Sunday, August 9, 2015

Killer Journalism

A friend sent me this link from the Atlantic, which includes a bunch of stellar nonfiction writing from 2014. I'm just going to put it here in case you want to read, too.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy is a heartbreaker. He kills little kids and ruins love. At least that's what his novels do.

I listened to Tess of the d'Urbervilles on my drive to Texas for graduate school in 2009. Apparently, I found the female narrator's voice for Tess whiny, desperate, and weak, and it influenced me so much that I found myself hating the heroine on that alone.

But I generally appreciated the book. It covered a lot of ground and life instances, and showed a deep struggle between religion, society and nature (nature meaning a person's natural instincts and desires).

I managed to take a few scribbled notes while listening and driving with my knees down the old Route 66. Here's my recap from that long-ago trip.

  • Again I noticed a lot of outdoor, especially garden, liminal spaces. In essence, what I remember from class (please don't hate if I've mislead, Professor Younger), the liminal space is where the relationship between two characters is developing--becoming evident to reader, and likely to the characters as well. It's sexually charged without having to be sexual. In some instances its sensual, others playful, others still have an air of discovery.
  • Before Tess's big fall from grace, the sexual imagery was dripping from the speakers. I can only imagine viewing the words on the pages. It's filled with rather blunt innuendos, if I can even call them that.
  • Tess failed me as a heroine. Sure she was the dream single lady--making her own dough and going her own way, kicking ass and taking names at the end. But she could have prevented her misery multiple times, as the novel points out, if she had only followed through on her instincts. I'm wondering what that says about women. Through the novel, is Hardy critiquing women? Is he letting the novel's last hurrah to atone for Tess's indecision? In my eyes she's a wreck, but was her headstrong manner something for Nineteenth-Century feminists to applaud?
  • Every male in this novel is represented (at one time, if note entirely) as a jackass. Surprisingly, the guy who really redeems himself in this reader's eyes, is Alec d'Urberville. Stalker? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Whiny? Yes. But damn it he tried to fix his past mistakes. Angel Clare just waltzed in from abroad and caused destruction. And he WON. The guy who tried to fix things lost. What does that say about turning away from society and God? Hmmmm?
So many question. So little answers.

Friday, July 17, 2015

11/22/63 by Stephen King

I read 11/22/63 in its hardback stages for my sorority book club. I remember it being long, and interesting, and at points terribly unsatisfying. My notes were also, at points, terribly unsatisfying and I have no idea what all I was trying to track. I can, however, categorize my legible notes.

What made the job hard was that the red pen became my primary teaching tool instead of my mouth, and I practically wore it out. What made the job dispiriting was that you knew that very little of that red-pen teaching was apt to stick; if you reach the age of twenty-five or thirty without knowing how to spell correctly, or capitalize in the proper places, or write a sentence containing both a noun and a verb, you’re probably never going to know.  P. 3

He had written in cheap ballpoint ink that had blotted the five pages in many places. His handwriting was a looping but legible scrawl, and he must have been bearing down hard, because the words were actually engraved into the cheap notebook pages; if I’d closed my eyes and run my fingertips over the backs of those torn-out sheets, it would have been like reading Braille. There was a little squiggle, like a flourish, at the end of every lower-case y. I remember that was particular clarity.  4

I stroked a big red A on top of his paper. Looked at it for a moment or two, then added a big red +. Because it was good, and because his pain had evoked an emotional reaction in me, his reader. And isn’t that what A+ writing is supposed to do? Evoke a response?5 

Random Spot-On Musings
I guess we always find excuses to keep on with our bad habits, don’t we? 18

Here is one of the great truths of the human condition: when you need Stayfree Maxi Pads to absorb the expectorants produced by your insulted body, you are in serious fucking trouble. 54

And really, there’s no downside. If things turn to shit, you just take it all back. Easy as erasing a dirty word off a chalkboard. 62

On that gray street, with the smell of industrial smokes in the air and the afternoon bleeding away to evening, downtown Derry looked only marginally more charming than a dead hooker in a church pew. 125

This town isn’t as bad as it was—last July, folks were strung as tight as Doris Day’s chastity belt—but it’s still a long way form right. 131

I remembered a sociology prof I’d had in college—a sarcastic old bastard—who used to say, When all else fails, up and go to the library. 133

Frame him for something? It might work in a spy novel, but I wasn’t a CIA agent; I was a goddam English teacher. 159

…but the past is obdurate.
It doesn’t want to change. 182

On the subject of love at first sight, I’m with the Beatles: I believe that it happens all the time. … So I guess I’m also with Mickey and Sylvia, who said love is strange. 336
I undressed and went to bed, where I lay awake a long time, thinking long thoughts. About time and love and death. 375

Her nipples made tiny shadows, like punctuation marks, against the cloth in the late light. 382
James Bond might’ve been up for a third go-round, but Jake/George was tapped out. 383
But we got it, poundcake became our name for it, and we ate plenty that fall. 386
He had all his books alphabetized, and he got very upset if you moved them around. He was nervous if you took even one off the shelf—you could feel it, a kind of tensing. 392 

If you get tired of shelving books and carrying a torch for the one that got away. 485

Literature References
I thanked him and turned to go back to the booth, but he tapped me on the shoulder. I wish he hadn’t done that. It was like being tapped by Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who stoppeth one of three. 20

I felt like a man reading a very grim book. A Thomas Hardy novel, say. You know how it’s going to end, but instead of spoiling things, that somehow increases your fascination. It’s like watching a kid run his electric train faster and faster and waiting for it to derail on one of the curves. 58
The fall colors began to bloom—first timid yellow, then orange, then blazing, strumpet red as autumn burned away another Maine summer. There were cardboard boxes filled with coverless paperbacks at the market, and I must have read three dozen or more: mysteries by Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, and Richard S. Prather; steamy melodramas like Peyton Place and a Stone for Danny fisher; westerns by the score; and one science-fiction novel called The Lincoln Hunters, which concerned time-travelers trying to record a “forgotten” speech by Abraham Lincoln. 270

I’d read a book called A Reliable Wife not too long before leaving on the world’s strangest trip, and as I climbed into bed, a line from the novel crossed my mind: “He had lost the habit of romance.” 342

I was at my desk on the morning of August 27th, working away at The Murder Place in a pair of basketball shorts and nothing else, when the doorbell rang. 343

Mimi, who thought Catcher in the Rye belonged in the school library, and who wasn’t adverse to a nice boink on Saturday night. 344

I spent my days there, cooking her meals, working in her little garden (which would sicken but not quite die in another hot central Texas summer), and reading Bleak House to her.  599

I was reading (or pretending to read) the latest James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me. 601

We read books sitting side by side on her couch, with her fan blowing back our hair—The Group for her, Jude the Obscure for me.  644

Found myself listening to Sadie as she read to me, first Jude the Obscure, then Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I knew those stories, and listening to them again was comforting.  675

The lady or the tiger? I don’t know, I don’t know. 828

Monday, June 29, 2015

L&L: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster,

After how much I was surprised to like A Passage to India by Forster, I was bummed to find A Room with a View rather dull.

-None of the characters were particularly likable.

-Other than challenging some social norms, was anything happening in the book?

-Why were George and Lucy questioning Charlotte's intentions at the end of the book? Could the end at all justify the means? How are we, the reader, supposed to take that in terms of our evaluation of Charlotte, but also George and Lucy?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

So it goes. I should have kept a tally the number of times I read that line. Because  I'm curious, not because I think it's a brilliant idea, or because I think someone hasn't done it before. I simply think it would make me think more about about the times Vonnegut chose to use the phrase. Consider what he was saying it about. Because it he could have written it more, so why did he write it in those places?

I read Slaughterhouse-Five when Out of Print was having a bookclub. Or was it because it was Banned Books Week? Or both? I don't know. Either way it was like two years ago, and it was the first Vonnegut I'd read since high school (the epic short story "Harrison Bergeron"). From what I remember, I liked the book, although at times I struggled with following the narrator and the story line. Much like Fitzgerald (and even Fleming at times) I was drawn to Vonnegut's way with words. The way he described things was vivid and real without being mundane or extravagant. Here are some of the passages that particularly

The elevator door on the first floor was ornamental iron lace. Iron ivy snaked in and out of the holes. There was iron twig with two iron lovebirds perched upon it. 11

I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. 5

We went to New York World's Fair, saw what the past had been like, according to the Ford Motor Car Company and Walt Disney, saw what the future would be like, according to General Motors. And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.  23

 Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?" 24

This was a fairly pretty girl, except that she had legs like an Edwardian grand piano. 37

The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons. 90

He ate a pear. It was a hard one. It fought back against his grinding teeth. It snapped in juicy protest. 126
He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who'll get one. 169.

The heartburn brought tears to his eyes, so that his image of Campbell was distorted by jiggling lenses of salt water. 207

She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away. 218
I also tried to keep track of the books mentioned in the novel. I got quite a few, although I don't claim it to be exhaustive. The books, and when they are mentioned, would have made an interesting study.I also noted a few areas where Vonnegut talked about writing. A trafficker in climaxes? God that's good stuff.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
Dresden, History, Stage, and Gallery by Mary Endell
Celine and His Vision by Erika Ostrovsky
Words for the Wind by Theodore Roethke 
The Giddeon Bible
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Brothers Karamazov
by Feodor Dostoevsky
Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension
and other novels by Vonnegut's fictional author, Kilgore Trout
As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations... 6

I taught creative writing in the famous Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa for a couple of years after that. I got into some perfectly beautiful trouble, got out of it again. 23
Those beloved, frumpish books gave off a smell that permeated the ward--like flannel pajamas that hadn't been changed for month, or like Irish stew. 128

That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book. 160
Finally, it's worth noting where we learn about 'So it goes.'
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad conidition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes.' 34

Monday, June 8, 2015

Longbourn by Jo Baker

I'd long known about Longbourn, and I'm glad it finally became available on audiobook from my library. After my disappointment with Death Comes to Pemberley, it was time for a good Pride & Prejudice experience. Also,  I was concurrently reading Darcy's Story which is a somewhat enjoyable but much less novel in approach.

No surprise, the "downstairs" aspect of Longbourn appealed to me, partially because of my infatuation with Downton Abbey. I actually found the beginning of the book made me cringe because of all the talking about the tiredness and hard work, scrubbing, soaking, bleaching, cleaning... I felt tired and sore and my hands felt dry just hearing about it.

Some of my partiality for the book also comes from the fact that it's a great alternative way to encounter P&P without the same story being the focus. If you already love and know the characters of P&P, then it's just icing on the cake to encounter them in another story.

I do wonder what it's like to read the book without knowing what's happening with the Bennet family. Do they matter at all to you, or do you wish those pesky side characters would stop slowing down Sarah's story? Is it confusing? Is Lizzie as important as Jane? I'd imagine that you think much better of Mrs. Bennet than Mr. Bennet in this story. I find that drastically different than P&P, where you like Mr. B so much more than Mrs.B (on face value, at least). It was actually hard to read the bad sides of him.
My biggest frustration of the book is a spoiler, so click the jump to read on. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara


That's what I have to say to you about The People in the Trees. I don't want to talk about too much because I think the reader needs to form their own opinions. But I will say a few non-pertinent things:

As a first novel, I'm amazed at the spot-on writing about, but actually by, such a disagreeable main character. His dialogue is condescending and detestable throughout the book, but always in character. And the overarching frame and footnotes by, what I pictured as a brainwashed Watson, were icing on the cake. Side note: I listened to this as an audiobook, which fantastically used two different narrators for the parts. I'm guilty of often skipping footnotes, and this format forced the issue. Also an audiobook bonus, I didn't have to try and guess how to say any of the hard to guess names of people, islands, rituals, etc.

The worlds created--from the lab, to Ivu’ivu, to Norton's home, felt real and tangible with the right amount of details.

But things escalated quickly from a book I couldn't stop recommending to one I definitely won't be comfortable recommending. And I'm going to leave it at that.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Ever since there was a big flood in our area, I've had a couple Margaret Atwood books on my shelves. (Naturally, we couldn't let my aunt's library flood. SAVE THE BOOKS!) I'd never even heard of her until I got to graduate school and this girl in my cohort name-dropped her like she name-dropped fashion bloggers. Thankfully her name stayed stored in the dark, reverberating recesses of my brain, and when we sorting in piles of donate--keep--Kristina, I made sure her hardcovers ended up in my stack. Since then, there was an Out of Print Book Madness on science fiction/fantasy books, and The Handmaid's Tale seemed to have great plays. That pretty much solidified that I needed to read this book. Oh, and did I mention that I studied utopias and dystopias in one of my first undergraduate English courses? Seriously. This book, like, totally had to happen.

So my personal agenda was utterly gratified when my sorority book club picked The Handmaid's Tale. Almost the whole group had the book on their nightstand, so to speak, for any number of years.

The conversation was intense. We were mad at the ending. We were disgusted at the complacency of women. We were alarmed at the similarities in that world and ours. We talked symbolism (red). We talked character (who was likeable?). We talked autonomy (did anyone have any?).

I'm glad I read the book, as I was very intrigued by it and it's classic status. She created a complex narrative that warrants far more discussion than what I'm giving it here. It deserves the reverence, but I don't know that it's on my list of books I'm going to tell people to read in the future.