Monday, December 31, 2012

My Shelf Life: 2012

-Still Life- French Novels, c. 1888, by Vincent van Gogh

This year I knocked off 37 books, and 10,842 pages- give or take. There were three other books I read pretty deeply into, before putting them on hold, but I won’t be counting those pages towards this year’s total. That means I averaged about 30 pages per day, compared to 31 pages per day last year. Pretty darn steady, all things considered.

So, what did I read, you ask? Well, I’d throw the vast majority of it in the classics or contemporary literary fiction category. “Read the best books first,” and all that jazz… But 14% of those pages were non-fiction, 11% of them were mainstream commercial fiction, 6% were plays, and 11% were short story collections. More importantly, I reached all my goals for this year, knocking off an Agatha Christie here, conquering a foreign language read some time before the clock strikes twelve tonight, and ensuring that a full 44% of my reading this year came from the pens of female writers. (Last year, you may remember, there was only one.)

Here is the final list, in the order I read them, with my top ten reads listed in bold (page numbers in parentheses):

1)      The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro  (349)
2)     A Bell for Adano, John Hersey  (269)
3)     Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta  (256)
4)     Wasatch, Douglas Thayer  (235)
5)      The Turn of the Screw, Henry James  (96)
6)     Curtain, Agatha Christie   (240)
7)      Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust   (496)
8)     Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte   (352)
9)     Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte    (320)
10) A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan    (352)
11)   The Vegetable, F. Scott Fitzgerald   (185)
12)  The Fifth Column & Four Unpublished Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Ernest Hemingway   (215)
13)  The Death of a Disco Dancer, David Clark    (336)
14) State of Wonder, Ann Patchett   (384)
15)  The Dead, James Joyce   (80)
16)  Blue Nights, Joan Didion  (208)
17)  Swamplandia, Karen Russell   (336)
18)  Silas Marner, George Eliot   (192)
19)  Home, Toni Morrison   (160)
20)To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee   (336)
21)  Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury   (288)
22) The Human Comedy, William Saroyan   (256)
23) Train Dreams, Denis Johnson   (128)
24)The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides    (416)
25) The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern   (400)
26) Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides   (544)
27) Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer   (416)
28) Moby Dick, Herman Melville   (464)
29) Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton   (106)
30)The Good Earth, Pearl Buck   (418)
31)  Out of Africa, Isak Denisen   (416)
32) Congo, Michael Crichton   (313)
33) Kongo, Michael Crichton   (310)
34) Mythologies, Roland Barthes   (288)
35) The War of Art, Steven Pressfield (158)
36) When the Killing’s Done, T. C. Boyle   (384)
37) Trg Oberdan, Boris Pahor   (140)

Now, coming up with a top ten is always tough. To Kill a Mockingbird  and The Good Earth  were reread precisely because they were already favorites of mine. Even so, there were a handful that could have made the cut if I’d been in a slightly different mood when I read them, but all I can go on is which books I enjoyed the most. 

Twenty six of those authors were brand new to me, which is exciting and disheartening at the same time. I am tearing through new writers at an amazing clip and am still  just scratching the surface. But that's what makes this so much fun.

Now it’s time for you to shame me with your own lists. Whadjyall read this year?

Update: How on earth did I leave On the Road  off this list! Not sure who I would bump from the top ten, but Kerouac definitely belongs in that group.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Author Look-Alikes: Vol. 9

It feels like time for another round of these, doesn’t it? I give you the stern, twin gazes of Jose Saramago and Alan Arkin:
And when you look at Margaret Atwood, don’t you half expect her to bring the house down in a Streisandian rendition of “Memories?” (Because I do.)

Then there’s Grace Paley. Keeping it real, no pretension, no time to brush her hair. She’s just gettin’ stuff done, a la Mrs. Weasley:

And since we’ve crossed over into the world of fantasy, let’s examine Lord of the Flies  author William Golding. He looks a bit like Lord of the Rings  hero Gandalf, three months after chemotherapy:

And this last one I’m not going to call a “look-alike” until someone can prove that both pictures are in fact not  one-and-the-same man. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for James Joyce, world-renowned author and banjo-playing contortionist:

Take us out, Jimmy-Jo!

Monday, December 24, 2012

"They'd chuck'em at you"

When you stop to think about it, there’s really no better way to put yourself in the Christmas spirit than to read about poor tenement children having large Christmas trees flung at them by grown men. So, in that spirit, here is just such a passage from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , by Betty Smith:

There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ‘em at you.” This was literally true.
At midnight on the Eve of our dear Savior's birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest. Kids volunteered to stand up against the throwing. If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree. Only the roughest boys and some of the young men elected to be hit by the big trees. The others waited shrewdly until a tree came up that they could stand against. The littlest kids waited for the tiny, foot-high trees and shrieked in delight when they won one.
On the Christmas Eve when Francie was ten and Neely nine, mama consented to let them go down and have their first try for a tree. Francie had picked out her tree earlier in the day. She had stood near it all afternoon and evening praying that no one would buy it. To her joy it was still there at midnight. It was the biggest tree in the neighborhood and its price was so high that no one could afford to buy it. It was ten feet high. Its branches were bound with new white rope and it came to a sure pure point at the top.
The man took this tree out first. Before Francie could speak up, a neighborhood bully, a boy of eighteen known as Punky Perkins, stepped forward and ordered the man to chuck the tree at him. The man hated the way Punky was so confident. He looked around and asked;
”Anybody else wanna take a chanct on it?”
Francie stepped forward. “Me, Mister.”
A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.
“Aw g’wan. You’re too little,” the tree man objected.
“Me and my brother — we’re not too little together.”
She pulled Neely forward. The man looked at them — a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round. He looked at the little boy with his fair hair and round blue eyes - Neeley Nolan, all innocence and trust.
"Two ain't fair," yelped Punky.
"Shut your lousy trap," advised the man who held all the power in that hour. “These here kids is got nerve. Stand back, the rest of youse. These kids is goin’ to have a show at this tree.”
The others made a wavering lane. Francie and Neeley stood at one end of it and the big man with the big tree at the other. It was a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane. For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go. What’s the tree to me? I can’t sell it no more this year and it won’t keep till next year." The kids watched him solemnly as he stood there in his moment of thought. "But then," he rationalized, if I did that, all the others would expect to get 'em handed to 'em. And next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They’d all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate. I ain’t a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin’. No, I ain't big enough. I ain't big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids." He finally came to his conclusion. "Oh, what the hell! Them two kids is gotta live is this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.” As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, “It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!”
Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood dark and still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her having lived. There was nothing – nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went down to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling.
When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand. Blood was coming from scratches on Neeley’s face. He looked more like a baby than ever with his bewildered blue eyes and the fairness of his skin made more noticeable because of the clear red blood. But they were smiling. Had they not won the biggest tree in the neighborhood? Some of the boys hollered “Hooray!” A few adults clapped. The tree man eulogized them by screaming,
“And now get the hell out of here with your tree, you lousy bastards.”
Francie had heard swearing since she had heard words. Obscenity and profanity had no meaning as such among those people. They were emotional expressions of inarticulate people with small vocabularies; they made a kind of dialect. The phrases could mean many things according to the expression and tone used in saying them. So now, when Francie heard themselves called lousy bastards, she smiled tremulously at the kind man. She knew that he was really saying, Goodbye – God bless you.”
…They set the tree up in the front room after spreading a sheet to protect the carpet of pink roses from falling pine needles. The tree stood in a big tin bucket with broken bricks to hold it upright. When the rope was cut away, the branches spread out to fill the whole room. They draped over the piano and it was so that some of the chairs stood among the branches. There was no money to buy tree decorations or lights. But the tree standing there was enough. The room was cold. It was a poor year, that one- too poor for them to buy the extra coal for the front room stove. The room smelled cold and clean and aromatic. Every day, during the week the tree stood there, Francie put on her sweater and zitful cap and went in and sat under the tree. She sat there and enjoyed the small and the dark greenness of it. Oh, the mystery of a great tree, a prisoner in a tin was bucket in a tenement front room.

Friday, December 21, 2012

On the Road, the movie

In an ideal world, I’d have a babysitter all lined up for tonight so that Mrs. DeMarest and I could go catch the long-awaited movie version of On the Road . Alas, I don’t. And even if I did, the last movie we saw together was Skyfall, which means we’d probably have to veer back to the chick flick side of the spectrum on our next outing. So I may not get to see another literary adaptation this holiday season.

Now, I did see Life of Pi, but since I’d never read the book, I can’t judge it on adaptation merits. (Although the opening credits alone are worth your time- that is one good-looking picture.) Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby was supposed to be a Christmas time release, but it got bumped to next summer, unfortunately. And I’m not exactly dying to see Les Miserables- I’ve never read the book or seen the stage version, and who are we kidding, Susan Boyle has ruined all other “I Dreamed a Dream” renditions for me, so watching a shaggy-headed Anne Hathaway belt it out isn’t going to cut muster. As for a singing Russell Crowe… I’m not sure I’ll ever be up to that (I’m picturing something slightly worse than Pierce Brosnan’s effort in Mamma Mia.)

That’s all a very long way of saying that I have really, really been looking forward to On the Road since I read the book for the first time this past summer. And I’m bummed that I probably won’t see it until it pops up at my local grocery store’s Redbox. Ah well… If you happen to have better luck, fellow movie-goer, or even if you don’t, let us whet your appetite with an On the Road roundup. Here is a smattered assortment of posts we’ve done on Kerouac’s rambling American masterpiece:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Literary Fan Fic?

So you’ve finished a great book, and the author has left you wanting more. Happens all the time, right? Like George Costanza, they’ve gone out on a high note. Well, if you happen to be reading the hottest new sci-fi, YA or fantasy title, you have options- there’s a whole world of fan fiction out there, where enthusiastic amateurs  create sequels, prequels and continuations of the very story and characters you loved so much.

But what if you have a bent for the classics?  Out of luck, right? I thought so, too. But not so fast my friend. Check out the following sub-pages at

And those are just the ones with 25 or more selections available. I haven’t poked around to see if any of it’s any good, but I thought it was interesting just the same.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review: Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

As is usually the case here in Atlanta, we’re not expecting a white Christmas. This is kind of a bummer for an old mountain boy like myself, but I know I’m not alone. If your  present location is lattitudinally or altitudinally challenged, you might just have to turn to literature to get a taste of the white stuff this year. And what book could fit the bill any better than Edith Wharton’s wintry, New England classic, Ethan Frome ?

I’d never read Wharton before this year, but my pleasant surprise with George Eliot's Silas Marner - another  boring, character-name title that does a poor job of advertising its contents-  inspired me to give Ethan Frome   a go. And hey- if Silas Marner  can bring the world of the anti-social, cataleptic weaver to life, who am I to judge the sleep-inducing title of Ethan Frome ? Maybe it can surprise and delight in the same way.

One thing’s for sure: the last thing on earth I would have guessed to be hidden between the covers was the story of a somber sledding tragedy. But that’s exactly what made it three kinds of awesome. From the very start Wharton makes us feel sorry for Ethan Frome- sorry for his family situation, sorry for his missed career and financial troubles, sorry for his being stuck with an overbearing hypochondriac for a wife, and sorry for having true happiness dangled temptingly in front of him when he finally meets his unobtainable soulmate, Mattie.

But it’s all a heart-wrenching tease. Propriety’s too powerful for these star-crossed lovers, and they’re forced to go their separate ways. Or are they? There are hints of a happy resolution, if they’ve only got the guts to make it happen.

And it could just be that I’m a pretty daft processor of foreshadowing, but I was hoping for and predicting the two of them running off together to close out the story- a happy ending a la Silas Marner. I did not see the "super sledding suicide pact" coming. That one hit me like the Elm tree that paralyzed Mattie and disfigured poor old Ethan. 

But there you have it. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hadn't yet sung their famous diddy, so all Frome had to go on was Mattie's warped toboggan deathwish: If you can't be with the one you love, mangle their spinal chord so you can at least have them always nearby. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe only wrote one full-length novel. The modern reader may not hear much about it anymore, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t plenty influential in its day. Baudelaire translated it into French and riffed on it in some of his own poetry. Jules Verne is said to have greatly admired the book, even penning what can only be called a “fan-fiction” sequel called An Antarctic Mystery . Henry James alluded to the book in The Golden Bowl  and Jorge Luis Borges praised it as Poe’s greatest work. Moby Dick may have drawn pretty heavily on parts of it, and readers of Life of Pi  (or viewers of the gorgeous new movie by the same name) may not even realize that the tiger’s name, Richard Parker, is an homage to Poe’s only novel.

Having said all that, I can’t remember a book I’ve read in the past couple years whose ending was so unworthy of its beginning. In reality, it’s kind of impossible to give Pym  a fair reading in this day and age. In the latter half of the book Poe was postulating about the completely unknown world of the Antarctic- something even casual modern readers know quite a bit about nowadays. For this reason, the whole last half of the book fell flat for me. But the beginning was something else!

This book started out promising intrigue and adventure, and did a great job delivering on both counts. Our narrator is secreted away in the inaccessible lower decks of a ship by his friend, the nephew of the captain. They agree that they need to wait a certain period of time before exposing their stowaway plan, so that it becomes impractical to turn back to port. But when the prearranged period comes and goes with no word at all from the friend, Pym is left in his stuffy hellhole of a hiding place, having exhausted his supplies of food or drink and having no clue what’s going on above deck. As the narrator plays out his mental and physical suffering, we’re treated to some classic Poe-ian angst, every bit as good as the suffering in the “Tell-tale Heart.”

From there the story leaps into a classic adventure tale, filled with mutiny, violent sea storms, starvation, cannibalism and finally, rescue.

And here’s where I wish I had put the book down. The survivors are rescued by a boat en route to the Antarctic for the purpose of exploration. (Keep in mind, no one knew of Antarctica when Poe put his story down on paper.) But what follows is page after page of sleep-inducing, faux-scientific detail about the flora and fauna on various islands in the southern seas. Seriously, by the time you’ve used the word “declivity” for the sixth or seventh time, I think it’s safe to say your story has come off the rails.

Their discoveries include a black-skinned, black-teethed race of men, and some fifteen foot long relative of the polar bear. The crew is eventually slaughtered by this strange native people, all except for Pym and another man, who continue south in a dinghy into mysterious, milky-white seas where a giant magical figure appears out of nowhere and brings the book to a close.

Really, that’s how it ends. I guess if I had picked up the book when it was published in 1838, and the Antarctic region was still as unknown to Poe’s readers as some distant planets are to us, it might have fared a little better in my judgment. As it is, though, I can only say that Poe started out strong, then put me to sleep, then woke me up and repeatedly jumped the proverbial shark.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"A fairy city made of silver cardboard"

"While Katie was arguing with the movers, Johnny took Francie up to the roof. She saw a whole new world. Not far away was the the lovely span of the Williamsburg Bridge. Across the East River, like a fairy city made of silver cardboard, the skyscrapers loomed cleanly. There was the Brooklyn Bridge further away like an echos of the nearer bridge.
“It’s pretty,” said Francie. “It’s pretty the same way pictures of in-the-country are pretty.”
“I go over that bridge sometimes when I go to work,” Johnny said.
Francie looked at him in wonder. He  went over that magic bridge and still talked and looked like always? She couldn’t get over it. She put her hand out and touched his arm. Surely the wonderful experience of going over that bridge would make him feel  different. She was disappointed because his arm felt as it had always felt.
-from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , by Betty Smith

Friday, December 14, 2012

The "Further" Adventures of Dean Moriarty

We’ve “diagnosed” Dean Moriarty here, and the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog looked at his (Neal Cassady’s) literary influence a couple days ago. But if you followed the links to the YouTube videos in that second article, you got a real treat: rare footage of Cassady at his manic best. See for yourself:

I love the “Neal Gets Things Done” sign at the front of the bus...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Bell Tolls for... Spain?

We don’t often talk politics here, but I know some of you writer-types are still smarting from the recent election.

No, no, no, not the U.S. Presidential election, I’m talking about the recent elections in Spain- and Catalonia in particular- which looked like it might finally be headed toward secession from the Kingdom of Spain.

See, earlier this year the Convergence and Unity party, which has ruled Catalonia for the past couple decades, finally made the switch from championing greater autonomy for Catalonia within  Spain, to outright support for a referendum on Independence (a majority of Catalans support Independence). Of course, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the central government in Madrid have said they will do anything necessary to block such an action, which sounds kind of like the makings of another Spanish Civil War, does it not?

Now, as we’ve said elsewhere, we would obviously never hope for war. But could a modern Catalan independence movement be the springboard for a new generation of writers, just as the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades was for Hemingway, Orwell, Dos Passos, Gellhorn, Garcia Lorca and countless others?

We may never know. Arthur Mas and the Convergence and Unity party actually lost seats in the November 25th election. Other pro-independence parties gained new seats, but it was not the clear mandate that Senor Mas was looking for. Would-be writers may have to look to Scotland’s upcoming independence vote, or hope for Quebec to bristle again under the harsh oppression of Mother Canada.

Or, they could just write their stuff anyway. Also a possibility, I guess.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Review: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

-author is third from the left

This was a rare (for me) excursion into the world of non-fiction- only my second all year. I guess I’m sort of weird that way: I want my fiction to be believable, and solidly based in reality, but I want my non-fiction to be lyrical and impactful without blatent preaching. Having loved Krakauer’s Into the Wild , (and giving in to my obsession with adventure tales of all types) I thought this one might just fit the bill. It certainly did.

This fast-reading, but deftly-turned book is a firsthand account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster. It’s a book that will have you dreaming of reaching the summit at the same time it convinces you that you’d just as likely be one of the poor saps who finds an early grave there every year. (Ten lost their lives in 2012 alone.)

Like an intricate thriller, Krakauer’s story will have you replaying insignificant early events in your head, as you learn how they became anything but  insignificant to the various climbers and guides trapped on the mountain. It’s a book filled with the kind survival stories that would have you rolling your eyes in disbelief if it were a work of fiction. Knowing that it’s not, though, you’ll be sucked into the account, coughing up pink sputum with all the other altitude-stricken climbers and pulling for them to get back to their tents when all hell breaks loose.

As a work of literature, it’s not going to bowl anyone over, but it will  transport you to a place you’ll likely never see. And that right there is worth the price of admission. Check it out:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Another Month in the can!

Blink and you’ll miss it. We’ve been up and running for 13 months now. Above are the authors we’ve covered in the past month and below are the five most popular posts from that period:

And, as always, the crazy search terms that brought you here:

  • Hobbies of Mitt Romney >>> Apparently weeding aint one of ‘em
  • Phileas Fogg’s travel maps >>> Takes you here
  • The head last horseman >>> Google doesn’t care you can’t spell
  • Oulipo >>> Our only post on the subject
  • Kurt Vonnegut Infantry >>> I busted a gut reading this
  • Indiana Jones last crusade footage >>> Ahh, adventure novels!
  • Photo of shelly duvall’s mother >>> Mmm, no. But Joyce Carol Oates, yes.
  • Hemingway’s third wife >>> The HBO hagiography
  • Axiom shelf >>> One way to start your book
  • Mawwiage >>> My parents’ 50th, again.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Haiku-ption contest #12

To get you ready for the holidays, today’s haiku-ption contest carries a Christmas theme. Mine is below, throw your own in the comments as usual!

B.A. Barraccus
Mohawked stand-in for Santa
Nancy all aglow

Friday, December 7, 2012

Reading in a foreign language

In January I set a goal of reading a great work of Slovene literature this year. Easy enough right? Except that I vowed to read it in the original Slovene. Uh, yeah… ever so slightly tougher- even if I happen to speak the language. So as December neared I was not surprised to find myself just short of finishing this goal. Okay, okay. Just short of starting it, actually.

So I picked up my chosen volume, a relatively slender, contemporary novel by Boris Pahor- and then quickly put the project on hold. You see, like most people with work and family responsibilities, I tend to do a lot of my reading in bed. The disadvantage to this is that a tough read gets even tougher since my brain is absolutely shredded by the time the kids fall asleep. The one advantage I have is that I can tackle a work of Slovene literature with my wife, a native speaker, right beside me. So I began to pepper her with questions.

You can take a guess how pleasant that was for her, as she tried to read her own books (in English, coincidentally.) So, after being asked to “read the whole sentence” and provide some context for my repeated questions, we both end up frustrated. So, undaunted, I tried the dictionary route.

Unfortunately, there are few things as agonizingly slow as flipping through a dictionary in search of a word whose correct original ending you have to first deduce because, ya know, every noun has a gender and the noun’s ending (and its adjective’s ending) changes depending on which of the six cases and three numbers is used (yes, Slovene has declensions and verb conjugations for singular, plural and  dual- they’re overachievers that way.) And at the end of all of that, you might find that the word is part of an idiom that isn’t listed in your typical dictionary, so I then have to flip through my Slovene/English dictionary of idioms to get the true intended meaning.

I am a patient man. But I’m not that patient. So then I considered just reading the book cold, and seeing if things would clear up over time. If I read in Slovene, I can generally grasp between 60 and 75% of it, depending on the difficulty of the writing. And while that’s pretty good for your average American, it’s absolutely maddening to someone like me, who cannot allow himself to skip a single word when I read a book in English. Letting 25% or more of a text float by me is extremely unnerving, and I’m extremely quick to give it up- which is what I did.

But the goal still nagged me. It was a worthy aspiration, and one that wasn’t so much difficult as it was time-consuming. So, it seemed a pity to let it get the best of me. I took a step back and came up with a new strategy: I would find another book, with an English translation, and try the old side-by-side method until I got into a good flow. After running through an entire book that way, I would return to my Pahor novel (for which there is  no English translation), and see if I couldn’t nudge my contextual understanding from a pitiful 60%, to something closer to 90%. That, I think, I could live with.

End result? TBD. I still have 25 days before time runs out, and I’m already 100 pages into Michael Crichton’s Congo  (as well as Michael Crichton’s Kongo .) I started out with paragraph by paragraph comparisons, and have since graduated to section by section comparisons. If I’m tired, I read the English first, but I am getting more comfortable and picking more things up through context when I try to tackle the Slovene first. After another 200 pages, perhaps I’ll really be ready to tackle the Pahor.

Anyone else tried this? Any other advice/methods/warnings/encouragement you would share? Go right ahead.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Writers in the Lonely Hearts Club

Remember that time when Edgar Allen Poe, Aldous Huxley, Dylan Thomas, Terry Southern, William S. Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Crane, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll and T.E. Lawrence all got to together with a few friends and held a giant photoshoot?

Yeah, well, the project that gave birth to that motley gathering kicked off forty six years ago today. Above is the shot that finally landed on  the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. Can you find the writers named above? No? Me neither. (I could only find five without the help of a key.)  But see below for all the writerly call-outs:

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Books that take hold of you

…like literally. Some very cool public benches in Istanbul, featuring the works of celebrated Turkish authors.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Georgia vs. Bama: The Lit Crit Catfight

Georgia fans might be a little bitter after losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship the other night, but let’s face it, this bad blood is nothing new. Even the world of literature has not been immune to the effects of this southern rivalry.

When Bama belle Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird  to great acclaim in 1960, Georgia girl Carson McCullers reportedly wrote the following to her cousin: "Well, honey, one thing we know is that she's been poaching on my literary preserves."  (Hiss! Reer!)

And another female Georgian author, Flannery O’Connor, tried a more subtle “bless her heart” back-handed compliment of Lee: "I think for a child's book it does all right. It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they're reading a child's book. Somebody ought to say what it is."

Apparently, hell hath no fury like a female southern gothic author scorned.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Wrestlemania: Roland Barthes vs. "Jeff"

I doubt I would have picked up Roland Barthes’ Mythologies , if I hadn’t loved the heck out of The Marriage Plot  by Jeffrey Eugenides. But I did, so... I did.

Still, I feared I was headed for some hoity-toity philosophy text that I would find extremely hard-to-follow. Imagine my surprise when the first essay jumps right into the seedy world of professional wrestling. He makes some great points about how the petty bourgeois spectacle of wrestling is just the latest evolution of ancient Greek theater:
“There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque [Barthes here refers to characters in neo-classic French plays by Molière and Racine]. Of course, there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unnecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight; this is of no interest. True wrestling, wrong called amateur wrestling, is performed in second-rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest, like the audience at a suburban cinema. Then these same people wax indignant because wrestling is a stage-managed sport (which ought, by the way, to mitigate its ignominy). The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”
Now, I once paid hard-earned money to see the Undertaker and the Ultimate Warrior clash in a so-called “Body Bag Match” in 1991, so this could just be me justifying my junior high dalliances, but I think there’s definitely some truth in what Barthes is saying- maybe wrestling isn't so much about maintaining a veneer of believability, but fills some deeper human need instead.

Of course, this guy would disagree: