Posts tagged ‘reading’

March 4, 2011

Ch-Ch-Changes!

by thiszine

Hey friends, writers, readers, and ardent fans of THIS!

I’m thrilled to tell you that later this month changes will be happening at THIS. As we grow our readership, we’d like to become a greater part of your daily conversation on all things literary. We’ll soon be expanding the scope of writing in THIS by offering new columns, new reviewers, and lighthearted literary tidbits to pull you through that excruciating three o’clock meeting. If you’re a writer, blogger or reviewer, keep an eye on our blog for further information on how you can work with us.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Yours,

Lacey N. Dunham
Editor

January 10, 2011

Whitewashing History In Mark Twain

by thiszine

BY SWEETMAN

Mark Twain has been surrounded by controversy since he began publishing his writing. Witty, satirical and irreverent, William Faulkner hailed him as “the father of American literature.” Twain was born in 1835 and died in 1910, and his novels and essays were a reflection of his life and times. Twain’s writing is often light and humorous but he was equally infamous for his penchant to delve into sobering societal hypocrisies and inhumanity toward others.

For these dark themes, Twain’s most notable novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) have been mired in controversy over the appropriateness of teaching them to young readers. They have been banned from libraries, schools and curriculum since they were first published. The controversy surrounding Twain’s these novels still rages into the 21st century; his two most famous novels still rank in the top 100 of the American Library Association’s most frequently challenged and banned books.

Enter Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar who decided, after forty years of studying and teaching the writings of Twain, to change the content of both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His changes substitute racially derogatory words for African-Americans and Native-Americans for, in Professor Gribben’s opinion, the more socially acceptable 21st century terms “slave” and “Indian” (wouldn’t “Native American” be the more politically correct version?). He reasons that by substituting the n- and i-words for more socially acceptable words he is eliminating “preemptive censorship” of the novels and thus preventing further cries of inappropriateness in public schools. Professor Gribben defends his edits as offering to teachers and general readers “an option for a more palatable reading experience.”

Well doesn’t that just make altering a dead author’s work The Right Thing To Do! And maybe the politically correct white-washing of Classic American Literature will revise our unsavory and uncomfortable history of slavery, segregation and racial inequality!

Censorship is censorship. No matter how earnestly one feels he/she is defending an author, alteration of the author’s final text to make it more “palatable” to the masses is censorship. Mark Twain did not use the word “slave” 219 times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and no amount of good intention by Professor Gribben gives him the right to change Twain’s work. Furthermore, using a less inflammatory yet definitively wrong word as the substitution for a highly offensive, racially charged word sets Professor Gribben squarely on a path of whitewashing then rinsing an unfortunate part of American History.

There is a word for Professor Gribben’s particular brand of censorship as he is not the first well-meaning expert to try to gloss a work of literature to make it less offensive. Thomas Bowdler, an English physician, decided to expurgate the works of William Shakespeare and Edward Gibbons to render them more appropriate for the delicate eyes of 19th century women and children. His edits were soundly ridiculed and rejected. The term bowdlerize is now eponymous with literary censorship.

Gribben’s bowdlerization of Twain’s writing is an act of incredible vanity. During a reading as part of the NEA’s Big Read Program in Alabama, Gribben read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and routinely substituted “slave” for the n-word to make for a more comfortable reading. Apparently Professor Gribben liked the swap so much that he is perfectly comfortable tweaking Twain’s works in writing to make it easier on our modern eyes.

Censorship of Twain’s novels does both the author and the content of the novels a tremendous disservice. It is impossible to know if Mark Twain would make politically correct changes to his novels today and we can only guess what he would want. Twain wrote in the vernacular of the time. The derogatory slang use of the n-word in the 1870s is not burdened with the unspeakable weight that it carries in the 21st century. Yet that unspeakable weight is the burden of a society that has to live with the acts and deeds of its predecessors, like it or not. Difficult as it is to read, write and speak, censorship of a novel that reflects true historical times does not protect or teach young readers and bowdlerizing literature to make reading more palatable teaches nothing.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are tremendous novels with a sad truth still present today: our capability for committing inhumane acts. As a society, we haven’t changed enough to read Twain’s novels with any historical distance. To the contrary, the power of Twain’s writing has drastically changed to make his words uncomfortable, taboo and unspeakable in classrooms. Expunging those words changes nothing within our present culture. It’s just censorship.

January 10, 2011

Who Can Say the N-Word?

by thiszine

Writer, poet, and activist Ishmael Reed is interviewed by the BBC’s George Galloway on the controversy surrounding NewSouth, an Alabama-based U.S. publishing company, whose new edition of Mark Twain’s novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have removed the n-word, a derogatory slang term for blacks, and replaced it with “slave.” A derogatory term for Native Americans was also removed and replaced with “Indian.”

 

January 8, 2011

Book Review: This Book Is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson

by thiszine

THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE: HOW LIBRARIANS AND CYBRARIANS CAN SAVE US ALL
by Marilyn Johnson

Harper Perennial
January 2011 (paperback), $14.99, 304 pages)

I’ve often wondered what would happen to libraries in a world with instant online access, so I selected This Book Is Overdue with high expectations. Marilyn Johnson begins with a brief historical example and an explanation of how librarians have helped libraries (and, especially, their patrons) adapt to this ever-changing online environment.

The first few chapters are full of stories from librarians illustrating their invaluable knowledge that a computer alone cannot provide, from helping the unemployed create resumes (usually people who have never even heard of resumes) to making themselves available to answer questions 24/7 through web blogs. The chapter, “Big Brother and the Holdout Company,” was extremely disturbing. I didn’t know about the gag-order on librarians during the debates on the U.S.A. Patriot Act until I read this book. If you value your privacy and you live in the U.S, you will find this chapter relevant to your life. Similarly, the chapter “Gotham City” was a fascinating revelation into information about librarians not known outside the field.

Another chapter, “How to Change the World” showed how some librarians use technology to improve the quality of life in less-fortunate countries. Though interesting, this chapter didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the book because it was focused mostly on available technology – not unlike an infomercial. I almost felt like I was reading another book entirely.

After that, the author seemed to wander away from the direction she established in the beginning. She spends several chapters making a big deal about librarians who don’t look like the stereotype: blue hair, tattoos, using obscenities, etc. Had Johnson stuck to the transitional experiences of librarians, especially in regard to the modernization of libraries and librarians’ personal dedication to sharing knowledge, instead of sensationalizing the career by discussing topics like librarians who enjoy swearing, I wouldn’t think this book was such a huge disservice to librarians and library science.

I want to make sure people understand that my review is not a reflection of my opinion of librarians (I worked in a library for nearly five years). Unfortunately, This Book is Overdue lacked a serious focus, and strayed from the product description. Instead, if you love libraries, Library: An Unquiet History is a better choice.

– review by Ursula K. Raphael

December 25, 2010

Don’t Read These Books: Our Least Favorites of 2010

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BY THIS ZINE STAFF

“Best Of” and “Favorites” lists have been coming out all month long (we published our own yesterday), but what about the worst books of the year? For a cheat sheet on which books to avoid, check out our least favorites of 2010.

 


JOHN COLEMAN
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
A good attempt at a fresh Holocaust story, but the book’s hefty devotion to an inner-story play turns it into a train wreck. Martel should have done like his character and written an essay on revitalising Holocaust representation instead of attempting to depict it.

C by Tom McCarthy
McCarthy needs to get out of the Victorian era if he wants the new generation to read his books.

In addition, John’s “on the fence” about David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris : A relevant and needed look at the lives of war parents. Although not as drab as Martel's 2010 offering, there are times when Morris whines about his life in excess. If you don't want to read about male menopause, don't read Morris.

 

SWEETMAN
Sweetman’s 2010 Hit List – because some books are just so much fun to hate!

The Entire Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer
Dreadful with dull teeth. I never thought I’d get tired of seeing the word sparkling. I reviewed them on my blog but don’t feel you have to read the ranting – just believe me, I loathed it to the point that Stephanie Meyers really, really, really, really hates me – oh, sorry, I start to write like her when I think about the books!

The Help by Katherine Stockett
A young white woman in the 1960’s in Mississippi is the only person on the planet who strives for racial equality in really annoying Suthun’ patois. Took the book clubs by storm and took every ounce of Sweetman’s will to not throw it against the wall because she was reading a friend’s copy.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
Cursed with Jane Austen praise, Ms. Goodman fell far short of any Austen comparison. A long, overwrought, drivel about…well there were a few cookbooks in there somewhere.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
I was disappointed in this quick read due to the lack of depth. It read like a condensed version of a more substantial novel.

House Rules by Jodi Picoult
I can’t honestly comment on this because I didn’t finish it. Ms. Picoult appears to have a burning desire to write about the wrenching societal dilemma of the moment with as much engaging flair as the list of ingredients on a cereal box.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I was confused, disappointed and felt stupid because I just could not get into this book! Was it the translation? The violence? The irrelevant details? The boringness? What did I miss? See the movie.

The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar
Boy did I struggle with this biography of writer Patricia Highsmith! Call me rigid and inflexible but I find it easier to read a biography in chronological order and found myself wanting to call up Ms. Schenkar to ask her if that would have been so difficult given the maniacally rigid order that Miss Highsmith reportedly kept of her life and writing.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Ugh Ugh Ugh.

 

URSULA K. RAPHAEL
One of the biggest waste of trees that I’ve ever read was This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson.

Want to know why? Read Ursula’s review, forthcoming in our blog.

 

LACEY N. DUNHAM
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
All the hipsters and Brooklynites will hate me for this one but I found Auster way overrrated, especially after I considered the superb meta-fiction of Mark Z. Danielewski and read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas about a month after I finished The New York Trilogy.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
A sort-of sequel to Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero, which so perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the ’80s, Imperial Bedrooms attempts a Raymond Chandler-esque noir and fails to hit anywhere near the mark. While the prose keeps very much to Ellis’s typical style, he can’t seem to successfully merge the type of provocative writing from which he’s largely built his fame and the type of genre writing perfected by others.

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
Shriver’s novel, shaped by the issue of health care in the U.S., was released shortly before the eventual passage of actual health care reform (or Obamacare, depending on your politics). In a novel so carefully wrought, so precisely personal, it’s too bad So Much For That’s stiff prose and exhausting machinations of plot lacks the muckraking ululations for change.

In the Land of Believers by Gina Welch
Welch’s undercover foray (as a writer, not a journalist) into the world of Evangelism at the Thomas Road Baptist Church (founded by Jerry Falwell) offers strong writing but lacks new insights into the life and beliefs of Evangelical Christians and certainly doesn’t add much to the conversation between Evangelicals and non-believers. Walking a fine line of respect for her subjects, Welch eventually comes clean to her friends at Thomas Road that she’s an atheist who doesn’t need Jesus to save her soul, but only after her book contract is wrapped up and her editor gives the green light.

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
So little action occurs in the first two-thirds of Kostova’s novel that even the overarching sweep of a mysterious woman inching the narrative forward is too minuscule to make me care about what is, ostensibly, the real story that happens in the last hundred or so pages. Even when the mystery is resolved, there is no satisfaction in the predictable ending, nothing that makes the long wait through six hundred pages pay off. Without any real definition to her characters, a lackluster plot, and an ending the fizzles rather than bangs, Kostova delivers a wholly forgettable book.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
Ugh, this was awful. I mean, seriously, terrible. It reads fast and still I couldn’t get through it. Yet, it seems to be popular among book clubs, which is why I don’t belong to any book clubs.

December 24, 2010

Our 2010 Favorites

by thiszine

BY THIS ZINE STAFF

Yes, it’s the time of year to reflect on our favorite books of the year. We asked our staff to give us some insight on what they’ve loved this year from what they’ve read. Keep in mind, not all the books were necessarily published in 2010, just enjoyed in 2010.

 

 

 

NICHOLAS Y.B. WONG
Louise Gluck’s A Village Life, no doubt about it.

 

JOHN COLEMAN
This Cake Is For The Party by Sarah Selecky is a great contemporary vision of mid-life Canadians’ issues, written with the sharpness of a sword.

The Sentamentalists by Johanna Skibsrud Giller Prize-winning novel, showing underdogs can dominate Can Lit, in both style and subject matter.

 

SWEETMAN
I love to love books more than I love to hate them – honest! My “Top Shelf” books for the year include:

-Stoner by John Williams
This was the best book of 2010 and possibly one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

– Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne
A travel book from the seat of a bicycle, Mr. Byrne’s essays and observations while on his bike were insightful, interesting, funny and evocative. A great book to take-along for intermittent reading.

– First Lessons in Beekeeping by C.P. Dadant
This beekeeping book was written in 1917, revised and rewritten over the years by Dadant’s descendants, has everything for every level of beekeeper. One of the best beekeeping books out there.

– Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
It held up despite the controversy, Franzenspec and Oprah. Dragging parts aside, Freedom was well done.


– Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
This book was placed in my hands by a bookstore manager and it was possibly the best novel of 2010 that I’d never heard about. I completely lost myself in this beautifully written novel.

– Tinkers by Paul Harding
This small novel, elegantly written, is a hefty, substantial read and has stayed with me since I finished it.

– Up In the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
My finest library find of 2010, this a collection of stories about New York city from the 1930s and 1940s that are so well done, I traveled back in time with these stories in my hands.

– The Man In The Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
The prequel to my second-favorite novel of 2010, this is the story of Betty Feathers, wife of Old Filth. Jane Gardam is one of the most insightful, sharp, skilled and brilliant writers I have had the pleasure to happen upon.

– The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam
This collection of stories demonstrates the versatility and wit of my new favorite author.

– Old Filth by Jane Gardam
I finished this book wishing I hadn’t read it so I could enjoy it again. This was the first Jane Gardam novel I read and, as you can see by my list, I couldn’t get enough of her. Old Filth was her masterpiece. A close second to Williams’ Stoner for me.

 

LACEY N. DUNHAM
My favorite book of the year was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is the type of novel that converts you to an author and leaves you determined to read everything he’s ever published. This novel is the type of meta-fiction that puts Paul Auster to shame: clever, beautiful, and intricate without descending into flashy showmanship. My other favorites of the year include:

– Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in our Times by Eavan Boland
An autobiographical meditation on the act of writing poetry as an Irish woman, Boland’s breathtaking prose and shrewd synthesis of the traditions of poetry, both as a male pursuit and as a political act in the Irish tradition, is required reading for women as readers of good poetry and literature and for women intent on carving themselves a name as a writer.

– A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
The story of five generations of women unable to reconcile the dissatisfaction with their lives to their heritage as progeny of a revolutionary, Walbert reaches forward and backward in time to shape this vibrant, richly expressed narrative through each woman’s voice.

– The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Set in post-WWII England, the myriad specters that haunt Waters’ novel – social class, class envy, sexual repression, and the rapidly changing world – are vibrantly rendered as the isolated and suffering gentry family at the tale’s center witness increasingly violent and preternatural acts. The Little Stranger is a chilling Gothic novel enveloped by beautiful prose that imbues the malevolence with careful restraint.

– Wolf Hallby Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel utilizes every aspect of history to re-create a vivid world while providing dramatic tension from a contemporary vantage point and knowledge of history. Her prose is perfect. Her themes ring true to the current political climate (and, one suspects, to every political climate).


– The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
Mengestu’s novel is set Washington, DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood which, as a DC resident, I thought I knew well. Reading Mengestu’s novel taught me how wrong I was. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is more than an immigrant story: it’s a novel about missed opportunities – in relationships, in life – and the inevitability of, sometimes violent, change. What is gentrification if not sanctioned class violence against the less privileged? And in a country built by immigrants, how does the contemporary, unfiltered immigrant experience compare to the mythology of America’s promise? Mengestu speaks to both of these questions in this stunning, beautiful novel.

– Tinkers by Paul Harding
For the first 40 or so pages of Tinkers, I was unconvinced that Paul Harding should have won the Pulitzer for this father-son novel. However, as the two stories about father and son enter the same frame the magic of Tinkers comes through in its striking imagery and gentle pacing that quietly build momentum through to the powerful ending.

 

photo by Ethan Anderson

December 17, 2010

Little Librarians or Little Monsters?

by thiszine

BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

Little Librarian is a DIY kit with the tag line: “Be a real librarian. Just add books!”

Although I think it’s awesome that there’s a toy aimed at turning children onto reading books (the type without batteries or screens) I feel this item should also come with a warning: USE OF THE LITTLE LIBRARIAN PERSONAL LIBRARY KIT COULD TURN YOUR CHILD INTO A LITTLE MONSTER. PURCHASE AT YOUR OWN RISK.

I love librarians. I love libraries. I love librarians and libraries so much that when I was eleven, I geeked out in the stationary supplies aisle of Wal-Mart and purchased a pack of 3 x 5 unlined index cards, a blue plastic index card filebox, a black sharpie, Scotch tape, a rubber date stamp, and a hot pink stamp pad. At home, I took the items to my bedroom and glued an index card into the back of all my books, writing in the neatest handwriting I could manage “RETURN BY” at the top of each one. I reinforced the spines with the Scotch tape and tested the rubber date stamp on sheets of my father’s tax return.

I own a lot of books and at age eleven, this habit was already well on its way to becoming an obsession. Because my middle school had no library, my peers frequently asked to borrow books from me and, always happy to lend them, I was frustrated that many were not returned, or were returned in poor condition. My solution: create a formal lending library.

The next time a classmate asked to borrow a book, I went home and filled out an index card with her name, the title of the book, the date borrowed and due date. I filed the card in my blue filebox and stamped the due date in the book. I was officially in the non-profit business of running a library.

I began to lend out three or four books each day, sometimes to kids in other classrooms whom I didn’t even know. R.L Stine and Christopher Pike were popular authors, so I created waiting lists for especially sought after titles. The American Girl series of books that I’d outgrown a year or two before were frequently requested; less popular were Scott O’Dell and Paula Fox. I lent Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Even The Boxcar Children found new life among my classmates.

Whenever I delivered a book, a single sheet of paper was tucked into its pages: the borrowing rules. Based on the rules of the actual library, I had typed my list of rules on my electronic typewriter and assumed that anyone receiving a sheet with the word “rules” in bold at the top would adhere to them.

Thus began my first lesson as a little librarian: people do not follow the rules.

Books were returned after the due date and were sometimes damaged: covers bent or torn, pages dog-eared, crumbs scattered in the spine. I prided myself on taking excellent care of books and their mishandling at the sticky fingers of my peers angered me. Fortunately, the borrowing rules had delinquents covered.

Per the rules, I was already charging a fine of 10 cents per day for each overdue item. Why not fine people for returning books in a damaged condition? I re-typed the borrowing rules and began to collect payments. Frequent violators had “DO NOT LEND” scrawled across their borrower’s card. Friends were granted clandestine extensions and had their fines forgiven. Boys I liked were secretly moved to the top of waitlists.

At home each night, I sorted through my filebox, checking on upcoming due dates and noting who had outstanding fines. At school, my classmates crowded around my locker as I pulled their book requests from my backpack.

Then it happened. As I would learn two years later from my history teacher Mr. Meiner, absolute power corrupts absolutely. My library was so successful, I doubled the fines. Friends were no longer given amnesty. I spent my lunch period demanding payments. Having learned a thing or two about boys, girl were automatically placed first on all waitlists. Students began fighting over the books as I pulled them from my backpack each morning. My friend Angela had a borrowed a very popular R.L. Stine from me and it was subsequently stolen from her. I still made her pay the late fee and, because book was never found, the $4.99 to replace it.

I can’t recall exactly who or how or why but, eventually, my library was shut down. My rubber date stamp fell to disuse and the stamp pad dried up. The index cards became flashcards for memorizing war battles in social studies class. The blue filebox was tucked into my closet to gather dust. Years later, the R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike books were donated to the town library (I kept Nancy Drew, Scott O’Dell, and Paula Fox), where they were sold for twenty-five cents each at the annual library book sale.

December 6, 2010

THIS Reads: Welcome to the Nerd’s House

by thiszine

BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

That I am a book nerd should not come as a surprise to any of my friends or to anyone who reads this ‘zine’s blog on even the occasional day. I’ve loved and treasured books since I was a little child and I definitely have a pack-rat complex to keeping books: it’s nearly impossible for me to give any away. Library book sales, garage sales and bookstores are my Achilles’ Heel. Doing laundry in my apartment building is dangerous – the giveaway shelf is next to the laundry room and I almost always return to my apartment with a stack of excellent literature cradled in one arm, the detergent and laundry bag dragging from the other. Random House’s The Library of America imprint is for me what Manolo Blahnik was to Carrie Bradshaw.

At least books aren’t cocaine, otherwise, I’d have a very serious problem.

Earlier this summer, I decided to reorganize the bookshelves in my apartment. I pulled all the books from their shelves and separated them by category: novels, short fiction, poetry, plays, young adult and children’s, essays and memoir, biographies, books about writing, gender and sexuality, general history, philosophy, education policy, and miscellany. I reserved one entire bookcase for books signed by the author. Segregating my collection began as a restless summer activity borne from a desire to fit all of my recently acquired books onto the shelves but ended as an peek into my personal interests – and surprised even me.

I knew I owned hundreds of novels (219 when I counted them at the start of this project) and nearly a hundred (98) short fiction collections. What surprised me was how many books on education policy I still own (approximately 50) and, even though I am no longer a teacher, the plethora of children’s and young adult books I kept (somewhere around 150). I own much of Orhan Pamuk and Annie Dillard’s ouvre, both fiction and non-fiction (and for Dillard, poetry), which is something I hadn’t realized prior to my project. I own two copies of Bitch Magazine’s “best of” collection, Bitchfest (oops!). Previously, I never classified myself as a reader of memoirs, biographies, or writers’ letters and journals but my collection includes everything from Guy du Maupassant and Eduardo Galeano’s histories cum memoirs to Antonina Fraser’s letters to her husband, Harold Pinter, to the hilarious memoirs of John Waters and Dan Savage.

I stopped counting individual books after the fiction was shelved. I estimate that my apartment holds about 1,100 books. Many of the books I collected while growing up and later as a college undergraduate are boxed away in the basement of my parent’s house where I estimate there are another 500 or so books tucked beside my father’s weightlifting equipment from high school and my mother’s Singer sewing machine.

While sorting through my beloved treasure, I realized I acquire many more books than I could possibly read in my lifetime. As my two cats jumped between the naked shelves, excited for their temporary playground, I wondered if I should give up my books, donate them to a library or home for the elderly or sell them on e-Bay for a decent sum of money. And why shouldn’t I? Despite the number of books I read each year, I hadn’t read half of the ones I own. Why keep my sprawling collection intact when I could just as easily borrow from the library or download them on an e-reader that takes up a sliver of the space? After all, I live in Washington, DC where rents are high and apartments (at least what I can afford) are tiny. My books crowd bookshelves, the dining room table, the bureau in my bedroom, my desk and both living room end tables.

Shortly after, I ran into a woman who frequently purchases books from the same independent bookstore where I shop. I had once asked her how many books she thought she owned and she gave a shrug when she said, “I don’t know. Four or five thousand, maybe.” She only purchases hardcover first editions. It’s her beloved quirk because, unlike most book collectors, she doesn’t keep them in pristine condition. She lives in an apartment, too, and told me she stacks her books in waist-high piles that she pushes together and covers with un-hemmed fabric to make tables.

I asked her why she doesn’t sell them or give them away. I imagine her apartment as a landscape of colorful spines, books pressed against walls and tumbling into the hallway. “They’re mine,” she said simply. “They’re who I am.”

I returned home that night and looked at the piles of books scattered around my apartment, my project half-completed before my crisis of faith. I opened a grocery bag and dropped in ten books for a donation to a charity that collects books for deployed U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, there’s a lot of down time for reading in the desert. The rest of my books I tucked lovingly away on my bookshelves. My books are part of me, part of my identity. Walk into my apartment, browse my bookshelves, and you’ll know who I am.

December 2, 2010

THIS Reads: Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Twihards

by thiszine

BY SWEETMAN

Are you wondering what to give the tween or teenager in your life? Think books. Reading is a gift that never stops giving. Give books, real books, not anything electronic – kids today suffer from waaaaaaaaaay too much electronic crap cluttering up their brains. The act of reading sustains the brain’s ability to solve logic problems and operate on a higher level of processing and reasoning. And there’s nothing like the physical reminder of a thoughtfully given book.

I am not well-versed in books for babies, toddlers or young children although I’ve had two babies (then toddlers then young children). It’s been my limited experience that “popular” and “educational” are somewhat less satisfying for both parents and children. I always leaned toward the classics and books about trucks because I have two sons. Whatever you give to a toddler or non-reading child, make sure it’s something that you’ll love reading over and over and over again, too.

For school age to young adult, here’s what not to give: any of the Twilight books. I know they have a legion of followers breathlessly fainting into the pages because Edward is so amazing and Bella is so amazing and the Twilight books are so amazing and there you have it: indoctrination to repetitively bad writing. Let the tween or teen borrow Twilight from a friend or the library and let’s stop shoving money into Ms. Meyer’s overflowing coffers. There are far better things to read:

C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia
A classic masterpiece, Lewis’s seven book series takes the reader into the fantastic world of Narnia. Four children – Peter, Susan, Edward and Lucy Pevensie – find the magical world of Narnia through a wardrobe in Professor Digory Kirke’s mansion. In Narnia they join forces with the noble Aslan to save the wintry world from the evil White Witch. Readable chapter books for even the youngest children, The Chronicles of Narnia series has widely influenced and guided the talents of many influential authors, musicians, directors and artists since they were published in the 1950s.

J.K. Rowling, The Harry Potter Series
We can’t thank J.K. Rowling enough because she didn’t just ignite the spark of love for reading in young people: she set the house on fire. The Harry Potter Series, seven epic novels about Harry Potter, Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft, and the battle of good versus evil, have become instant coming-of-age classics. J.K. Rowling masterfully narrates an epic and, at times, very dark tale full of memorable characters in a magical wizarding world. These books are excellent on many levels and the writing is superb. I confess I was reluctant – no disdainful – of the books when they first came out because I had no interest in the magical world of wizardry. Fantasy was not my genre but my sister gave a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stones to my youngest son for his 5th birthday. It was a gift that I believed was a curse because I had to read it out loud to him. However, before the first chapter ended I was hooked and waited as anxiously as all the other Harry Potter fans for the next installment. I read each word of all seven books to my youngest son, a literary experience like no other in my life.

Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Thirteen quick-paced, sharp and witty books chronicle the adventures of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, beginning with the fiery deaths of their parents and propelling them through a number of unfortunate events as they are pursued by their distant relative, the evil Count Olaf. The books in A Series of Unfortunate Events are cautionary tales with dark Grimm undertones but they are clever and engaging. It’s a series that is sure to develop and secure a young reader into a life of good reading.

In tomorrow’s THIS Reads, Sweetman discusses more beloved children’s books by Roald Dahl and E.B. White.

photo: Stephanie Skidmore

November 6, 2010

Writers Pick Their Faves

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Like that old question asked of Catholic priests, “To whom does the confessor confess?”, writers are often asked to name authors and novels that have influenced their work or, at the very least, left an impression upon them. Here are some links to a few of our favorites.

Julia Glass’s most recent novel The Widower’s Tale was published in September. Not to be pinned down by the enormous task of selecting the ten best novels ever, Glass instead lists “ten terrific works of fiction” she’s read in the past year.

DC-based wonk newspaper the Politico asked writers at a recent PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction gala to recommend books for President Barack Obama. Jane Hamilton suggested Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (but not its more recent companion Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ) while Audrey Niffenegger opted for George Orwell’s 1984. ZZ Packer referred the president to DC writer Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World and to Toni Morrison’s latest A Mercy. For the presidential daughters she recommended Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

NPR’s column “You Must Read This” presents conversations with writers about the books they love to read and recommend. In case you were grasping to fill out your reading list, “You Must Read This” is a springboard with old and new recommendations – including many surprises.

New York Magazine’s the Vulture has the most fun with authors recommending books. Some of our faves include Myla Goldberg’s Tales About Friendship Betrayed and Sam Anderson’s Anti-Franzen Novels.

November 3, 2010

THIS Reads: NaNoWriMo Killed the Literary Star

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

I always find myself frustrated by all the books I’m not reading. My “to read” list is always miles longer than the list of books I’ve finished. Compounding my frustration is that I’m a slow reader. I have friends who readily soar through three or four books each week and, unless all I do is sit in a chair for six hours a day intently focused on one book, knocking through multiple titles only days apart is something I rarely accomplish.

Then again, at least I’m reading, right? In an article at Salon in which she rails against National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Laura Miller complains that there aren’t enough readers and far too many writers. And while there are statistics revealing that many folks in the U.S. spend more leisure time watching television or using a computer than reading, I don’t believe the argument that there is a dearth of readers in the U.S. People are reading; what people are reading has changed.

In the age of technology, reading occurs outside of books with an increasing frequency, something Miller doesn’t acknowledge in her article (which I “read” online although, because it doesn’t occur between the pages of a bound book, might not count as actual “reading” in Miller-world). Each Sunday I read the New York Times Book Review, in print; I try to read most of the New Yorker each week. When I travel, I frequently pack back-issues of magazines and literary journals I’ve been meaning to get around to and haven’t: Bitch, Poets & Writers, Zone 3, Zoetrope, The Normal School. I don’t work at a typical desk job, but if I did, I imagine that a chunk of my day would be spent reading articles and blogs online. Does all of this, because I’m not purchasing my reading from a traditional bookstore or downloading it on a Kindle, mean I’m reading-deficient?

To be fair, Miller’s article mostly deals with the reasons why someone shouldn’t participate in what she calls the “self-aggrandizing frenzy” of NaNoWriMo: “…while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books.” She’s right: getting published is not half as hard as getting someone to purchase your book, read it, and recommend it to others who will also purchase it once you’ve been published. And it’s true that few authors are commercially successful. But reading novels and writing them isn’t a zero-sum game.

Maybe I’m touchy because I am participating in NaNoWriMo and I take it personally that Miller refers to writing as a “narcissistic commerce,” even if I’m not sure where the “commerce” part comes in. If I’m supposed to be getting wealthy from all this, I wish someone would have told me long ago so I could have the last laugh over my friends who elected law and business school.

Miller implies that Wrimos (NaNo parlance for participating writers) aren’t reading any books or, at least by her judgement, not enough of them. I disagree with this assumption, too. Maybe Wrimos aren’t reading the same types of books Miller would read (she goes on a long rant against self-help books in her article) but reading is reading, regardless of the material. And, unless it’s Nicole Richie’s latest novel, I don’t think reading in all its many forms is making anyone more stupid.

So in addition to all the magazines, lit journals (both in print and online), book reviews and newspapers this particular Wrimo has read over the last month, I also enjoyed Julia Glass’s novel The Widower’s Tale, a story shaped by four voices that represent various corners of modern American culture. Set against the backdrop of eco-terrorism, limousine liberals, and a longing for the past in the face of rapid change, Glass succeeds in illuminating the darkest corners of our hypocrisy and hopes, all with her characteristic tenderness and humor.

Leslie Marmon Silko has been a favorite writer of mine ever since I read Ceremony. The Turquoise Ledge is her first book in ten years and a beautiful memoir that fuses elements of her family’s mixed-race heritage with Native myths and reflections on the natural world. Her imaginative storytelling travels across boundaries of time to share aspects of her life as they are remembered; for example, her first divorce is discussed alongside the eradication of the Laguna language.

University of Chicago historian Thomas C. Holt presents a generational and nuanced portrait of African-Americans in Children of Fire, a uniquely framed history that traces the shifts in culture, policy, and social norms that have defined race relations and institutions of oppression in the U.S. from when the first Africans were sold in Jamestown in 1619 to the election of President Barack Obama. Holt’s history reminds us that lives mired in history as it is lived are far more complex and dynamic than the flattened accounts textbooks would have us believe. I don’t generally read histories but appreciated Holt’s perspective and sharp narration. Children of Fire is a long book but it doesn’t lag.

Finally, confidential to all the Wrimos clattering away at their keyboard out there: Carolyn Kellogg is on our side.

November 1, 2010

THIS Reads: Sense and Serendipity

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

I find it interesting how we stumble over the things we end up reading. What makes us pick up a certain newspaper, magazine or book, only to have it become one of our favourites? In hindsight, I sometimes realise odd licks of fate that initially guide me to a certain trend in writing, only to view it later as something monumental. For instance, I’ll always remember the cornerstone novel in my life being Orwell’s 1984. I first read it on a philosophical whim when I was thirteen years old; I was coming of age and getting interested in world politics, and had heard how prolific was the novel’s satire of modern democratic society, derived from a premonition. I not only fell in love with Orwell (since having read most of his catalogue), but 1984 influenced my perception of the world. Whenever I reminisce on how I forged my left-wing, anti-establishment, down-with-globalisation ways, I often think of how trapped Winston Smith is, constantly evading Big Brother, and how the thought of becoming him forever changed my outlook.

It seems like lately, in a much less momentous way, I have oddly stumbled over more reading when titles jumped out at me for some reason and became some of my favourites. Here are a few that I have tripped over in the past few weeks.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
I fell upon Packer while reading an article about the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list in this a few months back. Skimming through the finalists, the words Drinking Coffee Elsewhere pulled me in for a couple of reasons. One: It reminded me of the movie “Coffee and Cigarettes,” one of my favourites, a documentary about rock and roll warlords. Two: Because it sounds so good (I know, but if you share this sentiment, you know what I mean). Thankfully, the witty title of this collection of stories was not a guise to lure in readers, only to have them disappointed at some lame, poorly written life story. Contrarily, ZZ Packer’s style is sensational. She not only attacks identity and gender theories, racism, and other contemporary controversial topics in Coffee, but does it with some of the best writing I’ve ever read. I highly recommend.

Anton Chekhov
I recently reviewed a book of modernised Chekhov tales and while doing so realised that I had never actually read anything by Chekhov. It’s hard to say this as an English major, but true. I had only heard of his prowess – how he is the best Russian story writer of all time and second to Shakespeare in the world-scope of bards. And, I’m pretty sure a few Simpsons episodes are taken straight from Chekhov‘s pages. Needless to say, I had to do some buffing up. What I mainly love about Chekhov’s over two hundred stories (and a number of plays) is the focus on everyday life. Whether drawing characters from working class Russia or writing about important national landmarks, Chekhov had an unbelievable knack for depicting reality in a highly important era.

Death In Venice by Thomas Mann
The other day I was reading the arts section of the newspaper and came across a review of a new opera in Toronto, Death In Venice, based on the novella by Thomas Mann. Once again, and I don’t know why, this title leapt off the page at me. I instantly hit the library. Now, if there is one thing I love about literature, it’s being able to get entranced by writing. Venice opens with its hero Gustav von Aschenbach taking a very Poe-esque walk by the cemetery where he bumps into an eerie stalker. From this, I was hooked. But the story is more than a Gothic stroll; it deals with everything from ancient philosophy, Shakespearian tragedy and the Narcissistic archetype. Check this out if you enjoy quick reads and allusion rich literature requiring an afternoon or two full of research.

October 30, 2010

THIS Reads: Have a Booktacular Halloween!

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BY SWEETMAN

Shortening days, a nip in the air and wind that promises to find a way to chill your bones: oh yes, it’s time to hunker down in the dark, quiet night with a good ghost story and hope the creaks and rustles you hear are the usual sounds that always happen when night falls and the house settles. Yes, you better hope for that. And shut your eyes tight when you think you see a shadow pass your door because it’s probably the headlights of a car driving by or the stupid cat creeping around. Yes, you better hope for that too.

A good ghost story has a delicate way of easing a reader into a terrified state. It is a subtle art that raises the pulse and sends chills down the spine. A good ghost story makes the reader leave the light on long after the book is closed, moved off the night table and thrown into another room. A good ghost story stays with the reader for a long time and quite often begs to be re-read despite the lost sleep.

I usually dig out a book of ghost stories when the leaves begin to change. Halloween is my favorite time of year, I love to be scared – not terrified, just scared in a fun way that I know it’s going to end. Unfortunately, many of these ghost stories don’t exactly end when the story is over. They do linger and pop into my head at the most unfortunate times, like when I’m throwing laundry into the dryer late at night and I suddenly have to run up the stairs because something was there.

I am always on the look out for great ghost stories. I’ve read a lot of horror, terror and slash-and-kill stories, all of which never have the same chilling effect. These stories and collections are by far the best I’ve read.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin, 1959)

Hill House, an eighty year old mansion, has been rented by Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator who hopes to confirm the existence of the supernatural. He brings along three “assistants:” Eleanor, Theodora and Luke. They were chosen by Dr. Montague because they have all had previous paranormal experiences.

Hill House is the protagonist in Jackson’s slightly dated but extremely well-written novel. It is eerie and cold, awake and watchful from its blank windows, “a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, nor a fit place for people, for love or for hope.” It is full of odd angles and sudden cold spots as well as mysterious noises. As the characters settle in, the house begins to play upon their fears. None of the characters experience the same fright, which makes each terror a singular event with the other characters wondering what is happening.

Jackson masterfully plays upon the psychological terror of the unknown. The eeriness of the novel crept up on me. While there is never a clear, defined event to confirm the presence of ghosts or the paranormal, the hints and individual interpretations of phenomena are by far more scary. It is a chilling novel despite the occasional stilted dialogue, one that I was certain wasn’t frightening in the least when I started out reading it on a cold night but soon decided it was best read during the daylight hours.

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James (Penguin Classics, 1898)

Henry James wrote one scary novella in The Turn of the Screw. Instead of blatant ghoulies and ghosties, this is another eerie tale of psychological terror and is well worth the concentration it will take to get the hang of Henry James’s style of writing.

A governess agrees to take charge of two orphaned children and moves to the countryside from London to find herself with two charming but odd children and a surly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who readily gives over the children. The governess is also most entirely alone with her charges and has been instructed by the children’s uncle that he is not to be bothered.

The tension begins when the governess starts seeing a young couple around the property. They appear at random times and seem to cause no interest or concern in any other occupants of the house. The governess becomes convinced they are the ghosts of the former governess, Miss Janse, and her illicit lover, both of whom, she learns from Mrs. Grose, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Things get a bit creepier when the governess becomes convinced that the children are seeing the ghosts as well.

This is Gothic writing at its best. Fear and tension build in the governess’s evolving awareness of the of the evil surroundings she has found herself. James is masterful in the implication of doubt: is the governess overreacting or are these frightening things really happening?

The Aspern Papers, though not a ghost story by any means, is the story of an obsession and a very quick read. It is well-written and very readable and I highly recommend it as a nice follow up if you want to get the eeriness of The Turn of the Screw out of your head.

SPOOKY New England: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore by S. E. Schlosser, illustrated by Paul G. Hoffman (Globe Piquot, 2003)

This is a collection of strange happenings, weird tales and ghost stories gathered from towns and places all over New England. Some are very old and familiar, some are obscure and quite chilling. Schlosser has a simple style and an easy way of drawing the reader into the stories. It is something of a travel book as well, especially if you are interested in ghost hunting. I have several, creepy favorites: “The Man Who Could Send Rats,” “The Black Dog Of Hanging Hills,” and “The Lady in Black.” The wood cut illustrations are clever and well done. Schlosser has created a regional series of spooky stories which has an appeal for those in the areas of which he gathers his tales.

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft, illustrated by August Derleth. (Ballentine, 1987)

H.P. Lovecraft, the Über master of modern horror, earned that reputation for a very good reason. His stories are legend for their psychological thriller elements. His protagonists are rational, normal human beings who are placed in the incomprehensible and inconceivable and his stories are disturbing, weird and unsettling. Edgar Allen Poe was an obvious influence. He loves to play with the unknown, which I believe is one of the most terrifying elements in a scary story. This compilation is an excellent grouping of his “bests,” although read through in one sitting they can become formulaic and predictable.

A few of my favorites from this collection of short stories and novellas are:

– “The Rats in the Walls”: an inherited ancestral mansion has walls filled with scurrying rats.
– “The Picture in the House”: a house of refuge in a rainstorm has a disturbing picture on the wall.
– “In the Vault”: a grave digger has to dig himself out of a crypt.
– “The Whisperer in Darkness”: a scientist goes to Vermont to disprove the existence of fairies.
– “The Haunter of the Dark”: a writer creates a horrible being that can only live in the dark.

Lovecraft, practically unknown in his lifetime, set the stage, tone and a very high watermark for today’s horror writers.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (Bantam 1962)

This was my first horror novel and boy, did it do a number on me as a kid! Not only did it fill me with ideas regarding the significance of dates and hours of birth but I developed a belief in the powers of inanimate objects and it forever changed the way I feel about carnivals, carny folk and tattoos.

The story takes place in a small town that is preparing for the arrival of a carnival with fliers advertising “Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.” The two heroes, best friends Jim and Will, who were born two minutes apart on either side of Halloween, discover this is no ordinary carnival when they sneak out in the middle of the night to watch it set up. When they begin investigating during the daylight, they notice very strange things about the rides and the effect it is having on the townspeople.

Bradbury’s carnies are perfect, creepy, sleezy, dark and skeevy. There’s G. M. Dark, the tattooed freak, and his evil partner, J. C. Cooger. The carnival is also populated with The Dust Witch, a blind fortune teller, The Skeleton and Tom Fury, the dwarf. These are the carnival people you can’t resist but who fill you with terror and dread if you find yourself alone in their presence. A merry-go-round and a house of mirrors will never be the same after you read this novel.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, a classic tale of good and evil, is well written and the Gothic horror theme works well in its small-town setting, proving that even wholesome places are vulnerable to evil forces.

My, my, my how the cold winter nights will fly as you settle down with these stories and hope for spring.

October 25, 2010

CanLit Award Predictions

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

CanLit awards season is heading into its last few weeks (our big three prizes will all be handed out by mid-November). Thus, it’s time for predictions, and, if you are a real lit-junkie, some serious bets. First, a few quiet observations.

What everyone is perhaps not so quietly talking about is Kathleen Winter’s triple nominations for the Giller Prize, Governor General’s Award and Writers’ Trust prize for her novel Annabel. It is Winter’s debut novel after her 2008 Winterset Award winning short story collection boYs.

Feeling two-thirds the heat as Kathleen Winter is Emma Donoghue, up for the Writers’ Trust and GG for her novel Room. The novel was also short-listed for the Man Booker earlier this fall.

There are lesser hopefuls that may surprise Canada with a big win after all. David Bergen’s new novel The Matter With Morris has had its share of recognition this season. It is up for the Giller and may just take the cake out of Winter’s mouth.

That said, it would be doggishly ironic if Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is For The Party won the Giller. This is her debut work and has created considerable buzz in critic’s circles. Perhaps if the GG and Writer’s Trust accepted story collections, it would also approach taking those awards.

On to my predictions: be warned, the following is purely unfounded speculation.

On November 2, Michael Winter’s The Death Of Donna Whalen will win the Writers’ Trust award for fiction. In non-fiction, Sarah Leavitt will win for her graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me.

A week later on November 9, Emma Donoghue will win the Giller Prize for Room.

And in mid-November the Governor General’s Award for fiction will be presented to Kathleen Winter for Annabel. In non-fiction, Allan Casey will win for Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada.

October 24, 2010

Book Trailer of the Week: It’s A Book by Lane Smith

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Lane Smith’s charming picture book for children, It’s A Book answers the questions of our time: what is a book? What can it do? Why should I read it?

September 30, 2010

THIS Reads: Should Reading Cause Stress?

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

I’m not going to lie. I’ve been really, really stressed about reading during the past month and half. As fall and winter book releases have piled up on my living room table, the stack now looks a bit like the leaning tower of Pisa, lumbering over the number of calendar days in which I have to read them. It’s not unusual, I think, for lovers of books to be overwhelmed with more books than time. For me, the added pressure of that awful word – deadline – zaps a bit of the pleasure out of reading, which is too bad, because I love reading. However, I shrug all responsibility for the tilted ratio of books-to-sanity from my shoulders. If publishers wouldn’t pile on all their top titles in the fall, maybe I wouldn’t be freaking out right now.

So what’s on my table?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This is probably the only book I’ve picked up for pure pleasure in the last month and it’s one hell of a ride. Mitchell’s talent as a writer far exceeds that of almost any other living writer. In Cloud Atlas, his chameleon skin at adapting to a plethora of voices, styles, and genres is revealed in the shimmer of this postmodern novel. Plus, James Woods has a small crush on Mitchell and if James Woods is in love, then you know Mitchell’s the real deal.

Deadline: 30 days, because the Library of Congress says so. And, unlike their poorly funded public counterpart, the Library of Congress does not fuck around.

 

 


Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women
by Rebecca Traister
Even though I live in DC, I’m not a policy wonk. Thankfully, Traister’s look at the women of the 2008 election is a pleasing mix of the political and the personal, which means I loved this book way more than I loved living through the pain of waking at 3am to take the Metro to the National Mall, wade through the muck of DC planning ineptitude, stand in the cold for 7 hours to wait for Obama’s inauguration, and then walking 6 miles home because the tourists couldn’t figure out how to cram–really cram–themselves into the Metro train cars. Which is to say, for anyone who has an interest in feminist politics, women in politics, or presidential politics, Traister’s book is one of the best to emerge from the post-election political publishing binge.

Deadline: Done and done, thanks to Traister’s superb reading at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse last Monday.

 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The movie opened to a limited release last Friday and will be in wide release soon. I thought I should read the book before the film poisons my mind. Unfortunately, I haven’t even cracked it open since I hunted it from my bookshelves six weeks ago and I saw the movie this past weekend.

Deadline: Ideally, I would have read this before seeing the film. Now, I’ll probably read the book the next time I’m laid up with the flu, which, in DC, usually hits around February.

 

Sunset Park by Paul Auster
An ARC of Auster’s forthcoming novel (due in November) dropped into my hands. A very nice review editor at a very nice online literary and cultural magazine asked if I would read and review. This was in July. He said, “Have the review to me September-ish.” Bad idea. I work on firm deadlines. September-ish means, to me, anytime prior to 11:59pm on September 30th. So have I read this yet? No. In fairness, up until that point I hadn’t read any Auster (gasp! but I’m not a New Yorker, so calm down) so I had to quickly plow through the main points of his backlist before reaching for his latest. The New York Trilogy blew my mind as a postmodern novel that questioned the very claim of the author and the veracity of fiction – until I read Cloud Atlas. Then The New York Trilogy became the ugly sister: still related but a lot less likely to become high school class president or prom queen.

Deadline: September-ish. But I give myself bonus points for having started it this weekend.

 


Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
A writer friend of mine recently admonished me for never having read McCarthy’s The Road. I told him every woman I knew who had read the book hated it, while every guy I knew loved it. As a biological female, I just assumed it wasn’t worth my time. My friend argued that McCarthy is one of the best living American writers and promised to bring me a novel I would love: Blood Meridian. I asked for a deadline (I can’t help it); he said August 31 and I agreed. In mid-August, I asked for an extension. He said, “end of September, I guess?” the slight questioning tone of the sentence placing it firmly after “September-ish” and sometime before the Apocalypse. Therefore, Friend is never getting his book back, at least not anytime soon.

Deadline: I’ll take him out for beers and see who remembers anything about deadlines then.

 

Room by Emma Donoghue, C by Tom McCarthy, and The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass

I borrowed both the Man Booker Nominated Room and C from friends because, okay, I admit: I’m not immune to the influence of judges on prize committees. I would have never read Wolf Hall if it hadn’t won the Booker last year. So wow me over judges!

I have my own copy of The Widower’s Tale because I love Julia Glass. Her novel is not nominated for any awards (yet) but Three Junes did win the National Book Award. I’m always impressed by Glass’s ability to write from multiple perspectives in her family dramas without condescending to the reader or her characters.

Deadline: Waiting for flu season (Glass) and the announcement of the Man Booker Prize winner (Donoghue and McCarthy).

September 28, 2010

THIS Reads: Digging Below the Mainstream

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

I must confess I’ve felt snobbish lately – my range of authors is a tad one sided in favour of the big press. It’s not that I need sales or reputation to respect an author, not at all – it’s just that I’ve been blindsided by a few bigger, highly anticipated novels in the past few months. But being the rebel I am (insert laughtrack here), I know that big press is a euphemism for the man, and I won’t have that being the log in my literary fire.

So, in an attempt to dig below the mainstream, this is what I am reading while the leaves change colour outside my window:

Best Canadian Stories: ’08, ed. John Metcalf (Oberon Press). While perusing my local library I found this gem, a compilation of short stories by ten lesser known CanLit authors like Clark Blaise, Kathleen Winter, and Amy Jones. Despite being edited by one of Canada’s top literary critics, this book really pushes some unheard names into reader’s faces. These are top notch intuitive stories, but their authors probably wouldn’t catch the attention of Penguin editors.

What Is Left The Daughter, by Howard Norman (HMH). I’m reviewing this book for this and so far, from the fifty pages I have read, it is amazing. Set during World War Two on the East Coast of Canada, it is a life tale of extreme hardship at a young age (double parent suicide) and the further aftermath of a growing young man.

The Matter With Morris,
by David Bergen (Harper Collins) In honour of making the Giller longlist, I must mention that Bergen’s story is highly intriguing. I’ve only read a condensed version of Morris in this month’s Walrus, but it definately makes me want to buy a copy. With themes like war, romance, writing, and pot – how can you say no?

Mordecai Richler Was Here, ed. Adam Gopnik (Madison). Ahh, I know, there’s nothing small time about Richler. But I don’t care, he’s my favourite author. His satirical wittiness, mastering the underdog story, putting CanLit on the map – he’s the best. This book brings together a wide array of Richler’s journalism coinciding with relevant snippets from his fiction. It’s Richler’s perspective on politics, writing, and success in his own words, a definite read for budding writers in need of guidance.

I have also been paying attention to Joey Comeau’s blog posts over at Open Book Toronto this month. Comeau is gaining a heap of recognition in Canada lately with his most recent novel One Bloody Thing After Another. He also provides captions alongside Emily Horne’s photography on A Softer World, an ongoing web comic.

And yes, I realize this is all Canadian writing.

September 27, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Censorship

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BY URSULA K. RAPHAEL

If you’ve paid attention to recent news, you’ve probably heard about Terry Jones, the preacher who proposed burning the Qur’an. Alas, book censorship is still alive and well in the United States, the country that totes freedom of speech as our national mantra. Not only is it ridiculous, but it’s a shameful waste of millions of trees. Unfortunately, there are people who are so desperate to protect others from what they consider “harmful reading material,” they are probably recruiting computer hackers to create viruses to stop the downloading of “dangerous ideas” to Kindles everywhere.

Number one on the banned/challenged book list of 2000-2009, compiled by the American Library Association, is *drum roll please* the Harry Potter series. This series has been accused of promoting witchcraft/atheism, encouraging children to misbehave and make bad decisions, and being just plain frightening. (I’m not sure if trying to fly on a broom falls under “witchcraft” or “making a bad decision.”)

I personally thought the Harry Potter books were a fantastic collection of mythology and folklore interwoven into a story of an abused boy who makes something of himself despite not having a loving family environment and having to ward off attacks on his life every year. But, I was probably reading too far into the storyline and overlooked the details enticing children to the dark side with promises of owl-delivered invitations to a wizarding school.

I will be the first to admit that Harry and his friends do lie, break rules, and disrespect authority figures, but so do most school children (which is why I homeschool). I would also like to point out that if fictional characters always told the truth, followed the rules, and showed more respect for others, stories would be pretty boring, probably not go anywhere, and miss the point of creative writing.

The complaint that makes me laugh the most is the accusation that the Harry Potter series is too scary for children. Honestly, I think the news is the scariest thing I’ve read on any given date. At least when they read the books the kids can tell themselves “it’s just a story.” Of course, any sensible parent would read what their kids read, be aware of what is age-appropriate and realize that, in our world, children are no strangers to suffering and death.

My personal experience with the Harry Potter books includes reading the series, watching the movies, and collecting some of the memorabilia (which includes a sorting hat). I have thrown Harry Potter themed parties for organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. I had craft tables where the kids could make their own wands with unicorn hair, dragon scales, and phoenix feathers. We sorted participants in the four houses of Hogwarts (by drawing names out of my sorting hat), gave prizes for trivia questions about the books, and shared a Harry Potter birthday cake. In return, our guests were asked to bring new books (any children’s books) that were donated to children of families who could not afford the luxury of reading material.

Some people would say that a kid reading anything without discretion or standards is not an accomplishment, but I say that kids reading books and sharing that love of reading with less fortunate children is something to be proud of.

August 23, 2010

Why I Never Get Anything Done

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

There are a lot of reasons why I never get anything done and, perhaps oddly, chronic procrastination is not among them. As a kid I procrastinated constantly on every school assignment, from a diorama of the solar system (back in the days when Pluto was still considered a planet) to math homework (I hated math) to adding the finishing touches to my “novel” in the fifth grade. Since those years, it’s become nearly impossible for me to sit still for anything except eight hours of sleep each night, and even that annoys me as I wonder why I’m wasting one-quarter of my day drooling into my pillow.

So if procrastination isn’t the problem, what is?

I blame books. I blame reading.
I may, even, blame the Internet and all its magical portals that lead me to worlds far and wide (also known as the eighteen tabs I have simultaneously opened in Firefox).

I love books and reading both, so it seems unfair to blame them for my problems of never getting anything accomplished. But it’s true. Have you seen my Goodreads list? I’m usually reading several books at time, from novels to non-fiction to short story collections to poetry. No one has ever called me a one-book pony, though I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t get more reading done by focusing on just one at a time.

With so many books being published, magazine articles to read, and blog posts to keep up with, how can I find time to clean my house? Or cook dinner? I have to squeeze reading time into every available nook and cranny in my life if I actually want to get on with my life. I go to the gym only if I can prop a book or magazine on the treadmill for company as I lumber along. While everyone else bops away on their iPods and watches “The Office” re-runs on television, I read about the rise of Cosmopolitan’s controversial femme, Helen Gurley Brown, or a fictionalized account of the pitiful American health care system. Sometimes, I even read The New Yorker. At the gym. On the treadmill. With a five pound weight in each hand. Am I a nerd? Yes. Am I a fit nerd? Hell, yes.

I live in a metropolitan city with great public transportation system (most of the time) that makes for the perfect reading time. Commuting to and from work, to dinner with friends, or to a movie, I skip the sudoku for a book instead.

Despite all my attempts to twist reading around my life, I still feel as if I’m not reading often enough to keep up. An overwhelming number of books are published each year and in the almost 600 hundred years since movable type revolutionized book printing, a nearly infinite number of ancient texts, classic works, and publisher’s backlist beckon to be read.

So I never get anything done. Although, I suppose there are worse ways to spend one’s time. At least I’m not manufacturing dynamite or playing World of Warcraft. I’ll take reading over most pursuits any day.

February 10, 2010

Snowed In? Read a Book!

by thiszine

If you live on the East Coast or in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., chances are you’ve seen a lot of snow this winter. If you find yourself house bound and filled with snow stress, why not pick up a book and catch up on some (surely long overdue!) reading?

thiszine‘s editor was caught in a snow drift this weekend and managed to finish three books, find time for personal writing, and work on the new website. What did you do while snowed in?

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August 13, 2009

Discovering Connections Through Books

by thiszine

In a a recent Guardian article, Molly Flatt discusses how people cross the solitary nature of book reading by bonding over books. She cites personal experiences as examples, adding that books “are social objects, and we use them to brandish our identities, mark our allegiances and broker our relationships. They can provoke passions as strongly as politics.”

 

I’ve definitely experienced the thrill of commenting on a book someone was reading, excited that they were reading a book I loved. Only once has my comment been completely ignored. Most people smile kindly or state that they are/are not enjoying it, usually followed by a statement of how or why they came to read the book. (“My sister recommended it to me” or “I heard her speak on the radio” or “I absolutely loved his other books.”) We don’t become lifelong friends over a shared interest in the same book but, especially in urban areas where, more often than not, we don’t know our own neighbors, the momentary commonality is enough connection to add an extra skip in my walk for the day.

 

Flatt goes on to describe ways reading books has crossed cultural and language boundaries, testifying in a very personal and very real way, how the love of reading and the love for particular texts provokes strong reactions in others, both good and bad.

 

For my own part, people who comment on the books I’m reading often ask me where I purchased the title. Since I’m a fierce supporter of independent bookstores, I always direct them to the local indie shop (and, consequently, glare pointedly down at their Kindle if they’re holding one).

 

What experiences have you had discovering connections through books?