It's hard to justify taking the time to write what would probably be an inadequate review of this very special novel when its sequel is right here besIt's hard to justify taking the time to write what would probably be an inadequate review of this very special novel when its sequel is right here beside me, ready and waiting.
I agree with all the other five-star reviews. Now on to Book 2!...more
There’s a part of me that wants to give James Wood’s How Fiction Works four stars instead of five, so as to avoid looking like that overeager, too-creThere’s a part of me that wants to give James Wood’s How Fiction Works four stars instead of five, so as to avoid looking like that overeager, too-credulous, sycophantic reader. Four stars conveys a cool and refined detachment (as though I could have basically done without this book, had it not managed to cross my path). Five stars conveys complete dependence, utter infatuation (My life will never be the same!). I can’t help it; I loved this book, all five stars’ worth. I see now that I was definitely less of a reader before reading it.
Much of what I learned as a twenty-first century student of education was dangerously bordering on the B.S.; however, a helpful concept that has stayed with me is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.How Fiction Works felt perfectly situated right at the edge of my personal ZPD: spicily challenging (because of Wood’s brilliant literary insights), yet ultimately accessible (because of Wood’s expert scaffolding).There are few greater, more pleasurable things a book can do for a reader than to dwell potently inside the fertile territory of the ZPD.
There are so many things to appreciate about this book. Wood proves himself to be a master teacher—equal parts serious and fun. His tone is playful, kindly, and snobby only when absolutely necessary (and usually only when critiquing the snobby assertions of other critics). In other places, his writing moved me deeply. He made me a willing student from the opening pages, and no sentence was wasted on me.
I also loved how he put words to the inward, amorphous groans I often experience in response to the fiction that I read. Like the best of teachers, he helped me articulate those questions and impulses I feel in myself but don’t truly understand. The terminology of this book—including free indirect style, off-duty and on-duty details, registers, and transparencies v. opacities—will stay with me.
Wood’s analysis of literature—in particular, the art of narration— increased my respect for the world’s most exceptional writers, those writers whose rare gifts of perception, insight and language only find rest in the creation of superlative fiction. How Fiction Works is just as much a manual for fiction writers as it is a guide for readers, though I suspect more than a few sensible aspiring novelists will feel after reading it that they have no choice but to renounce their literary dreams forever. (Like the much-reviled Ryan Boudinot, I wonder if this is maybe not such a bad thing?) This book helped me appreciate just how much genius and inspiration can lurk behind a single sentence of quality fictional prose. I’m in awe of our world’s few-and-far-between writers. They deserve for us to stop thinking we can be like them.
And Wood is no slouch of a writer himself. Here’s one of my favorite passages from How Fiction Works and one that is very representative of what the book has to offer:
“…the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action , novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility—let alone likability—than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters…We remember [a character] in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here” (98). ...more
I wasn't familiar with Thomas McGuane until November, 2014 when a bout of flu made me bedridden for a few days. I felt too ill to read—or even to mindI wasn't familiar with Thomas McGuane until November, 2014 when a bout of flu made me bedridden for a few days. I felt too ill to read—or even to mindlessly watch. Curling up into a ball in a dark room while listening was about all I could do with my chill-ridden self. I came across an episode from the New Yorker: Fiction podcast in which Rick Bass reads Thomas McGuane's "Ice." I loved "Ice." It quickly recussitated my flagging spirits.
I've since enjoyed success using "Ice" in the classroom. A first-person narrator recalls a rite of passage he made in adolescence. It's not immediately obvious how much time has passed between the events of the story and its telling—one of the things I love about "Ice." Many of my students imagine they are hearing the voice of a young man relating recent happenings, and it only becomes clear through subtle hints dropped at the end of the story that the narrator is a much older man considering the events of his youth in a more seasoned light. "Ice" is a beautiful story that rings true, and it was worth having the flu to discover it.
The rest of the stories in Gallatin Canyon are good but don't quite live up to the perfection of "Ice." Still worth a read, though....more
These are nice blog posts coming from a theological perspective that I like, but strung together in book form they make for a less than satisfying reaThese are nice blog posts coming from a theological perspective that I like, but strung together in book form they make for a less than satisfying reading experience. The ideas get a little redundant and there's often a lack of depth and nuance. I don't necessarily fault the authors for this; the blame, I think, lies with this blog-to-book genre, with which I'm steadily becoming disillusioned. Because of the brevity of the format, I came away from some of the chapters feeling more discouraged and confused than encouraged and enlightened. Also, the working mom is sort of the elephant in the room, which is a shame because, while most of the contributors seem to be "stay-at-home" moms, all of them are writers and public speakers, so I know they have experience trying to reconcile the demands of the home with the challenges of outside intellectual projects.
My favorite contributions were from Christine Hoover. ...more
The transparency with which this play is autobiographical weirded me out a bit, and I can't help agreeing with Mary when she says of Edmund—and by extThe transparency with which this play is autobiographical weirded me out a bit, and I can't help agreeing with Mary when she says of Edmund—and by extension, O'Neill—"You love to make a scene out of nothing so you can be dramatic and tragic" (Act 3). There's something too obviously self-indulgent about this play.
The last act compelled me to bump my rating from two stars up to three. It wasn't until then that I started to feel a sense of atmosphere and foreboding. Before that, it was all histrionics without any real tension (for me, anyway)....more
Where’s a big, bearded Turkish man holding a steaming towel when you need him? Let him come and scrub these characters off me until I’m raw and near-bWhere’s a big, bearded Turkish man holding a steaming towel when you need him? Let him come and scrub these characters off me until I’m raw and near-bleeding.
One of the marvels of reading is the pure physicality of it, how some arbitrary little symbols can, when filtered through a reader’s mind, trigger a tear, chortle, goose bump, thrill. This mind-body connection is usually a source of great satisfaction in my reading life. Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was, for me, a rare exception.
I hated the way my body felt while I read this, all parched, nervous and staticky, like too much caffeine on an empty stomach. (Nothing poorly written could ever make me feel this badly, hence the extra star in the rating.) There are some really excellent five star reviews for this play on Goodreads—especially noteworthy comes from a reviewer called Trevor. I really wanted to see the virtue he saw, and, because he writes so intelligently about the characters, I’m inclined to feel like I’m missing something.
It’s not just that I'm put off by the unsavoriness of George, Martha, Nick and Honey. I’ve been able to abide much worse types in stories. I think it has more to do with the fact that I can’t discern anything noble, good or beautiful about this play. It reads like a mere record of unceasing deliberate cruelty and ugly manipulation—human beings at their “most acceptable” worst. Realism without magic.
This play was definitely the Stanley Kowalski to my Blanche DuBois. I think I’ll move on to kinder pastures....more
The absolutely electric dialogue of A Raisin in the Sun drew me in from the first scene. I’m in awe of Hansberry’s ability to conjure allegorical charThe absolutely electric dialogue of A Raisin in the Sun drew me in from the first scene. I’m in awe of Hansberry’s ability to conjure allegorical characters that are also individually rich in verisimilitude. I didn’t doubt the dialogue for a second. I also sensed the deep sympathy Hansberry must have felt for her creations, even as she was gently teasing them throughout the duration of their stage lives.
While reading this, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between Hansberry and Flannery O’Connor. Both writers died tragically young, likely before their literary powers peaked. Both tackle tough societal issues in ways that invite thoughtful responses, and both address generational conflicts with incredible precision, but also sensitivity. And, both drag readers through the mire of despair and doubt before suddenly delivering that unexpected shot of mercy.
This has about as much style as a Wikipedia article, but it's still a helpful enough resource for students and teachers of 20th century American dramaThis has about as much style as a Wikipedia article, but it's still a helpful enough resource for students and teachers of 20th century American drama....more
In a 2015 interview with NPR over the upcoming release of her latest memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller admits that, as a writer,In a 2015 interview with NPR over the upcoming release of her latest memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller admits that, as a writer, it’s important to “court eviction from your tribe to expose things and to wake people up.” Courting familial excommunication for the sake of truth-telling is something she does in all of her memoirs, and this most recent one is no exception.
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight recounts Fuller’s turbulent childhood in war-torn Rhodesia and the eccentric patterns of her adventure-loving, gun-toting, booze-saturated parents. Several years later came the beautifully-titled Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, a poignantly reconciliatory memoir that focuses exclusively on the life and ancestral history of her mother, a ferociously witty woman capable of both debilitating bouts of madness and “surprising surges of compassion.”
This time, in Leaving Before the Rains Come, she shifts to the masculine pronouns in her life: God, her father, and the man to whom she was married for twenty years.
Her relationships to these three figures prove interrelated. Following the death of Fuller’s young sister in the 1970’s, a tragedy for which she felt unduly responsible as a child, Fuller lost her faith in God and was never quite able to recover it: “My already shaky belief vaporized, leaving nothing but fear and a terrible sense of aloneness in its place.”
To fill God’s absence, Fuller projected faith onto “the next highest, visible, logical power"—her father. But his aversion to rules, safety, and order ("'Boring is number one,' Dad says. 'Absolutely the worst possible sin.'") left Fuller bereft of the security and stability she craved. Then, in Zambia, she met a robust American named Charlie Ross. Ross shared Fuller’s love for Africa and seemed to perfectly harmonize a taste for rugged adventure with a healthy and sensible impulse toward self-preservation. Fuller was smitten, and they married. But disillusionment soon followed. In reflecting on the early years of her marriage, Fuller recalls, “It was what I had wanted, a ticket out of disorder and into calm, but now that I was here I felt imprisoned, suffocated.”
Reading more like a collection of generally chronological essays tethered to a common theme than a memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come tells the story of a marriage’s dissolution. It’s a sad and moving undoing and one that seemed, to me, not exactly inevitable—a quality that makes her story all the more tragic. Fuller employs the same incisive honesty here that she does in her other memoirs, opening herself up to the judgments of her readers. Though there’s little overlap between her views and mine when it comes to God, relationships, and marriage, I continue to love her for her witty sincerity and her rare ability to infuse a single passage with both pathos and humor:
“Like alcoholic memoirs and their twelve steps to freedom and recovery, divorce memoirs seem to follow a similar path: the grim realization the marriage is truly over, the reluctant acceptance that the unhappy liaison has an ungodly power over the couple; the terror and dislocation that preceded and followed the actual awful act of divorce, the new man and renewed belief in the old lies about love. I had begun to give up on these books at the first mention of a woman collapsing with grief on the kitchen or bathroom floors. Why always these two rooms? Couldn’t anyone fall over anywhere more comfortable? The sitting room perhaps, the bedroom even? It was only later I discovered that women dissolve in these two places for good reason: the kitchen because it is the place from which we have nurtured our soon-to-be devastated families, and the bathroom because it is private.”
Though this is not my favorite of Fuller’s memoirs, I remain her loyal and adoring reader and look forward to whatever comes next.
[Thanks to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.]...more
Tim Butcher likes to follow people. I’m not referring to his activity on this site—although, to date, he’s currently following 1,072 Goodreads users.Tim Butcher likes to follow people. I’m not referring to his activity on this site—although, to date, he’s currently following 1,072 Goodreads users. (That’s a lot of updates!) I’m talking about his travel memoir modus operandi.
In Blood River, Butcher retraces Henry Morton Stanley’s 19th century trek through the Congo. Chasing the Devil follows the path that Graham Greene and his spirited cousin Barbara took through Liberia in the 1930’s, the adventure that eventually became Greene’s Journey Without Maps. The Trigger takes Butcher out of Africa and into the Balkans where he stalks the ghost of young Gavrilo Princip—from the modest childhood home in Obljaj, through the Balkan towns where the quiet, thoughtful boy traveled on his way to school in Sarajevo, and eventually to that fateful street corner outside Moritz Schiller's café.
In the hands of a less skilled author, the repetition of this "following" strategy would surely succumb to tedious gimmickry. But Butcher makes it work. His voice is intelligent and completely without guile and pretension. I always come away from his books liking him immensely. Though Blood River remains my favorite of his travel memoirs, some of his very best writing is manifested here in the form of stunning descriptions of Balkan people and landscapes:
“After wrestling through the bushes at the top of the garden, I found myself looking up at a steep heath, a vast rug of coarse upland grass reaching far and away into the horizon, seemingly held down by grey rocks scattered everywhere. We were heading toward a rising sun still low enough in the sky to make glowing lanterns out of seed-heavy heads among the long grass stems. As we contoured steadily up and across the slope, the rouge from the tiled rooftops of Obljaj eased itself into our wake…” (ch. 5; 2:24:45).
While the stated goal of the book is to deliver a clearer picture of what animated the boy who sparked one of the world’s worst conflicts, The Trigger read, to me, more like the profile of a blood-soaked region, “a region that cast more than one shadow over world history” (ch. 13; 9:23). The Bosnian War, a seemingly senseless conflict that Butcher bravely covered as a young journalist in the 1990’s, is the subject of much of this book. But the tangents away from Princip never feel irrelevant because the thread woven through all of these subjects, from Princip’s life, to the fateful assassination, to the bloody battles among Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats, is the troubled quest for a South Slav nationalistic identity.
Gavrilo Princip's role in the events that precipitated WWI is not something I’ve thought much about since my school days. And all I knew of the Bosnian War before reading this book can be traced back to childhood recollections of mid-morning infomercials beseeching viewers with tragic pictures of bereft Bosnian women and children. This sensitively-written book proved a helpful introduction to this little region that has known more than its fair share of tragedy....more
If I’m going to read fantasy, it absolutely must have a folksy fairytale vibe to it, and this one certainly fit that bill. The Witch of Duva by LeighIf I’m going to read fantasy, it absolutely must have a folksy fairytale vibe to it, and this one certainly fit that bill. The Witch of Duva by Leigh Bardugo is a creative and atmospheric take on the old Hansel and Gretel archetype.
I found this story on Tor.com, a website I’ve been exploring as a possible resource for online teaching of literature and writing. The site is full of free short pieces, mostly speculative fiction. Each entry is accompanied by a breathtaking image, and I confess that it’s often been the artwork and not the story title and description that has led me to read one over another. Though many of the stories I’ve sampled on Tor to date feel flimsy and amateurish (not that I could write better ones—I’m just saying), most are accessible, engaging and culturally relevant, an ideal combination for reluctant student readers.
The plot of this one grabbed me immediately with its delicious mood of subtle, folkish sinister-ness very reminiscent of the kind Tea Obreht engenders in The Tiger’s Wife. Though I felt prepared to love it after only reading a few pages, the story took a disappointing turn at (view spoiler)[the crossroads of the climax, ultimately veering toward a big, twisty reveal that felt contrived and unsatisfying to me. If an author is going to pull that old switcheroo of the good and bad guys trick on me, the one that suddenly turns a sympathetic, benevolent character into a true villain of the worst kind imaginable, I need to feel like there was something subtle artfully woven into the story hinting at that truth all along—an ambiguous comment, a creepy gesture, a slight twitching of the left eye, something. Some little disconcerting fly on the radar of the sensitive, attentive reader. Otherwise, switching up the goodies and badies just feels like a cheap slight of hand move to make readers go, “Ooooh! Didn’t see that one coming!” To be fair to the author, I can think of one little hint and should probably go back in search of more, but it’s hard to find the motivation to do so when the story’s conclusion feels so gimmicky.
Also, for a revisionist retelling of Hansel and Gretel that transforms the cannibalistic witch into a kindly culinary master and the evil stepmother into a mysterious self-sacrificial hero, poor daddy-o still can't catch a break. (hide spoiler)]
Not sure I can recommend it, but you can read the story here. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I stepped in canine fecal matter on three separate occasions while listening to the audiobook version of Dear Leader and strolling about, which is reaI stepped in canine fecal matter on three separate occasions while listening to the audiobook version of Dear Leader and strolling about, which is really unfortunate because I currently own only one pair of functioning shoes. Jang Jin-Sung, former poet laureate of North Korea and once an elite member of Kim Jong-il's private inner circle, has put together a most riveting and well-written account of his highly unlikely defection from the DPRK, hence my inability to scan the path ahead of me while listening.
This book is a survival story in its own right, but also much more. Jang Jin-Sung intermittently detours from his narrative to share insights into how North Korea works. Because of the insider status he once enjoyed as a high ranking party official, he's a credible voice. Here's a passage I found relevant in light of the 2014 hacking of Sony by the "Guardians of Peace:"
"The U.S. negotiates as a matter of diplomacy, to seek common ground on an issue. But when North Korea comes to the table, it's a counterintelligence operation. In other words, North Korea uses dialogue as a tool of deception, rather than of negotiation, with the objective being the maintenance of misplaced trust in the other party, and why not? North Korea's opacity is its greatest strength. it allows things to be done on its own terms while other countries continue to take what North Korea says at face value. In fact, Kim Jong-il formerly set these three principles as a basis for diplomatic engagement: the U.S. will buy any lie as long as it is logically presented, Japan is susceptible to emotional manipulation, and South Korea can be ignored or blackmailed" (chapter 19; 9:23:54).
The only thing I dislike about this book is its sucky title, which is majorly lacking in flow and originality. Other than that, this is a great selection for all of us who continue to scratch our heads in response to North Korea's crazy machinations. ...more
I found Cal on a list of top ten books about the Troubles. Leon Uris’s sprawling and cinematic Trinity, which I read last summer and found historicallI found Cal on a list of top ten books about the Troubles. Leon Uris’s sprawling and cinematic Trinity, which I read last summer and found historically impressive but aesthetically underwhelming, is also on the list, a few notches above Cal. Though Cal is much slimmer and less glamorous, it’s infinitely better than Trinity and packs a stronger punch.
Cal is set near Belfast during the 1970’s. It’s primarily a love story between two people separated by age, lifestyle, politics, and a big, lurking secret that the titular character, Cal, guiltily harbors from the object of his romantic yearnings, Marcella.
“The happier Cal felt, the sadder he became. He wanted to confess to her, to weep and be forgiven. He saw the scene in his mind…he saw the scene as he knew it would be in reality and it horrified him” (118).
The novel has many strengths. Its simple, effortless prose is ultimately very moving. The dialogue and character portraits ring true. Most impressively, it avoids vilifying either end of the sectarian divide. (This is quite a feat and something at which Trinity fails.) MacLaverty portrays the Troubles not as a battle of saints versus devils, but as a struggle between individuals swept up in something larger than themselves. There are idealists and opportunistic sadists on both sides, but most people are just trying to get by.
“To suffer for something which didn’t exist, that was like Ireland. People were dying every day, men and women were being crippled and turned into vegetables in the name of Ireland. An Ireland which never was and never would be. It was the people of Ulster who were heroic, caught between the jaws of two opposing ideals trying to grind each other out of existence” (82)....more
I’m scratching my head as to why this particular play is a ubiquitous part of secondary English curricula across America. I’m sure most adolescents poI’m scratching my head as to why this particular play is a ubiquitous part of secondary English curricula across America. I’m sure most adolescents possess the requisite skill for understanding it, but I’m wondering if the play’s emotional impact will only press upon readers old enough to have had at least one dream dashed, one path permanently bulldozed—those who have enough experience with “the whips and scorns of time” not to take themselves and their dreams too seriously.
Death of a Salesman was always presented to me as a rail against capitalism and a critique of the so-called American dream. In this most recent reading, though, that message seemed just a byproduct of the play’s larger theme: man’s alienation from God and the resulting absurdity of existence.
Happy: Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone…it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, doddamnit, I’m lonely.
And it’s this existential theme, not the Marxist one favored by our high school teachers, that makes this play especially poignant and meaningful to me. Willy, he’s just “ a little boat looking for a harbor.”
This time, I paid more attention to the fathers: non-existent fathers (“…Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel—kind of temporary about myself”), ineffectual fathers (“Ben, how should I teach them?”), and insignificant fathers (“…that’s not my father. He’s just a guy.”)
Willy’s the tragic figure here, because, unlike Biff, he can’t accept that, in the world Miller has created, there is no harbor: “A man can’t go out the way he came in…a man has got to add up to something.” But Biff, in a moment that would make Sartre proud, makes a good faith effort to cast off all illusion and embrace his isolation: “Pop, I’m nothing! Can’t you understand that?...I’m just what I am, that’s all.” Does this make him the hero? Or an even bigger fool than Willy and Happy?
Willy is pathetic in the truest sense of the word. I feel deeply for him, because, like Linda Loman says, “he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.”
I also agree with Charley: “no man only needs a little salary.”...more