Monday, April 30, 2012

A Reading Check-up

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve already put a third of the year behind us. Time to check in on our reading resolutions, no? Below is my quick progress report; you can add your own in the comments.

Goal #1 Read more women:  So far so good. I’ve been hovering right around 50% women authors all year, and I imagine I’ll end up somewhere north of 50% by the end of 2012.

Goal #2 Read an Agatha Christie novel before I see it adapted on screen: Check. Review can be found here.

Goal #3 Read a foreign language novel in the original: No progress yet, but then again, it’s only April. Get off my back, dude.

Now for the tallies:

Books read so far:  13   (on pace to beat last year’s 32)
Pages read so far: 3,701  (current pace puts me 250 pages below last year’s 11,358)
They break down something like this: eight novels and one novella (73% of total), two short story collections (18% of total), one play, and one play-short story combo (9% of total). All of it classic or contemporary literary fiction.

And here’s the list:

  1. The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro 
  2. A Bell for Adano, John Hersey 
  3. Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta 
  4. Wasatch, Douglas Thayer 
  5. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James 
  6. Curtain, Agatha Christie  
  7. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust  
  8. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte  
  9. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte   
  10. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan   
  11. The Vegetable, F. Scott Fitzgerald  
  12. The Fifth Column & Four Unpublished Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Ernest Hemingway  
  13. The Death of a Disco Dancer, David Clark

What about you? What have you read this year? Which books have  knocked your socks off?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What they were reading...

“In those days there was no money to buy books. I borrowed books from the rental library of Shakespeare & Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odeon… 

“I started with Turgenev and took two volumes of A Sportsman’s Sketches and an early book of D.H. Lawrence, I think it was Sons and Lovers, and Sylvia told me to take more books if I wanted. I chose the Constance Garnett edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dostoyevsky.” 
-Earnest Hemingway, in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast.

One of the cardinal rules of good writing is to read. A lot. This is our first post in a series that examines the reading habits of some of the greats.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Live Deliberately: Play Video Games

One of our inaugural posts last November pointed people to the Great Gatsby video game. In the comments of that post I joked that a “first-person hacker” game a la Crime and Punishment  might be equally engaging, if a little more violent. Not to be outdone, some enterprising minds at USC have suckered the NEA into a $40,000 grant to develop an online video game based on Henry David Thoreau’s contemplative classic, Walden:

“The player will inhabit an open, three-dimensional game world which will simulate the geography and environment of Walden Woods.”

It should be a rip-roaring good time.
-H/T GalleyCat

Friday, April 27, 2012

First Line Viernes

Alas, it's time to look at a first line from a reputable novel once again.  And this novel is very reputable.  Of course, it's none other than Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," which commences as follows:

"Jewel and I came up from the field, following the path in single file."

Now, I have the same sentiments toward this first line as I do the rest of the novel; indifference.  This first line does nothing for me, although I find it acceptable.  Simply acceptable.  Not stellar, not intriguing, not even interesting.  I struggle with ol Faulkner (perhaps because I am a self-proclaimed Hemingway-phile).  Perhaps I have lost my mind and am just now exposing my literary merit as weak, but Faulkner, to me, is simply bleh.

If you are a Faulkner connoisseur, PLEASE help me!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"The Trench" by Erri De Luca

Welcome back to ShelfActualization's monthly short story club.  This month, we have a dandy.  To start, look at this opening line:

"When I found the sewer pipe I was happy, but I couldn't smile."

Beautiful, short, and altogether intriguing.  But the rest of the story is what really burns me up.  I've been fascinated by this story for years simply because it takes an otherwise ordinary, or even sub-ordinary, situation (that of digging a trench outside of Paris to locate a buried sewer pipe) and converts this ordinary situation into an immense moment of profundity.

All of a sudden down in this ordinary trench with a shovel and pick ax, we are dealing with a myriad of profound human experiences.  For example:

  • Identity ("The other man was me, a thirty-two year old Italian laborer . . . At midday, between mouthfuls of highly spiced watery soup, we talked for a while in our rudimentary common French, then each returned to his own thoughts in his mother tongue.")

  • Sanity ("At the end of the first week the man who was with me started to crack . . . 'Trouve? Tu l'as trouve?' the hoarse voice of a lost man, the common exhalation of the trenches of the century.")

  • Death ("I assured him that if the trench were going to collapse it would do so only at night, when the damp came . . . one shouldn't speak of death with one's foot in the grave.")

  • Socioeconomics ("But why should a man have to suffer this way?  Why in the world should a human being have to earn bread for his children with a noose around his neck?") 

  • Free Will ("Then I decided that he was no help to me - I would manage better on my own. So, in front of the other workers, I asked [the boss] to let me finish the job alone."

Thus we have an ordinary situation laced with profound themes.  And so, my conclusion is this:  The Trench masterfully portrays the immensity of a mundane moment in a trench with a shovel under the French sky.  And why do we not notice more often the immensity of mundane moments in our own lives?


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Short Story Club: The Trench by Erri De Luca

Welcome (again) to's Short Story Club.  This month's selection comes to us from arguably the most over-trodden god-forsaken country of Europe: Italy.

But, in spite of my low-level contempt for Italy, I find this month's short story selection very relevant.  Erri De Luca published The Trench in the March 2006 edition of The New Yorker.  I am assuming most of us are completely unacquainted with Erri De Luca, so let's have a quick look:  Born in 1950 in Naples, he has become a radical left wing idealist.  He has worked in Italy and France as a truck driver and mason.  Now considered to be a recluse, he lives in an isolated cottage in the hills far outside of Rome.

Now again, he is Italian.  So that sucks.  But let's get over it.  Here is the link to The Trench.  We'll meet back here tomorrow to discuss.  I couldn't look forward to it more than I currently do.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Russian Rumble

We haven’t forgotten about you, Literary Death Match fans. We’ve simply had to postpone our next match a couple of weeks while ringside reporter Kelly Wallace continues to recover from injuries sustained in the last title bout. 

But while you wait for the highly-anticipated Bronte sister beat-down, we thought we’d point you to another head-to-head match up playing out over at the Millions. They asked the experts who’s greater, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. It's definitely worth a read.

Monday, April 23, 2012

How to Read Truly Great Literature

My apologies to anyone who thought this post was going to be profound.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"The Punishment of X4" and "The Man With the Miniature Orchestra"

Well, it only took four episodes for Mad Men to stroke our curiosity of a few weeks ago. Closet fictioneers, all is well; account man Ken Cosgrove is writing again.

Last week we learned that he has begun training his fiction-writing fetish on the science-fiction & fantasy genre, under the pen name of Ben Hargrove. We got the description of one story titled “The Punishment of X4” wherein a robot who maintains a commuter bridge between two planets removes a bolt that brings the whole thing crashing down. Genius.

He’s publishing in magazines, pitching an anthology to Farrar Strauss, and things generally seem to be looking up for him until Roger makes it clear that he is to stop moon-lighting and focus on his day-job. Ken dutifully kills off the Hargrove alias, and with it, his foray into genre fiction.

But he’s far from giving up his one true passion. Ken takes up a new pseudonym, Dave Algonquin, and the episode ends as he scribbles the opening lines of his newest short story, “The Man With the Miniature Orchestra.”
“There were phrases of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that still made Coe cry. He always thought it had to do with the circumstances of the composition itself. He imagined Beethoven, deaf and soul-sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while Death stood in the doorway clipping his nails. Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”
Anyone want to take a crack at finishing that one off? I’d get a kick out of reading it.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Writer's Voice

Sometimes we become so immersed in the distinctive literary voice of an author, that when we hear that same author's actual speaking voice, it can be a little jolting. My little brother forwarded me this interview at the passing of Mike Wallace last week. Take a moment to soak up Ayn Rand’s arrant views, as delivered through her strong Russian accent and cigarette-scorched voicebox.

So …Ayn Rand.

Some people have problems with her Objectivist philosophy. Others take issue with her Godlessness. Still other criticize her characters and her writing. But why on earth do I never hear one word about her love scenes? She’s got a little bit of a rape fantasy she’s trying to work through, and to me at least, it’s a little unsettling. And the exchange on the subject of love  embedded above  (about 8:00 in)  doesn't exactly help. In case you didn’t watch to the end, here is the excerpt I’m talking about:

Rand:    You love only those who deserve it.
Wallace:    And then, if a man is weak, or a woman is weak, then she is beyond, he is beyond, love?
Rand:    He certainly doesn’t deserve it. He certainly is beyond- he can always correct it. Man has free will. If a man wants love, he should correct his weaknesses or his flaws, and he may deserve it. But he cannot expect the unearned, either in love, or in money; either in method or in spirit.
Wallace:    But you have lived in our world and you realize, recognize the fallibility of human beings. There are very few of us, then, in this world, by your standards, who are worthy of love.
Rand:    Uh, unfortunately, yes. Very true.


Friday, April 20, 2012

First Line Friday!

"Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure."
That’s how this famous first line appears in the original French. It’s a line that has been translated a number of different ways throughout the years:
"For a long time I used to go to bed early."  (C. K. Scott Moncrieff)
"For a long time I would go to bed early."  (D J Enright) 
"For a long time, I went to bed early."  (Lydia Davis)
Then again, it’s from a book whose translated title is still the subject of some debate. It’s an interesting first line, in that it serves as the opening salvo for the novel Swann’s Way, as well as the introduction to Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past, if you prefer that title).  

In either case, it’s a deceptively short and straightforward opening into a work whose later sentences can seem like veritable labyrinths to an overwhelmed reader. You’ll feel like a world-class hurdler as you learn to work your way over dependent clause after dependant clause, keeping your eye on the subject and racing in search of its main predicate ten lines down the page. Frankly, it’s a bit of a mess before you get used to it.

Still, I don’t know if I’ve read many books that reached me on quite so deep a level, or many authors who are quite so precise or so thorough in getting their meanings across. And I think the extremely personal nature of the prose starts in that very first line.

Anyone read it? Did you like it? Hate it? Toss it of with ambivalence? I’d be interested to hear.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: A Room With A View, by E.M. Forster

There are some among our readership who really have it in for E.M. Forster (what gives?), but we hope you’ll bear with us as we review that author’s A Room With A View.

The book was my first introduction to Forster, and I have to say that I came away generally pleased. It’s not a read that will keep you on the edge of your seat- its major plot points are conversations, betrayals of confidence, and rumors about who will rent the vacant cottage at such and such a place. But if it won’t keep you on the edge of your seat, I think there’s enough to keep you in  your seat- to keep you reading right to the very end.

Now, it is at its core, a romance. This means that the story is wholly dependent on a simple misunderstanding between the two principle characters stretching the entire length of the book. If George an Lucy were able at any moment to actually sit down and have a half-way decent conversation, there would be no story. But true to form, they aren’t; and so there is. Fine.

But here’s where Forster really whimps out: The tension builds and builds (Will Lucy end her engagement to Cecil? Is George’s father really a murderer? Did George not only steal a kiss, but blabber about it to a popular novelist?) We anxiously await the moment when George and Lucy do  finally hash things out, when she realizes that she loves him and always has- but just at the crucial moment- Forster fumbles the ball! He hits the fast forward button and next thing you know, George and Lucy are back in Florence, reminiscing about the winding road that brought them back there. No catharsis, just a few loose ends tied up after the fact. It’s as if he thought that scene would be really difficult to write, so he played it out off-stage. It was a bit of a disappointment.

Still, there is a lot of beautiful writing, some great characters and nice settings. And he presents enough interesting insights into love and happiness and religion to have earned a second read from me. So, for the Forster fans out there: where should I go next? Howard’s End? Or A Passage To India?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From Silver Screen to Printed Page

Often, when the subject of film adaptations comes up, we hear the familiar refrain “Yeah, but the book was better.” But what do we say when the reverse is true- when a book began life as a movie or a screenplay? Here are three such books that are well worth your time.

The Human Comedy, by William Saroyan:
Hired by MGM to write the screenplay for this project, Saroyan was eventually removed after refusing to compromise on the length. While Louis B. Mayer pushed forward on the film version, Saroyan raced to publish his longer version first, as a novel. It’s a short, breezy read… for a book, if not for a screenplay.

Dances With Wolves, by Michael Blake:
Kevin Costner fell in love with this spec-script sometime in the mid-eighties, but Blake had a hard time selling it to anyone. Costner encouraged him to turn it into a novel, with the hopes that it would improve his chances at a sale. Released as a paperback in 1988, Costner finally bought the rights himself. The rest is history. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 1990.

No Country For Old Men, by Cormack McCarthy:
Originally penned as a screenplay, McCarthy had little luck in selling this story to Hollywood. As an accomplished novelist, he didn’t need Kevin Costner to tell him to turn it into a novel, which he did in 2005. Enter the Coen brothers, who faithfully adapted the book back into a screenplay in 2007. Four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, were the result.

It’s an interesting subject. I know Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy started life as a radio play. (The Infinite Improbablility Drive was Adams’s ingenious way of extending a story he thought was already over.) Certainly in the cases of Dances With Wolves and No Country For Old Men, I think it’s probably safe to say that “the movie was better than the book.” Anyone know of any others?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

From the Pen of Jennifer Egan

As a follow-up to yesterday’s review I thought I’d give you a taste of Jennifer Egan’s style. One of the things that struck me about Goon Squad  was her ability to be colorful without being florid. Her descriptions are filled with everyday language that still manages to paint a vivid picture. Here are just a few passages that hit me where it counts (as usual, all emphasis is mine):
They sink onto the sand, still faintly warm, radiating a lunar glow.

The palm trees make a slapping, rainy sound, but the air is dry.
Sasha gathered up her ubiquitous black bag, a shapeless wishing well from which she'd managed to wrest whatever file or number or slip of paper he'd needed for the past twelve years.

The sun rose, big and shiny and round, like an angel lifting her head. I’d never seen it so brilliant out there. Silver poured over the water.  

The blinds of his loft were up and a tinge of shower humidity hung in the air, pleasantly cut by the smell of brewing coffee.

Bosco brought Stephanie coffee and then began a juddering emersion into his chair, which suctioned around him in a gelatinous grip.

An unsuccessful hip replacement had left him with the lurching, belly-hoisting walk of a refrigerator on a hand truck.

 Kitty came toward him slowly- poured toward him, really, that was how smoothly she moved in her sage green dress, as if the jerking awkwardness of walking were something she’d never experienced.

That is some good stuff. It seems there’s a certain magic in backloading your sentences- sticking the most memorable phrases and descriptions on the tail end for maximum impact.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Visit From the Goon Squad: Believe the hype

Alright. I had my doubts, it’s true.

I had a hard time believing that I would enjoy A Visit from the Goon Squad  half as much as book bloggers, reviewers and members of the Pulitzer Prize Board seemed to think I should. In fact, I was ready to cry foul after the first couple pages, where I encountered parentheses in nearly every paragraph, suspiciously effeminate descriptors like “silvery” and “spiky-haired” and gag-inducing phrases like, “not a bangle jangled.” Blast them all, I thought to myself, I’ve been lured straight into a chick-lit booby trap.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Turns out Egan was just playing with characterization- something she does extremely well. The first chapter introduces us to a kleptomaniac record-producer’s assistant, but from there the book branches out and explores the world of her boss and his broken family, her boss’s mentor and his even brokener family, as well as the friendships and falling-outs that shaped the lives of each of the main characters from the beginning.

It’s a collection of interconnected tales that unfold in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with some Italian ghettos and African Bush thrown in for good measure. Each of the stories could easily stand on its own, but together they read like a rangy, meandering novel that explores a number of different viewpoints, characters and timeframes along the way.

Egan does an incredible job of immersing us in the lives of her characters and making their every interaction an exciting new piece of the puzzle. And even when I had my guard up for gimmicks, she seemed to pull them off effortlessly. A chapter written in second person? Recipe for disaster. Yet there we are, drowning in the East River as a doped-up, college-aged, closeted homosexual. Seventy-five straight pages of Powerpoint slides? Again, I was ready for the worst. But Egan crafts a believable narrative out of the dribs and drabs of a teenaged girl’s unorthodox diary.

The last chapter may be the most unconventional of all, but I won’t say any more, for fear of spoiling the read for others. (Still, if anyone knows where I can get a Scotty Haussman Concert T-shirt, I’d certainly like to hear from you.) But do yourself a favor and check out A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fall asleep with a good book (or a couple thousand)

Well, the days are getting longer and before we know it summer will be upon us. It’s not too early to start planning your next foray into the wilderness.  100BestBooks pointed us to this tent available at Field Candy:

That’s pretty cool. Of course, the slightly more ambitious, slightly less water-proof option is to build your own book igloo. It’s a bit heavier to pack in and a little more labor intensive to set up, but we think you'll agree that it's infinitely cooler, if you can pull it off:

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Big Fish, Wrapped in a Small Book, Inside a Short Video: Part II

As is often the case, one good thing usually leads us to another. Last weekend we shared a short video retelling Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in a series of stop-motion hand drawings.

Now we’ve discovered the amazing animated short below. Created over the course of two years by artist Alexandr Petrov, this paint-on-glass animation netted Petrov the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1999. The original film runs about 20 minutes, but this 8-minute version still captures the major plot points of The Old Man and the Sea. And it’s gorgeous to look at:


Friday, April 13, 2012

First Line Friday!

This week's first line comes from a novel that finds itself in my list of the ten greatest novels I've ever read. And from what I can tell, it's somewhat unknown. In the very least, I wouldn't consider it prominent. The line is from Ivan Doig's 1987 novel, Dancing At The Rascal Fair (which is a title that I dislike, but the novel is very good). Here is the first line:

"To say the truth, it was not how I expected - stepping off toward America past a drowned horse."

Has anyone out there ever read Ivan Doig, or more specifically, Dancing at the Rascal Fair? I've encountered very few who have. If you haven't, please do so.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

From the Pen of E.M. Forster

I was just getting ready to type up a short review of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, when I stumbled upon these excerpts I had highlighted during my read. I love how Forster gives life to inanimate objects (his face “sprang into tenderness” or “battalions of black pines witnessed the change”) and just as easily turns human characters into inanimate works of art (“She saw him once again at Rome, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…”).

But I think my favorite passage is the third one below. It also happens to be the central plot point of the book. The image of violets running like liquid color is something that has stayed with me since I finished the book last fall. It’s beautiful stuff. All emphasis below is mine- they’re just the lines that knocked me senseless.

She watched the singular creature pace up and down the chapel. For a young man his face was rugged, and--until the shadows fell upon it--hard. Enshadowed, it sprang into tenderness. She saw him once again at Rome, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, carrying a burden of acorns. Healthy and muscular, he yet gave her the feeling of greyness, of tragedy that might only find solution in the night. The feeling soon passed; it was unlike her to have entertained anything so subtle. Born of silence and of unknown emotion, it passed when Mr. Emerson returned, and she could re-enter the world of rapid talk, which was alone familiar to her. 

She could not complete it, and looked out absently upon Italy in the wet. The whole life of the South was disorganized and the most graceful nation in Europe had turned into formless lumps of clothes. The street and the river were dirty yellow, the bridge was dirty gray, and the hills were dirty purple.

 Light and beauty enveloped her. She had fallen onto a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end. From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, heading round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion. This terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth. Standing at its brink like a swimmer who prepares, was the “good man.” But he was not the good man she had expected, and he was alone. George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw a radiant joy in her face. He saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her. 

In the Weald, autumn approached, breaking up the green monotony of summer, touching the parks with the gray-blue of mist, the beech trees with russet, the oak trees with gold. Up on the heights battalions of black pines witnessed the change, themselves unchangeable. Either country was spanned by a cloudless sky and in either arose the tinkle of church bells. 

Lucy’s Sabbath was generally of this amphibious nature. She kept it without hypocrisy in the morning, and broke it without reluctance in the afternoon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Five Months Down!

Today we throw another month in the ol’ archive and celebrate our best traffic stats to date. Thanks to all of you who drop by sporadically, to the diehards who check in every day, and to those who take the time to comment and to link to us across the interwebs. Whatever your interest in this site, we love that you’re here. Come back soon, and come back often.

We’ve covered some great writers in the past 29 days, as you can see in the word cloud above. As usual, here are the ten strangest search terms that led people here, along with the links to whatever they found:

  • Commercial Shipping   >>>>  Yep. We’ve covered that here.
  • 1920s outdoor spigot   >>>>  We touched on this briefly, as well.
  • Explosion of awesome   >>>>  This could really land you on any of our pages, but most likely this one in particular.
  • African goose egg   >>>>  A throw-away line from this post.
  • Highschool freshman English   >>>>  First Line Friday… diagrammed! (to the best of my lackluster ability)
  • Ear stretcher girl   >>>>  We have no idea where this person ended up. Ear might take you here. Stretcher here. Girl? Who knows.
  • Animal House Ending   >>>>  Ah, one of our inaugural posts, forever lost in the obscurity of our earliest days.
  • Do Mothers Against Drunk Driving Sell Magazine Subscriptions   >>>>  Great question. I have no idea where we’ve answered it, though.
  • John Blutarsky wearing shorts   >>>>   This post, again.
  • Table graph of bullfights in Spain   >>>>  It has nothing to do with bull-fights (an oversight we regret), but there are graphs galore here.

And, of course, we’ll leave you with our five most popular posts from this past month:

We’d like to make this site as great as our mothers think it is. Let us know how we’re doing in the comments. What do you like? What bores you to death? Things like that…

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Poet's Corner

-Image courtesy of Fashion Abuse
by Marcus Jackson, from Neighborhood Register. © Caravan Kerry Press, 2011.
—to Nicole

Finished early at the library,
          I strolled Canal Street to fill
          empty hours
before we'd meet home for dinner.

          Late-winter light sneered,
          reluctant to leave
the streets, bargain tables
          with t-shirts or imposter purses,
          jewelry coves
where gold necklaces refracted
          from squares of scarlet felt.

          All down Mulberry, arched
garlands of festival bulbs
          shined champagne.

          From Italian restaurant stoops,
waiters with handsome accents
          lured tourists by describing
          entrées like landscapes.

At Ferrara's dessert café,
          the wait bent
          halfway up the clogged block.
I whittled inside, browsed
          glass cabinets of cookies,
          yellow-shelled cannolis,
cakes displayed
on paper placemats
          that looked like lace.

I arrived 40 minutes late.
          You balanced, hand
          against bedroom door-jamb,
pulling off your office heels.

          Once you noticed the bakery box
          under my arm, your face calmed—
my earlier whereabouts
          evidenced in sweetness
          we would fork from the same plate.

This is a great little poem. I love how the first four stanzas start out slowly, just snapshots and observations from a lengthy stroll, and then in the final three stanzas we get a series of images that hone in on something very personal. Still, until those final few lines, you get the sense that the whole thing is centered on the narrator.

But the last stanza turns the aimless loafer into a romantic hero. It suddenly becomes a statement about a couple’s intimacy. And those last three lines are worth the price of admission alone:

“my earlier whereabouts
          evidenced in sweetness
          we would fork from the same plate”

Very good, no? Have you had your socks knocked off by a good poem lately? Share them in the comments.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Lending Library at the End of the Earth

I’ve talked about my interactions with lending libraries here. But in today’s post, I thought we’d strike out a little farther afield. I’m talking about the lending library at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station at the South Pole.

As background, let me just say that I’m an unabashed blog voyeur (there’s probably a post of its own in that statement, but I’ll save that for another day.) I rarely, if ever, reach out to these internet authors on whom I drop in unannounced (the same way the vast majority of you will never leave a comment here), but every once in a while you come upon a question that tickles your curiosity- one that you’ll likely never get answered if you don’t just go ahead and ask it. So that’s what I did.

I wanted to learn something about the reading life for Winter-overs at the South Pole. How much people read, what kinds of things they read, whether any book-clubs or literary discussions pop up during those long, dark days at the station, etc. So I emailed the author of this blog to find out. Here's her very interesting reply:

"The winter-over reading life tends to be a personal one. We have a "library" with books filed by category and author, books are free to take or add at will. There's also an unorganized huge bookshelf in one of the lounges. That one tends to be paperbacks in the sci-fi/mystery dept, or bestsellers like Grisham and Dan Browns.

 "But in my two winters no organized reading groups. Largely I found that it was hard to maintain enough mental wherewithal to read books during the deep darkness of winter. There are rarely multiple copies of books and if we had to wait for all the interested winter-overs to finish a book before discussing'd never happen. And it never does. Occasionally you run into someone who has read the same book as you and you talk about it. Or you pass on a good book to someone then talk about it, but rarely if never anything organized.

 "The collection of books is pretty much whatever has been donated, or brought down and then left behind over the years. There's a good collection of Antarctic history books, including a fair number of rare books, locked away. But the key is easy to get. You get the DaVinci Codes, the Oprah book clubs, and then some real oddities that show up. But usually a fair number of good ones. 

"I found reading to be really challenging in my winters. Maintaining the focus was hard. I reached a point where I couldn't even finish a movie on my laptop, and a 30 min TV show on DVD was often too much too. Just lost focus. If there had been The New Yorker magazine I think I could've finished articles about that long, but then again, maybe not. 

"A lot of people are starting to read on e-readers, which makes the lending and leaving behind of good books less likely. I wonder how that'll have an impact on books available in the library. 

"We also tend to stay away from challenging topics in the effort to make the winter easier to survive. And books, even fiction, can be controversial. You have to believe everyone is after your best interests and will work towards the station's survival if the shit hits the fan during the winter, and book discussions can make it pretty clear just how opposite people you have to live with are. Small community, best to just pretend sometimes."

Fascinating stuff, is it not? Here's an inside shot of the station, courtesy of the information superhighway:

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Big Fish, Wrapped in a Small Book, Inside a Short Video

We made a suggestion the other day that Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea  was a nice, short introduction to the world of classic literature. Below, you’ll find a nice, short introduction to that nice, short introduction. Enjoy.


Friday, April 6, 2012

First Line Friday

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic vermin."

-Franz Kafka (Metamorphosis)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Casting Call: Round 2

After making you wade through ten paragraphs of personal history yesterday, it feels like a good time for another author look-alike post. Our first attempt can be found here and, as always, we’ll post these side-by-sides in the forum, where you’re free to add some of your own.

First up, we have a short-haired Nathan Englander and Robert Downey Jr.:

Not to be outdone, long-haired Nathan Englander teams up with saxophonist Kenny G:

Then there’s Franz Kafka and that kid from “Hook” (Charlie Korsmo):

And by my reckoning, the only thing separating Steven Millhauser from Larry David, is about 8 weeks of mustache:

Philip Roth strikes a “Kramer-esque” pose that might as well be Michael Richards:

And finally, it would be easy to double-down on the "8 weeks of mustache" joke here, but because she's still living I'll forego it. I give you the late Kurt Vonnegut and nonagenarian Phyllis Diller:

Got any more? Thrown them in the forum thread, here.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Birth of a Careful Reader: the Sequel

In yesterday’s post, Tucker pinpointed the exact instant he became a serious reader. Others may have had similar epiphanies or “a-ha” moments, but my journey was a little more drawn out. For me, there was no single spark. But looking back, there are a few obvious flashpoints that set me on my way. If you want the one paragraph version, I’ll refer you to our ‘About Us’ page. But if you have time for the full monty, read on.

One of my earliest milestones was reading A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith. I still remember being struck by the death of the narrator’s best friend. I even remember where I was when I read it. That a book could do more than entertain, that it could really work through some serious stuff, (and that a person could die of something as innocent as a bee sting) was all a revelation to me. It hadn’t really been done in a kids book before. I mean, sure, Charlotte’s Web had done it. But Charlotte was a spider. What kid hadn’t seen a dead spider before? Who gets all broken up about losing a spider? But this was different. This was a book that made me think.

I continued to read for pleasure, The Bobbsey Twins, the Boxcar Children, some Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary, and a lot of biographies in monochrome canvas library bindings. Nothing yet that could be called great literature. But my first big setback was about to rear its head. I still wonder what genius decided to greet the newly-arrived 7th graders of Clayton Jr. High with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but that’s precisely what they did. Some of my classmates may have benefitted from that first assigned reading, but I  certainly wasn’t ready for it. It would become the first in a long line of assigned texts I would avoid like the plague.

A broken leg in my freshman year would put me back on track, removing the possibility of any regular, afterschool high-jinks and paving the way for me to actually tackle Great Expectations in my new-found free time. The mystery of Pip’s unknown benefactor pulled me through what would become my first novel-length reading assignment actually fulfilled. It was a proud moment. Still, when my afternoons were once again filled with sports and aimless wandering, good books fell by the way-side.

A series of painful reading experiences followed. The Scarlet Letter, Beowulf, The Sound and the Fury, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… There are too many to name. All of them unread to this day. In that period though, I remember one experience that was similar to the one Tucker described. I sauntered into class one-day, and the kid next to me was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls while he waited for the bell to ring. Who did he have for English, I asked. He answered. I hadn’t seen anybody else reading that book- were they reading it in class? No, he answered. You mean, you’re just reading it for fun- by choice? Mmm-hmm. Is it any good? Mmm-hmm.

He was probably either annoyed or embarrassed under my questioning, but I was trying to make sense of the following:
a) why someone my age would fill their free time, by choice, with a literary classic, b) what kind of book was so interesting that one would read it even during the 10 minute intervals between classes, and
c) what great secrets were being kept from me by my insistence that these books were outside my reach?
I didn’t immediately find the answers to those questions, but they did come eventually. So Nathaniel Schaeffer, wherever you are, I owe you one.

AP English awaited me in my senior year, and for the first time we were expected to read a book over the summer and turn in a paper before  slackers like me could leach onto any sort of in-class discussion to pick-up the salient points. I would actually have to read the book. As it turned out, Song of Solomon  by Toni Morrison was the highlight of my high-school English career. I loved that book. It was interesting, it was about  something, and it even carried off the kind of heart-pounding ending I had only read in thrillers.

Still, I wasn’t fully converted. One thing held me back. I always was, and am today, an atrociously slow reader. A life filled with great and important books would surely be a painful one. I needed one final catalyst to make me a serious reader, and that would come in college.

I lived on campus, but got a job at the airport. My wife was commuting to another school, 45 miles away, which left me without a car for most of the week. This meant a  train ride downtown, a bus ride to the airport, and a shuttle to my actual work location. Now, some people can study while commuting like this. But trying to juggle gigantic O-Chem textbooks, a notepad, a calculator, a sandwich, and pens and highlighters, I could not. What could  I do on this daily odyssey? I could read. And read I did.

I soon found that it wasn’t literature itself that had aggravated me for years, but the deadlines, quizzes, papers and essay answers that my K-12 education had married to it. Freed from the constraints of all that garbage, I found that even the “great” books were, well… pretty darn great. They’ve been my first literary love ever since.

How about the rest of you? Was there one moment for you? Or was becoming “a discerning reader” a process?