Monthly Archives: February 2011

What do you look for in a book?

I’ve been wondering recently what people look for in books, why they read or how they decide what to read. Kinda like snowflakes, i think– no two answers are the same. Here’s an example of what I am reading, and more specifically, why I am reading it.

I am in the midst of reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. There isn’t a superlative I can safely apply which would do it justice. It’s a wonderful , strange and all-encompassing reading experience I am slowly savoring. On the one hand, it’s a well-established classic. Of course, it’s “good,” right? But, wait.This morning, I stumbled on a brief testimonial to Middlemarch’s greatness from none other than Francine Prose.

Take a listen.

The bit of Prose’s tribute, which especially peaked my interest, was her story of “succumb[ing] to the more juvenile pleasures of starting a long novel and knowing that, for hundreds of pages, I was going to be transported to a place where I was glad to be, and surrounded by all new neighbors whose fates I wanted to know.” She contrasts this “pleasure” with Virginia Woolf’s now rote description of Middlemarch being “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

This really struck me.

I think this ability to straddle the line between these two demands is what I find most rewarding in novels. Furthermore, I think it’s a quality particular to novels. Great writing affords you the opportunity to give in, and become fully immersed in somebody else’s reality. The very thing Woolf praises about Middlemarch is Eliot’s ability to illuminate displays of truth, beauty and humanity, which hold up a mirror to life as “grown-up people” struggle to live it. in the meantime, the satisfaction of spending time with characters while facing these truths is what offers the burgeoning reader somewhere inside that eternally gratifying knowledge: there is more to come.

Yeah, I am primarily a novel person. And, this is what I look for in a book.

Why do you read? What do you look for? Let us know in the comments.



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It’s Monday morning, and you’re looking for something fun.

Here’s a smattering of literary lists, links and happenings to make your Monday pass a bit faster.

First, Happy Presidents’ Day. Today, The Book Beast takes a look at “The Best-Read Presidents.”

Bookblog’s Gender Genie parses your text to see whether you write like a man or a woman.

Flavorwire, never a stranger to controversy, takes a look at literature’s 10 greatest perverted geniuses. Pretty questionable list. Feel free to nominate others in the comments.

If you feel daring and cosmopolitan, go ahead and play The Great Gatsby: The Video Game. Yep, you read that correctly.

Are you on Facebook? Yeah, you are. Stupid question. Anyways, so is Jacket Copy– the LA Times’ fantastic center for all things book. Check it out and “like them.” You’ll thank me.

The latest edition of the New Yorker’s always reliable Fiction Podcast is a real treat: Irish novelist Anne Enright reads the incomparable John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.”

Have you heard of The Tournament of Books? It’s a blast. If you’re interested in following along, stop in and pick up some titles.

Were you part of the summer’s Franzen frenzy? It seemed unavoidable. Gabriel Brownstein turns a shrewd sensibility and sharp eye towards what happened, who was involved and what the words “good” and “great” mean in front of the word “novel.” Especially worth a read if you prefer books with emotional resonance, books not written by white males, and are of the opinion that the biggest and most publicized book doesn’t always make for the best reading.

FSG’s blog, Work in Progress, continues to grow into something wonderful and thought-provoking. The latest pearl is an essay from Geoff Dyer on something you might have experienced–Reader’s Block.

A really important new development, which seems to have been overshadowed, is the National Book Foundation’s new poetry blog!! Get reading!

In another example of truth beating fiction, Kathryn Stockett, author of mega-seller The Help, is being sued by her brother’s maid for “unauthorized appropriation of name and image.”

Somebody’s in trouble for being a lot more than loud in the library.

Finally….The Huffington Post takes a look at “Favorite Rereads.” What are some of yours?

For me, Harry Potter’s a given but so is the work of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and…that book about the guy who eats the cookie and remembers stuff.


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Amelia, Mom and Wendell

When she was in high school, my mom dreamed of learning to fly. Amelia Earhart was her role model. Oh how she admired Amelia! I think she wanted to be Amelia Earhart. She neatly clipped and saved newspaper stories and photos of each of Amelia’s exploits, In fact, all these years later (she’ll be 85 in May) my mom still has those clippings, yellowed but carefully preserved. She reads them now and then.

Even after Amelia disappeared, and after my mom married my aeronautical engineer dad and had children, she wore lace up leather boots just like the famous aviatrix. No one else’s mom dressed like this: pants and plaid shirts and combat boots. But my mom was still dreaming of flying.

So, of course, whenever a new book comes out about Amelia Earhart I buy it for her. There have been many through the decades. But a special one is due soon, Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic by Robert Burleigh with art by Wendell Minor. Minor’s art soars. His paintings capture how Amelia must have felt when she was in the sky. I love this book. I can’t wait to give it to my mom. Sure, it’s a children’s picture book, but it will transport her. She will feel the night winds on her face. She will hold the cockpit controls in her hand. She will, once again, dream of flying.

Of course, the book isn’t just perfect for octogenarian women. It will inspire young girls. And boys too.

Take a look.
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This Chain Needs a Couple of Extra Links

In a pre-Valentine’s Day pinch? Well, The Guardian has picked out its Top 10 Love poems for those in need.

Bookslut interviews Paul Murray, author of the magnificent, darkly comic Skippy Dies and finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award. If you haven’t read it yet, pick it up now.

The Library of America reveals its upcoming titles for the summer and fall of 2011.

Big news on the Bolano front: The Paris Review is set to serialize his new story, The Third Reich, beginning in the Spring issue.

NPR takes a look at HBO’s production of Cormac McCarthy’s play, The Sunset Limited, airing this Saturday at 9pm.

WNYC listened in on a recent talk given by Zadie Smith on her new book reviewing gig at Harper’s.

Academy Award-winning screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana turn their literary knowhow towards the Coen.Bros adaptation of Charles Portis’ True Grit.

Long after its critical acclaim stateside, the London Review of Books pays homage to Elif Batuman’s fantastic collection of Russocentric essays, The Possessed.

Who is Teju Cole? Furthermore, what makes his debut novel, Open City, sound so good?

Salon’s Laura Miller takes a look at some disturbing statistics regarding “Literature’s Gender Gap.”

Did you know that Wallace Stevens broke his hand punching Hemingway in the jaw?

That’s all for now!



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What To Read During Black History Month

Black History Month is a period of great critical and cultural significance. With great ease, we could recommend movies, music, and other forms of artistic expression which acknowledge or augment Black History Month. Yet, this is a book blog, and we have plenty to offer. It’s best to break this down by genre.

Let’s begin with fiction:

Charles Chesnutt was the the chronicler of Southern life after the Civil War. His short stories are extraordinary, and his most famous novel, The Marrow of Tradition, is vastly underappreciated. This book should be your first stop.

Zora Neale Hurston revolutionized African-American fiction by applying techniques of oral narrative and folklore to fiction. To consume as much of her work as possible is a worthy and very rewarding endeavor. Start with Their Eyes Were Watching God, her masterpiece. And, at all costs, avoid the Halle Berry mini-series.

Richard Wright branded every page of Native Son with the struggles,concerns,anxieties, and brutalities of inner-city life. The truth and intensity radiate off the page.

Ann Petry’s The Street is one of the greatest American novels detailing city life. It is simultaneously unyielding and beautifully written. It’s protagonist, Lutie Johnson is deftly rendered. Her city is monstrous but all she knows.

There’s a good reason that, no wait– There are MANY good reasons Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for Invisible Man. Like Moby-Dick, nearly 100 years before it, Invisible Man weaves a tapestry of diverse influences and results into a narrative which is completely sui generis and unrelentingly affecting. Read, and then re-read at least twice so you can hope to take in every last bit.

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is an excellent novel in its own right, and bridges the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Don’t let the cover fool you. This is a difficult book to read, but a rewarding one.

Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. In 2006, the New York Times, after a long survey of authors and other literary figures,deemed her novel Beloved the best work of American fiction in the previous 25 years. There’s good reason for that. It’s a powerful, disturbing, bold, forceful, and moving piece of work from an unmatched chronicler of African-American experience. At all costs, avoid the movie version.

Do you know who Colson Whitehead is? if not, pick up The Intuitionist. If you do, pick up the Intuitionist. I promise you that it is unlike anything else you have read. This is the masterful, controlled, vivid type of debut novel that prevents other people from throwing their hat in the ring.

A Couple brief dramatic mentions:

Is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun one of the greatest American plays ever produced? Yeah, it is. Read it. oh, and guess what? You SHOULD watch the movie. But, only after you’ve read it.

Ntozake Shange’s For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf is play, prose-poem,monologue, oral history, and several other things all at once. Above all, its’s challenging and human and very worth reading.

You ought to read all of August Wilson’s extraordinary Century Cycle. In ten plays, he chronicles the changing extraordinary lives and times of ordinary people in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The wonderful, transporting and poetic, Gem of the Ocean is the first in the series. I think you should read them all, and can guarantee that starting with this one, you will.

For Poetry:

Just one guy:

Langston Hughes. His Collected Poems are lean, powerful, full of incredible imagery and truthful. Every truth a hard one.

And here’s some non-fiction:

W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk is a foundational work, a complex work, and a challenging work. Even today, it continues to raise questions and create dialogues in ways only the words of a sharp mind could.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a steady, fascinating and in-depth look into a period of chaos, uncertainty, violence and sociopolitical shifts. The words and mind of one of the 20th Century’s most charismatic figures pour freely from the page. A must-read.

UConn Professor Jeffrey Ogbar takes a look at the music and culture of Hip Hop in Hip-Hop Revolution. It’s a dynamic and unique look into a musical genre which plays a large part in today’s cultural conversation.

Rebecca Skloot has applied her flawless narrative skills to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book which is too good to be believed. The story is very real and still playing out in hospitals across the country.

Finally, The Warmth of Other Suns. A look into the 50+ year period where nearly six million people left the South and migrated west or north and built cities,lives,cultures, and histories for themselves. Wilkerson’s oral-narrative/historical style allows for the few remaining participants of this history to enlighten us all.

Happy Reading!


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Booky Birthdays

The literary stars have aligned… This is the week for major literary birthdays.

Here’s a couple to keep in mind:


Charles Dickens celebrates his 199th birthday, with a major international bicentennial just around the corner. Dickens is one of those authors people associate with terrible high school teachers or college professors and tend to ignore for large periods of time. Prevent that mistake now.

First, Robert Gottlieb, via the New York Review of Books, offers a podcast on Dickens’ enduring legacy.

Now, where to start?

Harold Bloom reads Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, once a year. A richly funny and warm comic novel detailing the bumbling journey of 4 close friends throughout the English countryside. Very much worth reading.

Oliver Twist seems to have entered the cultural conversation via the musical. It’s enjoyable, but doesn’t remotely grasp the magnitude of the book . A darkly glittering jewel that perfectly captures the underbelly of city life.

Bleak House, also a fantastic and recommended BBC miniseries, is a masterpiece. A complex, mysterious, socially aware chronicle of London capturing all of its people,varieties and ambiguities. You’ll never look at fog the same way.

In a total 180, today also marks the 143rd birthday of prarie chronicler Laura Ingalls Wilder. This one-time Danbury resident’s much-celebrated series of childhood tales remains just as popular as it did over seventy years ago. Excellent for little ones to read by themselves, or with a little assistance.

In between the city and the prairie lies Main Street, which brings us to the 125th birthday of its most ardent chronicler, Sinclair Lewis. A much-forgotten Nobel Prize Winner, Lewis explored the milieu of capitalism throughout all of his work, which also yielded celebrated film versions of Babbitt Elmer Gantry.

And finally, Gay Talese celebrates his 78th birthday today. Whether it’s the mafia, sexuality, or sports, Talese approaches all subjects with the same intelligence and snappy style.

Tomorrow is Elizabeth Bishop’s 100th birthday! THIS IS MAJOR. Often overshadowed by close friend Robert Lowell(just as Edith Wharton was by Henry James), Bishop’s poetry, prose, and correspondence with the New Yorker have all been published in sharp, new editions by FSG. She’s very much worth it, ladies and gentlemen. Start Reading.

Tomorrow’s birthdays also include such notables as Robert Burton, Jules Verne, Kate Chopin and John Ruskin. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

The most important part of February reading is, in fact, the entire month. February is Black History Month. Stay tuned for a lengthy list of recommendations.


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On the Subject of Groundhog Cooperation

Today schools, bookstores and other worthy institutions in the northeast,barraged by an ungodly amount of precipitation,were closed. Yet, there is hope. February 2nd, for those of you who aren’t Bill Murray fans(and shame on you if you aren’t), is Groundhog Day. Those with seasonal affective disorder, sore muscles from shoveling or simply a desire to be reminded of what sunlight looks and feels like, wait for the groundhog with bated breath. Well, good news. Our beady-eyed, myopic friend didn’t see his shadow.In spite of this massive blizzardy thing, that means spring is around the proverbial corner. Until then, what is the perfect activity to whittle away the hours? Reading, of course. And, I come bearing recommendations.

But first, another reason, and one a bit more germane, for celebrating on the 2nd of February.

In answer to the question from the last post, today is the 128th birthday of one James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, the father of modernism. If it’s powerful but straightforward reading you value, pick up Dubliners. For the experimental, pick up Ulysses and give it a go. If you’re somewhere in between, check out Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For the openly masochistic, click on Joyce’s name to hear the great man reading from the nearly incomprehensible Finnegan’s Wake.

It’s also Ayn Rand’s birthday. But…her work requires an entirely different kind of masochism. Stick with Joyce.

In the last post, I listed three fiction titles worth checking out this month. This time around, I’ve got some non-fiction worth a look as well as a couple of literary links.

First, the books.

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

I have gone on record as not being Oates’ biggest fan. Therefore, I approached this tome with an imbalance: more skepticism than interest. That quickly changed. This is a brave book. At first, the book appears to be an unflinching chronicle of grief, and the way death distorts your life. Yes, it is that. But, it’s more. This is a book about the dichotomous nature of writing, both as art and craft, as savior and menace. I finished the book(in 2 or 3 days, at that) with more interest than skepticism, bulldozed by its power and challenged by its ideas.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin

This isn’t too new, but it’s exceedingly important. And, a pleasure to read. Baldwin’s work, as always, is erudite, aggressive, cogent,and perspective-shifting. His is a voice well-settled in posterity, but too rarely brought up in the classroom or conversation. With this, and hopefully his excellent collected essays and novels, one can hope for a bit of a Baldwin renaissance during Black History Month(additional recommendations coming soon) and long afterwards.

The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Edited by Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears and Aaron Sheehan-Dean

2011 marks the beginning of the CIvil War’s Sesquicentennial. Relying solely on first-hand accounts, the Library of America has published this first volume in a series(one volume per year) recounting this bloody,and still controversial period of our nation’s history. Gone is the romanticism of Margaret Mitchell, and here are the poignant words of those most affected.

Here’s a look at some literary things happening elsewhere:

If you aren’t up for a challenge, The Huffington Post has listed some better-digested classics.

The Guardian offers a spectacular Top 10 stories of Old Age.

The Paris Review Daily offers another in their excellent series “The Culture Diaries.”

Next week, Powells'(famous used book emporium) in Portland, Oregon will host the first five hours of a 24-hour reading of a certain book about a certain whale.

Isaac Salazar, of New Mexico, makes sculptures out of books. (Via Book Bench)

and finally…..

Flavorwire displays several examples of famed authors doodling very poorly.

That’s all for now.


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