Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature: Book Reviews

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book?

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book? What is the function of book reviews?

Is it to “save” people from a “bad” art experience? Can bad art exist? If it’s art, isn’t it, by definition, beautiful? Otherwise, wouldn’t it be failed art or attempted art or, you know, just … not art?

Recently, I read a time travel novel for middle grade readers, Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague. I bought the book without knowing anything about it other than the jacket copy’s description because time travel novels are one of my favorites. (Perhaps this explains why I ended up with two copies … oops.*) When the story opens, 13-year-old Margaret’s father has been found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to death. Desperate to save him, Margaret draws on her ability to time travel. Her quest takes her back to 1938, the year a tragedy soured the life of Lucas, who grows up to become the judge who sentenced Margaret’s father.  The story took a turn I won’t reveal (spoilers) other than to say it moved me to reflect on the power of living in the present moment. It’s a message I need to be reminded of often as I have a bad habit of obsessing over the past.

I rarely read extended reviews before reading a book. A friend’s recommendation, or the appeal of a book’s themes or jacket copy, is enough to inspire me to dive in. Extended reviews are for later, during or after reading a book I have a strong reaction to – whether it’s being moved, impressed, angry, surprised, provoked, etc.

When I read reviews, I’m not looking for a breakdown of what did and didn’t work according to one person, even one very smart or respected person. I can decide that for myself. Nitpicking about perceived flaws doesn’t interest me either, unless they’re so egregious as to disrupt my ability to engage in a story’s world. (If that’s the case, though, my reading experience probably isn’t interesting enough to inspire me to look up other readers’ responses.) I don’t expect a book to be perfect. That would be weird. I mean, what’s perfect on this planet?

I read reviews to connect with others’ experiences. Did others see and feel moved by this too? Did they see something I missed that will deepen my experience of a story? Continue reading “Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature: Book Reviews”

Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature, Part 1

Classic literature, like fantasy, separates us from the familiar trappings and references around which we construct our arguments and defenses.

Classic literature, like fantasy, separates us from the familiar trappings and references around which we construct our arguments and defenses.Years ago, when I was trying to shape my dissertation study, I had the “brilliant” idea to study how reading changes us. I’d been a reader for as long as I could remember. I recognized that the books I’d read throughout my life, in school and out, have shaped the way I think and act in the world. I wanted to understand how that happens, how it works.

My dissertation chair never came right out and said, “That’s a dreadful dissertation topic.” An exceedingly gentle and wise man, the kind of man about whom people are likely to say, “they don’t make them like him anymore,” he wanted to see me finish my dissertation sometime before the universe’s inevitable flame-out. He asked me questions. He showed me what such a study might entail. He invoked the vaguely Orwellian sounding Human Subjects Committee.

Somehow, by the end of our extended pre-proposal discussions, he delicately helped me construct an infinitely more manageable – and quantifiable – study: I looked at how writing handbooks advise student writers to incorporate texts alongside how “exemplary” student writers actually incorporate them. I worked with published texts and numbers. I enjoyed researching and writing my dissertation immensely … even if it was the kind of study that exactly seven people on Earth are likely to read (because they had to): The three members of my dissertation committee, my two outside readers (who probably skimmed it), my writing partner, and me.

Conducting my study helped me think about the ways we bring other writers into our work at the language level. It was fascinating and instructive. I’m grateful for the years I spent working on it. Still, my larger question has lingered. Earlier this year, I articulated some of the related questions circling around that larger one: Continue reading “Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature, Part 1”

Why I picked this book: Pancakes in Paris

Sometimes we choose books for reasons so personal, it seems no marketing algorithm could possibly account for them. Case in point for me: Pancakes in Paris.

Sometimes we choose books for reasons so personal, it seems no marketing algorithm could possibly account for them. Case in point for me: Pancakes in Paris.Sometimes, we choose books for reasons so personal, it seems no marketing algorithm could possibly account for them.

A few weeks ago, I was rushing through Barnes and Noble on a mission: Get coffee before class. I could go to Starbucks, which is, actually, a little closer to where I teach. But then I wouldn’t get to visit the books.

As I strode purposefully toward the café, a title pulled me up short: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson. A quick peek at the subtitle revealed it’s an American’s memoir of opening a diner in Paris. I’d not heard of the book before. Lord knows I have plenty of my own books to get through. I definitely wasn’t planning to splurge on a memoir. But … pancakes.

Pancakes are a food item I’m most likely to think of when I think of my maternal grandma. Continue reading “Why I picked this book: Pancakes in Paris”

When books create movies in our minds

Have you ever had this happen to you – where a story is so alive in your imagination that you’re sure you must have seen it with your own eyes?

Have you ever had this happen to you – where a story is so alive in your imagination that you’re sure you must have seen it with your own eyes or at the movies? I’ll get to the movies in our minds in a minute. But first:

Sometimes, I like to sit on my sofa and look at my books. Especially when I’ve just finished a book and don’t know what I want to read next. Conveniently, my main bookshelf* is directly across from my favorite reading spot. It’s my favorite interior view. Obviously.

Sitting there in my favorite spot, I think about all the places my books have taken me, all the thoughts they’ve inspired me to think, all the questions they’ve invited me to ask. I think about the conversations I’ve had with friends about these books. I think about how many people have read the same book, all around the world. It’s a lovely, cozy feeling.

Today, I was looking at my bookshelves with a critical eye. By this, I mean with an eye toward figuring out where the heck I’m going to put all the books I brought back from the book sale I went to this morning. Let’s not talk numbers. It’s so vulgar.

As I’m strategically moving books around – sort of like those puzzles where you have to maneuver squares to fit a certain pattern – I stumble on a 1920s bundle: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Nella Larson’s Passing. During a two-week period a few years ago, I read these three novels in succession. My goal in doing so was to experience that period through a range of viewpoints.

A scene of 1920s-ish New York came into my mind as I looked at these books: an African-American woman standing at an intersection with her young son. I remember this about the scene: They’ve walked down from Harlem into a white neighborhood, and the woman is afraid, and she takes her son’s hand.

Sure it was from a movie, I combed my memory for the film’s name. Then I realized something: It wasn’t a scene from a movie at all. It was a scene from Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. The scene lives in my memory in such intense, vivid detail that I was sure I had seen it with my eyes. But I hadn’t. I’d conjured it in my imagination because of Gyasi’s words and the story they weave and the intensity of the emotion.

Have you ever had that happen to you – where a story is so alive in your imagination that you’re sure you must have seen it with your own eyes?

*By “main bookshelf,” I mean the most organized (term used loosely) bookshelf, the one where I still have a 50 percent chance of actually finding a book I’m looking for.

Happy 90th birthday, Winnie-the-Pooh!

For Winnie-the-Pooh's 90th birthday, a few favorite quotes and a recording of A. A. Milne reading from his iconic book!

For Winnie-the-Pooh's 90th birthday, a few favorite quotes and a recording of A. A. Milne reading from his iconic book!It felt distinctly like autumn today in my New England town. The temperatures have settled into the neighborhood of the 60s. There was a light breeze gently tugging golden leaves off their branches, sending them skipping and swirling.

On these days, the word “blustery” comes to mind. It’s a blustery day, I’ll think. The word always invites Winnie-the-Pooh into my mental landscape, as much for A. A. Milne’s lovely books as for the Disney videos my son enjoyed when he was very small. We both enjoyed them, actually, as well as reading Milne’s books together.

When I was a little girl, I loved to imagine my dolls and stuffed animals enjoying adventures all their own, independent of me. Milne’s story has always appealed to me on that level. Beyond the story, I love the quirky characters. Each furry friend harbors his own endearing peccadilloes. None is perfect, but they work quite well together as a group. It rather calls to mind the human experience, doesn’t it? Continue reading “Happy 90th birthday, Winnie-the-Pooh!”

Happy National Poetry Day!

Happy National Poetry Day! What are some of your favorite poems?

Happy National Poetry Day! What are some of your favorite poems?At the end of Elif Batuman’s memoir The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, she writes—and I promise this won’t spoil the book should you choose to read it:

“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”

This may, for me, have been the best line in a book full of great lines, and I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate ending for her memoir, which weaves literary analysis with artfully crafted, incisive portraits of writers, scholars, literary landmarks, and personal experiences.

Maybe answers are possible through literature because of its ability to make us feel deeply, which in the practical world can cause pain and so we try to prevent ourselves from doing it. And literature can prompt understanding of otherness by plunging us into the other’s experience, which can also be scary and painful and thus something we may try to avoid.

Despite my deep faith in literature to prompt empathy and insight, poetry and I have never been the closest of confidantes. Lately, I’ve taken to thinking of poetry as I would an acquaintance admired from afar, that one inscrutable person who, when you speak with her or hear what he’s been doing, you’re impressed. But somehow, you can never get past the surface pleasantries when in that person’s presence.

I’m thinking about this today because it’s National Poetry Day. Out of deference to my enigmatic acquaintance and in honor of the day, I offer three personal favorites:

robert-frostNothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost

This melancholy but beautiful poem renders an experience universal to all living things. How often can we say of eight lines that they speak to all living beings?

This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams

The first reason I fell in love with this poem is it made me laugh (though I probably shouldn’t!). Upon closer inspection, I marvel at its exquisite construction.

13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens

For me, this evocative poem is interwoven with the experience of reading it one stanza at a time on the Wallace Stevens Walk in Hartford.

What are a few of your favorite poems for national poetry day or any day?

The Reading Life: Lifestyle or cultural pursuit?

If you had to pick just one, would you call reading a lifestyle or a cultural pursuit?

If you had to pick just one, would you call reading a lifestyle or a cultural pursuit?This week, I’ve been mulling over whether reading is primarily a lifestyle or primarily a cultural pursuit. Writing that sentence annoyed me. Because why must it be either/or? These false binaries are, irritatingly, everywhere.

However, for the sake of filing newspaper stories, practical decisions have to be made. Does a story on, for example, hot new releases belong under the heading “Culture” or “Lifestyle”? How about coverage of an author event? What about an essay about rereading a classic, or the latest literary fiction, or a juicy new murder mystery that will keep you up too late, rendering you sleep-deprived and grumpy at work the next day?

The issue has been on my mind since last week, when I finally broke down and read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Revolving Door of Life, book 10 in the 44 Scotland Street series. For anyone keeping track, it came out in February, and it’s now September. Continue reading “The Reading Life: Lifestyle or cultural pursuit?”

Homer’s The Odyssey: How I chose which translation to read

Homer's The Odyssey: How I chose which translation to read
Homer's The Odyssey: How I chose which translation to read
Though I did eventually choose to stick with Fagles’ on my Nook, my paperback copy of Fitzgerald was beach friendly.

Note: I wrote this before the publication of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. My thoughts on it are here.

“You know what the ancients said…”

Growing up, I heard this phrase more times than I can count. The “ancients” referred to the ancient Greek philosophers, poets, playwrights, etc. I don’t know if this is true in all Greek families, but in mine, ancient wisdom was standard fare.

One bit I remember my dad repeating (and he still has to remind me from time to time): Πάν μέτρον Άριστον. Everything in moderation. First he’d say it in Greek, then in English. It’s an important message, so it bears repeating! I’ve also seen the Greek phrase translate to “Moderation in all things.” The basic idea is the same: Maintain a sense of proportion in life. It’s a pretty excellent motto, really. (We could you some of that these days, yes?)

Getting to the implied question in my title (finally): When I first began reading The Odyssey, I shuttled between Robert Fitzgerald’s translation and Robert Fagles’. I couldn’t decide which I preferred and often found myself rereading chapters to figure it out. As you can imagine … time consuming! The Odyssey was becoming an odyssey. Know what I mean? Continue reading “Homer’s The Odyssey: How I chose which translation to read”

For National Book Lovers Day, 5 Reasons to Read

For National Book Lovers Day, 5 benefits of reading

For National Book Lovers Day, 5 benefits of readingThe bookish interwebs are buzzing today with fun and funny tributes to National Book Lovers Day, celebrated on Aug. 9 each year.

For some of us (like me!), every day is book lovers day. But I feel the spirit of setting aside one day a year to acknowledge and celebrate what you treasure. I mean, if grilled cheese sandwiches and yo-yos get a day, then books deserve one too, am I right?

To honor the occasion, I offer five great reasons to cultivate a love of books and invite you to share yours in the comments! Continue reading “For National Book Lovers Day, 5 Reasons to Read”

I thought I was book quitter until I checked the stats

I thought this was going to be a piece in which I gleefully recount my exploits as a book quitter. Except I haven’t actually quit on many books this year.

I thought this was going to be a piece in which I gleefully recount my exploits as a book quitter. Except I haven’t actually quit on many books this year.I thought this was going to be a piece in which I gleefully recount my exploits as a book quitter. I say “gleefully” because I heartily advocate reading the books we want to read.

Outside the context of school or work requirements, reading isn’t a responsibility to anyone but oneself. So no one is obligated to finish a book or provide an explanation for why they didn’t. By all means, feel badly if you quit on hope and humanity. Feel badly for being hateful or impatient or selfish (to the extent that feeling badly inspires you to do better). But feeling badly about not finishing a book (or about what you read)? No. Full stop.

So there I was, all fired up, marching up and down my imaginary battlefield, brandishing my imaginary spear and, for whatever reason, imagining myself clothed in chain mail and a metal helmet. And then … a funny thing happened: I looked over my reading data and realized, Oh. I haven’t actually quit on many books this year. How inconvenient it is when empirical evidence contradicts what we want to believe. Ahem.

I stand by my message. It’s just that my lack of quitting has come as a surprise. At times this year, it has felt as if I was abandoning books with, well, abandon. Continue reading “I thought I was book quitter until I checked the stats”