news is that most of the talk about this, or at least it was on my feed, was saying a big old HELL NO to this idea. That gave me hope.

This whole thing was apparently started by a piece in Forbes magazine: Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money (which they have since taken down). The good news is that when I googled the situation, this was the first article that popped up: Forbes suggested Amazon should replace libraries, and people aren’t having it.

Whew. But I still feel like I need to have my say in this. Because…well, what’s the point of having a blog if I can’t yammer on about things that I feel passionate about.

Some of my earliest memories that make me warm and fuzzy are about the library. The excitement of going in as a child and having basically endless possibilities of reading materials (I actually still get the same feeling now). My mom used to take me to the  story telling time at the local branch. All of these things instilled a life-long love of books and reading.

One of the first things I did when I made the move from Toronto to Toledo was get a library card. It was partly to get access to the reading material: magazines and books. But a large part of that for me was that it was an anchor and a way for me to start building roots in a new and unfamiliar place. It represents a sense of community and belonging to a group of people who love books and reading as much as I do.

I spend a lot of time alone during the day. And it gets lonely. One of the places I have frequented is the library. People are friendly. It’s mostly quiet. There are comfy chairs to read and tables with outlets to plug in your computer to do whatever work or research you need to do (or just plain old goofing around on the internet). But I was with people. I didn’t need to talk to anyone or make friends. I didn’t want to have to buy a $4 fancy coffee. I just wanted to sit and be in the world. How many other people find solace in the library when they have no where else to go?

I get that puts the “burden” on taxpayers. Why should I pay for someone to have a nice place to go and goof around on the internet? Here is why. Especially today where the world feels fractured and is so impersonal, we need to have spaces for people to go and gather and feel like they are part of a community. Where children can go and hear stories read to them and feel the joy of picking out a book and learn about caring for books and responsibility. Where people are there to help you find what you need – that book with the blue cover, or whatever you are seeking. The library is about more than books. It always was and it always will be.

I think that libraries have done a great job in keeping up with the times and technology and the needs of their users and give people a reason to use their services. How many businesses can say that? I can read magazines on my iPad or computer, I can watch movies, and I can even stream music now. Oh right, and that’s besides the books I can rent for free. This is because libraries understand that they are part of the community and bringing people together.

I am happy that there was a rally around libraries – all over Twitter there were stories from people who have sought help from their local library, how one actually had a stuffed animal sleepover and sent out pictures (cute!) and generally how the library is important to a lot of people. It gives me hope that the world isn’t as sucky a place as it sometimes seems.

Here is what I suggest: if you don’t have a library card go and get one. It’s super easy, and you don’t even have to go outside. Many libraries have online cards so you can check out electronic media. And if you are feeling adventurous, go to your local branch. It will make you happy. I promise.

 

 

Brothers Karamazov, Book Four: Oh Dimitry!

fingerFirst, an observation….there has been more action and activity in the first 250 pages of this book than most of War and Peace. Ok, maybe that’s an overstatement. However, Dostoyevsky definitely keeps the action moving, where Tolstoy would take pages and pages (and pages and pages) to expound on the meaning of life.

When I was back in University in the Shakespeare class that I took, the professor was big on the number of lines attributed to a character: the number they spoke, the number they were spoken to, etc. The most interesting was the number of lines spoken about a character that wasn’t in the scene. This applies to book four – Dimitry is no where to be found, yet most of the action (and inaction) is based on something that he did or didn’t do.

We find poor Alyosha turned out from the church (as the staret is basically hours away from dying) to attend to matters concerning the Karamazov family. He is basically going around cleaning up Dimitry’s messes.

So Alyosha is walking along, going to attend to the Katerina situation, where he comes across some school boys who are throwing rocks at each other. Trying to do the right thing, Alyosha steps in and is rewarded by the kid almost biting his finger off – which seems like a random occurrence – until we find out that our boy Dimitry had publicly humiliated the finger-biter’s father.

I was feeling sorry for Alyosha because he seems to be traipsing around cleaning up people’s messes and delivering money. But then I realized that the reason for that is he is the only character that is reliable. He has no skin in the game and through his eyes we see what is actually happening. Even the narrator is a bit sassy and isn’t completely reliable.

The other interesting thing is something that BJ mentioned in his post today – that reading the story back when it was written would be a totally different experience since there are a lot of ‘at the time’ references that only someone reading it then would get. For example, characters are described by their clothing – what cloth the coat is made of – and I am like, is that expensive, cheap, is the dude trying to be a show off. Who knows! It is like referring to someone’s shoes as either strappy Manolo Blahnik sandals or flip flops from Old Navy. At another place and time, people won’t get that reference.

So far, I am really enjoying the book. It’s funny and action packed and keeps you entertained. On to book five!

Book Four: A Russian Companion

Russian classroom-1Reached the end of Book Four, and the book is continuing to be readable and enjoyable.

I had a revelation when I was reading this section, which came from this footnote:

chërny (pronounced chorny) is Russian for ‘black’; kara means ‘black’ in Turkish; maz comes from the Russian mazat’, to smear, to stain; conflating these concepts, one may interpret ‘Karamazov’ as ‘Blackstain’, ‘Blackman’. ‘Karamazov’ is not an established Russian surname; it was made up by Dostoevsky along the lines indicated above.

I had been reading the book assuming Karamazov was a Russian name…like you could wander through Moscow and meet some guy named Karamazov.  As you can see above, that would not be possible.  (This is a device probably most associated with Dickens, a contemporary of Dostoevsky’s.)

Beyond that, though, I had the revelation that I would never be able to read this book like somebody picking up the Russian Messenger in January of 1879.  Yes, that’s language in part, but it’s not just that.  Like any other book, there are contemporary references laced throughout the narrative and these things can literally not make sense to someone living in Ohio in 2018.

Our own books are the same.  I’m reading Ohio right now, and the section I am on right now is describing the difference between the original Wal-Mart in their town and then the new Wal-Mart, a detail that’s completely clear to someone who witnessed the same transition in Bowling Green, Ohio, but is not likely to do much for someone reading Ohio in 130 years.

I began to think about this idea when I read The Year of Learwhich looked at that plays (and others) from the lens of a contemporary audience.  It was utterly fascinating and a new way to read Shakespeare and one, I might contend, would make Shakespeare more accessible in the classroom.

This idea came to fruition when I checked out A Karamazov Companion from the local library.  In our first two reading challenges, we resisted doing that.  As Robert DeNiro says in Analyze This, “a hard-on should be gotten honestly or it shouldn’t be gotten at all.”  If you’re going to read the book, read the book.

The companion does make it more interesting.  It’s a little awkward because it is mated with a different translation than the one we are using, but even so, it provides some additional context at the detail level.  For example, at one point someone is referred to as a seminarian, which means one thing at face value and another when you know that in Dostoevsky’s time that also meant the person was from the lower classes.

Naturally, I’m not saying this book shouldn’t be read outside its time, because inside those timely references is a book that focuses on some of the most timeless struggles humans face.  But I do think (now) that you’re selling yourself short if you try and gut it out without taking some time to bridge the gap of time and culture.